“Rokishok” - Encyclopedia of Jewish
Communities in Lithuania
(Lithuania)

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Translation of “Rokishok” chapter from
Pinkas Hakehillot Lita

Written by Raphael Julius

Published byYad Vashem

Published in Jerusalem, 1996


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Acknowledgments

Project Coordinator

Translations

 
Haim Pogrund
 

Our sincere appreciation to Yad Vashem
for permission to put this material on the JewishGen web site.

This is a translation from: Pinkas Hakehillot Lita: Encyclopedia of Jewish Communities, Lithuania,
Editor: Prof. Dov Levin, Assistant Editor: Josef Rosin, published by Yad Vashem, Jerusalem.


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(Pages 646 - 653)

Written by Raphael Julius

Translated by Haim Pogrund

Rokiskis

(in Yiddish, Rakishok), (in Russian, Rokishki.)

by Raphael Julius

Provincial town in NE Lithuania.

YearTotal
Population
JewsPercent
1824200 " "
1847"593"
1859460""
18972736 2067 75
191438293000 app78 app
19155000 app"45 app
19234325201346.5
19399000 app3500 app40

The town of Rokishok is situated on both sides of the Laukipe River, twenty-two k. from the Latvian border, and three k. from the railway line connecting Dvinsk, Laifaia, and Riga in Latvia with Ponevez, Shavli, and Kovno in Lithuania. Because of the distance from Kovno Rokishok was called "Kamchatke".

The earliest reference to Rokishok by this name is found in records dating back to 1499 and belonged to the noble family of Kroshinski and later to the Count Tizenhaus. In 1780 Rokishok passed into the hands of the Pashdiatzki family. The business manager of this family opened connections with the Jews in the vicinity, and invited them to settle in the area.

In the nineteenth century Rokishok changed from a country seat to the provincial center. A large market, which opened on Mondays, led to the expansion of economic ties from the town. In 1824 there were 28 houses in the town, and in 1825 more than 200 inhabitants were living there, the majority being tradesmen, while others were businessmen. By 1859, the numbers had doubled, beer being manufactured, flour mills, built and operated by wind and water, while woodcutting, a hotel, and an old people's home were established. In addition to the weekly markets, an annual trade fair was incepted. A hospital was opened in the middle of the nineteenth century, while in the second half, the town expanded rapidly, following the creation of a direct rail link in 1873. As a result of this wood exports increased tremendously as did that of wheat and linen. The town became the agricultural business hub of the district. The linen trade was especially successful with exports to foreign countries including Holland and England via Riga.

By 1885 there were 187 houses in Rokishok. In 1908 the town boasted 100 shops mostly owned by Jews. A music school was created in the Tizenhaus mansion.

Until the First World War Rokishok was a county capitol in the Novaleksandrovsk (Zarasai) Province. During the German occupation (1915-1918) Rokishok became the provincial capitol. When the Germans departed they burnt the railway station. On 13 December 1918, a Soviet government was installed which lasted until June 1919. Even during the period of an independent Lithuania after 1920 Rokishok retained its urban rights as well as its status as the provincial capitol and continued to flourish. Roads and alleys were paved and sidewalks were completed. The number of houses increased and in 1923 there were 29 streets with a total length of 10 k., 551 houses (of which 48 were of stone. There was a power station, three flour mills, a woodcutting mill, a dairy, a factory for starch production, a metal working factory, a hospital with 65 beds, and two pharmacies. The town boasted ten doctors. In 1918 a progymnasium was established which in 1919 became a full-fledged gymnasium (high school.)

The Jewish Settlement until the Second World War in Rokishok

According to local tradition, the Jewish settlement was originally a half kilometer from the present site, but was moved to its present position because of a tragic circumstance which involved the local countess by name Ishevna, her business manager, his son, and the son of a Jewish tailor, who was an only child. Due to an argument between the children in 1730, the countess, who hated Jews, decreed that when the Jewish boy marries, he and his bride should be burned on their wedding day. The Jews boycotted the place and moved their settlement some distance away. This place, became the cemetery of Rokishok. Once there was the threat of a pogrom against the Jews, many of whom heeded the advice of the local police chief and left the town. The wealthy members of the community hid their valuables as well as the Sifrei Torah of the community in the cellar of the home of the local priest, but the Cossacks discovered the hiding place as a result of information from the priest's servants, and stole the valuables and desecrated the Sifrei Torah.

