Rietavas (Riteve in Yiddish) is located in northwestern Lithuania along the banks of the Jura River, near the Kaunas-Klaipeda road. Riteve is first mentioned in historical documents dating from 1253. The town was owned by the Great Prince of Lithuania from 1527. In 1590 King Zigmunt Vaza granted Riteve permission to hold two weekly market days and one annual fair. After 1767 the number of annual bazaars was increased to four. In 1792 the town obtained the Magdeburg Rights of self-rule.
Before 1795 Riteve was included in the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom. According to the third division of Poland the same year by the three superpowers of those times, Russia, Prussia and Austria, Lithuania was divided between Russia and Prussia. As was the case with most of Lithuania, Riteve became a part of the Russian Empire, first in the Vilna province (Gubernia) and from 1843 in the Kovno Gubernia.
From 1812 to 1909 the land of the town and the nearby estate was owned by
nobleman Oginsky's family. In 1892 the family built a power station on their
estate, and in 1909 Riteve became the first town in Lithuania to have
electricity. During the period of Independent Lithuania (1918-1940) Riteve was
a county administrative center. In 1915-1918 the town was under German
occupation and during World War II it was almost totally destroyed.
Jewish settlement until after World War I
Jews began to settle in Riteve in the second half of the sixteenth century. In 1662 the Jewish population was 421 (200 men, 201 women, 9 boys and 11 girls).
During the years of Va'ad Medinath Lita (1623-1764), Riteve was included in Galil Keidan.
Jews made their living in the small trades and peddling and were based mainly at the markets and fairs. For a long time, flax trade was the most important occupation for Jewish merchants. The town had tailors and shoemakers who worked very long hours to sustain their families.
In the 1870s a dispute broke out between landlord Oginsky and Jewish homeowners about rent for the land on which their homes were built. Most of the Jews were poor and could ill afford their rent. In retaliation Oginsky cleared out the Beth Midrash and herded pigs and cattle inside. Later, he converted the building into living quarters for his servants. Only after World War I, the heirs of the Oginsky family ordered demolition of the building and the return of the land to the Jews.
In the late 1880s many infants fell ill following their Brith Milah (ritual circumcision). It became obvious that the local Mohel was incompetent, and the Mohel from Plungyan was asked to replace him.
Most of the Jewish boys attended the Heder. Children from poor families studied at the Talmud Torah located in the attic of the Beth Midrash. Supporters of the Zionists brought in a teacher who opened up a Heder Metukan (Improved Heder), however only a few families sent their children to this school. Some of the Jewish girls studied at the Russian elementary school, but most of the boys were content with religious education. Twice a week a private teacher taught them to write Russian and Latin lettering.
The Hibath Zion movement had supporters in Riteve. In 1898 a society of Banoth Zion (Daughters of Zion) was formed. The women who belonged to this society promoted the Shekel and the stamps of Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael. Most of the Riteve Jews perceived members of this society as heretics. When Theodore Herzl died and the Zionists wanted to say Kadish in his memory at the synagogue, the public objected and the idea had to be abandoned.
The names of 89 Riteve Jews were included in three lists of contributors for the settlement of Eretz-Yisrael during the years 1898, 1899 and 1900, as published in the Hebrew newspaper HaMelitz, (see Appendix 2). The fundraisers were Elhanan Ahronson, Shemuel Zachs, Peretz Jochelson and G.H. Klenitsky. A delegate from Riteve participated in the conference of the Zionist Societies of Kovno and Suwalk Gubernias organized in the Kovno Gubernia during the fall of 1909. In 1891 Barukh Marcus from Riteve emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael. Some time later, he became the Rabbi in Haifa.
The list of contributors for victims of famine in Besarabia in 1909 includes names of 109 Riteve Jews. The Agudath Yisrael party had six contributors from Riteve in 1913.
At the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century many Riteve Jews emigrated to South Africa while others chose Eretz-Yisrael. Some later returned, having saved some money abroad.
During the drought in the summer of 1911 a fire broke out in the town destroying all of the wooden homes in the area.
Religious life centered around the synagogue and the Beth Midrash. Almost every Jew, if able, took part in evening Torah study groups offered by local societies.
Among the rabbis who served in Riteve were:
Naftali-Hertz (1783-1828), born in Riteve, had several books on Torah issues published in Warsaw and Vilna.
Avraham-Aharon Burshtein (1867-1926), served in Riteve for five years, emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1924, served as the head of the yeshiva Merkaz Harav in Jerusalem until his death. His son Aryeh was a journalist and general secretary of the Tseirei Zion party in Lithuania. His second son Reuven Barkat was the secretary of the Israeli Labor party and for some time the Israeli ambassador in Norway.
