This chapter includes an historical survey of the Holocaust in Lithuania and in Riteve, a number of survivors' testimonies, lists of the victims and finally a Yizkor. It was not easy to establish the chain of events in Riteve during the Holocaust, since very few people survived, each having experienced hardships in other places and forms, after the evacuation of the place by the Germans. The killing was almost total, as in most other Lithuanian shtetlakh. Today there are no Jews in Riteve, and only one survivor lived in another town in Lithuania until his death a couple of years ago. The rest of the few survivors reside in Israel, South Africa and the USA. Although the once neglected old Jewish cemetery has been put in order, the Beit Midrash was turned into a cinema and the beautiful synagogue is gone.
by Roni Stauber
On 22 June 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union. This date marks a turning point in the antiJewish activity of the Nazi regime. Two or three months earlier Hitler had decided to adopt new and drastic measures in his war against the Jews. He ordered Heinrich Himmler, the SS supreme commander, to take the necessary steps towards the destruction of the Jewish inhabitants of the Soviet territories.1 As a result, Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler's deputy and head of the main office for security of the Reich (Reichssicherheitshauptamt RSHA), formed four specialised units for this purpose the Einsatzgruppen. Their task was to move from town to town in the occupied areas and to kill Jews as well as other ‘ideological enemies’, such as officials of the Communist Party.2
The total strength of the Einsatzgruppen was about 3,000 men. Each group was composed of several operational units, Einsatzkommandos and Sonderkommandos. Their commanders were senior officers in the RSHA. Most were
from whilecollar professions lawyers, economists, a physician, a professional opera singer and even a Protestant pastor. The personnel, made up partly of volunteers, were drawn from the Security Police (Sipo), the Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst SD), the Law and Order Police (Ordnungspolizei), and the WaffenSS. While the Einsatzgruppen operated in the occupied areas, they were reinforced by indigenous units of Lithuanians, Estonians, Latvians and Ukrainians.3
As early as the end of March 1941, after a series of discussions, Heydrich, as the representative of the SS, and General Edward Wagner, the general quartermaster of the Wehrmacht, reached an agreement regarding the relationship and cooperation between the Einsatzgruppen and the army in the occupied areas. The army gave the SS a ‘free hand’ to carry out their ‘special duties’. The cooperation with the army was an essential condition for the SS operations in the east. The small killing units could not fulfil their tasks without the logistical support of the Wehrmacht.4 On 23 June 1941, they crossed the border into the Soviet territories, moving behind the advancing German army. Each Einsatzgruppe was attached to one of the army groups. EinsatzgruppeA operated in the Baltic countries. EinsatzgruppeB in Byelorussia and the Smolensk district, EinsatzgruppeC in north and central Ukraine, and EinsatzgruppeD in south Ukraine, Crimea, and the Caucasus.5
The Einsatzgruppen were not the only SS forces that participated in the killing operations. An additional force, composed mainly of two mechanised SS brigades and SS cavalry regiments, was sent to the occupied areas. Their assignment was to operate in areas not covered by the Einsatzgruppen because of their lack of manpower. Altogether some 23,000 men were sent to the east in order to carry out the orders of the Fuhrer. This large force was equipped according to army standards.6
The first phase of the mass executions, which had begun in June 1941, was completed toward the end of the year. During this period about 500,000Jews were killed in ihe areas taken from the Russans. The killing units succeeded in covering most of the occupied territories. They moved very rapidly behind the advancing armies and were frequently sent to the front line. More than once they even entered occupied cities with the advance units of the army. They used this strategy in order to reach the Jewish communities before rumours of the mass killings could spread.7
The operation of slaughter was standardised. In every Jewish community the Einsatzkommandos used the same procedure. The Jews were forced to assemble in a central place. Those who did not present themselves were rounded up from their houses. From this central place, they were taken by a wellarmed unit to a killing site not far from the town or the village. Occasionally the Germans used antitank ditches or shell craters as graves, but in many killing sites the graves were specially dug a day or two before the massacre. Before their deaths the victims were made to hand over all their valuables to the murderers. They were forced to
