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Translation of Keydan chapter from
(Lithuanian Jewry), Vol. 3
Published by The Association of The Lithuanian Jews in Israel
Published in Tel Aviv, 1967 (Vol. 3) and 1984 (Vol. 4)
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[Pages 345-349 - Volume 3]
The provincial capital of Keydan, or Kedainiai, is situated on the banks of the Navyaza and Smilga rivers, near the towns of Kruk (23 km.), Dotnuva (12), Shat (18), Zhaym (20), Yusvayn (12), and Ayragula (30), 3 km. away from a train station. The city was founded in the 14th cent., originally as a fishing village called, Kazran, after its founder. Some years later its name changed to Keydan. The first inhabitants of the village were pagan, and they built an altar on a hill to the thunder god Perkunas that attracted further settlement. During the reign of Yagalio, with the conversion of Lithuania to Christianity, the Knights of the Cross fortified the town and built a Christian church on the site of the pagan altar. The great prince Vytautas improved the church and made it the most beautiful of the Christian churches in Lithuania.
In 1492 the Polish King Kazimir IV gave the city as a gift to the Russian-Lithuanian family of Kishka for its service to the nation. The descendants of this family convinced Jewish merchants who came there for annual fairs to settle permanently and develop the city's trade. Many were persuaded, but before they could become established, they were subject to an order expelling the Jews from Lithuania issued by Grand Prince Alexander in April 1495. The Jews were forced to leave Keydan and abandon their property, going along with the rest of the Lithuanian Jews across the border to Poland. In 1501 the decree was rescinded (by the same Prince), and the exiles were permitted to return to their homes and take their property back. Many years passed before the community became firmly established.
In 1506 the Prince Michael Radzivil, who lived in Keydan, converted to Calvinism. From then on those who were attracted to this faith streamed into the town. After a few years a fierce conflict broke out between the Calvinists and the Catholics, and Prince Radizivil was murdered by his bodyguards. His embalmed body could be seen for hundreds of years in the cellar of the Calvinist church in the city.
In 1590 King Zigismund III extended Magdeburg Rights to Keydan, and the city became self-governing. The economic situation improved, and Keydan became a center for trade throughout the area. Merchants from every corner of the nation came to the three annual fairs. Prince Kristofer Radzivil, governor of the city, took pains to strengthen the position of the merchants and gave full citizenship rights and complete freedom of religion to the Jews. He also gave land and exemptions from taxes to new Jewish settlers. At the same time he paid close attention to the identities of the Jewish settlers and accepted only those who came with proof of solid, upstanding characters.
Among those who came to settle were also Calvinists from Germany and Scotland, many of them highly-educated, who had been persecuted in their native lands, including soldiers, artisans, and a significant number of weavers. The Jews helped the latter in the development of a textile trade. By the beginning of the 19th cent., this profession in Keydan was owned entirely by Jews. In 1625 Prince Radzivil established the first Calvinist gymnazium, which became an important cultural center in Lithuania. With the settlers from Germany also came educated Jews who raised the cultural level of the town and turned it into the leading community and center for Torah and learning in the Zamut district.
Around 1640 the city passed to the son of Kristofer Radzivil, Janos, an enlightened and liberal man. He confirmed the rights that his father had given to the Jews. In 1647 he issued an order that all citizens, regardless of religion or nationality, were to take part in an election of city officers. In 1648 he built the first flourmill in the city and leased it to Jews. In 1650 he established a printing press, which printed the first Lithuanian translation of the Psalms and of other religious books. Before that he established a factory that supplied paper to the entire area. The Prince also worried about the military readiness of the city's Jews and organized them into military units in case of emergency. In this era the Jews came to occupy the leading position in the city's economy, bringing merchandise in and out, engaging in agriculture and in many other kinds of work, and lending money at interest. Wine and liquor distilleries were also in their hands. Jewish artisans were organized into separate guilds located in special parts of the city because they were not allowed to settle everywhere. Jewish slaughterers, butchers, and cattle dealers were also organized into guilds by a 1652 decree. Such guilds still existed in the city at the beginning of the 19th cent. for tailors, upholsterers, and hat-makers. Jewish guild records tell of many conflicts between artisans and property owners, as illustrated below.