In January 1885 a local farmer murdered a Jew named Zelig Krok while robbing him of three hundred rubles. The murderer was found and convicted and ordered to be deported to Siberia for seventeen years with hard labour. In addition, he was ordered to pay the widow one thousand rubles in compensation. In 1889 a Bikkur Holim Society was established and one of its first tasks was to aid victims of the cholera epidemic in the early nineties. In 1905 Hillel Idelson set up a loan fund which later became a bank. He also established a merchant bank. In 1906 a society for assistance to the poor was incepted. During the First World War many of the Jews moved to Russia. Those who remained suffered from restriction of movement, confiscations and forced labor, which was imposed upon them by the Germans.

At the end of the war a number of the Jews returned and amongst them were some from the surrounding districts. With the help of the JOINT and the People's bank in the form of a merchant company, (established in 1923 for the purposes of mutual loans, and which had 466 members, and in 1929, 357,) as well as relatives from abroad, the Jews rebuilt their homes and their businesses. This period was noted for rapid development and building projects. At the same time, many Lithuanians from the surrounding villages settled in Rokishok Many businesses were opened, (before the war there were only three shops owned by non Jews), as well as Lithuanian cooperatives. Lithuanian tradesmen and merchants came to the town, and one opened a shop for metal implements.

Most of the Jews made a living from small businesses and peddling. On market days they used to buy linen, beef, poultry, eggs and other agricultural crops from the local farmers, and sold them groceries, cloth, machines, and haberdashery. In Rokishok there were a number of prominent merchants who controlled the trade in linen, grain, and cattle. Others had wholesale businesses in metal goods, textiles, agricultural machinery and so on. Before the First World War the merchants imported their goods from Dvinsk. During the period of independent Lithuania (1918-1940), after the contact with Dvinsk stopped because of the creation of independent Baltic states, trade was done with Ponevez, Shavel, and Kovno.

After a number of years of development and building, a depression set in for the Jews. The reasons were the nationalization in trade of linen and grain, competition from the Lithuanian cooperatives, the burden of taxation and boycotting of tradesmen and Jewish merchants. Amongst others, a Catholic bank (or cooperative) was set up in order to undermine Jewish trade. Lithuanian merchants sold goods at especially low prices and caused substantial damage to Jewish tradesmen. This was done with the support and clandestine encouragement of the local government. After the Catholic bank went bankrupt, it burnt down and the Jews were blamed. In 1925, there was a wave of bankruptcies of Jews, and many emigrated to South Africa and the U.S. Some went to Israel (in 1929-1930).

According to a government survey in 1931 there were 177 businesses in Rokishok Eighty- nine (76% were Jewish owned) as follows:

Type of BusinessTotal Jewish
owned
Grocery54
Grain and Linen 1514
Butcheries and stock 1210
Restaurants and Bars 114
Foodstuffs 1211
Liquor11
Milk and Dairies 10
Clothing, furs and textiles 1311
Skins and shoes1010
Haberdashery and household goods87
Drugs and cosmetics42
Radios, bicycles & sewing machines33
Tools and Hardware 32
Building materials, wood, and furniture30
Heating materials11
Paper, books and writing materials40
Miscellaneous119

According to the same survey there were 33 light industries in Rokishok, of which 26 (79%) belonged to Jews as follows:

Type of BusinessTotalJewish
owned
Metalwork, machinery and body work52
Tombstones, glass and bricks21
Chemical works: Soap and oils 22
Textiles, wool, linen and knitwear22
Woodworking and sawmills 11
Paper industries: printing and binding1 1
Food industries: flour mills, bakeries, liquor
and sweetmeats
98
Clothing and footwear, needlework5 3
Leather industries, manufacture
and tanning, felt making
33
Barbers and pig bristle preparation 33

In 1933 there were 101 Jewish tradesmen: 33 shoemakers and leather stitchers, 24 butchers, 16 tailors and dressmakers, 7 metalworkers, three bakers, three barbers, three leatherworkers, 2 milliners, 2 knitters, 2 painters, 2 watchmakers, one carpenter, one photographer and two others.

