The life of the community (kehilah) revolved around the institutions of the community. These were: Clothing the Naked, Quarters for the Sick, Visiting the Sick, Providing for the Bride, Alms for the Poor for Passover, Giving in Secret, A coin every Month, and others.
Next to the synagogue, a special building was erected to house the Free Loan Society. The Jews of the shtetl, not just the rich, but everyone was used it regularly, helping the needy among themselves. This fund did just that.
Clothing the Naked specialized in collecting used clothing for the poor, who couldn't afford them, especially for families with many children.
Providing for the Bride worked for poor brides, who could not afford a dowry. They provided the dowry, made a wedding party, found housing for the poor newlyweds, provided for bedding and basic furniture, as well as other needs of the newlyweds.
The purpose of Quarters for the Sick was to provide support and assistance to the sick, whose families could not take care of them in their own houses.
Bikur Cholim was a group of Jews who visited the sick, and those who lived alone. This was done in fulfillment of a great commandment and a moral duty.
The work of Giving in Secret was done in order to guard the honor of the needy person. Collections were held for the needy ones by going from door to door and asking for contributions. No one knew to whom he was giving, and no one knew from whom he was receiving help.
Coins - Contributions on the first of the Month (Rosh Chodesh) would give a monthly gift to the poor, and this was given to them on the first day of each Jewish month.
In Lithuania, there was a religious women's charitable group (non-political and independent), whose name was Bet Yaakov. In Kelem, a branch of this organization was headed by Mrs. Pearl Stam. Its purpose was to give information to future mothers of the Jewish community about the religious commandments, laws about Shabbat, Kashrut, family purity, and other aspects of Judaism pertaining to women. Members were obliged to fulfill the demands of the organization.
In Kelem, there was an active Shas group. Its purpose was the study of the Talmud , and once a year, upon completing a portion of study, a large feast was given by one of its members on a rotating basis.
In the synagogue, another group was active, Omray or Psalm Reciters. They were called upon to recite Psalms for the very sick or people in desperation of some sort. They also said Psalms beside the dead before burial, during the trip to the cemetery, and at the graveside. In Kelem, as in every Jewish settlement in the world, there was a Chevra Kadisha, or burial society. This was run, on a voluntary basis, by very religious Kelmer Jews. Between the two world wars, R. Avraham Karabelnik, a humble and righteous man, was known as Avraham Ba'al HaDegel (Abraham, Master of the Flag). He studied a page of the Gemara every day, at home and in the Kloiz.
There was a bathhouse in Kelem. A Jewish family always lived in that building. They ran the bathhouse and the Mikveh for ritual purification; both were open to all Kelmer Jews.
In a field, just outside of the shtetl, stood a slaughterhouse, next to a spring. The place was called the Rez Lonka (slaughterhouse field). All the slaughtering in Kelem was kosher. It was done by Uri the Shochet and Yitzak the Shochet. They were both Mohelim (ritual circumcisers), and they circumcised all the male Jewish children in Kelem.
On Resain Street, on the other side of the bridge of the Krazhante River, next to the road, was a gate made out of bricks. This gate led to the Jewish cemetery. This was an ancient cemetery, as old as the Jewish community in Kelem. Among the gravestones, were those called tent gravestones. These were over the graves of Torah giants, rabbis, and other important people. These stones told the history of Kelem's Godfearing Jews. At the entrance to the cemetery, there stood the house of cemetery watchman's family, usually Gentiles. Over the gate to the cemetery was the inscription - Everlasting Resting Place For All.
In 1920, a Community Committee was established. Its purpose was the organization of the shtetl in all facets of religious of life. Members of the committee were obliged to find ways of supporting synagogue sextons (shamashim) and officials (Gabbaim), ritual slaughterers, cantors and public Torah readers for the High Holy Days, yeshiva students, and the poor and needy.
Outside of community institutions for religious needs, there were other organizations that were concerned with the fields of work, trades, and culture. These included the Kulturaliya or Culture League. The tradesmen's Yiddishe Hantverker, the Farband, and the Merchants Organization.
The Culture League brought theatrical performances to Kelem. Profits from these performances and plays were used to promote aliyah to Israel. In addition, a portion of the profit was used to provide heat for homes of the needy. The Culture League also organized soccer games for Jewish youth.
