By Sholem Datt (Johannesburg)
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund Keidan is one of the oldest cities in Lithuania and its Jewish kehilah is also one of the first in Lithuania. Originally, Keidan was a small fishing village that was created in the middle of the 14th century at the spot where the small Abela, Datnovke and Smilga Rivers flow into the Neviazha River. In the beginning, this village carried the name of its founder, Kazdan. Later the Lithuanians began to call it Kedainiai.
Keidan grew significantly in the 15th century. In the last quarter of that century, the organization of the Jewish Keidaner kehilah began. However, it was quickly destroyed because, in 1495, the Jews of Lithuania had to take to their walking sticks because of the expulsion decree of Grand Duke Alexander. When the Jews were permitted to return in 1503, apparently not many Jews settled in Keidan.
Krzysztof Radziwill, Lithuanian prince and governor of Vilna, received half of Keidan as a dowry from his father-in-law, Stanis³aw Kiszka (in 1490 the Lithuanian-Russian family Kiszka received all of Keidan as a gift from the Polish King Casimir IV). Later, he bought the second half. Wanting to increase commerce in Keidan, he issued an order according to which the Jews were guaranteed civil and religious rights. This naturally drew a great number of Jews. The majority of the newly arrived Jews originated in Germany.
Janusz Radziwill later acknowledged all privileges that the Jews had received from his father, Krzysztof. In his time, around the middle of the 17th century, Jews occupied the most important positions in the city's economic life. They were involved with the wine trade and brewers, with money lending, agriculture and various crafts.
With small pausesbecause of various wars that passed through the shtetl and because of plagues such as cholerathe religious community in Keidan began to develop even further. Starting in the 1880s, the Jews of Keidan began to emigrate, mainly to the United States.
Keidan does not make a fuss about its lineagealthough it has the history with which to do so. For example, Keidan has the oldest apothecary in the entire Baltic area. It has existed for more than 275 years while the oldest apothecary in Moscow is only 200 years old.
Keidan possesses an old brick shul in the old style with a beautiful oren kodesh [Holy Ark containing the Torah scrolls], carved with clocks and tablets, with beautiful, but barely visible paintings. There is still a pillory near the shul where the kehilah would place the accused.
Keidan always had great rabbis and gaonim [Torah geniuses]. The Vilna Gaon studied there in his youth with the then rabbi, Reb Dovid, the son of Reb Yehezkiel Katzenelenbogen, the author of Knesset Yehezkiel.
The famous writer, Moshe Leib Lilienblum was also born in Keidan. The city was always full of scholars and authors. [Author's note: A fine work about Keidan was published by Borukh Haim Kasel in the book Keidan, New York, 1930.]
Much time has passed since I left my shtetl, Keidan. I live in large, modern Johannesburg, far from my birthplace for decadesand still the deep longings gnaw at my heart for the small single roofs of Keidan, for the small winter windows stuffed with moss, for the beis-medresh, for all of the good and pious Jews in the shtetl.
Here, in the centrally heated residences, I often remember the simple brown or white tiled ovens, in which the cholent steamed. Family and neighbors would sit around during the long winter evenings and, particularly, on the dear, pleasant Friday nights or in the Shabbos twilight, talking about world politics and describing wonders from America and Africa.
It cannot be forgotten how in the burning frost, Jewish mothers would cut a hole in the Smilga and soak the laundry there and the singing of the rollers in the matzoh suppliers rings in my ears today.
And who does not remember the days of military conscription in the shtetl, when Christian recruits would go on a spree through the shtetl with harmonicas and songs and shaking Jewish young men would sit with palpitations, that they should not, God forbid, be taken into soldiering?
It was a custom in Keidan that when a Jewish young man would appear before the military conscription commission, he would give his waiting mother a sign through the window if he was taken. The sign was: a movement of the hand under the throat meaning, slaughtered. Often after such a sign, the mother would break out with a scream: My tree, my hero, my bread giver.
Incidentally, it is interesting to remember that the well known enemy of the Jews, Russian Prime Minister Stolypin, was the chairman for a time of the Conscription Commission in Keidan (he had a farm not far from the shtetl). And, lehavdil [expression used to separate the sacred from the secular, Jew from non-Jew], Morris Vintshevsky [Yiddish and Hebrew writer and socialist leader] also had a connection with the Conscription Commission; in1877, he appeared before it and was actually rejected because he had earlier starved himself enough.
