Typical of the Jews' capacity for adjustment, they learnt to adapt themselves to changing circumstances, keeping aflame the hope for better days. Then came Hitler's murderous hordes; and in 1941, in a matter merely of weeks, the Jewish inhabitants of most of the Lithuanian towns and villages were led away like cattle to the slaughter. It was harvest time, and the reaper of death harvested all of Jewish life the aged, the women, the children none were spared.
Eleven years have slipped away since the holocaust, but the wounds have not been healed, and while the enormity of the tragedy is difficult to comprehend, there are those in our midst, and many of them, for whom the annihilation was a very personal tragedy in addition to being a Jewish tragedy.
It was, in all probability, this personal factor that partly stimulated the members of the Rakishker Landsleit Society to bring out the Yizkor Book. After all, a book is still the most enduring memorial to a past that has perished. The sponsors of this book set themselves three main tasks when they undertook to issue this tribute to the memory of their brethren in the far-off villages from which they themselves, or their forebears once came. They wanted to reflect the pattern of Jewish life in those villages up to World War II; they wanted to save from oblivion the memory of the ghastly era of Destruction; and finally they wished to place on record the activities of the Rakishker Landsleit in South Africa, during the forty years of the existence of their Society.
To implement these aims required considerable thought and responsibility. Every Jewish community in the old world had its own specific pattern: it virtually possessed individuality, but to convey this was no easy matter, for the simple reason that there are today large gaps in the historical sources which precluded the possibility of rendering a picture of that life in its entirety. In addition, no real authentic documentation of the last days of Rakishok was possible because there are almost no survivors who could have filled out the record. A very few may have escaped and they may today be in the U.S.S.R., but it was quite impossible to establish contact with them. With regard to the third aim, it was extremely difficult to piece together the story of the activities of the last forty years here from the inadequate minutes in existence today. Despite these difficulties the sponsor thought that the work was worth while, and the Yizkor Book contains important material hitherto unpublished: reminiscences, descriptions of the economic conditions of the various villages and their social and cultural institutions. Humble and poor though most of these Jews were, the material that the Rakishok Society had to sift through disclosed men and women of superb ethical and moral qualities.
The Yizkor book also sheds new light on the forces at work between the two world wars which helped to shape and modernise Jewish national life in the Lithuanian villages. It discloses the social changes which were taking place and the rising consciousness towards our national renaissance, which these people were imbued. Although, as previously mentioned, the compilers were unable to obtain first-hand reports from actual survivors of Rakishok, they were, however, able to secure eyewitness accounts of the destruction, and the merciless cruelties of the Germans and also the Lithuanians. Through documents they were also enabled to trace some of the activities of the Rakishker landsmanschaft, disclosing as they do the wide range of social activities of the old country. These documents reveal, in no small measure, the spiritual and cultural heritage with which we owe to those who perished. In fact, the Yizkor Book, with its illustrations, is an important historical monograph, not only for the Landsleit. It is a contribution to the history of the destroyed Jewish communities of Eastern Europe.
Finally, the Yizkor Book is a human document: a tribute to the simple God-fearing Jews of the villages who lived their lives, simply and genuinely, with those peculiar folk-ways evolved by Jewish Lithuania.
Those who laboured so zealously to bring out this Yizkor Book will be fully compensated if the Yiddish public will find in its pages its intrinsic message, the message of a human and historic document.
by A. Orelowitz
Translated by Rabbi Ezra Boyarsky
Between Ponievez and Dvinsk are located the following townships: Subotz, Skopishok, Ponemunok, and Rakishok.
Immediately upon stepping off the train and entering the Rakishok railroad station, one gets the impression that Rakishok is a pulsating Jewish community, characterized by initiative and activity. The town's railroad station with its vibrant and animated crew of taxi and truck drivers, their passengers and cargo, is actually a reflection of the town itself and may be considered a microcosm of Rakishok in its day to day life.
The railroad station also serves as a meeting place where business deals are made and local and world news discussed. In the vicinity of the railroad station are a small number of homes owned and occupied by Jews. Among the families that come to mind are: Zalman the shipping clerk, Baruch the vakzalner (an employee at the railroad station), Zalman Shimshon Shwartzberg and others all told about fifteen families who were in some way connected with the railroad station.
Connecting to the railroad station with the town of Rakishok is a wide, straight highway which is flanked on both sides by gardens, fields, and long rows of houses predominantly occupied by non-Jews. Towering conspicuously above them is the town's church with its steeple. On the border between Christian and Jewish homes stands the house of Velvele Dimont, the
town's notorious informer, whose traitorous acts towards his people have won him infamy and everlasting hate since 1905.