The Jewish town library was located in many different private homes over the years. Before World War II, it was housed home of the Adler family. This library contained many Yiddish and Hebrew books. The number of the readers of Hebrew was large, especially among the youth.
The result of all this organization was a very active cultural life in the shtetl that included every aspect of Jewish living. Concern for religious, secular, and cultural needs found their full expression in the various institutions and groupings of Kelem's community.
In those days, there was no Jewish preacher (magid) in Kelem. Rabbi Simcha Zissel filled that void and began to preach on Sabbaths and holidays in the Great Synagogue. His sermons were unique and were based on the foundation of logic. He preached and demanded changes in the institutions of the community, whose activities were not to his liking. Of course, this did not find favor in the eyes of the leadership. They tried to silence him and were not willing to accept his suggestions and demands for change. Rabbi Simcha Zissel had no choice but to keep silent and to discontinue his preaching. Then a group was formed that supported his ideas of the Musar system of Jewish thought and living. The group was called the Musar Society; later, their building became the Talmud Torah.
There were known to be many instances when the sermons of the Magid changed persons' lives, to the extent of bringing them to live lives of Torah and good works. He chastised and rebuked without discrimination. Class or status were no protection before his wrath. His voice was pleasant and made his listeners hearts tremble. When speaking to an audience, his voice became ecstatic. He, himself, knew very well the importance of his task as a rebuker of the people. He was feared, but respected. His sermons produced results. Many Jews repented from their mistaken ways and started to behave righteously - chiefly in business dealings and in relations between man and his fellow man.
Rabbi Moshe Darshan, the Magid from Kelem was the most famous magid of his time and for generations after that.
Crippled and very sickly from birth, he suffered from constant physical pain and had difficulty in speaking. In spite of these disabilities, he was diligent in Torah study and even wrote imaginative and original works on religious and legal Jewish subjects. His book, The Spring of Tarshis, deals with these matters. He was modest, humble and guarded his speech. He walked the lanes of Kelem, steeped in his thoughts, wrapped in tallis and tefillin. At times, he would leave the town, and walk out into the fields and woods with prayers on his lips. These unusual ways were well known to Kelem's Jews and gentiles. Honor was given to him by all, in spite of his strange behavior. The Lithuanian children, who would sometimes throw stones at Jews and swear at them, would not dare to do these things to R. Zeligl. He was thought of as a holy man by all. He also had a great love of Zion; he defended Zionist activists in Kelem from anti-Zionists Kelmers. There was some anti-Zionist activity among the extremely religious (Chasidim), but Rabbi Zeligl did not support it.
Rabbi Zeligl not only supported Zionism, but made aliyah to Palestine. Near the outbreak of World War II, he settled in Jerusalem with his family. There, he continued to study and philosophize, until he died in 1946. He is buried on the Mount of Olives. Between the two wars, Kelem continued to have great leaders, not only the town rabbis, but people like Rabbis Stam, Lupean, Shlomo Pianko, Daniel Moshovitz, and others.
As a boy, Rabbi Stam studied in cheder, and after many hardships came to the big city of Kovno. There, he studied at the Yeshiva in Alksut (a suburb of Kovno). Later, supported by a well to do family, he started to study at the famous Slobodka Yeshiva. Later, he studied in the Teltz Yeshiva. After marrying, he settled in Kelem. The supporters of the Musar in Kelem greatly admired him and did not hesitate to invite him to head the Yeshiva in Kelem.
At the same time, Rabbi Israel Stam started the Shalomit school in Kelem for (Haredim) very religious girls; this was the first school of its type in the whole Jewish world.
Rabbi Israel's house was always open to the poor of Kelem. His wife was very active in charities for women and orphans, poor yeshiva students, and all poor and lonely. His house was also a meeting place for scholars.
Rabbi Israel Stam was very humble and did not wish to stand out. In spite of that, he was regarded by all as the leader of the Musar movement in Kelem, the last remnant of the great leaders of the Talmud Torah. He, on principle, never lectured others about morals, but rather tried to direct his moral lessons upon himself. For this reason, his influence upon others who met him was great. His life was a life of purity, charity, good deeds, and modesty.