A few hundred Jews made a living from small businesses -- tanning, flour milling, sausage making, metal casting, as well as from a factory for sweets and saccharine, a workshop for agricultural machinery, a wood mill, and an a power station. A number of Jews were porters and and waggoners. Also under Jewish ownership were two hotels, two photography shops and the cinema. Almost all the doctors and pharmacists in Rokishok were Jews. Although Rokishok developed rapidly, the Jews had stiff competition from the Lithuanians who were supported by the local authorities. In 1939, there were 130 telephones in Rokishok, 40 belonging to Jews.

The majority of Jews in Rokishok were Hassidim (Lubavitch, Bobroisk, and Lade.) Rokishok was one of the few places in Lita where there was a center for Hassidut Habad. The rabbi of Lade passed through Rokishok after his release from jail in Russia. Before the First World War there were two rabbis in Rokishok, one for the Hassidim and the other for the Mitnagdim, and two ritual slaughterers. One of these was a great scholar and a Talmud chaham. In February 1931, many visitors came to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe who was then visiting the town.

In the main street there were three Batei Midrash, all belonging to Habad: The yellow Beit Hamidrash was for the scholars, the green was for property owners, and the red, which was the biggest, for the common people. (These colors were those of the national flag of Lita), and in all of them Shiurim (studies) were held. The synagogue was at the edge of the town. Additional houses of worship were at the Talmud Torah of Rabbi Dober Zelkind, the Zionist Forum which gathered on festivals, and a Minyan of youths which gathered throughout the year.

Before the First World War, most of the education was in Heders or yeshivot. A few of the youth studied in the Russian gymansium. In 1910, a private progymnasium for girls was established (of the Misses Gurevitch and Rabinovitch.) During the period of independent Lita there was a Yeshiva and a smaller one (of Rabbi Moshe Siderer,) where local youths also studied. An elementary school belonging to the Tarbut group( where 200 pupils studied, a school belonging to the Yavne group, and a Hebrew Progymnasium, where forty pupils studied, were also established. Pupils were accepted to the first three grades of the Hebrew Progymnasium. Children from other shtetlach enjoyed substantial reductions in tuition fees here. Quite a number of Jewish boys studied at the Lithuanian Gymnasium. In Rokishok there was also a library, and a drama club.

Rokishok had a very vibrant political life. In 1905 there was activity in the Revolutionary underground which distributed pamphlets and organized demonstrations against the regime of the Czar. In 1921 a communal committee was formed according to the constitution for the autonomy of the Jews which independent Lita had created . It comprised fifteen members, four General Zionists, seven from Achdut, and four Poalim. The committee dealt with taxes as well as the maintenance of educational and charitable bodies. After the committee was disbanded, these functions were performed by private companies and societies.

At the beginning of the period of independent Lita, two Jews were appointed deputies to the mayor of the town at different times, (Itzhak Serber, and Wolpert.) In 1921, seven Jews were elected to the town council, which comprised fourteen members. At that time the Mayor and his deputy were Jews. The Jewish faction on the council cooperated with the progressives. In 1931, five Jews and seven Lithuanians were elected to the council.