|Before Yad Vashem was established, a commemorative site to honour victims of the Holocaust was established on Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the many memorial tablets being placed under the collonade seen above. Israelis and others with Riteve origins or connections are seen in front of this in 1965 after the unveiling of the tablet to the martyrs of Riteve. The main focus of the site, however, is in the basement of the nearby old building on Mount Zion, referred to in the original book as the Holocaust basement on Mount Zion, Jerusalem.|
remove their clothes and stand in front of tie graves or lie in them. They were then killed on the spot by the killing unit.8
The destruction of the Lithuanian Jews began on the day of the German invasion. Throughout the country thousands of Jews were slain by Lithuanians. In many cases pogroms were organised immediately after the flight of the Red Army, even before the entrance of the Wehrmacht. Documents published after the war show that the first directives to persecute the Jews were sent to the nationalists in Lithuania even before the beginning of the GermanSoviet war. These directives were sent by the members of the Lithuanian Active Front in Berlin to their secret organisation in Lithuania.9
The Germans encouraged the brutal pogroms. The concept of this policy was explained by Franz Stahlecker, the commander of EinsatzgruppeA, in his report to Berlin on October 1941: ‘It was no less important, for future purposes, to establish as an unquestionable fact that the liberated population had resorted to measures against the Bolshevist and Jewish enemy on its own initiative and without instructions from the German authorities.’10 Einsatzkommando 2 and Einsatzkommando 3, operating in Lithuania, were divided into smaller units in order to reach all the Jewish settlements. During the annihilation operations, they were assisted by
Lithuanians. In many cases the massacres were carried out mainly by Lithuanians under the supervision of the Germans. ‘The active antiSemitism which flared up quickly after the German occupation has not abated. Lithuanians are voluntarily and untiringly at our disposal for all measures against Jews. Sometimes they even execute such measures independently,’ wrote Stahlecker in his report.11
During July the majority of the victims was male, while the killing of women and children began in most places in August 1941. Most of the Jewish communities were destroyed by the end of the year. About 175,000 Jews, more than 80 per cent of Lithuanian Jewry, were killed within four and a half months.12
By the end of 1941 the systematic murder of the Lithuanian Jews was suspended as a result of intensive pressure from the Wehrmacht and various elements in the civilian administration who wanted to utilise the skilled Jewish manpower. About 50,000 Jews were concentrated in the large ghettos of Vilna. Kovno and Shavli (Siauliai) and in smaller ghettos in Sevencionys and in other small towns. In his report concerning the executions carried out in Lithuania up to December 1941, Karl Jager, the commander of Einsatzkommando 3, wrote: ‘I can state today that the goal of solving the Jewish problem in Lithuania has been reached by EK 3. There are no Jews left in Lithuania except for the workJews [in the ghettos] … I intended to kill off these workJews and their families as well, but met with the strongest protest from the civil administration (Reichskommissar) and the Wehrmacht, which culminated in the prohibition
Harry Singer Collection
that stipulates that these Jews and their families may not be shot dead. The workJews and Jewesses left alive for the time being are badly needed, and I presume that when winter is over this Jewish labour force will still be essential. I am of the opinion that it is imperative to start at once with the sterilisation of the male workJews to prevent propagation. If in spite ol this measure a Jewess still happens to fall pregnant she is to be liquidated.’13
The lull in the process of total annihilation continued until the summer of 1943. Nevertheless, throughout this period, individual Jews and groups of Jews were murdered in the ghettos. Mostly they were killed as punishment for even minor offences like smuggling food into the ghetto or failing to wear the yellow badge. In February 1943, 45 Jews were murdered in Kovno for such slight transgressions as an act of ‘revenge’ by the frustrated Germans for the defeat of the Wehrmacht in Stalingrad.14 In March and April 1943 several small ghettos and labour camps in east Lithuania were liquidated. In one day, 3 April, the Germans murdered about 4 000 Jews at Ponery near Vilna. The ‘operations’ were reported immediately to RSHA in Berlin. It was reported that ‘…the Byelorussian areas incorporated into the General District of Lithuania …have been cleared of Jews …The Jews who were found to be not fit to work, some 4,300, underwent special treatment.’15
The liquidation of the three big ghettos in Lithuania, Vilna, Kovno and Shavli, began in the summer of 1943 following Himmler's order on 21 June of that year to liquidate the ghettos in Ostland and set up concentration camps.