He later lived mainly in the United States and founded a community center in New York city. His dream was to come to live in Israel, the Holy Land; and that he did. He lived in B'nai B'rak, where he died at an old age. He was eulogized by the great rabbis of Israel, but they could not capture his greatness in words. He was buried on the Mount of Olives with great honors and respect. His books and articles are well known in Israel and America. Among them are writings on the Torah portions of the week, High Holy days, holidays, and other subjects.
The Dessler family was from Latvia. Rabbi Reuven Dessler married the granddaughter of Rabbi Israel Salant. Their son, Rabbi Eliahu Dessler, was also a well known member of the Musar movement. Rabbi Reuven was a successful businessman in White Russia, but when the communists took over, his business interests were ended. He became desperate, and after many wanderings came, by a miracle, to Kelem. He bought a house and lived in Kelem with his family. When the head of the Talmud Torah died, Rabbi Reuven Dessler was named spiritual guide and head of the Yeshiva. Rabbi Daniel Moshovitz and Rabbi Gershon Meyadnik worked together with Rabbi Reuven Dessler at that time at the Yeshiva. During his last years, he suffered greatly, moved to London, and passed away there.
In 1950, Rabbi Eliahu Lupean came to live in Israel, where he was the spiritual head of the Kaminitz Yeshiva in Jerusalem. After that, he was named head of the Keneset Chezkiyahu (Ezekiel) Yeshiva in Kfar Chasidim, where he served until the end of his life.
He left books and articles on different Torah subjects, among them Panim mul Panim (Face to Face). He also was famous as an educator of great esteem and influence. During his time there, hundred of students, from all over Lithuania, streamed to the Talmud Torah.
After Rabbi Eliahu Lupean, the Talmud Torah was headed by Rabbi Eliahu Kremerman, who was assisted by Rabbi Shlomo Pianko and Rabbi Pesach Sadovski.
The little of Kelem put forth Torah geniuses and great Torah personalities of note. It is impossible to mention all of them for shortage of space. The people of Kelem always regarded their Torah scholars with great respect; they honored them until their last days on this earth. All Kelmers were proud of their rabbis, scholars, educators, and all of their Torah loving saintly Jews.
In Kelem, there lived two porters, whose great strength enabled them to do that work. They could be recognized by their long rabbinical beards. The first one was Reuven the Porter, and the second was the very masculine Yosel der Bord (Josef the Beard). In spite of their difficult occupation, they sat with other hard working men in the evening to learn a page in the Gamara at one of the shtieblach (Ein Yaakov or Minorat HaMaor). The study of the holy books was their way of life.
He would walk, with a yarmulke on his head, with worn out clothing, and shoes torn from wear. He had a long beard and curled earlocks that reached down to his shoulders. Because of his long and noticeable earlocks, he was known as Mendel di Peyahs by all Kelmers. Long earlocks were not grown among Kelem's Jews, so that his aroused wonderment.
Mendel lived in an almost tottering house on Shulgas Street. The windows were nailed closed with wooden boards, so that no light would come in from the outside. According to Mendel, the light of the Holy Spirit would be a segola or treasured possession to be granted in the coming world. A smoky oil lamp spread a faint light day and night. The floor was a dirt floor, and there was practically no furniture, but poverty stood out on all sides.
Mendel was a strange and unique character. He swore a vow of silence and refused to speak about subjects that were not holy Torah. He spoke to other people in sign language. After he had been widowed, he married a woman who could not speak at all. She, therefore, could not speak evil words or spread rumors, God forbid. In his house, there was a ritual bath (mikvah), which was the only one in Kelem in a private house. He subsisted on extremely little and lived on charity from the community.
He would go from house to house and check the mezuzahs, changing the ones that were not Kosher. People would call him to their houses to bless the sick and to pray against the evil eye, which people believed caused the illness called shoshana, rashes, eye troubles, and others.
To a certain degree, he was also a Zionist, in spite of the fact that to the casual observer he was an eccentric, who was engrossed in himself and cut off from the rest of society. It came to light, that he followed the progress of Jewish settlement in Palestine. He knew about the conflict there and wrote wall posters, which called upon the Jews to win the conflict by means of prayer and good deeds. He called these wall posters ammunition. Mendel appeared as a lonely and tragic figure. He was killed with the other Jews in the Holocaust.