Amongst the communal institutions were Linat Zedek, Bikkur Holim, an orphanage for forty boys and girls (under the management of Hannah Shadur), and a Society of Pious Women that nursed the sick, aiding the poor, as well as bankrupts. In the summer of 1928, the Central Helping Committee distributed money to help the needy. The committee allocated 3800 Lit. as non -interest loans. The distribution of the money was undertaken by the local branch of the Jewish Peoples bank, which created a special committee for that purpose. One of the topics discussed by the central committee was how best to organize the charitable works. A local philanthropist, Hanoch Chmelnik, donated for this purpose 5000 Lit. which was also distributed by the People's Bank. The bank distributed sums of 200 Lit for three months to 300 Lit. for six days. The capital sum was held by the bank in trust for a period of one year. In recognition of the significant contribution of Hanoch Chmelnik, the management of the bank decided to call the fund by the name of Hanoch and Dvora (his wife) Chmelnik.

An American millionaire philanthropist by name Abraham Shapiro who stemmed from Radute, a nearby town, visited Rokishok and on his return to the US sent nineteen boxes of clothing and shoes to be distributed to the needy, both Jewish and non Jewish. He also requested to be involved in the construction of an old people's home and donated $500.00 for this purpose. Although the Rokishok town council hesitated to accept this donation for the intended purpose, the Jewish subcommittee established for this purpose, decided to use it for the building of a Mikve (ritual bath) instead.

During the thirties, branches of various General Zionist Movements including Zadik Zadik, Zadik Samech Jugend Verband, and Maccabi, which had 128 members and 'Ha' Poel were active. There were two libraries and a reading room. In one library, belonging to the Liebhaber fun Wissen (Seeker of Knowledge), there were housed six hundred volumes, with only fifty readers. In the second library, belonging to the Zadik Samech Jugend Verband, there were housed only three hundred volumes with an even smaller reading public. In the mid thirties a literary trial took place for the first time in Rokishok by Zadik Samech. Besides the Zionist movements in Rokishok there was a branch of the Yiddish Culture League as well as leftist organizations. In addition, the religious organizations had branches- Tiferet Bachurim, Young Mizrachi, Agudath Yisroel, and Young Agudath Yisroel. All the religious movements supported the settlement of Eretz Israel. In 1935 a town Kibbutz-Yavneh was active. In addition to the above, all the youth movements which were to be found in Lita were represented in Rokishok, e.g. Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonia, and Betar

In the agricultural market of March 1921 anti-Semitic pamphlets appeared, calling for Lithuanians to come out against the Jews. In April 1921, stones were thrown at Jews, windows were smashed and Jews were beaten. In October 1931 the opening of the Hebrew Gymnasium and the setting up of the Independence Monument were celebrated. The Lithuanian minister of Defense praised the part taken by the Jews in the struggle for Lithuania.

During the elections for the nineteenth Zionist Congress in 1935, the Shtetl was the center of the civil uprising. The Jewish inhabitants who until then had lived peaceably with each other became enemies, as if they had no other problems such as earning a living, difficulties with the cotton monopoly, or indeed even being excluded from all sources of income.

On 19th June 1935 Yudel Mark, one of the leaders of the Lithuanian People's Party, appeared before the tradesmen's organization and urged them to set up a working committee to fight anti-Semitism which had reared up in Germany. The members of the organization asked for directives from Kovno.

Among the rabbis who served in Rokishok were: From the Mitnagdim, R. Eliahu Margaliot who had served previously in Radin), and his son, R. Isser (Asher), the son in law of R. Isser, R.Shmuel Levitan, the founder of a Yeshivah prior to the first world war. The Yeshiva was reestablished afterwards by R. Dobar Zelkind. Amongst the heads of the yeshiva was R. Klein, and the junior yeshiva was headed by R .Moshe Sidere. The last Rabbi of Rokishok was R. Zelig Orelowitz who perished in the Holocaust. Among the Hassidic Rabbis, R. Bezalel the son of Yosef Katz, of the Lubavitcher Hassidim who reached a good age and died at 96 years after he had worked at Rokishok for many years. His son in law R. Abraham Meyerowitz, a pupil of the Mir, Voloshen, and Slobodka Yeshivot and a founder of the Jewish People's Bank, went on to become the Rabbi of Abel in 1928.