The decision was made to send the surviving inmates of the ghettos in Lithuania to camps in Estonia and Latvia. During this process all those unfit for labour were to be exterminated.16 The liquidation began with the deportation ol the inmates of the Vilna ghetto to camps in Latvia and Estonia during August and September 1943. Four thousand women, children, the sick and the elderly were sent to death camps or murdered in Ponery. During the autumn and winter of 1943 thousands of Jews were deported from the ghettos in Kovno and Shavli to labour camps. The ghettos were converted into concentration camps. Children and adults who were found to be unfit for work were sent to the death camps in Poland.17
The annihilation of children and old people continued in March 1944. Hundreds of children and elderly people were sent to the death camps or killed in death sites such as the Ninth Fort near Kovno, where most of the Jews of Kovno and at least 5,000 Jews from the Reich as well as smaller numbers from other countries had been killed. The process of liquidation continued during the German evacuation of Lithuania in the summer of 1944. Two thousand Jews from the camps in the Vilna area were executed in Ponery. Most of the Jews who survived the camps in the Shavli and Kovno districts were deported to camps in Germany and many died during the last stage of the war. Out of the 220,000225,000 Jews
who lived in Lithuania before the German invasion, only 2,0003,000 survived in the forests of Lithuania and a few more thousands in the concentration camps in Germany.18
About 95 per cent of Lithuanian Jewry was killed during the Holocaust, the highest rate among European communities. They were killed in Lithuania, not in any of the extermination camps in Poland. Most of them about 80 per cent were killed during the summer and the autumn of 1941; their bodies were thrown into pits and mass graves. The scope and speed of the killing could not have been attained without the enthusiastic assistance of the local population, which did most of the killings, sometimes even without the presence of Germans, especially in the small shtetlakh in the countryside.
Lithuanian Jewry was as unique in its death as it was in its life.
by Roni Stauber
The fate of the Jewish community in Riteve was similar to that of most small communities in the occupied Soviet territories which were destroyed during the first phase of mass executions. In many small towns and villages the annihilation was total and not a single Jew survived. The story of the last days of these communities will remain forever vague.
The Jewish community in Riteve was destroyed shortly after the German invasion of Lithuania. During the summer and autumn of 1941 most of the Jews of Riteve were killed by Germans and their Lithuanian collaborators. Very few succeeded in escaping this fate.
Some of the survivor gave testimony about the destruction of Riteve immediately after the war, while they were still in the DP (displaced persons) camps in Germany. These testimonies and many others were collected in the camps by the Jewish Central Historical Committee, and can be found today in the Yivo and the Yad Vashem archives. Other survivors testified three decades later, during the compilation of the Hebrew edition of the Riteve book. Some of the details given in these testimonies are inconsistent, particularly when describing what they had heard about the death of Rabbi Fundiler. It is only natural that there be some diversity in the recollections of such traumatic events. However, careful examination and comparison can provide a comprehensive picture of the end of the Jewish community of Riteve.