The catastrophic Cossack wars of 1648 and 1649 passed over Keydan, and the Jews of the city, like those in other communities in Lithuania, sent aid to the victims of violence. However, the war between Karl Gustav of Sweden and Poland dominated the years of 1656-1657 and severely affected the Jews. Many of the city's Jews fled to Konigsberg, Prussia. In 1657 the plague broke out in Keydan and took many Jewish victims, but in 1658 the Jewish community began to recover. The first pharmacy in Lithuania was founded there. In 1659 the first bridge over the Navyaza was built, and the Prince leased the fee collection for crossing the bridge to Jews. In addition Prince Bogoslav Radzivil (1665) leased his palace with all its income to Vulf Itskobitz and also gave him the right to judge and impose fines on the residents of Keydan. In doing so he raised the status of the Jews in the eyes of their neighbors. After the peace of 1667 the Ukraine became part of Russia, and many Jews who remembered the Khmelnitsky disturbances fled to Lithuania. Some of them settled in Keydan.
In 1681 a great fire struck the city, and many homes were destroyed. At the beginning of the 18th cent., during the Northern War, Russian and Swedish armies passed through the town and destroyed it and the palace of the Radzivils. The Jewish community became impoverished and was forced to borrow from the nobility to cover its overwhelming debts. When they were unable to repay these loans, creditors took their payments by force. One of them, the nobleman Gorsky, shut the Jews in their synagogue during Sabbath prayers, locked the door, and kept them there until they paid their debts.
After the bad days passed, the Jews of Keydan were able to reconstitute their community, and already in 1721 a head tax was levied on them by the state treasury, in addition to those in Pinsk, Vilna, and Minsk. The city was third on the official head tax list, after Brisk and Grodno, with Pinsk placing fourth and after that Minsk and Vilna. During this era the city acquired a distinguished place on the Jewish Council of Lithuania, on which it had been represented since it was first founded. After the council was abolished in 1764, assemblies of representatives from the Jewish community of Lithuania were held in the city in 1778 and 1782. The decisions of the latter of these were confirmed by the Chief of the Rabbinical Court of Brisk.
The Kahal of Keydan managed the accounts for the head tax of the state treasury as well as the taxes for the needs of the community throughout the district. A decree of the Council of Slutsk in the Lithuanian state records from 1791 says that all of the Jewish communities on the right bank of the Neyman river, among them Viliampoli (Slobodka near Kovno), were to be incorporated into the Keydan district with regard to religious administration and other laws. The communities of Yorburg, Plungyan, Raseyn, Pulangin, Kalm, Kruzh, Shavli, Shkod, Talz, and Rituva were also incorporated into the Keydan district. At the head of the district stood the Rabbis of the family of Katzenelbogn, three generations of whom held the Rabbinical chair of the city.
Keydan served not only as a district capital on the Council of Lithuania, but also as a center for Torah learning and spirituality. Its yeshivas and even khederim were famous throughout Lithuania. R. Yosef of Kovrin, a well-known scholar in Keydan, wrote the Selikhot in 1698 in memory of the persecutions of Jews in various lands that was read in those days throughout Lithuania and Zamut. R. David Katzenelbogn served as Rov and Head of the District in the days of Shabtay Tsvi. He and his son R. Avraham, the Rov of Brisk, made sure that the study of kabalah was thereafter restricted in Lithuania and were scrupulous regarding the enactment that prohibited the study of the Zohar until age 40. In 1727 R. Avraham brought a boy back with him from Vilna who had astounded all the Vilna Rabbis with his capabilities, and his father, R. David, devoted himself to the education of the boy, who years later become famous as the Gaon, R. Elyahu of Vilna (the GR'A) and who later married a native daughter of Keydan.