The center of the town is the market place. A wide street cuts through this central area. To the right (of this street) is a road that leads to the count's estate, and to the left, to Yurdzike, a short, rather narrow street connected to Kamayer Street where the town's business center was located. On Kamayer Street were concentrated all the major business enterprises such as the largest textile stores, leather goods shops, as well as the flour storehouses and the warehouses that housed farm machinery. On this street, Hirshe Matizan ran the town's hotel and restaurant popularly known throughout the region as the "red" building.
In this area, Besl Zamet built a rather large building which was occupied by the town's court, the jail, the post office, and the mayor's residence and office. Singer's Sewing Machine Co. opened a showroom on this street, and when Shteiman decided to open up a store in town, his choice was none other than Kamayer Street near the town's pharmacy.
These stores were known as the "white" stores, and above them were small apartments. In one of these lived Chaim the musician, from whose apartment emanated melodious strains of Jewish folk songs that blended well with the hustle and bustle of the street below and together formed a symphony of Jewish life that became the hallmark of the typical Lithuanian shtetl.
In a house on the corner of Kamayer Street and the market district there resided for as long as anyone could remember Reb Bezalel, the rabbi of Rakishok. On Kamayer Street, in the rear of the newly constructed brick building, owned by Henich Chmelnick, was located the Community Bank, and opposite stood the Batei Midrashim the synagogues and houses of study.
As mentioned before, the business center was in close proximity to the market place, and it was there that a large and imposing water pump could be found surrounded by a cement wall. Attached to a chain was a tin can so that passers-by could quench their thirst on a hot, sultry day. At the foot of the pump was a trough, an open receptacle to provide drink for cattle and horses. The board that covered the trough also served as a 'bulletin board" for announcements, messages and information that were of interest and importance to the entire Rakishok community.
Across from the market place stood a large church which was frequented by thousands of farmers from Rakishok and the vicinity. The church's owner was Count Jan Pshezdetzky who spent liberally to beautify the church which was reputed to be the most exquisite religious structure in all of Lithuania. Large clocks built into the very top of the edifice could be seen from all directions and great distances.
A road from the center of the town extended and led to the estate and residence
of the count. During the summer, this stretch of road was a popular meeting
place for the shtetl's young people. At a short distance from the road was a
brook called "Pruda."
CULTURE AND EDUCATION
Rakishok, not unlike other Lithuanian shtetlach, was traditionally religious, and immune to modern cultural movements. Orthodox Judaism was by far the predominant spiritual factor that shaped the lifestyle of the Rakishker Jewish community.
The Hasidic movement enjoyed an unusually large following in Rakishok. Three main Hasidic dynasties the Lubavitcher, Babroisker, and Ladier, and their respective Rebbes, each with his own religious philosophy that characterized his branch of Hasidism pervaded the spiritual, mundane, and personal lives of their devotees. Each Hasidic group would visit their rebbe during Jewish festivals, especially during the High Holiday season. Being in the presence of their rebbe, listening to his words of wisdom and Divrai Torah, accompanied by old and new melodies, infused them with a renewed zest for life, spiritual enrichment, and optimism. One of the features of Hasidism that accounts for its remarkable appeal to large segments of the Jewish people is a strong sense of cohesiveness among the adherents of the movement. This fraternal attitude also had its practical application. More often than not, affluent hasidim would help their less fortunate brethren financially in the form of Matan B'seser (charity given in secret a Jewish ethical concept) in order to avoid embarrassment of the recipient.
The Beth Hamidrash (the house of study, usually a part of the synagogue) together with the synagogue itself, served as the spiritual smithy that forged the religious and cultural personality of the Jews.
The educational institutions of Rakishok were the Cheder (traditional religious school) and yeshiva (a school for advanced Talmudic studies). Only boys were enrolled in these schools, while girls received instruction from private teachers. Boys in the 12-14 age bracket who were able to handle the intricate study of the Talmud, left Rakishok for more advanced Talmudic courses offered in larger, out-of-town yeshivas. In those days, the life of a yeshiva student away from his home, parents, and siblings, was, to put it mildly, a difficult one. By and large, the students' parents were of modest means and were unable to completely support their sons in an out-of-town yeshiva. Yet the quest for Jewish religious education at all levels was strong and widespread throughout the Eastern European communities and especially those of Lithuania. Therefore, even the poorest parents made an all-out effort, to the point of self-sacrifice, to bring up sons who achieved the status of B'nai Torah, or Torah scholars.
Several years before the outbreak of World War I, the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment movement of the 19th century) began to make inroads into Lithuania, including Rakishok. The spirit of the Haskalah movement the secular culture began to percolate throughout the land, especially in the larger cities, and finally infiltrated the shtetlach. As the Haskalah took a firmer foothold in Rakishok, some parents began to provide their children with instruction of a more secular nature, such as Russian and modern Hebrew, in addition to their religious studies.
