A visit to Keidan - 2005

by Harvey Kaplan, Glasgow, Scotland

In September 2005, I visited Lithuania for the first time, to see where my family (Kaplan, Fayn, Barzd) had originated. I went with my friends Howard and Fiona Brodie, also of Glasgow (Howard also has Lithuanian Jewish roots). We visited Vilnius and Kaunas, but also smaller towns and villages associated with our families: Ariogala, Betygala, Josvainiai, Kedainiai, Krakes and Ukmerge.

I understand that my great-grandparents, Levi Kaplan and Leah Fayn, were married in Kedainiai (or Keidan) in November 1885, prior to their emigration to Glasgow, Scotland. And now, 120 years later, I was thrilled and excited to be able to walk the streets of this town.

I think I expected a shtetl, with wooden houses, horses and carts, and pastoral scenes, however Kedainiai today is a fairly substantial town of some 32,000 inhabitants. The town centre is full of attractively-painted old buildings, with others under construction and renovation – perhaps one of the best-preserved old towns in Lithuania outside of Vilnius. We checked into the recommended Hotel Aroma Rex, about 2-3 years old, with really comfortable rooms (mine had a framed photo of 2 former synagogues on the wall!), but breakfasts from hell, mediocre reception staff, and rampaging mosquitos! Kedainiai was to be our base for four nights while we visited other places nearby.
Story continues below pictures - scroll down

To view Harvey Kaplan's photos from Keidan, click on the thumbnails below

Cemetery fence
Cemetery fence
former shuls
The 'Shulhoyf' - synagogue square
Harvey Kaplan & Rimantas Zirgulis
Harvey Kaplan & Rimantas Zirgulis
Jew Street
Jew Street
Sign outside of town
Kloyz Shul showing ladies' gallery windows
Kloyz ladies' gallery windows
Kloyz Shul2
The old Kloyz
Kloyz synagogue
The old Kloyz (2)
model of Keidan Jewish quarter
Model of Keidan's Jewish quarter
Old Town street
Old Town street

Winter Shul interior showing ladies' gallery Ladies' gallery inside the Winter Shul

I already knew a bit about the former Jewish community of the town, which in the late 19th century had a Jewish majority - 3733 Jews constituted 64% of the population in 1897. There were seven synagogues, a yeshiva, a Jewish school, and strong Zionist groups. But here I was actually walking the streets, and trying to imagine the town through the eyes of my great-grandparents.

Our tour of the former Jewish area started with a yellow-walled building, formerly the Kloyz Shul (begun in the mid-18th century) which has a plaque stating that the Vilna Gaon had once lived in the town. He came as a boy to study in Kedainiai, and married a local girl - Khana, daughter of Yehudah Leib of Kedainiai. The Vilna Gaon said of his wife that her acts of charity and compassion were as innumerable as the stars in heaven.

The building has been returned to the Lithuanian Jewish Community, which unfortunately cannot afford to maintain it, so it is currently rented out as a wood store. There was an open door, so we asked the workman if we could look around, and he allowed us access. Despite the building being full of wooden planks and poles, it is possible to see what was once an ornate ceiling, and also to see the position of the ladies’ gallery, fully-enclosed, with its windows looking out onto the men’s area below.

We walked along Zydu (Jew) Street, which still has some typical wooden houses, towards the old centre of Jewish Kedainiai – Senoji Rinka – or Jewish Market Square. This was once the spiritual, economic and social centre of Jewish life in the town. Here,fronting onto a large open space, are two restored synagogue buildings. One is the mid-19th century former Winter or Big Shul, now restored beautifully as a “multicultural centre” (2002). Here are held concerts, conferences and educational activities. The interior gleams with blue and white painted plaster redecorations, and there are artworks displayed around the walls. Where the Aron Kodesh once stood, they have placed a photograph showing the Aron Kodesh from the former synagogue next door. Upstairs, there are windows from which the ladies would have once looked down on the proceedings below. Now there are displays, including a wooden model of what the Jewish quarter would once have looked like. We were shown round by the knowledgeable and friendly director of the centre, Audrone Peciulyte.