After the third partition of Poland in 1795, when Lithuania and Zamut became part of Russia, the situation of the Lithuanian Jews changed. The rights that had been given them by the previous rulers were annulled. In the days of Tsar Alexander I, Jewish leaseholders were expelled from the villages (1804) and moved to the cities without their possessions. Some of them settled in Keydan and became shopkeepers or tavern keepers, and some of them raised fruit and vegetables. In 1807 a cholera epidemic broke out in the city, which killed 397 of the Jewish community.
During the Polish revolutions of 1831 and 1863, many Polish rebels were active in the area. Count Tsapski, who governed the city, participated in the rebellion. After it was defeated, the Russians took the palace and large library of the Count and sold them to Count Totlaban. The Polish gymnazium was closed, and its buildings were used as barracks for the Russian army. In place of the gymnazium a three-year Russian common school was established, and a period of Russification began. The Russian garrison served as a source of income for artisans and shopkeepers. The railroad from Libau, Latvia to Romania, laid by the Russians, passed close by Keydan and helped to strengthen its economic ties with Russia. The economic situation of the city steadily improved. Children of the rich began to go to Russian schools. Count Totlaban improved the palace he had acquired and made it one of the finest in Lithuania. He also built a flourmill and leased it to Jews. Relations between him and the Jews were good. In 1847 the number of Jews in the town reached 4,987.
The rule of Alexander III brought a wave of violence directed against the Jews of Russia, but the Lithuanian Jews, who were under the jurisdiction of the General Governorship of Count Totlaban, were not victimized by this unrest. After the death of the Count, this situation changed for the worse. Those who came after him dealt harshly with the Jews and others. The mass emigration of Jews from Russia during the 1890's took many Jews from Keydan to the USA and England. Most emigrants were artisans or poor people, and in this way they escaped from military service. The number of Jews in the city gradually decreased, and in 1897 only 3733 remained there (64% of the overall population).
The following incident, preserved in the records of the artisans' guild, testifies to the relations that existed between artisans and property owners at that time. The day of Rosh Hashana a tailor came into the main synagogue with a velvet yarmulke on his head. The property owners, who sat in the east or front of the congregation and considered themselves to be sole possessors of the right to wear such yarmulkes, would not allow the nerve of the tailor to pass. After the two days of the holiday were over, the tailor was called to the Kahal office, fined ten liters of candles, and required to turn over his yarmulke. This fine came as a great insult to the artisans in the guilds. On the first day of Sukkot, all the tailors, shoemakers, and other artisans came to the main synagogue wearing velvet yarmulkes, shtraymels, and satin shirts with wide belts, which were considered clothing denotative of social rank. They came back dressed the same way on the second day of the holiday in order to make the distinguished people of the Kahal angry. Their impunity cost them dearly. Immediately after the holiday, men employed by Count Tsapsky arrested the artisans and beat them. This beating wounded their honor and united them in their war against the leaders of the Kahal. They complained to the Russian courts, but the Kahal leaders bribed the Tsarist officers and frustrated all the efforts of the artisans to reach a fair judgment.
The struggle went on for years and cost both sides thousands of rubles. The complaints of the artisans to Great Prince Konstantin, who was passing at that time through the city, were blocked by Kahal dignitaries. Then the artisans adopted a new strategy. Every time they came upon a Kahal officer outside of the city, they attacked and beat him up. At that point the Kahal resolved to make peace with the artisans, who made the following demands: 1) the artisans and all Jews would have the right to wear a velvet yarmulke, a long coat, and a belt, 2) a judge chosen by the artisans would participate in all adjudications between an artisan and a property owner, and 3) a representative of the artisans would sit on the Kahal board. The property owners agreed to the conditions, and peace was restored. As a result of this struggle, a synagogue of the artisans called, Life of a Human Being, was established, with its own Rabbinical judge, who taught them lessons from the book, Life of a Human Being, and on Sabbaths led them through the weekly Torah reading.