In 1914 a great fire broke out in Keidan that made a ruin of the shtetl from the bridge to the long street, from the market to the synagogue courtyard. This was a sort of prelude to the First World War that brought misfortune, too, to the Jews of Keidan who received an order on the 16th of May that in the course of two days they must leave the city. The expulsion brought a great number of the Jews of Keidan to Vilna; others turned up in deep Russia.
Coming back from banishment, the Jews began to rebuild a totally destroyed shtetl, marked by a strong belief in the friendliness of independent Lithuania to the Jewsa belief that quickly collapsed.
By Dr. Martin Lichtenstein
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund Spread out on both sides of the Neyman River lies Alyta, the capital of Dzukija. The Lithuanians from throughout Alyta krayz [circuit or county] were called Dzukija, which stems from the fact that they pronounce d as dz. For example, they pronounce the word diewas (Lithuanian: street) as dziewas. The Dzukija are famous in Lithuanian history as great heroes who built the fortresses of Alyta, Merecz [Merkine] and others that were described in writings about the wars of the Lithuanian dukes Gediminas and Vytautus. The Jewish settlement comes from that side. The rest of the former fortresses still jut out on the shores of the Neyman.
The Neyman divides the city into two diverse and widely separate parts: as an automobile cuts through the thick forest, then goes uphill, then downhill, passing few houses until the wooden bridge over the Neymanit means that you first see Alyta, or the Russian side of Alyta. Crossing the bridge, the actual uphill, you come to the second Alyta, or as it is called in Alyta, Poland (the western part).
Before the First World War, Alyta was part of Vilna gubernia [province]. The Russian or eastern part of Alyta consisted of little wooden houses, the majority fenced in with little gardens, with wide porches. From time to time, a brick house would sprout, and the residents would notice that it did not stand in the right place. It should have, that is, stood on the other side of the city
Little shops, little beer tavernsremnants of the old innswere the main source of income for Jews of Alyta. The famous Jewish philanthropist Edward Chase was born, grew up and spent the greater part of his youth in Russian Alyta. With his financial help, a superb building was erected for a real Hebrew gymnazie in Kovno where thousands of Jewish children received their education and Jewish upbringing. He established the Chase Fund that gave dozens of Jewish students the possibility of studying abroad or in Lithuanian universities. His last dream during his visit to Lithuania in 1938 was to turn his former house in Alyta into a Jewish cultural center for Lithuanian youth.
Something completely different constituted the western part of Alyta: the houses were brick with large businesses and diverting display windows; the former czarist shops disappeared long ago. Their place is taken by the most modern houses with verandas on the roofs. Residents would say that it was not unjustified to compare the city with Kovnowith the capital.
The Jewish settlement in this part was, therefore, also more compact. The majority of the Jewish institutions were found here, having been built with the full support of the residents of Alyta; the small industries of Lithuanian Dzukija were concentrated here.
The Hebrew middle school was found in this part of the city along with the spacious synagogue, where dozens of learned men studied gemara. A German converta former officer in Wilhelm's army named Kestingwould come to the synagogue every day for the shakharis [morning] prayers. He fell in love with a Jewish girl, went through all of the ceremonies in order to become a Jew, and raised his children in an authentic traditional spirit, which now sounds like a curious story.
The synagogue served as a political club where the Zionist and non-Zionist parties would fight over their political programs. A large group of haHalutz [pioneers] were found in this part of the city, dozens and dozens of whom would emigrate to Eretz-Yisroel through legal and illegal means.
Along with the Jewish institutions, it became the center for Verslasthe Lithuanian merchants unionthat would hire a speaker on every market day in order to enlighten the Lithuanian peasant as to why he need not buy from the Jews.
Both parts of the city were surrounded by a dry pine forest. However, nature again provided more charm and zest to the western part of the forest where terraces, fountains, rest houses for the sick, a large sports field and so on had been built.
Alyta possessed a large modern three-story state gymnazie, where a Jewish child would occasionally by accepted as a means of mollifying the Jewish population in the large state school, no Jews were accepted.
Life in this Lithuanian city flowed quietly. For almost 400 years our ancestors rested quietly ion the old cemetery in the city.
Heavy Russian tanks visited Alyta on the 15th of June 1940. The Russians with great haste began to build underground aerodromes, heavy artillery nests. They had great plans to renew trade relations with former Lithuanian Grodno.