Yits'hak Eliyahu Gefen (?-1920), was head of a yeshivah in Slabodka before his term in Riteve.
|Rabbi Avraham-Aharon Burshtein|
According to the all-Russian census of 1897, 1,750 people lived in Riteve; 1,397 of them were Jewish (80%).
When World War I began a battalion of Cossacks arrived to defend the town against the Germans, but the Jews were the first to be attacked on the streets. In the spring of 1915 the German army occupied Riteve before the Russians were able to carry out the order to exile the Jews to Russia.
The Germans who controlled the town until 1918 introduced a Compulsory
Education Law, and all Jewish children went to the German school that had been
opened in the town. However, during the German occupation there were food
shortages and the youngsters were enlisted to carry out forced labor.
During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940)
After the war and the establishment of the independent Lithuanian state in 1918, the Jewish community in Riteve dwindled and so did its percentage of the total population. According to the first government census of 1923, the population of Riteve was 1,720 people, 868 of them Jewish (50%). Before the war the percentage was 80%, and after the war it had decreased to 50%.
Following the passage of the Law of Autonomies for Minorities by the new Lithuanian government, the Minister for Jewish Affairs, Dr. Menachem (Max) Soloveitshik, ordered elections to community committees (Va'adei Kehilah) to be held in the summer of 1919. In Riteve a Va'ad (community committee) was elected in 1919, despite the objections of different Gabaim. The committee worked for many years in all fields of Jewish life.
During the years when the currency was still the Ostmark, the town experienced economic prosperity. Merchants earned well but soon their funds were devalued, and when the Lithuanian Litas currency was introduced, the merchants were left with piles of worthless banknotes. Emigration intensified, and many Riteve Jews joined their relatives in South Africa. A few managed to obtain entry visas to America and to Eretz-Yisrael.
During that period, Riteve Jews worked in the trades and as skilled workers, while others engaged in agriculture by leasing orchards. Although many were tailors and shoemakers, there were also Jewish plasterers, carpenters and blacksmiths.
|A view of Riteve|
According to the government survey of 1931, Riteve had eighteen shops, fifteen of which belonged to Jews (83%) as shown below:
|Type of business||Total||Owned by Jews|
|Butcher's shops and cattle trade||2||2|
|Restaurants and taverns||2||2|
|Textile products and furs||7||7|
|Medicine and cosmetics||1||0|
|Sewing machines and electric equipment||1||1|
|Watchmakers and jewelers||2||2|
Jews also owned a flourmill, a sawmill, a barbershop, a photography shop and a leather factory. Two Jewish doctors and two midwives offered services to the townspeople.
In 1937, twenty-one skilled Jewish workers worked in Riteve: six butchers, three shoemakers, two bookbinders, two tailors, two milliners, two watchmakers, one glazier, one barber, one tinsmith and one photographer.
The Jewish Popular Bank (Folksbank) played an important role in the economic life of Riteve Jews. In 1927 the bank had 193 members, in 1935 the numbers had decreased to 150. In 1939, there were 41 telephone subscribers, 15 of them Jewish.
In the middle of the 1930s the economic situation of Riteve Jews gradually deteriorated because of open propaganda against Jewish stores by the Lithuanian Merchants' Association (Verslas). At a regional conference of the Association in January 1939 calls against Jewish parasites were heard, with public announcements urging the boycott of the Jewish shops. The rise of the Nazis in neighboring Germany and the deterioration of commercial relations with Lithuania aggravated the situation.
In 1919 the Hebrew school in Riteve was opened to students. Later the school affiliated to the Yavneh chain.
The land returned to the community by the Oginsky family housed a modern Talmud Torah building and the Rabbi's residence. The funding for these projects was provided by the Riteve-born Mr. Kroskal, who lived in Frankfurt-on-Main.
Almost all the students in the school were girls. Although the boys studied at the Talmud Torah (40 boys in 1935), later they would attend the local yeshivah (10 boys in 1935). Some of the young students continued their studies at the Telz Yeshivah or the Hebrew gymnasium. The community had a library of about 1,300 books in Hebrew and Yiddish. The library also served as a meeting place for youths. From time to time, amateur groups would perform shows there.
During this period the Zionist movement had many supporters in Riteve, particularly among the youth. All Zionist parties were active and their supporters and members took part in the elections for the Zionist Congresses, as follows:
|Total Votes||Labor Party
|21||1939||155||120||108||||5||||N. B. 7|||
Donations for Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael were often collected in the synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur, where a large table held in bowls for donations to different societies. In the school the Keren Kayemeth stamps and the Blue Box were promoted. Fundraising for Keren HaYesod was organized once a year following the election for an emissary from the center in Kovno. During all these years the local fundraiser was Eliezer Prisman.
