Keidan Memorial Book

"Sefer Zichron" / Yizkor Book

Published by the Keidan Association in Israel,
with the participation of the Committees in South Africa and in the USA
Tel Aviv, 1977

 

Memories of Hashomer Hatzair Keidan

Abba Jonah Golden (Golani)

Yizkor Book pp 79-83; translated by Miriam Erez, 2012

 

In 1923, I joined the [Boy] Scouts, founded by Lord [Robert] Baden-Powell, whose activity centered around games and summer camp. The Scouts attracted most of the Hanoar Halomed [Jewish labor youth movement members] at the time. In 1924, the Scout troop became a Hashomer Hatzair ken [branch, literally “nest”], after which its character changed entirely. Back then, Hashomer Hatzair tied its fate to Zionism and of course to the Land of Israel, emphasizing Jewish education in the Diaspora to aid the Zionist movement and to build the Land.

The Jewish National Fund was one of the Zionist movement’s tools, and our ken was one of those that devoted itself to raising money therefor. For instance, we went around emptying blue boxes; on Rosh Hashanah Eve we organized “internal mail” for sending New Year’s greetings; on Yom Kippur Eve, we’d sit in the synagogue with collection bowls; and at various events, we’d show up and collect money for the JNF. We also earned money baking matzah, and donated our earnings to the JNF.

In addition, we took an active part in Poalei Agudat Israel [labor association] and Hapoel [sports association], and initiated one other very important activity, for which we won recognition and commendation from everyone in town. It was done by the senior members of the ken, who “adopted” the Keidan orphanage. Night and day, nearly around the clock, a ken member was at the orphanage: We took the orphans on hikes, sang with them, held discussions, led scouting activities for them, and tried every way we could to make their lives pleasant and alleviate their suffering.

Meanwhile, ken life became more and more tied to the Land of Israel. Instead of Scout songs, we began singing songs of the Land that we learned from the shlichìm [emissaries] who would come and impart not only the songs, but the entire experience of the Land of Israel.

Hanoar Halomèd members became more and more attracted to Hashomer Hatzair. Our ken had a quite nice official meeting place, and we participated in all citywide events, wearing our official movement shirts. In the summer, we’d march through the streets on our way to camp, wearing our shirts, carrying our gear, singing and drumming. The Jews of Keidan held us in high esteem.

Next door to the ken was the headquarters of the Aid Committee, on which many of our parents and teachers served, headed by Pèsach Weitzer-Chitìn and our teachers Hannah Landsberg, Lis, and Poritz, may they rest in peace. The committee represented the ken to the authorities and to the Jewish institutions in town.

Over time, the ken decided that it wasn’t enough to collect money for the JNF, but that Hashomer Hatzair must join the movement to make aliya and build the Land. It was decided that the entire senior class “go all the way” in realizing their ideology, i.e., go to an agricultural training farm to prepare for aliya to Palestine and form Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim there. In 1925, training groups began forming around Keidan, in which the seniors took an active role. On Saturdays, we would visit them at the farms.

The first Zionist pioneering farm in Lithuania was located in Pelednagiai, four kilometers south of Keidan, aided in large part by Shabtiel Deitsch of UIA (United Israel Appeal) Lithuania. Over time, the farm moved to Kybartai-Vilkaviskis, in southwest Lithuania, on the Russian border, and was called Kibush There, hundreds of pioneers from Lithuania readied themselves for aliya.

Meanwhile, the Keidan ken grew and needed money for upkeep of its meeting space and other expenses. Because many Jews in Keidan grew cucumbers and needed nighttime guards for their cucumber plots during harvest, we persuaded some of them to hire us. We guarded in pairs: one pair worked until midnight, then was switched by another pair from midnight until morning. In addition, it was important to us (the seniors) to get used to nighttime guarding and ready our growing bodies for the challenges of aliya.

Despite the cucumber farmers’ misgivings, we managed to prove to them that we could do successfully what until then no Jewish youth had dared, i.e., guard fields at night in a hostile, Christian environment.

An important ritual for the seniors was the shared breakfast in the bosom of nature, outside of town. The initiator and the spirit behind this event was Reuven Blumson-Shemi. We would gather at dawn, each having brought his or her own food and cooking utensils, cross the bridge over the Smilga, and gather in a little grove, where we’d cook and eat our breakfast together — the early buds of kibbutz life. And it was understood that the meal was accompanied by singing songs of the Land of Israel.