The first Russian Revolution of 1905 failed to sweep up the Jews of Keydan although some did join underground organizations. Peter Stolypin, the leader of the reactionary Russian government at the beginning of the twentieth century, owned property in the vicinity of the city and established good relations with the local Jews. The administrators of his property were Jews, and he was accustomed to visit his estates and the city of Keydan every year and to take an interest in everything that affected them. The Jews appealed to him with various requests, and in many instances he responded. However, the anti-Semitism that spread across Russia and Poland brought about an economic downturn. The educational possibilities for Jewish young people were restricted. Young people no longer saw any prospects for themselves within the new political order and sought their fortunes outside its borders. The emigration movement gradually became stronger, and the number of Jews in the city decreased.
In 1914 a fire broke out in Keydan and a large part of the city was destroyed. In 1915 the Jews were sent to the interior of Russia. Some took refuge in Vilna, and after the war some returned from their exile. The Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and other institutions as well as overseas relations helped the community to reestablish itself and rebuild the life that had been destroyed. In 1923 Jews in the city numbered 2,499 (33% of the general population). At the center of the economic life stood the Jewish Popular Bank, which was founded in 1921 and in 1929 had 360 members (its executive officer was Dr. Sh. Sapir).
The economic life of the Jews of Keydan was different from that of Jews in other places in Lithuania. For over a hundred years approximately 15% of the Jews of the city, about 80 families, raised produce, mainly cucumbers and later tomatoes. The cucumbers of Keydan were famous throughout Lithuania, and during the summer large quantities of produce were went all over the country. Before WWI the cucumbers were sold as far away as Libau, Mitau, and Dvinsk, in Latvia. Although they used non-Jewish laborers, Jews had a monopoly on the raising of cucumbers. During the busy season about 500-600 workers were employed every day in the fields, which the Jewish farmers leased from the local landlords. Many Jews also raised sugar beets and fodder for dairies. Businesses exported agricultural produce, including wheat, eggs, apples, and the seeds for all three and for other crops in significant quantities to England, Germany, and the Scandinavian countries.
There were two Jewish-owned flourmills in the city and a printing press (Movshovitz-Kahan and Associates). In the first years of Lithuanian independence, business expanded, and the efforts of the Jews met with great rewards, but after the nation became solidly established, the Lithuanian merchants began to compete with the Jews. Lithuanian cooperatives, supported by the government, began to restrict the areas of activity of the Jewish merchants. A number of Jews sought to gain a foothold in industry, but most were forced to emigrate. Many people were anxious to immigrate to Israel and became active in agricultural and pioneer preparation camps around Keydan and in other places.
The Russian conquest of 1940 put an end to independent Lithuania, and afterwards came the Nazi occupation (1941) which in one day (5 Elul 5701) wiped out, with Lithuanian help, the 500-year-old Jewish community.
Through the centuries Keydan was a center for Torah learning in Lithuania. Its yeshivas and schools were full of students. The city produced a long line of scholars who became famous in their respective generations, studying in the Houses of Study day and night. The Torah was the inheritance not only of the well to do but also of the artisans, among whom were many scholars and pious people. A story is told of one artisan who sold part of his house in order to buy a lulav and esrog one year when their prices had risen sharply. Elyahu of Vilna, a rich tailor, paid for the building of a synagogue for the artisans and butchers where they studied the Eyn Ya'akov.
The Talmud Society occupied the position of greatest honor in the city. Its Conclusion Dinners were renowned. Other societies also held Mitzvah celebrations, but those of the Burial Society surpassed them all. Only members took part in these celebrations, putting on pantomimes or plays, like The Forgiveness of the Thieves, Forgiveness in Anger, The Binding of Isaac, and The Selling of Joseph. The table of expenses for one such celebration is found in the Burial Society records: 4 chickens -- 28 fr., 4 geese -- 20 fr., a wagon of wood -- 10 fr., a turkey -- 35 fr., 10 eggs -- 4 fr., 4 roosters -- 12 fr., a barrel of beer -- 6 fr.
In 1784 the Kahal decided to build a large synagogue and House of Study. The ark in the synagogue took up a third of the eastern wall and was beautifully constructed. It was finished in 1807. A sundial with Hebrew letters was set up on the gate in front of the synagogue. On the right side of the entrance stood the Kahal office (the shtibl) that served as the meeting place for the leaders of the community, as well as the Kuna, where criminals were imprisoned.