One of our party, Howard Brodie, sings in Jewish choirs, and he spotted right away that the acoustics in the former Kloyz Synagogue were excellent. Spontaneously, he burst into a rendition of the Avinu Malkenu prayer, and it seemed especially fitting that these walls should once again resound with the sound of Jewish prayers.

Next door is another former synagogue – the Summer, Groys (Big) Shul, and dating from the 18th century. It is now an art or music school. Audrone explained that this had been the summer synagogue, and in front had once stood the houses of the shochet and butcher.

Our guide arranged a meeting for us with Rimantas Zirgulis, Director of the Kedainiai Museum. The museum extends over some 15 rooms, telling the history of the town over 2000 years. Disappointingly, the Jewish contribution is summed up in half a room, with a display including photographs, an image of the Vilna Gaon, candlesticks which once belonged to the Ronder family, and some references to Jewish shops, businesses and sports activities.

Rimantas has an interesting story to tell about the former Scottish community in Kedainiai in the 17th and 18th centuries. Scottish merchants, traders and mercenaries came to the town under the benevolent Protestant rule of the Radzivill family. They made their mark on the town, achieving commercial success and increasing their influence. Rimantas writes that:
“…in the second half of the 17th century, a particularly Scottish
oligarchy existed in Kedainiai…”

They integrated through time, and made their names sound Lithuanian. There are examples on the museum displays of people called Benetas (formerly Bennett), Aleksandras Gordonas (Gordon), Andersonas and Diksonas!

Some Scots lived in the Jewish district of Kedainiai, so there must have been some interaction between Scots and Jews – ironically at a time when there were no Jewish communities in Scotland. Indeed Rimantas considers that the Jews and Scots were at one point both victims of intolerance and ill-feeling, and that this would have led to them making common cause. I sometimes wonder if my great-grandmother’s elder brother, Michael Fine, the first in the family to come to Glasgow c1885, heard about Scotland from the descendants of one of these Scottish immigrants in Kedainiai.

I presented Rimantas with copies of my great grandfather’s British naturalisation certificate, my grandfather’s birth certificate, and my great-great uncle’s Declaration of Nationality – all of which mention the family connection to Keidan.

The Jewish cemetery in Kedainiai, just on the edge of town, is surrounded by some quite smart houses and gardens (although dogs and chickens still run around!). Just as the municipality has restored two of the synagogues, it has also looked after the cemetery. Not only is it well-fenced, but the fence is nicely-painted (in blue), with a menora design on the gates. The grass is short, and the stones mostly standing, and mostly with still-legible inscriptions. I am not sure how long my family lived in this town, but I expect that my great-grandmother’s sister and brother – Chaia (died 1882, aged one) and Zelick (died 1883, aged eleven) – are buried here, and possibly also my great-grandfather’s mother, Reyza Kaplan, who is said to have died of grief in 1902, upon hearing of the death in Scotland of her eldest son. I had a mental image of my great-great grandparents, Hirsch and Bune Fayn, coming to the cemetery in October 1902 to have a final look at the graves of their two youngest children (and of Hirsch’s sister Reyza), prior to their emigration to Scotland.

Reflecting back on my visit, I have mixed feelings. I am happy that I can now visualise Kedainiai, and I feel I have learned a lot about this town where my ancestors once walked. I am especially pleased that there was once a time when Jews and Scots mixed freely in Kedainiai, but I am sad to think of how a once great Jewish community met its destruction in 1941.


Shmuel Spector,ed,”The Encyclopedia of Jewish Life Before and During the Holocaust”, New York University Press, 2001;p613
Rimantas Zirgulis: "The Scottish Community in Kedainiai c1630-c1750" in: Alexia Grosjean & Steve Murdoch (eds): Scottish Communities Abroad in the Early Modern Period (Brill, Leiden, 2005), pp225 etseq]

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