It is difficult to establish with certitude the exact number of Jewish inhabitants in Riteve on the eve of the destruction. According to some evidence, we can assume that between 800 and 1,000 Jews were living in the village when the SS killing units crossed the Soviet border.1
As in most other Jewish communities, the Lithuanians in Riteve did not wait for the arrival of the Germans to begin their persecution of the Jews. The persecutions apparently began immediately after the first news about the German invasion was received. According to one testimony, the first action of the Lithuanians was to plunder Jewish property.2 Hearing the news about the advance of the German army and fearing their neighbours, most of the Jews escaped from Riteve and looked for shelter in the surrounding villages.3 The day after they fled, on 23 or 24 June 1941, most of their houses were burnt. Some available evidence indicates that the Russians set fire to the small town when they retreated from this part of Lithuania, whereas some survivors testified that the fire was caused by a German air raid.4
In keeping with what was happening in Lithuania as a whole, ‘patriotic’ Lithuanians in Riteve were organised to help the Germans as an auxiliary force. The Germans, as has previously been pointed out. encouraged the phenomenon of ‘spontaneous’ violence against the Jews. A collaboration committee was set up, headed by the local pastor. One of its first instructions to the population of the surrounding villages was to drive away any Jew who sought refuge there. They were given a sanction to confiscate the property of the Jews. The committee also ordered the Jews to return to Riteve. According to one testimony, they declared that accommodation would be found for everyJew.5
A few days later, probably on 27 June, all the Jews of Riteve were concentrated in Oginski's estate. Sadistic conduct, mainly against the men, preceded the concentration. One of the most painful memories, which not one of the survivors from those first days neglects to mention, was the severe humiliation of Rabbi Shmuel Fundiler, the rabbi of Riteve. Half his beard was cut off, he was forced to burn ritual articles and holy books and he was harnessed to a wagon loaded with garbage. The tortures continued until the Lithuanians shot him dead.6 According to one of the survivors, the Lithuanian atrocities were filmed, presumably by Germans. Similar incidents occurred in other places in the Baltic States.7 The Germans, as Stahlecker, the commander of EinsatzgruppeA, pointed out, wanted to display the severity of the local treatment of the Jews.8
The annihilation of the Jews of Riteve was a microcosm of the process of destruction in Lithuania as a whole. The first victims were those accused of being Communists. This was the implementation of the instructions given by Heydrich to the commanders of the killing units just before the invasion.9 In Riteve four to six young Jews were selected as Communists and were stabbed to death by Lithuanians.10 About ten days later the Jews of Riteve were evacuated and sent to a camp in Vishtevian near Telz, which was set up by the Germans in order to concentrate Jews from several places in the district of Telz.11 It appears that not all the men were sent to Vishtevian. According to one testimony, men from Riteve were taken to labour camps in the environs of Heidekrug. near Memel. This occurred in several communities in west Lithuania, mainly in the districts of Tavrig anil Telz. Males, even small boys, were deported by SS men and Lithuanians to Heidekrug,
where they were forced to perform such hard labour as draining swamps and paving roads.12
The conditions in Vishtevian were terrible. About 1,500 Jews from a number of towns were herded together in stables and suffered severe hunger. There, in Vishtevian, the second stage in the process of annihilation was carried out. On 15 and 16 July Germans and Lithuanians executed all Jewish males over the age of thirteen. The murderers killed the men first, acting in accordance with the procedure followed by most of the killing units.13 The victims in Vishtevian were part of the 13,00014,000 Jews massacred by Einsatzkommando 2 in the Shavli area in northwest Lithuania during July 1941.14 The rest of the community the women and children, were forcibly removed from Vishtevian to the village of Giroli near Telz. Here there were also women and children from other communities in the Telz district. In Giroli they were kept alive for six weeks, living in open barracks under inhuman conditions. Many children died from an epidemic which broke out and young women suffered the importunities of the Lithuanians.15
The third stage in the process of the annihilation of Riteve's Jews was carried out by the end ol August. This was the implementation of Helnrich Lohse's directive to complete the destruction of the Jewish communities in the countryside (Flachesland).16 In Giroli, on 29 August, all women over the age of 50 and all the boys were killed. Before the execution, the Lithuanians extorted money from the helpless women, promising in exchange to keep them and their children alive.