The most prominent participant in the construction of the synagogue and House of Study was R. Avraham Avli, son of R. Yehoshua Ram. His name is memorialized in the parchment scroll represented on one of the columns of the ark. It says,
In those days, during our fourteenth year we came in,There was also a long tradition of Enlightenment in Keydan since the days of Rav Moshe Margalyot, one of the great commentators on the Talmud Yerushalmi in his generation. The Christian cultural environment may also have had an indirect influence on the city's inhabitants. Among the Jews stood a long line of supporters of the Enlightenment, ready to defend the cause. Among the most renowned of them were the writer Moshe-Leyb Lillienbloom and the literary historian, Shneyur Zakesh, as well as the educators Moshe Prozer and Dr. Yosef Smelig. Young people of the city were active collectors of folksongs by the beginning of the twentieth century. A collection that was edited by Ginzburg and Marik included 376 songs, 154 of which were collected in Keydan and the vicinity by residents Borukh-Khayim Kessel and Dr. Aharon-Leyb Pik.
With our elders and wise men.
We saw with our eyes then
A beautiful place, the palace building,
The exalted beauty of the little sanctuary and the joy of our House of Study,
Which in our camp was raised,
We saw and answered,
We have not yet done right,
Refraining from G-d's praise and recognition, Foundation of Foundations,
Power of all labors,
Who helps us to begin in pleasure,
And to finish without error.
And the spirit of song began to stir
In a man of desirable qualities and honor,
Who acts with all good features,
From the depths of the Foundations,
With most elevated labors,
To teach with comfort from his heart,
Performing the commandments of generations,
With intelligence and knowledge in all work,
Without confusion he brings order,
Setting one system against another,
Setting everything within rule,
He led us in everything,
According to the affairs of the builders,
The aid of those coming after,
The rooms and palaces of beauty,
The windows and spaces of pleasure,
His hands faithful for the sake of Heaven,
Until the setting sun,
Never among the idle,
With zeal and not slackness of hands showing the way of faith,
To builders with correct balance and measure,
Standing on the wall year by year,
Preparing for the sake of God Whom he loved,
For the beauty of the One he held dear,
To honor the Torah with his gold and silver,
Laboring diligently and quickly in making beautiful the ark,
Engraving wheels and animals according to religion and order,
Being good to the wise craftsman and artisan for His sake,
Leaving after him a blessing eternal,
A good name to remember,
To the generations a watchword,
Dealing with hands most pure,
Taking no money, not once or twice,
Caring for the blessing of the hands.
Is he not among the greatest of our people,
Of our community the most esteemed,
Seeking good from our judges,
Favored by all brothers,
To our people a prince and a merit?
May I be wise, a wonderful instrument, like our teacher and Rabbi, R. Yehoshua from the family of Ram: may he be remembered for good, who had a generous spirit to bless, division after division, in the foundation of the holy mountain, this new house of study and synagogue, the blessed Rabbi, my G-d bless him and guard him and his descendants like a spirit of blessed rain, and may he merit to offer a gift when Israel returns, to raise thousands like blessed rain, and let the work be finished in the year to which may be applied the verse, 'Happy are we that we rise up and lay down,' according to holiness.
By the 1880's the Talmud Torah in the city had been transformed into a modern school, which taught not only religious but also secular subjects, as well as Russian. However, a number of traditional khederim also existed alongside this school. In independent Lithuania, rather than a yeshiva, two popular schools were established (the Tarbut under the direction of A. Poritz and the Yavneh), in which the language of instruction was Hebrew, as well as a middle school (under the direction of D. Richman and Keyzal -- among its teachers were Y. Klotzsky, Tsvi Rosentsvayg, Kahan, and Terkman), which had about 100 students. On the initiative of Rav Shlomo Finzilber (YHD), a House of Talmud was established in the city, which served as a preparation for the yeshiva. There were also several libraries in the city run by various political parties and a printing press (Movshovitz) which published a number of religious and also secular books (the last Hebrew book to be published in Lithuania was published by this company).
