Heros and Martyrs

By Pesach Weitzer-Chittin (Kibbutz Beit Zera) 

Chana Landsberg

Chana Landsberg, of blessed memory, was born in Keidan in 1893. She was a very talented girl. She completed the Russian gymnasium for girls in Kovno with distinction in 1911. She excelled in all the subjects she studied.

The incident I want to relate happened as follows.

Chana studied in a class with the daughter of the governor of Kovno, Veriovkin, a Russian aristocrat, who was very liberal towards the Jews. Chana and the governor’s daughter were on very friendly terms, and both were outstanding students.

In the final exams Chana rightly received top marks. The governor’s daughter also received very good marks, although some were lower than Chana’s. It would have been only fair for Chana to receive the gold medal, and for the governor’s daughter to receive the silver. But for the pedagogic council, it was not logical that Jewish Chana should be first and the governor’s daughter should come second. The council decided to award the gold to the governor’s daughter, giving Chana the silver. Out of modesty, Chana accepted this verdict and after graduation returned home to Keidan.

A week passed, and the Governor’s daughter came to see Chana in Keidan. She felt deep remorse because of the injustice that the pedagogic council had done to Chana. They were both happy to meet again and chat. They had spent the whole night reminiscing about their years at the gymnasium, when the governor’s daughter began to cry bitterly because of the injustice done to Chana. Chana had a hard time calming her friend, because the governor’s daughter had a high moral standard. She spent a few days in Keidan and after that returned to Kovno, but they continued to correspond until the outbreak of the First World War.

Chaim Ronder

Chaim Ronder was born in Keidan in 1902 to a family with many children and deep roots in Jewish tradition. They lived at the edge of the town on the road to Kovno. All around their home and their large vegetable garden stretched green fields. The open fields and the smell of the earth not only hardened his body, but also strongly influenced his character. He received his basic education, like most of the Jewish children, in the cheder and the Jewish primary school in Keidan.

Chaim Ronder

The First World War interrupted his schooling but he made up for this gap in his education by reading many books, which broadened his spiritual world. I got to know Chaim, who was a quiet lad, a devoted student and especially diligent at all the tasks he undertook.

His father died leaving Chaim an orphan. While still young he began to support his family. He worked in agriculture, mainly growing cucumbers. He was very devoted to his family.

Chaim showed exceptional courage from an early age, and never allowed an injury or slight from a gentile to go unanswered. Because of this, or perhaps in spite of it, he earned their respect. In 1921 he was conscripted into the Lithuanian army, where he served in the cavalry.

The Second World War found Chaim in Keidan.

Here, from his own mouth – as he was almost the only eyewitness to these horrors – is the nightmarish story of the cruel massacre of the Jews of Keidan and the adjoining towns of Jasvin, Zheim and Shat (Josvainiai, Žeimiai and Šėta).

On August 15, 1941, the Germans and the Lithuanians transferred all of Keidan’s Jews and those from nearby areas, 3,700 souls, men, women and infants, to a prison at what had been Totleben’s large granary, near the road to Dotnuva. They were tortured there with starvation and beatings for 13 days. Chaim related hair-raising descriptions of the tortures, the sighs and groans of the wounded and the sick, and listed their names, describing how they rolled about on the ground and writhed in pain. During the first days, Chaim tried to call for resistance, come what might, but most of the prisoners were broken, shattered and apathetic. Chaim remained a voice crying in the wilderness.

Eventually Chaim decided to flee. He opened a space in the roof tiles and, risking his life, he went through the opening and jumped from the granary roof. No one dared follow,[1] although he had tried to convince some to join him. He was slightly hurt in the jump but managed to escape through the forest.

On 5 Elul, 5701 – August 28, 1941– the cursed Nazis and Lithuanians murdered all the Jews of Keidan and its surroundings, 3,700 souls. May god avenge their blood.

Before Chaim left the place of slaughter, he managed to witness over two hours how the murderers shot Keidan’s Jews. Some were torn to pieces and thrown, still alive, into the pit. From that bitter day, Chaim lived on the run. For 3 full years he lived under the shadow of death in the forests, crossed rivers, lived in bunkers. He was surrounded by German soldiers hundreds of times. The Germans even put a bounty of 20,000 marks on his head! He fought alone, gun in hand, and brought down more than a few Germans, but as he writes in his letter, they never managed to catch him.

Eventually Chaim joined the partisans and fought with them against the Germans. On July 31, 1944, when Chaim returned to Keidan with the liberating Red Army, he visited the mass grave of the martyrs of Keidan near the Dotnuva road, a grave 90 meters long, 3 meters wide and 3 meters deep, planted with barley by the Lithuanians.

Chaim writes: “I imagine I see my old mother, my brother, my sister, my relatives, my acquaintances, the Jews of Keidan, crying out to me from under the earth: ‘Chaim! Avenge our spilled blood!’ I vowed right there to do so. And I keep this oath. For this reason I went to work for the N.K.V.D., and to this very day I take revenge on every Hitlerist and every Lithuanian murderer who falls into my hands.”

When I imagine Chaim wandering the Lithuanian forests alone, a solitary Jew, pursued with a price on his head, starving, with danger threatening him from all sides, not for a day or a month, but for more than two years, summer and winter, until he joined the partisans – tears choke me up. I can’t find myself. I tremble with emotion and think what a brave, daring man was Chaim Ronder.

He had blonde hair and blue eyes; he was powerful, speaking clear Lithuanian and Polish. Most important, he was adroit and courageous. It is possible that all these traits helped him to fight and escape at the final hour. Perhaps he sometimes found temporary refuge with Lithuanian peasants, who thought he was a Lithuanian and helped him.