The women under the age of 50 and the girls, about 450500 in number, were sent to the ghetto in Telz. At first they were unaware of what had happened to the mothers and siblings from whom they had been separated in Giroli. But on the following day they heard the terrible news from a woman who had succeeded in escaping from the death site.17 Rachel ZingerTaich from Telz remembered her telling them that the mothers were forced to see the murder of their own children.18
From the ghetto in Telz they were sent every day to the surrounding villages to work in the fields. It is possible that the need for manpower brought about the postponement of the extermination of the young women. However, the suspension of mass killings was terminated at the end of three months. At the beginning of December, the last surviving remnants from Riteve and other communities in the Telz district were taken to Rayin and murdered. Only a few survived. The survivors were hidden by peasants or managed to escape to the Shavli ghetto.19
The same tragic fate overtook the men who were deported to Heidekrug. About 800 men were brought to the camps in July 1941. More than half of them were murdered after several ‘selections’ that took place in the camps during the first six months. Many died as a result of the difficult conditions and cruel treatment. Those who managed to survive, some 300 men, were evacuated in the summer of 1943, first to Auschwitz and. after selection, to Warsaw for slave labour. From Warsaw they were transported to the Mildorf camp near Dachau and only a few were still alive at the end of the war.20
by Roni Stauber
The death of Rabbi Fundiler, the last rabbi of Riteve
When the Second World War broke out, the Soviet authorities annexed Lithuania. At first conditions remained stable. In a letter which Rabbi Fundiler wrote to his brotherinlaw in America in 1940 he said: ‘For the moment peace reigns here and with the help of Gd we hope for peace in the future.’ But with the approach of the enemy eastwards, the end of Jewish Lithuania in all its glory was imminent.
On the morning of 23 June 1941, Nazi aircraft dropped their first bombs on Kovno, the capital, and on that day the German army entered Riteve. In his book The Destruction of Lithuania, Rabbi Ephraim Oshri writes: ‘With the arrival of the Germans in Riteve, the great misfortune and sufferings of the Jews began. Rabbi Fundiler was treated brutally. He was ordered to tear up the Scrolls of the Torah and other holy books. Unable to endure this humiliation, he suffered a heart attack and died in the Beit Midrash. The Germans then set the Beit Midrash alight and his body and those of other Jews were destroyed in the flames.’1
In the book Lithuania, a survivor of Riteve, Ethel LevinsonFriedman, relates that the worst oppressors in Riteve were a Lithuanian tailor, Baranauskas, who had lived in Memel and who knew German, and another Lithuanian called Juadaikis. They rounded up 70 Jews including Rabbi Fundiler. They forced the rabbi to burn the holy books and this cruel command led to his death.2
Thus Rabbi Fundiler's life came to a tragic end. He was one of the most revered and influential teachers of his generation.
The destruction of Riteve
Dawn broke on 22 June 1941 and we were all asleep, unconscious of what lay ahead of us. Suddenly, a neighbour knocked at the door and told us that Germany and Russia were at war. We dressed hurriedly and ran outside. The pale faces testified to the confusion and fear in all our hearts. We were particularly badly off, because our son, Moshe Zavlav, was then at a forced labour camp 80 kilometres away.3 Our mother, who usually gave good advice, was also confused. Everyone believed that the end had come and we and some neighbours decided to leave town and seek refuge in the nearby villages. We loaded a wagon with as many of our possessions as we could and in the afternoon left Riteve, fearing that we would probably never see it again.
We walked silently behind the cart like at a funeral and so we reached a village 3 kilometres away where the villagers received us quite happily, taking pleasure in
A view of the mass grave site of the women put to death at Giroli, 7 kilometres from Telz
the Jewish misfortune. They offered us accommodation in their summer rooms, thinking that soon they would possess our belongings, acquired with toil and sweat over many years We slept on the hard floor that night. In the morning we heard the sounds of firing coming closer. Bombs rained down on our town and destroyed it completely.4 I and an old lady went the following day to see what damage had been done and found only debris and stones. On the roads were German soldiers on foot and in tanks and, in our hearts, a feeling of approaching destruction. The Lithuanians, with whom we had grown up and who had been our friends, changed overnight and became our enemies. We looked heavenwards and asked: ‘Whence will my help come?’
