|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,
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:
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!
“…in the second half of the 17th century,
a particularly Scottish
oligarchy existed in Kedainiai…”
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
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]