בן-ציון קליבנסקי

היסטוריון & מהנדס אלקטרוניקה

 

Ben-Tsiyon Klibansky

Historian & Electronics Engineer

M.Sc.

Ph.D.

Letters Float amongst the Holy Ones

The train ride lasted about an hour and a half from Vilna, surrounded by dense forests and villages.  Suddenly there was a whistle and the train slowed. I looked at the approaching station. “Kedainiai”. Hastily, I gathered my belongings and made my way to the platform. Several other people also alighted from the train and quickly disappeared. I crossed via the deserted station to the bus stop. Regrettably, its station was empty. The next bus would arrive three hours later… There weren’t any taxis either. Whom might they have been expecting? With no other option, I began to walk to the town. I knew the way from my previous visits to Kidan. I was accompanied by light rain and the clouds looked quite threatening.

After walking a good part of the way, I saw a large sign, perched on a big bridge at the entrance to the town. “For Kedainiai – 645”. Only the number changes over the years. According to the sign, Kidan was founded in 1372. Jews were certainly not a part of the original group of founders. They didn’t in fact begin arriving until sometime in the late 15th century, and the community began in earnest only in the 17th century. 

Over time the town occupied a place of honor in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Therefore, it’s not surprising that in 1726 a boy, aged six arrived, who in Vilna had been nicknamed “boy wonder” at the same time. He was brought there in order to study Torah from the talented young Moshe Margolies, later the rabbi of the town, although within several months the boy no longer needed a rabbi and he began to study on his own. Over time he also married in this town and continued learning Torah after the wedding. His name was Eliyahu son of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman; while in his twenties he was already called “The Righteous” and eventually, “The Vilna Gaon”.

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The bridge at the entrance to Kidan

The history of my family in Kidan begins even later. It was the middle of the 19th century when one of my forefathers, Hayim Eides, came to the town. His son, Mordechai Eides, became a merchant, a man of Torah and one of the distinguished members of the community. He lived in a house adjacent to the market, and there he had a store that looked out onto the square. His image my father had etched in his memories, from what he had heard from his mother:

 

My grandfather was very exacting in his Sabbath observance. On Fridays, as nightfall approached, he would put on his black festive kaftan (long coat with tight sleeves) and walk by the stores in the market. The shopkeepers, seeing the shadow of his small image would whisper: “Reb Motele” – that is how he was called in the town – “is already on his way”. They understood it was time to close their shops and prepare for the Sabbath. On the Sabbath he would have little conversation and all his words would be in the Holy Tongue.[1]

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Eides family home (second from the left) next to Market Square (Josef Chrust, Keidan – Memorial Book, Tel Aviv 1977, p. 72c)

In the house of my elders my grandmother and most of her children were born, including my father. This house is still standing proudly next to the “Old Market Square” in the Old Quarter of Kidan. For about a century it has hardly changed. I walked to this house.

The wide expanse in front was gated and many renovations had taken place. Therefore, I approached the house from the rear. I was greeted by the Nevjazha River, which had recently thawed and flowed under the large bridge to the Nieman River in Kovna. I sat on the river’s edge and gazed into the water. My father had an interesting childhood – I thought to myself – at the front of the house a bustling market which held a great deal of fascination for a small child, and in the rear, no more than ten or twenty steps, an entirely different world; magical and removed from human existence, nature and all that it embodies.

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The bridge over the Nevjazha River, behind the Eides Family’s home

There weren’t many days that my father, in his early childhood, was able to enjoy his house with its polarity. While he was still quite young, a harsh decree was placed on all the Jews of the town, in fact, on all the Jews of Kovna Province and of several neighboring provinces: within three days beginning on the 15th of May 1915, they had to move from their homes and resettle in the areas of Poltava and Yekaterinoslav Provinces, which were in the south east region of the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire. The reason for this was suspicions that Jews were cooperating with the German and Austrian enemies during World War One; however, this was simply an excuse of the heads of the army in order to cover up their disgraceful failures on the battle field. Around two hundred thousand Jews began to migrate to the Ukrainian Provinces, amongst them, the Kidan Jewry. One of them, Pesach Hittin (Veitzer), wrote about what transpired in the town during those few days:

 

After several months in the Ukraine, the exiled Jews were allowed to settle in internal Russia, and many of those from Kidan migrated to the city of Tzaritzin (eventually known as Stalingrad). Here they knew the sense of shortage, of freedom and independence in the Revolution of March 1917, and of fear and terror after the Bolshevik Revolution and the spread of the Civil War between the Whites and the Reds, since Tzaritzin was one of the main arenas in the struggle.