After the war, Chaim rented a room in Kovno, and every day he went to the train station, searching for survivors and providing for their needs devotedly.

Chaim received a certificate from the main headquarters of the partisans, certifying that he was involved with them over two and a half years, participating actively in clashes against the Nazis. He also received a medal from the Russian government on the 25th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. This was awarded posthumously.

Chaim was imbued with deep Zionist feeling, but the desire for retribution against the Nazi foe motivated him to devote himself to avenging the innocent blood of Keidan’s Jews. He generously helped survivors of the Holocaust with money and practical aid to cross borders and make aliya.

In reply to his sister Mina, residing in Israel (long may she live), who asked why he didn’t make aliya himself in that time, Chaim answered: “Those were dark days. I ran about hungry, in tatters, with torn shoes, my feet swollen and bleeding, with a gun in hand and only one thought gnawing at my brain – to take vengeance! My whole being was filled with this one word only – vengeance. Remember what Amalek did to you!”[2]

Eventually, his health degenerated. The war years, the hunger, cold and damp in the bunkers seriously affected his health.

In 1954 Chaim began his own struggle to make aliya. Despite the fact that he never had access to military secrets, the authorities refused him permission for 10 years. In 1964 he finally was granted permission. His excitement knew no bounds, but sadly, 10 days before his planned departure, he succumbed to a deadly illness.

And we, your friends, descendants of Keidan in Israel – we so anticipated your arrival, Chaim, our hero! We so looked forward to seeing you, to hearing from your lips about your deeds to avenge the innocent blood of Keidan’s Jews. Our hearts grieve for this.

His soul breathed its last on March 12, 1964 and he was buried in the blood-soaked land of Lithuania. He never managed to make aliya – the aim of his tempestuous soul. May the soul of Chaim Ronder be bound up with the souls of the heroes of Israel and the avengers of innocent, spilled Jewish blood.

Tzadok Shlapobersky 

Tzadok Shlapobersky (hy’d[3]) was born in Keidan in 1899 to a large, wealthy family that excelled in the spirit of tradition and Zionism. His eldest brother, Shmuel Isaac, who was considerably older than he and was a perpetual student, was one of the Zionist activists in the town. I had known Tzadok from our very early childhood, when we studied together in the cheder of the teacher Shmuel-Yehuda Eides of blessed memory.

Tzodek Shlapobersky

Tzadok was tall and strong beyond his age, handsome and easygoing, always prepared to help another. He didn’t hesitate to fight back against the gentile boys who harassed Jewish children. You always felt safe in his presence.

We met often when we returned from Russia after the First World War. Tzadok was very involved in the communal life of the town, and especially in Jewish life. For many years he was a member of the municipality, respected in all sections of society, by Jews and Christians alike. He was especially prominent in the fire brigade, where for many years he served as chairman and commander of the firefighters.

He was tall and broad-shouldered, a really handsome man. He was well acquainted with the Lithuanian authorities, and when local Jews needed something from the officials they turned to him. Tzadok used to settle matters cordially, with no eye to reward. He was the first to volunteer, whether for a film show in aid of a communal institution, or for other community events. And the community had many needs.

Then dark days fell upon Lithuanian Jews. The Red Army entered Lithuania in 1940. The political situation was very complicated. The Jews suffered twice as much as other groups because they were mainly urban citizens. In those difficult times Tzadok increased his activities with the other activists trying to help the Jews of Keidan. This continued until the summer of 1941.

Black clouds darkened Jewish skies across Europe, including Lithuania, and one morning – that horrifying, bitter day, 5 Elul, 5701 – August 28, 1941 – all the innocent Jews of Keidan and its environs – 3,700 souls – men, women and infants – were taken out to be massacred by the Dotnuva road, past the ancient Jewish cemetery.

The Lithuanian murderers, under the guidance of the cursed Nazis, in cold blood and with indescribable cruelty, shot at the Jews with machine guns alongside a 90-meter long pit that the Lithuanians had prepared beforehand. They were all slaughtered; many were cast into the grave still alive.

This is how our heroic townsman, Chaim Ronder – the same Chaim Ronder who survived by jumping off Totleben’s granary roof, where the Jews of Keidan were imprisoned before being led to the slaughter – described the final moments in the life of Tzadok Shlapobersky:

“I must dedicate a special account of those sad days to Tzadok Shlapobersky. His name sets an example of bravery, for me and for all of us. He has entered the annals of history of the Jews of Keidan…Tzadok was the one who in the last minutes before his death, dragged the German commander into the pit and injured him. At that moment, the shooting stopped and policemen, wanting to save the commander, jumped into the pit with their bayonets. A life-and-death struggle followed. As a result, Tzadok bit the throat of one of the policemen, who fell like a dog on the spot. He also injured a second policeman, who died a few days later. Because of this, they stabbed Tzadok with their bayonets till his body became like a sieve. He was the only one who died as a hero and took vengeance on the bloodthirsty dogs.”

Chaim Ronder’s final words: “Tzadok’s memory will shine in our hearts forever.”

Our dear brother, Tzadok, you fell as a hero, like the legendary Samson, and in the final moments of your innocent life you, like he, cried out, “let my soul die with this cursed Nazi!” And with this you passed away.

May the soul of Tzadok Shlapobersky, hy”d, be bound up with the souls of the heroes of Israel and the avengers of innocent, spilled Jewish blood.

Translated by Bella Golubchik

[1] Other accounts report that Ronder escaped after the massacre with one other man.

[2] Deuteronomy 25:17.

[3] Abbreviation for “May god avenge his blood” – i.e., he was murdered.


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