The children who studied the Bible in the original Hebrew text and Hebrew as a language, developed an interest in reading Hebrew books which, considering the era we are describing, was a phenomenon. If a father was a Makil (an "enlightened" individual) who subscribed to a Hebrew newspaper, that also had a strong influence on the children who, because of their modernized Hebrew studies, also developed an interest in reading a Hebrew newspaper, and eventually a Hebrew novel.
In such a manner, Hebrew in its modern concept and connotation penetrated the minds of the younger generation. In the course of time, small study groups formed that continued to study Hebrew and its literature. As a result of the Haskalah, a new type of Hebrew teacher appeared on the scene who brought the idea of Zionism and Jewish nationalism the precursor of the state of Israel and wove it into the socioeconomic fabric of Lithuanian Jewry.
Slowly the Russian language and culture also made its way into the small communities. Russian was the official language of the government. Lithuanian was used in the daily dealings the Jews had with the farmers. The Jews began an intensive study of Russian, and the more "enlightened" younger element read the Russian progressive press as well as Russian literature.
In Rakishok, a Russian government Gymnasia opened a European school that was equivalent to high school and junior college. Many Jewish children were enrolled in this institution while others studied in gymnasias in Dvinsk and other cities. A few even succeeded in being admitted to universities.
The Jewish gymnasia students wore special uniforms with flashy buttons upon which the provincial townspeople looked with admiration. One of the first Gymnasia students was Zalman Feldman, now a prominent physician in Johannesburg.
In 1910, two young women, Misses Gurevitz and Rabinowitz, opened a four-class Russian Gymnasia for Jewish children in Rakishok. This was a pioneer experiment, undertaken with the purpose of giving Jewish children the opportunity to study Russian in a purely Jewish atmosphere. The pre-gymnasia proved a great success and was filled with students.
In the early years of the 20th century, when the revolutionary movement against the Russian Czar spread in Russia proper and spilled over to the countries ruled by the Czar, many Jewish youths were attracted to its illegal activities and espoused its cause. In 1905 a Jewish revolutionary group was organized in Rakishok which distributed proclamations and organized anti-Czarist demonstrations and rallies. On Sabbath afternoons the Jewish revolutionaries would meet in the Rakisher forest where they were trained in the use of firearms.
The previously mentioned Velvel Dimont was an informer. Together with his two sons he would spy on the revolutionaries and their activities. Several revolutionary activists were banished to Siberia due to the telltale betrayal of Velvel and his sons. At one of the meetings, the Jewish revolutionaries sentenced these despicable and treacherous informers to death.
On Simchas Torah morning when the mosrim (informers) were in the large Beth Hamidrash, they were shot at. The worshiping congregation was panic-stricken, and the informers escaped with light wounds only because the revolutionaries did not want to hit innocent people. Rakishok never erased this tragic episode from her memory. After the war, this notorious family returned to Rakishok. The town then gathered an appreciable number of signatures and petitioned the Lithuanian government to punish the scoundrels. The Lithuanian authorities deported them from Rakishok, never to return.
At the time of the 1905 revolution in Russia, the Yiddish language and culture gained dignity and respectability. The Yiddish press at this juncture, which was primarily headquartered in Warsaw, had many subscribers in Rakishok. The "Moment" and the "Heint" (Today) were the largest newspapers in Czarist Russia. "Der Freint" (The Friend), published in St. Petersburg, was very popular and had a large readership. The Jewish public waited impatiently for B. Yeushson's "Political Letters." He used the endearing pseudonym Itchele Hakatan Itchele the small one underscoring his modesty. Sholom Aleichem's letters from Menachem Mendel to Shaine Shaindel and the humorous stories by Tunkein were at the top of the readers' list.
The young people took a great interest in contempory Yiddish. Often they would gather in private homes to discuss and analyze the various social and national problems as they are entwined in the works of the three Yiddish-Hebrew classicists: Mendele, Sholom Aleichem, and Y.L. Peretz.
The second Russian revolution in 1917 radically changed the economic and spiritual life of the Russian Jews. After World War I, the Jews who returned to Lithuania from Russia were likewise deeply affected by the newly created "world order" and the upheaval it brought in its wake. The young people, who were always ready to carry the torch for new ideas, became active in Rakishok in two distinctly different ideological camps: Zionism and Communism.
The Zionists founded a Tarbus School, while the Leftist group organized a "Culture League" which was instrumental in establishing a Yiddish secular school. They also were the initiators of adult evening classes and a library. The graduates of these schools were admitted to matriculate in the Tarbus, Yavneh, and Kulture League gymnasias. At the same time, many Jewish children were enrolled in Lithuanian secondary schools.