After six or seven difficult years, the exiles were allowed to return to their homes. The family arrived in Kidan at the end of 1921 and discovered that one of their Christian neighbors was living in their house. He immediately agreed to leave, and the family began to acclimate to normal life in the town. The store reopened, the boys were sent to the local “cheider” and then to the famous yeshivas of Kovna and Slabodka, while the girls studied in the neighborhood Jewish school.

Like all the towns in Lithuania in the period after the war, Kidan too, was a hotbed of Jewish activity. At the time, 2500 Jews lived there. There were schools for all the different ideologies, youth movements, political parties and trade unions that involved many of the Jewish residents. In 1924 the community appointed a rabbi, Rabbi Shlomo Feinzilber, who eventually became one of the great rabbis in Lithuania and the president of the Rabbinic Association. However, the material world was less satisfying, and youngsters who weren’t able to immigrate to other countries turned to pioneer preparation groups as a means to try and leave Lithuania. Some succeeded, and that is how two of my father’s sisters migrated to the Land of Israel in the 1930s.

The economic situation worsened after the Soviets took over Lithuania on the 15th of June 1940. They immediately destroyed all national organizations, Christian and Jewish, and nationalized medium and large businesses. Amongst the Jews in Kidan, more and more became casualties of the difficult economic situation but weren’t able to do anything to improve their lot.

Exactly one year after the Soviet Union gained control of Lithuania the Soviets commenced deporting all the “anti-revolutionaries”, amongst them twenty thousand Christians and several thousand Jews. The group contained tens of Kidan’s Jews including my father, who at the time had been living in Kovna. This was the second deportation for him and for his mother in twenty-five years. This time, however, they didn’t land in a congested city, but rather in the desolate Arctic Circle, a place where it wasn’t clear which was crueler – the Soviet regime, or the terrible freezing weather. Their fate, however, was better than the rest of the Jews in Kidan who were severely harmed by the Nazis and the local nationalist Christians. Within two months the Christians didn’t leave behind any trace of the Jews.

The towns in Lithuania were for the most part “Jewish” before World War One and some were after that war as well.  In Kidan, 60% of the residents were Jewish in the 19th century. As a result of the mandatory expulsion during the war, their numbers reduced to one third of Kidan’s residents. Nevertheless, this was a respectable percentage of the total. Is there any trace left of them in Kidan today?

I left the Old Quarter. A lone Jew in a large town. The locals glanced at me and at my skullcap, as if wondering what business a Jew had being in their town. I crossed the main road and started up Gedimin Street. In the 14th century Prince Gedimin turned Lithuania into a powerful country, and he was the first to invite the Jews to settle there. In the interwar period, on this street, named for him, were many Jewish owned businesses. Now the road leads to the last resting place of the Jews. Fifteen minutes later, after a fast paced walk, I entered a small path between single story houses and arrived at the Jewish cemetery.

“A Jewish cemetery” in Lithuania is a thing of wonder. In most of the towns in the country there are no signs that a Jewish cemetery had ever existed.  Most of them were destroyed during the Soviet reign after World War Two, when public parks or buildings were erected upon them. The Jews of Kidan merited having their graves preserved and kept in relatively good condition. I started to scrub the gravestones of my forefathers. The graves of Mordechai Eides, his sister Dvora-Miriam Shames, his in-law, Hanna-Sheva Klibansky, and even his father, the first to settle in Kidan in our family. I had found this grave of Hayim Eides only a year ago, and now, I vigorously cleaned it from all the dirt and scum that had built up over the past 125 years since he had died. When I was finishing cleaning, I began to walk amongst the many graves. This was indeed a pleasant reminder of the bustling community that had once been here.