Among the well known communal personalities were Hillel Edelson and his sister Hannah Shadur, Ch. Ersh, David Rosenstein (the school principal), his wife Yaffa Rosenstein-Kaplan, Pesach Rock, Harmatz, R. Dobar Zelkind, Moshe Westerman, and Avigdor Glombitzki, leaders of the Hebrew Scout Movement. Some famous personalities who were born in Rokishok included: The Chief Military Rabbi of Lita, R. Shmuel -Abba Snayeg, the industrialist Avraham Shapira who was mentioned previously, the journalist and writer Levi Shalit, the future Chief of the Soviet Airforce, Yaakov Shmushkevich, who was born in 1902. He joined the Communist Party in 1918 and was amongst the founders of the Soviet government in Rokishok. When Soviet domination came to an end he traveled to Russia where he took part in the Civil War. He graduated from the Senior Aviation College and in 1936 took part in the Spanish Civil War. He distinguished himself in air battles and became known as "General Douglas." He returned to Russia in 1937, became chief of the airforce and distinguished himself in battle against the Japanese. In 1940 he was arrested, and in October of 1941, executed. Joseph Harmatz was one of the activists in the Vilna Ghetto and a partisan, and eventually became the General Director of World Ort.

On the eve of World War Two there were about three thousand Jews in Rokishok, together with some hundreds of refugees from Poland. In June 1940 the Red Army occupied Lita and Rokishok came under Soviet control.

During the Soviet occupation (1940-1941) the authorities confiscated Jewish businesses and a number of shopkeepers and property owners such as Harmatz and Klingman fled to Russia. During this period a Yiddish speaking school was established to replace the Hebrew Cultural School. This school was founded with the help of 'The Volks Hilf', the parents committee, and the Communist Party. This institution managed to produce two graduate classes, in all, sixty pupils.

After the German occupation of Russia in June 1941, the Red Army managed to hold out in the town until Friday 27/6/41. Even up until the day before, the Russians were preparing an attack against the German army with the help of the Jewish youth. Weapons were distributed to the latter and they were positioned and ready for defense and attack (it was not without good reason that the Jews of Rokishok attained the nickname of 'The Rokishoker Tzimblers', in other words, ready to strike, or to be aggressive. However on Friday morning the Red Army departed, taking with it the local government and party operatives. The Jews realized what fate awaited them and many attempted to flee with the departing Red Army to Russia. At the Latvian border however, the Russian Border Guards prevented them from crossing, and the majority had little alternative but to return to their homes . The few that managed to cross, found refuge in Uzbekistan and other places in Central Asia. The more able enlisted into the Lithuanian division of the Red Army, which was founded at the end of 1941.

With the entry of the Nazis into Lita in June 1941 an armed and organized unit was formed in Northeast Lithuania, whose members were originally operatives in the Communist Party. Amongst them were many Jews from Rokishok. On 26th June, the unit attempted to push back the Lithuanian Nationalists who had infiltrated into the area (prior to the arrival of the Germans). About thirty members of the unit were killed and amongst them Yossel Shorper, a senior operative in the Communist party of Ponevezh. On the way to Rokishok, Lithuanian hooligans accosted the Jews and a number of the latter were killed. Others, continued the fight with their weapons and a number of combatants fell on both sides. The German army entered Rokishok on the evening of the same day but stopped in the middle of the town, because the official entry was supposed to have been on the following day, Shabbat, 28/6/41. The next day the Germans marched through the streets of the town and were welcomed with cries of joy and flowers.

Amongst those who returned to Rokishok from the border were many Jews from the surrounding towns. One of the first decrees issued by the Germans was for the expatriates to return to their places of origin and so, on 30 June 1941, all of the latter were expelled from the town.

The first Jewish victim to fall immediately after the entry of the Germans was Jacob Jacobson who watched the marching Germans from a window and was shot. On the return from the funeral of the latter, a second Jew by name of Katriel Shomer was shot and killed. This was the beginning of the suffering and humiliation, which awaited the Jews of Rokishok.

