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by Dina Porat

Riteve – a Jewish shtetl in Lithuania

This is a memorial (Yizkor) book, published in honour of a small town, a shtetl in Lithuania. The town is called Rietavas (or Ritavas) in Lithuanian, Ritova in Hebrew and Riteve in Yiddish. Let us call it Riteve, since most of its inhabitants were Yiddish–speaking Jews.

The first memorial book dedicated to Riteve appeared in Israel in 1975, written with some sections in Yiddish and Hebrew and a few in English. Every page vibrates with the love and nostalgia shared by all those who once lived there and with their desire to make the book a monument to their town. In this respect it is no different in any way from dozens of other Yizkor books, written by the townsfolk. In these books, repetitions, irrelevant material, rather ornate style and a somewhat exaggerated rosy picture of the place and the people who inhabited it are often the general rule. Inasmuch as this occurred in the Riteve material, out of respect to the work done before we began ours, careful editing was employed in order to preserve the original tone and spirit in which it was written. The life stories of some of the personalities who were connected with Riteve only briefly or indirectly were included, however, as long as they demonstrated the strength and values acquired through life in this little town.

Most of the Jews who left Riteve between the two world wars emigrated to South Africa, as did most Jews from other towns in Lithuania. Others went to the USA and to Israel. With the passage of time, new generations were born for whom the memory of the small, faraway towns is at best nothing but grandparents' stories. It is for them that this English edition of the memorial book has been prepared. And it is for their convenience that a glossary of Jewish terms and objects is included at the end of the book.

The text is based on the original 1975 edition, the Hebrew and Yiddish sections having been translated into English. However, the need was felt for introductory chapters in order to place the town in its historical and cultural context: ‘The Jewish shtetl in Lithuania’, ‘The Jews of Lithuania in the inter–war period’ and ‘The Holocaust in Riteve’. We provided footnotes explaining events, names and locations. On second thoughts, because many general readers avoid foot–notes, and because some people may lack a background of Lithuanian history, particularly its Jewish history, many footnotes were incorporated into the introductory chapter written by Mendel Kaplan: “A background to the story of Riteve.”

The introductory chapters and the illustrations evoke a vivid picture of a Jewish town. But it is perhaps the combination of personal memoirs, written by the townsfolk, added to the efforts of the historian to supply context and details, glossary and archival material, which offers a meaningful contribution to an understanding of one's roots. We hope that the combination presented here makes this book a unique Yizkor for a shtetl

Many thanks to Mendel Kaplan, whose roots are in Riteve and who initiated this work, and to his family The Singer family, Harry, Lily and Selwyn, were of great help, providing extensive testimony, photographs and a video cassette filmed during a visit to Riteve in June 1992. Sadly, Henry Singer died in 1998 before the book's publication. We also thank Sally Frankental, then of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, and Haim Sheer of the Kaplan–Kushlick Foundation. Alexander Judelis, once the only living survivor of the Holocaust in Riteve and who died in 1996 in Lithuania, also contributed a very helpful testimony. Thanks also to the team, headed by Alter Levite, which edited the Hebrew book some 20 years ago, and probably wrote much of the unsigned material; and to Sheila Barkuski and Lilian Dubb, who faced a very difficult task indeed when translating the Hebrew edition in 1988. Thanks go as well to Roni Stauber, a dedicated assistant, to Marian Robertson. Mendel Kaplan's editorial assistant and researcher, who gave editorial help and produced the book, and to the copy editor and proof reader, Tessa Kennedy

May the book be a tribute to the exuberance and vibrancy of a Jewish world that exists no more.

Dr Dina Porat
Department of Jewish History,
Tel Aviv University
Hanukkah 5759 (December 1998)

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