We roamed desperately from place to place, enemies all around us. Wherever we went we were told by the Lithuanians that they could not shelter us because there were heavy penalties for sheltering Jews.5 We were at our wits' end and decided to return to our town. I cannot describe what befell us there. The gun and the sword ruled and life was cheap. Our honoured citizens, our sons and daughters were humiliated by the enemy, forced to carry out the most despicable work. The Germans believed that in six weeks they would be in Moscow and so the Jews were the object of their sport. On 26 June 1941, Jews retuming home from work
were caught and put into a concentration camp.6 All night the cries of the unfortunate women suffering at the hands of the SS could be heard. On the Friday Jews were brought in from different places and put into the camp and the town was emptied of its Jews.
After three days of hunger, dried fish left over by the Russians was thrown at us. We fell upon it, lit fires and devoured the fish with dire consequences, as we all became very ill with diarrhoea. We lay on the ground wishing to die. We were then made to stand up as ‘visitors’ were expected. We dreaded this because after these visits new and crueller regulations were instituted. I remember when our rabbi7 was singled out by these murderers. Half his beard was torn out and he was ordered to burn the holy books and his talit and tefilin. They filmed this event. We asked our captors what the future held for us. They replied that they were awaiting higher orders. Then days later the orders arrived. We were to leave Riteve and be taken to a central camp at Telz. We knew that we would not see Riteve again but we did not know what awaited us.
I shed many tears before I received permission for my husband to accompany me to our new destination. At 5 o'clock in the morning, 40 carts arrived to transport the old and the sick to Telz. The Lithuanians stood around rejoicing at our sad fate and helped to load the Jews. As we departed we were ordered to surrender our silver and gold on pain of death. Out of fear and panic we did so, surrendering the fruit of generations of hard work. A Lithuanian saw my wedding ring and demanded it from me. I pleaded with him but he threatened thai if I did not surrender it. he would take the finger too. Finally we were ordered to proceed the old and the sick in the wagons and the rest of us following on foot. Surrounded by guards we marched on while a German took photographs for the next generations to see.
The Jewish community had dwell for generations on Lithuanian soil, lavishing on it sweat and toil. Now within a few days it was totally destroyed.
Based on the testimony given by Shaul Shenker in the Displaced Persons camp Feldafing immediately after the war. This testimony, like many others, was collected by the ‘Jewish Central Historical Committee’ in the American zone in occupied Germany.
Riteve, like all the cities and villages ol Eastern Europe, experienced its own particular martyrdom. The population of Riteve consisted of 250 Jewish families. In this smallish town, scores ol young men had been ordained as rabbis. There was a Junior Talmudic College, a large Hebrew school and two Batei Midrash.
The martyrdom ol the Riteve Jews was reminiscent of the martyrdom of Rabbi
Akiva and other great rabbis. On that wellremembered day, the Lithuanians began to organise themselves against the Jews.8 Their first action was to plunder Jewish possessions and by evening the community had fled into the surrounding villages and forests. Then the Lithuanians began to threaten the peasants that if they harboured Jews, their lands would be set alight.
On the Tuesday, as the Russians were retreating, the Germans bombarded the town, reducing it to flames.9 On Wednesday, the Jews were ordered by the Lithuanians to return to the town and were promised that they would be given houses. When the Jews returned, the organised persecution began with beatings, hard labour and starvation.
In the first week, the Lithuanian murderers the brothers Kazis and Stasis Rimayke picked out the Jews Nachman Smoller, Moshe Katz, Felix Radiskansky and my own brotherinlaw Herschel Gerber. They were taken to the Kuter Road behind the Lithuanian cemetery where these martyrs were forced to dig their own graves. They were then stabbed to death and thrown into the graves.10
Shmuel Fundiler, the rabbi of Riteve, who was a prominent member of the Kelmer (of the town Kelm) Musar movement, also lost his life. He was subjected to great humiliation. He refused to desecrate ‘holy vessels’ and was later put to death most cruelly.
The esteemed scholar, Reb Fishel Zilber, aged 90, was also cruelly humiliated before being beaten to death. He had refused to be parted from his Torah scroll, which was a family heirloom, having been written by his father. He was buried where he had succumbed, in the shul yard, still clasping the Torah scroll.