Despite the fact that the secular education institutions drove a wedge into the traditional school system, the orthodox element stood firm by their principles and maintained a Talmud Torah and a large Yeshiva in Rakishok.
The post-war era brought many social changes in Rakishok. For the first time sports clubs and reading circles became a part of the town's landscape and opened a window on the outside world.
Another spin-off of the new, modern times was the role played by the Kehilah (the organized Jewish community) which became the social and political nerve center of the town. One of the tasks of the Kehilah was to levy taxes on the Jewish population to cover the budget that was allocated to maintain the Jewish schools, the orphanage, the religious institutions and the social and cultural societies. The Kehilah was held in high esteem since it was the authoritative body and voice of the entire community.
by R. Aarons-Arsch
Another important factor that contributed to the development and economic stability of the town was the fact that in Rakishok and the surrounding towns such as Ponedel, Birzsh, Subotz, Abel, and Kamay there were longstanding, well-established markets where farmers by the thousands brought products such as flax, seeds, furs, corn, wheat, eggs, butter, poultry, and a variety of fruits and vegetables from their respective villages. The Rakishok merchants would buy these commodities in large quantities and in turn transport them to the above-mentioned larger business centers. The local merchants also utilized the markets to sell the farmers' and villagers' textile goods, hardware, kerosene, etc.
During the winter, Rakishok exported carloads of meat, especially calf meat which was packed in large barrels. In the summer time, Rakishok provided the larger cities with a variety of fruits and berries. During this era (prior to World War I), there was also an intensive lumbar and raw hide trade in which Rakishok's Jewish merchants were engaged.
From the description thus far, it becomes evident that the market place in Rakishok, as in most of the towns in Lithuania, played a key economic role in the lives of the Jews, the majority of whom were small merchants who operated with limited financial resources.
Aside from the merchants, there were many Jewish craftsmen and artisans who engaged in such crafts as shoemaking, tailoring, hat-making, etc. They sold most of their handiwork at the market place. There was also a relatively large number of coachmen, porters, and fish merchants.
Rakishok also had a number of tanneries which produced raw cow hides and leather for all purposes, for footwear, handbags, etc. The tanneries and the sausage factory, whose proprietor was Benjamin Gordon, provided employment for many Jews.
Generally speaking, in comparison to other shtetlach in Lithuania, the Jews of Rakishok were economically in pretty good shape. Most of them owned their own homes, a cow and household goods. Still, as in any community, there were a number of poor people to whose economic distress the townspeople always responded liberally with material aid, tact, and understanding.
In 1905 there existed in Rakishok a credit union society, and a few years prior to World War I, a credit bank was founded by Zalman Adelson. The main purpose of this bank was to give loans to small merchants, poor artisans, and laborers. This bank maintained a high standard, and in return, it enjoyed the community's full measure of trust and confidence. On the eve of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 the Jewish Merchant Bank was established under the directorship of Motel Meller, but it was forced to liquidate its activities because of the war.
At the outbreak of hostilities, a large number of Rakishker Jews left for Russia; a few families moved to Biela Russia (White Russia). Only a fraction of the Jews remained in Rakishok and lived under German occupation. Although the Germans did not subject the remaining Jews in Rakishok to any mistreatment or persecution, the economy suffered a death blow, to the extent that all the former economic prowess the town had attained disappeared.
Immediately after the war, Lithuania fell under Russian rule, but not for long, for soon after, Lithuania, along with the other Baltic states, won her independence and became constitutionally a republic. The fledgling Lithuanian government initially adopted a benign and tolerant attitude towards the Jewish population. Those Jews who had left Rakishok at the outbreak of hostilities gradually returned, and other Jews formerly from other towns in the vicinity settled in Rakishok, so that the population actually increased.
No sooner had life more or less normalized than a Folksbank was opened. The American Joint Committee granted loans for home construction and distributed multifarious aid and relief to the reconstituted community. Gradually the economy improved to the extent that a number of enterprising individuals actually benefited from the war and became affluent, thanks to their ability to adjust to the new economic structure of newly independent Lithuania.
But the government's spirit of tolerance was short-lived. It was replaced by an
ultra-reactionary leadership whose objective was to undermine and undercut
Jewish business enterprise and initiative. With that motive, taxes were
appreciably increased with the overriding goal of hurting Jewish businessmen on
whom the government levied extra large taxes. These drastic decrees aimed at
the Jews shrank and dramatically worsened the economic circumstances in which
the Lithuanian Jews lived. As a result, the younger element began to consider a
momentous decision, namely, whether to stay or to leave. At first the number
emigrating was minimal, but in the course of time it gained momentum, and
thousands of Lithuanian Jews, including an impressive representation from
Rakishok left for other parts of the world, among them South
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