Among the Zionist youth organizations the most active were HaShomer HaTsair, HeHalutz and later also Beitar. Kibbutz Hakhsharah (Training Kibbutz) of HeHalutz was active for several years. A dozen Jewish youngsters from Riteve emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael. Sports activities were run by the local branch of Maccabi which had about 45 members.
The synagogue and the Beth Midrash were centers of religious life. The Beth Midrash also served as a learning center where almost all men would come in the evenings to study a chapter of the Mishnah, Ein Ya'akov or a page of the Gemara. The rabbi who served during this period (after 1926) was Shemuel Ponideler. In 1927 he emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael where he served as the director of a men's Kolel (a yeshivah community). In 1929 he returned to Riteve. He was murdered together with his community in the summer of 1941.
|Rabbi Shemuel Ponideler|
Welfare societies in Riteve, included Linath HaTsedek, whose members would stay overnight with sick people or watch their children during the day, Bikur Holim, which offered medical help, Hevrah Kadisha, Ma'oth Hitim and other societies.
See Appendix 1 for a partial list of well-known personages born in Riteve.
During World War II and afterwards
In June 1940 Lithuania was annexed to the Soviet Union, becoming a Soviet Republic. Under new regulations, the majority of factories and shops belonging to Jews in Riteve were nationalized, and commissars were appointed to manage them. All Zionist parties and youth organizations were disbanded. Hebrew educational institutions were closed. Supply of goods decreased; as a result, prices soared. The middle class, mostly Jewish, bore the brunt, and the standard of living dropped gradually. At this time about 500 Jews still resided in the town.
With the invasion of the German army into the territory of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, Riteve Jews left the town looking for shelter in the neighboring villages. The next day the Germans entered the town. After heavy fighting with the retreating Russian army, fires broke out. The Lithuanian nationalists immediately organized and took over the town. In a short time they issued an order for all Jews to return to their homes. The order also caused the confiscation of property of any Lithuanian peasant who hid a Jew. The returning Jews found their houses burnt down. The majority of Jewish people were herded into animal stalls on Lithuanian peasants' farms and forced to sleep together with the cattle on layers of manure that covered the ground. Every day a few Germans and the Lithuanian guards would victimize the men, they made them run in a circle and sing while they themselves were bashing them with wooden bars. On July 1, all the Jews were transferred to another place where they were crowded into one building. The Lithuanian guards did not allow food, and the Jews were starving. A few times they were given moldy bread and herring left in storage by the Red Army. The starving people ate the food and became sick with diarrhea. The men were forced to clean toilets and streets. Women worked in laundries and washed the floors of the Lithuanian guards.
One day a Lithuanian guard murdered four Jewish young men suspected of being communists: Felix Radiskansky (aged 20), Heshel Gerber (29), and Nachman Smalle were executed by firing squad.
Thefts of clothing and valuables became a daily event. During the first days of the German occupation, when Jews worked at the Oginsky estate, Lithuanians harnessed Rabbi Shemuel Ponideler to a cart and forced him to pull, while they lashed him with whips. The rabbi succumbed to a heart attack and died shortly afterwards.
Later, Jews were threatened again, ordered to hand over money, gold and silver jewelry as well as other valuables to the guards. The frail elderly and the sick were transferred by carts to Telz together with their belongings. Others traveled 40 kilometers to Telz by foot in two and a half days. The Lithuanian guards escorting the walking convoy were even more cruel than their Germans counterparts. Riteve Jews were brought to the Rainiai camp where Telz Jews had already gathered. From there, all were transferred to the Viesvenai estate, about four kilometers from Rainiai. Jewish men, women and children from Vorne (Varniai), Tver (Tverai), Naveran (Nevarenai), Zharan (Zarenai), Alsiad (Alsedziai), along with women and children from Loikeve (Laukuva) were brought to this place. In Viesvenai they were forced to stay in five barns. The hunger, lice and filth were unbearable. The women were taken to work at the local farms, and the men were victimized by Lithuanians who forced them to perform so called gymnastics. During the torture several Jews died or were shot.