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The cemetery in Kidan

Not far from the cemetery there is another remembrance of the lost community. The Valley of Death. The Jews of the town who had been concentrated into the ghetto in the courtyard of the synagogues (The Shulheif), greatly crowded together with many other Jews from the area, were moved on the 15th of August 1941 to a horse stable, there they were crowded in with no food. The only sustenance they were given was black coffee. After thirteen days of starvation, armed Lithuanians took them out in groups of sixty people to a long pit in the valley of death and shot them, group after group, before the eyes of the local intelligentsia and the priest, who gathered to watch the serial destruction of their Jewish neighbors. This spectacle was replayed over and over during this time in most of the Lithuanian towns, however without the presence of the local inhabitants. From the comparison that I did in one of my essays, I found that Kidan was unique in terms of the number of acts of resistance and heroism during these mass murders – amazing acts of Jews who had been starved to death and had lost all will to resist and the hope of salvation. And still, they found within themselves the Herculean power to save their Jewish honor. The most famous among them was Tzodok Shlapobersky, who before the war was the commander of the fire brigade in the town, and once upon a time even had the chance to enter my grandmother’s shop and get from her a “lesson” in ethics. A Christian truck driver, who transported barrels of lime and boxes of vodka and beer to the murder site and then led the Jewish elderly to the pit, told what he witnessed before his own eyes:

 

I stood by the pit. A long wide boulevard of trees grew above the pit and almost completely covered it. Only the monument at the entrance, written in Yiddish and in Lithuanian proclaims what occurred here: “In this place, on August 28, 1941 the Hitlerian murderers and their local operatives murdered 2076 Jews”. Before my eyes, a picture emerges of rows of Jews standing in this pit and waiting for the killers to shoot, with dignified Christians cheering around. And behold Tzodok Shlapobersky succeeded shredding the throat of Čizas… and another Jew who managed to wound an armed Lithuanian Partisan in the neck with his pocket knife… and Boruch Meir Chessler, who grabbed a machine gun from the hands of another armed Lithuanian Partisan but didn’t know how to use it, and in his attempt to escape was shot… “Earth, do not cover their blood”!

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The monument in the valley of death in Kidan

Adjacent to the valley of death, an impressive monument was erected few years ago to memorialize the murdered by initiative of the manager of the local museum, Rimantas Žirgulis. The monument is a metal slab and on it – the names of more than one thousand murdered Jews from Kidan. This is the final act of kindness done in the memory of the grave of brethren – men, women, and children, the elderly and even babies.

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Wall of Remembrance with the names of the murdered in the valley of death in Kidan

All this can be found on the edges of the municipality, so it seems that most of the residents of Kidan today have no idea about the Jewish history of their town. Several years ago a local English teacher, Laima Ardaviciene, took upon herself to change the situation. She initiated projects among her students in order to memorialize and eternalize the fallen formerly bustling Jewish community that lived in Kidan. For the last project I was invited to see her classroom for myself.

We went to the gymnasium where she is teaching. Today 600 students study there. A decade ago there were 1400, but the massive immigration of the locals to Western Europe hit the school hard.  We entered the English Room. I was amazed. On the back wall was displayed a drawing of a huge tree, whose trunk came out of the local Shulheif, behind the synagogue and the study hall of old, which still stand today, renovated beautifully. I neared the tree whose branches spread out sideways and upwards. In the branches names were written: the surnames of the many Jews who had lived in Kidan.

I stood and gazed at the names. Several minutes later I found my surname and the maiden name of my grandmother, in addition to many others I knew well. My bewilderment continued and everything else dimmed. I didn’t see the branches, just the names, just letters floating in the air. Few floated outside of the confines of Lithuania, to the rescue, to the future; though most of them rose among holy, pure and glorious to be in our everlasting memory in the shadow of the Divine Presence.

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The Name Project in the Kidan “Atzalynas” Gymnasium – with Laima and the writer

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[1] Gitta Langleben-Klibansky, From the Ends of the Earth: The Struggle for Survival of a Jewish Girl from Lithuania on the Banks of the Arctic Ocean, Elkana: “History of the Lituanian Jewry”, 2013, pp. 9H–10H (translated from Hebrew).

[2] Pesach Hittin, “Refugees of Lithuania in their Deportation Locations”, HeAvar 13 (1966): 10–11 (translated from Hebrew).

[3] G. Erslavaitė, ed. Masinės žudynės Lietuvoje 1941–1944: dokumentų rinkinys, vol. II, Vilnius: “Mintis”, 1973, pp. 140–141 (translated from Lithuanian).

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