Volodka runs away from home

At this point I’ll tell about one of those who went to a training farm. It was summer 1930. I was in the senior class that was due to go for training. In our group was a fellow named Volodka Funt, who had moved to Keidan with his father and two sisters. The Funts were quite assimilated, and far removed from Judaism and Zionism. Volodka’s father was a dentist, and all his friends were [Christian] police officers and public servants. Volodka showed up at the ken and told us that he’d been a member of Hashomer Hatzair in Poland and wanted to join up in Keidan. He was devoted to Hashomer Hatzair and active in the ken, besides which he was nice-looking and played the harmonica. When it came time for him go to the farm, he told his father, who was dead-set against it and threatened to prevent us all from going. Volodka told us this, and asked for our help.

At the time, Tzemach Berger-Harari, may he rest in peace, was the head of our ken. We began hearing from other kens in Lithuania that other parents opposed their children going to training. We asked ourselves, “Why not help Volodka run away from home?” We asked him if that was what he wanted to do, and he said he did. We told him to behave as if he’d decided not to go, so his family wouldn’t come after him.

Then Tzemach and I met to plan Volodka’s escape down to the last detail. One thing we knew for certain: There was no room for failure here. Everything had to be planned meticulously, secretly, and precisely. First, we found a training farm in the port city of Memel / Klaipeda, in the east of Lithuania far from Keidan, that agreed to accept Volodka. Second, we began following the Funt family’s routine and movements, so we could figure out how to get Volodka on the train to Memel. After a few evenings of this, we made a plan:

1.       We set a time for the escape on Saturday night, when Volodka’s father would go to his card game with his police friends.

2.       We found out that the train to Memel would pass through Keidan at 2 a.m., stop again at Dotnuva, 10 kilometers northwest of Keidan, then continue on to Memel.

3.       The train from Dotnuva to Keidan, on which Tzemach and I planned to return home, would pass through Dotnuva at 4 a.m.

We planned to execute the escape right after Volodka’s father and sisters were to leave the house on Saturday night, walk to Dotnuva, put Volodka on the train to Memel, and return to Keidan that night without anyone knowing we’d been gone. We instructed Volodka to pack a knapsack with some clothing, and I’d bring him food for the journey.

The Funts lived on Keidan’s main street, opposite the cinema. On Saturday night, at the agreed-upon time, I waited with Tzemach next to the cinema. After Volodka’s father and sisters left the house, Volodka threw his knapsack out the side window of his house and came downstairs. When I’d caught the knapsack, I ducked into an alley that led to Smilga Street, where Volodka and Tzemach met me a short while later. And that’s where our first glitch occurred: Volodka had a dog, and when Volodka left his house, his dog followed him. We began hurrying through the alley, the dog at our heels; when we reached Smilga Street, we decided to get rid of the dog. Tzemach stayed in the alley and began throwing rocks at the dog, while Volodka and I continued along Smilga Street and the military compound on our way to Dotnuva. After he’d managed to get rid of the dog, Tzemach caught up with us at the bridge. The three of us kept walking, taking care not to be seen by anyone. We crossed the bridge, and a few minutes later, we were on our way to Dotnuva. We began to run, to put more distance between ourselves and Keidan, in order to minimize the chances that someone would notice our absence and come looking for us.

We alternately ran and rested for four kilometers, at which point we decided to stop for a break. It was pitch dark, and while it was the first time in our lives that we’d been out in the forest at night, our success in smuggling Volodka out of town without anyone’s knowledge encouraged us.

Back at the Funt house, though, things were different, as we found out later. When Volodka had packed, he’d been in a hurry, and in his haste he’d left his closet door open and a pair of socks on the floor. One of his sisters, who had come back home for something she’d forgotten, sensed that something was amiss, and immediately told her father, who was playing cards with the town major. At Dr. Funt’s request, the town major took a coach and a few mounted police, and came after us.

Just at that time, as we were resting at the side of the road and were getting ready to continue on our way, we heard horses’ hooves approaching. We immediately got off the road, ducked into a grove, and lay down in the moss. The coach and police stopped not far away. The stillness of the night enabled us to hear what they were saying. We immediately identified Dr. Funt’s voice, as well as that of the police officer. After they explored the area, we heard the officer say to Dr. Funt, “They couldn’t have gotten this far. Let’s go to the train.” We breathed a sigh of relief.