By the second week, the Jews of Riteve were in great pain and anguish, for their Lithuanian countrymen turned out to be more bloodthirsty and cruel towards them than the Germans. An order was received to separate the men from the women. The men were sent to Heidekrug11 where there were also to be found men from Chvaidan, Luykeve, Shveksne, Neustadt, Weinuta, Varzan, Shilel and other small towns.12
The women were sent to Telz, the young ones on foot and the other ones and small children in wagons. On the road, the women were forced to bow to dead German soldiers. The devout daughters of Rev Yossel, who refused to bow, were beaten to death. From Telz, the women were driven to Vishtivian, 8 kilometres away, where other Jewish men and women had been brought. Here they were housed in stables. Three days later, when the Lithuanians were very drunk, they inflicted upon their victims all manner of humiliation. Fifty strong men were selected and they were sent to dig graves in a wood. The next day all men over the age of 13 were put to death and thrown into these graves.
The women were sent to a village, Giroli,13 where there was a military hospital facility. Here there were also women from Varne, Alsiad, Nevaran, Zaran, Lukeve, and also refugees from Plungyan.14 The women were told that a ghetto was being built in Telz, so they waited there for six weeks. Early one Saturday morning, they
were ordered out into the square. Thirty wagons had arrived. Five hundred women were selected to be sent to Telz. All the others were ordered to kneel, and suddenly a hail of bullets from machine guns mowed them down. With heartrending cries and the sounds of ‘Shema Israel’ on their lips, the women and children died. On that spot stands their mass grave. This massacre occurred on the 7th of Elul (September 1941). The writer sadly relates that among the martyrs were his mother Feige Chave, his sister Sarah, her daughter Miriam and his brother Feivel Wolf. He alone remains.
In Heidekrug, after a three weeks' stay there was another selection, the old being separated from the young. The former were told that they would be sent home, but instead were killed in Neustadt. After Rosh Hashanah, the weaker men were put to death, but 750 remained in Heidekrug for two years. From there they were sent to Warsaw, Auschwitz and Mildorf. In the end only 30 survived these ordeals.
This is a short and lamentable account of the destruction of Riteve. In deepest sorrow, we pray that these martyrs shall not be forgotten.
In the hands of the murderers
A feeling of horror overwhelmed me when I came face to face with my hometown Riteve. A stillness reigned as in a cemetery, little children were not to be seen any longer. I had not expected to see any of the townsfolk, but their absence cried out to me with a thousand voices. The streets were desolate, but I had a feeling that hundreds of ghosts were present. As I walked on, my footsteps echoed through the dead town, until my legs were unable to carry me any further. I was born in Riteve, which had a vibrant and lively Jewish community. Up until 1933, I was at a Hachsharah (preparation for life in a kibbutz in Palestine) camp in Shavli. From 1933 onwards I worked in Memel in the flax laboratory.
I left Riteve in 1941 and was employed as an electrical technician. I worked together with my wife and her sister in the region of Yokutska. I parted company from them and went to the front, where I took part in various battles from which I miraculously emerged in one piece. On 16 June, I was wounded and was laid up for six to seven months. I was wracked with pain and found no peace as I was very anxious about the fate of my family Thus I was homeless in Samarkand a fugitive till 1945. Finally I reached Vilna, where I was reunited with my wife and I worked there in a pharmaceutical laboratory till 1971.
Returning to Riteve after its destruction, I looked in vain for familiar faces, young and old; for the familiar faces ol my dearly beloved countrymen. Perhaps I'll see them in shul? I thought. Fortunately the shul building was still standing, but no sounds of Torah chanting were to be heard. There was simply no trace of Jews. The Lithuanians had converted the shul into a grain store. I walked on to
the school and here too there were no Jewish children; only Lithuanian gentiles were to be seen.