When the Germans attacked Russia in June 1941, a great artillery battle took place here. There were many Jews under the ruins of Alyta.
When the German government took over the city, without difficulty, they drowned the last remaining Jews in the Neyman River. Some saved themselves in the neighboring shtetlekh, such as Miroslav [Miroslavas], Serej [Seirijai], Dauge [Daugai] and others.
(Miroslav had been a small Jewish shtetl with about 20-30 families, many with pretensions and ambitions. The residents were children of former followers of the Haskalah [Jewish enlightenment movement]. My uncle, Benjamin G. Browdy, the famous community worker and now president of the Zionist Organization of America, was also born here. The first builders of the Emek Hefer region in Israel come from here.)
However, after several weeks, the remnants of the Jews of the shtetlekh of Alyta County were gathered together in the forest of Alyta. They were shot in groups in previously dug holes. The slaughter lasted for an entire two days.
Today, there is no Jewish life in the capital of Dzukija and who knows if there will ever be again.
by Alte Arsh-Sudarsky
Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund It seemed as if all of the shtetlekh in Lithuanian were cast from the same mold and that their residents lived their lives according to one set style. However, the truth is, it was not this wayeach shtetl was different in some way from the rest and it is worth bringing out the distinctiveness.
It is perhaps interesting to describe the difference that I saw during my short visit to the shtetl Alyta (old and new) that was spread so beautifully on both shores of the Neyman.
This was in 1935 when Jewish life in Lithuania still flowed quietly. I then visited Alyta together with Josef Gar. We traveled in the name of the Kovno Committee to Spread Knowledge of the Yiddish General Encyclopedia, which had just been published in Paris. The first volume was published with great effort and exertion by all of its co-workers. The resources for further volumes were very small and funds were being established. An attempt was made to increase the number of subscribers so that the advance monies could finance further work. Such money collections had already been carried out in a series of places in Lithuaniaand we had the occasion to visit Alyta, among other cities, for this purpose.
Our welcome was very hearty, with the famous hospitality of our beloved province. During the banquet in the home of the local community worker, Yakov Shraybman, there were impassioned speeches in which the importance of our mission was praised to the heavens. But when we came closer to the essence of the matter, it turned out that there was no one among the gathered who would startwho would give the first 100 lita for two volumes in advance. Simply, none of those present was able to do thisbut they would subscribe by paying in installments.
We began to argue: are there no Jews in the city who will pay for two volumes in advance?
From embarrassment, the group began to make an evaluation and finally spoke:
We have rich Jews in the shtetl who own encyclopedias, but they do not need Yiddish ones. Incidentally, a number of the intelligentsia are not Jewish. They are fine gentiles; only their wives are Jewish.
We decided that early the next morning we would go with Dr. Gabay, Atty. Finklshtein and another few community workers, to several rich businessmen and would begin with the half-Jewish gentiles. We were sure of those with one Jewish side; we would try to make the other side Jewish And wonder of wonders the half gentiles were more willing than the rest of the Jews. They were very happy that we would accept them as partners in important Jewish cultural matters. They were the first in the shtetl who contributed 100 lita for the encyclopedia.
We can easily show that the signatures of the half-Jews, Dr. Stepanov, Petrov, the convert Kesting, and all of the others altered our mood. This also had an effect on the Jewish businessmen of Alyta who did not attend the banquetand in the course of a few hours we had 22 subscriptions for 100 lita each.
We and the city cultural workers were full of joy at our great success. And when we arrived in Kovno with the 2,000 litathis was truly a sensation.
This is how Jews lived with the half-gentiles and even, with the rest, things went peacefully until the coming of the storms from the west that erased the beautiful shtetl, Alyta.
Alyta lived a bit on the side of the wide Kovno-Mariampol highway and hid its sedate quietness, undisturbed by the surrounding bustle.
The storekeepers and the traders were not seized by the momentum that ruled in the rest of the large cities. This was felt only at the inn and in conversations with the Alyta residents. The professional intelligentsia used elegant little manners without any zest for wider communal work.
At this opportunity I will remember several community workers from Alyta who perished al kiddush haShem [as martyrs for the sanctity of God's name] with the entire Jewish kehilah: Yakov Shraybman, Tsedok Zipovitsh (patron and lover of Yiddish culture), Kalmanovitsh (director of the Jewish middle school and director of ORT in Alyta) and their families.
May the memory of all of the martyrs be consecrated!
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