On July 15, 1941, just before dusk, a truck with armed Lithuanians and a few Germans arrived at the camp. They led the 13-year-old boys to a nearby grove and murdered them. The next day they took older children and murdered them at the same place. The clothes of the victims were brought to the yard of the camp to be sorted. The women forced to sort the clothes recognized the belongings of their own loved ones, and found their documents and photos scattered near piles of clothing.
|The mass grave near Viesvenai|
|The mass grave in Geruliai|
On August 29, 1941 all the surviving women and children were transferred to the Geruliai camp where other women and children from Telz were held. On Shabbath, August 30 (7th of Elul, 5701) all were murdered. A few women survived, hidden by Lithuanian peasants. Several managed to make their way to the Shavl ghetto.
The ringleaders among the Lithuanian murderers were Stasys Ramaskis, Kazis Ramaskis, Olis Jokubaitis and others.
According to Soviet sources a mass grave with about forty families was found about two kilometers from the Viesvenai estate.
At the Holocaust Cellar on Mount Zion in Jerusalem a memorial plaque for the Riteve community was erected. At the Martyrs Forest on the Jerusalem Hills there is a grove of trees in memory of Riteve community.
Yad Vashem archives, Jerusalem, M-1/Q-1322/136; M-1/E-1694/1562; M-9/15(6); Koniukhovsky collection 0-71, files 36, 37
Kamzon Y.D., Yahaduth Lita, page 60
Rituva Yizkor Book. Published by the Association of Former Rituva Jews in Israel, Tel Aviv, 1975
Yiddishe Shtime, Los Angeles, 25.7.1941; 8.1.1943; 26.2.1943; 4.6.1943; 6.8.1943; 14.7.1944; 11.8.1944; 25.8.1944; 15.12.1944; 12.1.1945
Einikait (Unity) (Yiddish), New York, December 1944
Di Yiddishe Shtime, Kovno, 13.5.1923; 22.5.1935; 29.7.1936; 24.7.1938; 24.1.1939
HaMelitz, St. Petersburg, 30.10.1878; 25.7.1879; 21.10.1879; 12.7.1881; 25.6.1883; 18.2.1888; 25.8.1889
Folksblat, Kovno, 23.12.1935
Naujienos, Chicago, (Lithuanian) 11.6.1949
Zemaitis; Plungyan county newspaper (Lithuanian), 24.6.1992
Saulute; Plungyan county weekly (Lithuanian), 20-27.11.1922
A partial list of personages born in Riteve
Ze'ev Volf Avrekh (1845-1922), Yeshivah head in several towns of Lithuania.
Aharon-Shelomoh Zalmanovitz (1870-1941), was rabbi in several towns of Lithuania, in 1924 emigrated to Canada and was rabbi in Montreal till his death.
Barukh Markus (1870-1961), established and directed the yeshivah Or Hadash in Jerusalem for fourteen years together with Haim Zonenfeld. In 1906 settled in Haifa and was rabbi in the town for fifty five years. He was member of the Head Rabbinate Council.
Getsel (Georg) Zelikovitz (1863-1926), orientalist and researcher, lecturer of Egyptology at the University of Pennsylvania, published books and articles in different languages in the Jewish press in Russia and America.
Menahem-Mendel Serhey (18?? – 19??), a learned man and doctor in Riga, published a famous book on the laws on the Milah (Circumcision).
Aharon Ben Zion Shurin (1913-?), Rabbi in New York and Brooklyn, published many articles in Hebrew and Yiddish in the religious press and in the Yiddish newspaper Jewish Daily Forward.
Gavriel Grad (1890-1951), a music teacher in Kovno who emigrated to Eretz-Yisrael in 1926 and composed more than 500 musical compositions, 160 of which were published. He also composed melodies to many Hebrew songs and a few operas. He excelled as a musical educator in Israel.
List of 89 Riteve donors for the Settlement of Eretz Yisrael as published in HaMelitz
(from JewishGen>Databases>Lithuania>Hamelitz by Jeffrey Maynard)
|BORSHTEIN||Avraham Aharon||Rabbi Gaon ABD||#132||1898|
|BRITZ||Leib husband of Tzerna Friedman||#173||1898|
|FRIEDMAN||Moshe Zev brother of Yakov Dovid & Tzerna||wed||#173||1898|
|FRIEDMAN||Tzerna sister of Y D & M Z wife of Leib Britz||wed||#173||1898|
|FRIEDMAN||Yakov Dovid brother of Moshe Zev & Tzerna||#173||1898|
|KAPLAN||Yakov||has brother in Africa||#56||1899|
|MAWSHOWITZ||Yosef ben Yehuda Leib||#56||1899|
|MISHUB||Yosef ben Dovid||#121||1900|
The above article is an excerpt from Protecting Our Litvak Heritage by Josef Rosin. The book contains this article along with many others, plus an extensive description of the Litvak Jewish community in Lithuania that provides an excellent context to understand the above article. Click here to see where to obtain the book.
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