Her most important gift was the support she gave to the old and sick who were in need of a readily available hand of assistance. She seemed to be cut off from the rest of society, but no one ever demeaned her; rather, the opposite. She was respected because of knowledge and abilities.
Masha was actually the only direct victim of the battles fought in W.W.II. At the time of the first battles, she was found dead in the yard of the synagogue complex, together with the goat that she had with her at that time. She had been hit by an artillery shell. In her arms was a Torah scroll. At the beginning of the battles in Kelem, there were great fires. She had tried to save the scrolls and was hit while in that effort. According to Israel Gutman, who was a witness and a survivor, the people who helped Masha were David Shela and Berl Milner.
Women from many families used to bring food and baked goods to her house on Thursday, in preparation for the Sabbath meal. Bayleh was a stern woman; she did not fawn before others, spoke in a very pronounced manner, was very strict with children, and wouldn't permit them to play hide and seek or ball games near her house. She often would keep the wayward ball and report it to the children's parents. She died together with the Jews of Kelem at the hand of the Lithuanian murderers.
These stories about the people mentioned above and not mentioned above, are about unusual characters - unique Jews of Kelem. Because of their eccentricity, they caused people to notice them. Sometimes, they drew pity from people; sometimes, they were considered ridiculous. They were given their nicknames, because they stood out as a result of their strange and unusual behavior. They were similar to other eccentrics in almost all of the Jewish shtetlach in eastern Europe, and would awaken interest and wonderment in the normal people around them.
All of them, in spite of the strangeness and uniqueness, were honest and God fearing. The Jewish public in Kelem supported them and included them in their community.
Now, with this new invasion, there was fear and doubt in their hearts, but there was also a hope that things would work out for the best.
The sharp business woman, Batyah Broide, the owner of buses and trucks, told all who would listen about how she did good business with the Germans in W.W.I. She had hope that when things calmed down, business could be resumed again with the Germans. This false hope was maintained by other Jews in Kelem. They did not escape with their skins in order to survive. Only a small number of Kelem's Jews escaped and succeeded in getting to areas far into Soviet Russia.
Most of Kelem's Jews, by foot or otherwise, turned to the Jewish farmsteads near Kelem. For some reason, they thought that there things would be safer. Everyone who didn't flee and remained searched out a hiding place on one of the Jewish farms; the Gelman, Yecheskel, Kushelevski, Shimon Osher, Avraham Berman, Yaakov Chaluzin, and other farmsteads. Tens of family groups gathered at these farms. All the buildings were used to house them, lofts of the barns, granarys, storerooms, and other places were converted to living quarters for these temporary refugees. Every family sat in some place or corner with their baggage. Those Jews, who were at one farm, had little or no information about those at other farms. Everyone sat, surrounded by his family and dear ones. Everyone was deep in thought and worry about the future, which was shrouded in uncertainty.
The war broke out on June 22, 1941. The Russian army started to retreat. Members of the Communist party fled in panic from the shtetl. Battles started up between the Germans and the retreating Russian army. All the Jewish houses in Kelem were burned down as the result of fires from the barrages of the opposing sides. From their place of refuge on the Jewish farmsteads, the Jews watched the huge clouds of thick smoke that rose from that terrible fire in the town. Everyone realized that there was no way back to their homes and former lives. Only very few houses, on the edges of town, did not burn down, mostly gentiles' houses The Lithuanian Gymnasia also didn't catch on fire, it was a brick building. Of all the Jewish houses, the only ones which didn't burn were those of the Podlas, Rose, Beniash, Rozin, Nachum Udvin, and Shapira families, the granary of Zunda Luntz, and the house of Passia Goldstein..
A very few days after the fire, there was formed a Civilian Authority, which included principally nationalistic Lithuanians of the extremist type and collaborators of the Nazis. The members of this body started to plot against the Jews and to bring to the fore all of their hate of the Jews.