The Zionist movement in Keydan began as early as the days of Khivat Tsyon. Moshe Leyb Lillienbloom, a native of the city, actively promoted the movement throughout Russia. R. Yosef Bloomzohn dedicated his life and became well known in his time for his activities on behalf of the Khivat-Tsyon in Keydan. In independent Lithuania the Zionist idea took hold of all the Jews of the city and the young people and students in the Hebrew schools in particular. In 1922 a preparatory farm directed by Shabtiel Deutsh was founded in Padalnogy, next to Keydan, which provided instruction for the first pioneers from Lithuania. This institution then moved to the vicinity of Virbaln (becoming known as Conquest), and in its time it had a great educational impact on the young people of Lithuania. Most young people were involved with the Young Guard, the Gordoniah, and the Beyter. Many of them immigrated to Israel and put down roots in the Yishuv or settlement there. Branches of the General Zionists Union (Histadrut), the Mizrakhi, the Socialist Zionists, the Revisionists, and other parties also were active locally and took part in raising money for the various Zionist funds. These activists included Zundel Gizburg, R. Tsvi Traub, Khayim Berel Srolov, Shalom Khayat, Zev Tober, and Yosef and especially Khana Landsberg.
The greatest Torah scholars in Lithuania served as Chiefs of the Rabbinical Court of Keydan, and the city produced many great Rabbis, intellects, scholars, writers, scientists, and community activists. Among its Rabbis: R. Hillel, author of the House of Hillel, R. Elyakim Getz, R. Shaul son of R. Heshel, R. Tsvi Hirsh HaLevi, R. Yekhezkel Katsenelbogen, R. David Katsenelbogen, R. Meshulam Zalman Katsenelbogen (1758-1770), R. Menakhem Nakhum Katsenelbogen (1770-1778), and R. Moshe Mordekhay Katsenelbogen (1782-1798). Among its religious leaders: R. Moshe Margalyot, R. Hillel Bishka, R. Yom-Tov Lipman Hilprin (1841-1847), R. Avraham Shimon Troyb (1852-1876), R. Zalman Troyb, R. Avraham Tsvi Kumay (until 1915), and its last Rabbi, R. Shlomo Finzilber (YHD).
Among its natives: Rav Aharon Zalman Dat, the brothers R. Yekhiel, R. Yehoshua, and R. Meir Heller, R. Tsemakh Zakesh, R. Avraham Shimon Troyb and his son R. Zalman, R.Avraham Ever and his son Yehuda Leyb Yafa, R. Moshe Margalyot, R. Noson son of R. Moshe and grandson of R.Rafael, the head of the Rabbinical Court of Altona, Hamburg and Vandsbek, R. Aharon Shmuel Keydanover, R. Avraham Elyahu Kaplan, R. Meir Mikhal Rabinovitz, R. Moshe Rabinovitz, R. Shmuel Rappaport, R. Khayim Plantsberg, the historial Dr. Yosef Smelig, the journalist Aharon Einhorn, the agronomist Yosef Einhorn, the poet Hirsh Blueshteyn, the researcher and writer Shneyur Zakesh, the writer Yisroel Mikhal Troyb, M.L. Lillienbloom, the doctor and writer Dr. Aharon Pik, the proponent of Enlightenment Moshe Prozer, the writer Dov-Gershon Richards (Keydansky), the labor leader Binyomin Shlezinger, the scholar and researcher Binyomin Elyahu Remigolsky, the religious scholar and benefactor Aryeh Moshe Keydansky, the Zionist activist Shmuel Shelpobarsky, the editor and poet David Volpe, Khayim Kahan, the senior municipal officer in Kovne and activist in Zionist organizations, who emigrated to Israel in 1948 and was active in the Union of Lithuanian Emigrants and the Council for Publications, d. in Te-Aviv 1967, and Esther Tsarne Yafa, educator and activist in the Yiddishist movement in Kovne, murdered during the Shoah.
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