When they’d put some distance between us, we got up and left the grove. Volodka said, “We’re lucky my father didn’t take the dog along. He would have found me right away.” We again began running toward Dotnuva. We knew they were coming after us, and we knew we had to be extra cautious in order not to be discovered. An hour later, we reached Dotnuva. We took separate routes through town and met up near the train station, about an hour before the train was due to arrive. While Volodka and I hid nearby, Tzemach bought a ticket to Memel for Volodka; when he returned, I went and bought two tickets to Keidan for Tzemach and myself. We alighted the platform separately, me holding the knapsack.

When the train arrived, I handed the knapsack to Volodka. We said our goodbyes quietly, Volodka boarded the train, and with that the story of the escape ended — for Volodka. But not for Tzemach and I. We returned to Keidan on the next train, just as it began to get light. We decided to scan the platform carefully before alighting. As the train slowed down and came to a stop, we “saw black”: On the platform stood Dr. Funt with the dog, police, and the station detective. We immediately crouched down so they wouldn’t see us, then got out on the other side, where fortunately a freight train was parked. We crawled underneath it and out into the park, through which we reached town without being seen. At the edge of town we parted, and each went home.

The entire way home, it ate at me: Does my family already know about Volodka’s running away? Near home, I ran into my mother (may she rest in peace) at the bakery. From her ordinary greeting, I realized that she knew nothing.

Our house was something of a locus of activity of the Hashomer Hatzair ken and of Hechalutz Hatzair, in which my brother Shmulik (may he rest in peace) was active. Because of this, my mother was used to my occasionally sleeping over at others’ homes or visiting training groups in nearby towns, or busy preparing for summer camp. So she never suspected anything was up.

At that time, I worked at Movshovitz & Kagan Printers, and I had to get to work on time. Just to be on the safe side, so as not to arouse any suspicion, I asked my mother to wake me up in an hour, and I made it to work on time. By the time I arrived, everyone there already knew about Volodka’s running away, although they didn’t suspect that I was involved.

One thing that concerned us about Volodka’s running away was the reaction in the “Jewish street.” How would our parents and the Aid Committee react? How would the other young people react? Nothing like this had ever happened before in Keidan. Tzemach and I had great misgivings about how it would affect the ken. 

To our surprise, the Jewish street welcomed our operation openly; after all, we’d shown the assimilated Dr. Funt what Zionist youth are, particularly as no one knew exactly who had been in on it. The police were never able to track down the source.

Yet that afternoon when I got home, my mother took me aside and whispered, “It was you — Tzemke and you planned it all this time. You had to specifically mess with an assimilated Jew: The entire police force is aligned with him. They’ll catch up with you.” I smiled and replied, “No one will ever know who did it and how. There’s no need to speak of it.” Mother returned my smile and indeed never spoke of it again.

Meanwhile, Volodka wrote his family that he was healthy and doing well, and asked his father to forgive him and not to blame anyone. He explained he had been compelled to take this step, and told them the decision had been his alone. With time it was forgotten, and even Volodka’s father reconciled himself to it. And that’s how we helped one of our own fulfill his dream of going to the training farm and making aliya to Palestine.

In the meantime, the ken’s credibility rose higher and higher. In 1931, I went on training, and in 1932, I left for Palestine and joined a Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz that began in Petach Tikva and today is Beit Zera. In 1935, my parents came to Palestine and our house in Keidan, which was taken over by my brother-in-law David Prusak, continued to be the locus of the Keidan ken. David’s son, Yosef Prusak (may he rest in peace) was the ken leader until the terrible day on which the Jews of Keidan were murdered in cold blood by the Lithuanians. At that time the head of the community went to the rabbi, Sh. Feinsilber, may he rest in peace, along with my brother-in-law David, who had served as the rabbi’s secretary throughout his term: In life and in death, they were inseparable.

I want to add a few words here: My scouting and Hashomer Hatzair training, as well as my agricultural training, ended up being very valuable, testimony to which are the dozens of Keidan ken members spread throughout Hashomer Hatzair kibbutzim all over Israel. When I recall Keidan today, the Jewish youth there and the now-destroyed community, I see before my very eyes three Jewish teenagers racing through the night to fulfill their dreams of going to the Land of Israel.

— Keidan / Beit Zera




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