This hate was not something new. Its roots were planted many years in the past, when the Catholic Church worked openly to fan hatred and incitement against the Jews. The reason for this hate was, as it were, the crucifixion of Jesus. An added reason was the jealousy that these Lithuanians felt and their narrowness, meanness, and selfishness toward the Jews, who they thought were living better than they were. They mainly resented the fat that almost all the commerce and trade in Kelem was in Jewish hands. To compete with the more educated Jews in Kelem, was for them an almost impossible task.
The result of this hatred and jealousy found expression in explosions of poisoned anti-Semitism. The buds of this anti-Semitism were observed already with the establishment of the independent Lithuanian state in 1918. In the 1920's, there arose Lithuanian national movements, such as Taotininkai, Varslininkai, Sianliai, and others. Their basic platform was the principle of Lithuania for the Lithuanians! In the 1930's, these groups increased their activities against the Jews. Next to Jewish businesses, there were posted activists with posters reading, Don't do business with the Jews. Sometimes, there broke out hostilities along with name calling, swearing, and reproaches of all kinds against the Jews. The acts became an everyday matter, and caused fear in the hearts of the Jewish population. Worst of all was the gross maltreatment of the Jewish school children by Gentile children, who beat them unmercifully on the streets of the town and in the school yards. Those Gentile children took sadistic pleasure in shouting slogans, such as, Jews - Arabs, go to Palestine!, and Jews - dirty pigs, etc. A number of times, Jews were fallen upon by Lithuanian nationalist extremists while on their way home from prayers at the synagogue.
This abysmal hatred toward the Jews, with the coming of the Nazis, exploded with full force. The potential for such an explosion was always there, but the legitimization to set it off was given by the Nazis. All of the nationalists of all of the various types raised their ugly heads at that time. Nationalism, in its most vile form, celebrated its freedom of action, especially among the youth and the high school students. They took part in the oppression, violence, torture, and murder of Jews even before the establishment of the civilian authority in Kelem.
These youths, in the very first days after war broke out, stood by the roadsides and turned back Jews trying to escape to Russia with the retreating Russian army. They forced the fleeing Jews to return to Kelem, to their burnt out houses and the few that still stood after the fire.
On the first day of July, 1941, the Lithuanian Civilian Authority opened up officially with their hostile acts against the Jews in a systematic manner in the framework of the authority that they gave to themselves. They issued various orders against the Jews by means of decrees that they made. All the Jews were made to wear the yellow star. Shortly, they were ordered out of the houses, in which they had found shelter, by order of the activists. The women, children, and the elderly, who still were in the few houses left in the town, were sent to the Jewish farmsteads in the area; the men who were able to work, including the men who were previously at these farms, were imprisoned at the granary of Zunda Luntz.
The granary was very cramped. There was no place to sit, not to mention to stretch out to sleep. Before the war, the building had been fenced off. Now, the gate was locked, and armed guards were placed there and around the building. The place had been transformed into a forced labor camp for the Jewish men of Kelem. They were taken from here every day to cleaning and clearing up work among the ruins of Kelem. They created a group made up of handymen to work at the repair of telephone and electricity. There were no tools or work equipment, so the Jews were ordered to use their hats to clean the town. Every group that went out to work was guarded by armed guards. During the work, the Lithuanians beat the Jews who, in their opinion, didn't work good or fast enough. They kicked them, vilified and cursed them. Not only the guards acted thusly; passersby on the streets humiliated the Jews and took pleasure in their misfortune. The food at the granary was very poor; twice a day a cup of coffee and a piece of bread; at noon, soup, which was mostly water with a bit of greens with no meat flavoring. After work hours and during the night, Lithuanian activists and guards used to line up the Jews and torture them in different ways. Details about these hair raising tortures are related in the accounts given after the war by Yaakov Zak, Chanan Levin, and Israel Gutman, who survived the granary.
Information about the first casualty in Kelem, a yeshiva bocher by the name of Moshe Beniash, came from different sources. For some reason, the boy was delayed at his house in the town. On the day after the outbreak of the war, he was caught by the Germans on the false accusation that he was preparing a car bomb. They ran him throughout the whole town, until they reached the Jewish cemetery, and there they shot him. The next murder took place when all of the Jewish men were at the granary. This time, the victim was a young man, Benjamin Oral, the son of the tanner family of that name. Benjamin slept, as testified by Yaakov Zak, in the upper story of the granary, because there was no other place. He stumbled on the boards there, fell to the floor, and sprained his foot. When leaving for work, he was not able to walk, because his sprained foot was swollen and painful. The Lithuanian guards immediately commanded some other Jews to dig a hole in the yard. They dragged him to the open hole, and, in front of everybody, pushed him in and shot him.