The Germans separated the men from the women and children and delegated work to each group. Many farmers arrived to obtain Jewish workers . It is probable the Jewish males were held in the stone stables of the Count Pashdiatzki. The women and the children until age eight years were gathered at Antanose, the holiday resort of the inhabitants of Rokishok, not far from the town. The Lithuanian Governor of the Rokishok area published a decree warning the farmers not to allow the Jews to be slack at their work and to curtail their movements.

Transgressors of the law were open to prosecution. The Lithuanian Nationalists who collaborated with the Germans, physically and cruelly maltreated the Jews and even shot them. For a short time a Judenrat functioned in Rokishok with Ozinkowitz and Jacob Kark at its head.

The Jewish males were shot to death on Friday and Saturday the 15th and 16th August 1941. (Chaf Beth and Chaf Gimmel of Av Tash''a.. They were assembled at a certain point and were even allowed to bring some personal belongings. They were then taken to a place five kilometers from Rokishok next to the village of Viziomka where three-meter deep pits had been prepared . They were ordered to half undress . The men were submissive. R. Zelig Orelowitz spoke to them and called upon them to die with heads held high and with 'Sheket Nafshi' for the Sanctification of the Name. The women started wailing. The Jews were forced to jump into the pits and were shot by the murderers who surrounded the pits. According to another witness the Jews were made to lie down in the pits in groups of one hundred. Whoever raised his head was immediately shot. Following this, the rest were machine- gunned. Between every layer of victims 20 to 30 cms. of sand was scattered, prior to bringing the next group. On the first day some thousands of men were killed. On Monday 25/8/41(Bet b'Ellul Tash''a ) the women, the elderly, and the children were killed; the number was about 2000. According to other evidence, this took place on 20th August. Besides the Jews of Rokishok, those from Abel, Suvinishok, Ponedel, Panemunek, Kamai, Raduta, and from surrounding smaller townlets were also killed. Doctor Gundelman poisoned his family and himself, and likewise did Ita Schwarzberg.

The one survivor, Rachel Zagai, happened to be in the Kovno Ghetto, and later received certification from the church that she was a gentile. With their help she drifted from village to village, later working in East Prussia . After the war she immigrated to Israel.

In the spring of 1944 the Gestapo arrested a Lithuanian by name Vladas Andonas, accusing him of giving shelter to Jews. A farmer's wife called Vaicieniene from the town of Kadeliai hid five Jews who were ultimately saved from the slaughter. The farmer's wife and the Jews were captured by the Gestapo. It is not known what became of them. A Lithuanian woman named Snokiene from the nearby village of Rudeliai hid four Jews in her home and cared for them. In 1942 she was arrested with the Jews and placed in Rokishok Prison. Leonardas Garzas from Rokishok hid Reznekov who was a Jewish volunteer in the Lithuanian army together with three members of his family, amongst them two children.

In the vicinity of Rokishok there are four communal graves (seven by another account); in Antanosa 5 Km. from Abel, about 200 metres from the left side of the road are buried 1160 who were murdered on 25.8.1941:in the village of Rozonai about 200 metres to the left, on the road leading to the settlement of Juodupe, are buried 67, murdered in July 1941; in the town of Steponi 5 Km. from Rokishok about 150 metres to the right of the road in the direction of Swedishetz are 981 graves of those also murdered in July /August of 1941; in the forest of Valindova 5 Km. from Rokishok not far from the village of Baiorai, 400 metres the the right of the road which leads to the road to Juodupe, are buried 3207 men, women and children, who were killed on 25-26 August 1941. According to these facts the number of those murdered was between 4,700 to 4,800. After the war, those remaining from the surrounding villages erected monuments over the communal graves. On that in the Steponi forest the following is inscribed: "At this spot are buried 981 citizens who were murdered by the fascist German occupiers and nationalist bourgeoisie between 27/6/1941 and 14/8/1941."

At the end of the war a small number of Jews returned to live in Rokishok. In 1959 there were 36 Jews in the town. Over the years the numbers decreased until, in 1989, only ten Jews remained.


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