Many, many more shocks, without number, were suffered by those hapless Jews at the hands of those Lithuanian activists. They prepared provocations. They asked the Jewish men, Who isn't able to go to work because of health problems? These twelve men answered: Moshe Shaffer, Lieb Podlas, Zalman Oral, Benjamin Popkin, Hershel Levin, Yosef Yodelevitz, Shlomo Yitzak Shamash, Rosenfeld, Moshe Udvin, Praz, and Tartac. They were brought to the Jewish cemetery and shot to death. The news about the murders traveled fast to the Jews at the other farms. All were in shock. This abominable deed caused fear and trembling, in the hearts of all the Jews, concerning their future.
The Jewish owners of the farms were not kept locked up in the granarys. They were ordered to manage the farms as they were before the war, and to give out farm work to those Jews confined to the granarys. The Authority put out orders that the Jewish farmers could not travel more than one kilometer from their farms.
All during this time, when the Jewish men and women had possessions with them they traded them for food, such as butter, eggs, vegetables, etc. The Jewish farmers organized collective distribution of food that they had on hand; bread from their flour, vegetable and noodle soup from potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, and other items. The Jewish farmers were given certificates to buy herring, sugar, and salt in Kelem, and so could move to and fro from Kelem to the granary.
And, so passed a whole month without any certainty about the future. The terrifying rumors that they heard, instilled in them horror and depression.
At the farm of Yaakov Chaluzin, the neighboring peasants decided to grab all that they could from the Jews, while they were still alive. One night, they sneacked into the shed, where all the families were sleeping, and stole all of their belongings, even the pillows from under their heads. Apparently, the Jews were so exhausted, that they heard nothing. Those that did hear, probably were in fear of the peasants' retaliation. After leaving the granary, the peasants bolted its doors with wagons and logs, so that the Jews couldn't chase after them. When they woke up and saw what was stolen, they began to bang on the doors and call for help to unlock them. There was no one to ask for help. There was no justice or judge. The lives of the Jews and their meager possessions were at the prey of lawlessness.
At that same farm of Yaakov Chaluzin, there were many more instances of theft of Jewish property that the Lithuanian activists carried out. At various times, they would appear armed. They would take anything that they wanted, and disappear. On one of their raids, they observed a Jew running toward the bushes. The Jew was the well known watchmaker from Kelem, Mordachi Myerovitz. He was an older man, known to be well off, and one of the leading businessmen in Kelem. He wanted to hide something of value in the bushes. The band of Lithuanian thugs caught him, and ordered the Chaluzin family to dig a grave. They ordered all the Jews to stand away a bit from the grave into which they put Mordachi. The women and children were also ordered to watch. They ordered Mordachi to pray on his knees, the prayer before death. The poor man, shaking, muttered a prayer. All the people around were aghast with horror. All of a sudden, they shot two shots into the grave.
When the smoke from the gunshots disappeared, the Jews stood in deathly silence round about. It was forbidden for the Jews to come near the grave before the Lithuanians had left the farm. All the loot that they had stolen was loaded onto the wagons of the neighboring farmers. They also ordered these farmers to get on the wagons and come to the town. When the band had left, the Jews came to look into the pit. In it they found Mordachi, alive and well, rolled up at the bottom. It was clear that the bullets were aimed at the sides of the pit in order to frighten Mordachi Myerovitz, and that the other Jews would be in fear and trembling.
These crimes, cruelty, torture, theft, robbery, and mortal fear, caused by the Lithuanian nationalists, were committed against Jews on the other farms as well. Fear and trepidation, without any recourse to the law, dwelt within those innocent people. All of their rights were taken from them. There was no one to turn to for help.
All of these events still had not prepared the Jews of Kelem for the worst which was yet to come. They were all shocked and shaken up by these happenings, but they could not imagine that they would soon be taken to their deaths.
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