No longer were there traces of little shops which the Jews had owned, and there were no more Jewish artisans. I looked into the courtyards where I saw houses which I had previously known, but their owners were not there. And so I went to the graves. Maybe there I would uncover something… But I fled from there with sorrow in my heart.
In Riteve I met Chanan Shapiro and his wife, and also Rivka Lou who told me that Mishka Feivish had survived. They told me that many of the young people had been killed or had been buried alives. Rabbi Fundiler may his blood be avenged suffered pain, anguish and humiliation at the hands of the Nazi murderers. Half his beard was cut off and he was forced to dance in public. On the Sabbath on Poniver Road, alongside a little chapel, the revered rabbi was forced to chop wood in the forest and to drag the logs. He did not survive this great torment and humiliation and there he departed this life.
Riteve, a small and vital town with Iittle shops and small traders, was also possessed of great humanistic feelings and a zest for life. The people of Riteve had confidence in themselves and in the future. Generations of peaceful living had permitted the nurture of qualities such as scholarship, community life, love of Israel and strong family feelings. Their contribution to Jewish life was immeasurable. Wherever Riteve folk are found today, they are noted for having these fine attributes.
But the executioner came and with unimaginable brutality mowed down this vital community. All the Jews of Riteve were utterly annihilated and were buried in two mass graves, one for the men and one for the women.15 Each grave measures 18 metres in length and 5 metres in width. The women's grave is situated in the woods, and the inscription in Russian and Lithuanian reads: ‘Here lie those who perished by the hand of the Nazi murderers and their Lithuanian accomplices.’16
Chayka Mabush (may her memory be blessed), who died in Vilna, told me that she was lying in a pit with her mother and her niece. Everyone had been shot but the bullets had missed her. The Lithuanian guard, noticing that she was alive, whispered to her to lie still, and advised her to escape when it became dark. It was fortunate that he had recognised her as a sometime fellow worker under the Soviets.
Words cannot describe the pain and suffering which we endured. More than once, I despaired of life. I wanted desperately to lead a normal and independent life. We packed our bags and took to the road which was fraught with danger. We were smuggled over borders, crossing snowcapped mountains. We endured hunger and cold and, after much suffering, we arrived in our sundrenched land, the land of our fathers. Today I am a citizen of Beersheba and I frequently take stock of my life. I consider the path that my life has taken, and those things which I myself have seen.
The Germans, in their barbarism, killed, burnt and murdered helpless victims.
Thousands roamed around, hungry, fearful, nol knowing what the morrow would bring. I think constantly about the black day when Riteve was destroyed. Can there be any consolation for our pain?
A community deeply rooted over many years has been cut down. And the Heavens looked on and were silent, while the Earth swallowed all with their last sighs and cries of anguish. And afterwards the pale moon, silently and placidly shone over the mass graves in the ruined town. No, we cannot, nor will we ever forget. We shall always remember our fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. May their illustrious bravery be an inspiration.
Bereavement and homelessness
Yentel Gershovitz Alter
On 22 June 1941, when the Russians entered the war, all the Jews of Riteve fled to the surrounding villages. On 23 June, the Russians in their flight from the Germans set fire to Riteve. The town was almost totally destroyed except for a few houses. When the Germans invaded Riteve, they immediately issued a decree that no Lithuanian should give refuge to Jews and all the Jews had to return from the surrounding districts to Riteve.
The Germans immediately set up a committee, in which there were Lithuanian collaborators. The new committee ordered that all the Jews should register, with the result that all those who registered were not permitted to leave. They were locked up in a barn. The men were subjected to severe beatings and humiliation. Rabbi Shmuel Fundiler had half his beard cut off. His hat was torn off and replaced with an umbrella. He was then forced to burn his talit. The rest of the people were beaten and tormented. They suffered severe hunger and thirst, since they were not permitted to take any possessions along with them into the barn. We were kept in the bam for three days. On 27 June we were moved to Oginski's villa on the main street, where we were kept for four days.17 We suffered hunger continually, since the bread which the Lithuanians reluctantly distributed was mouldy and the socalled soup was water.
The strong ones among the men and women were sent to work in the town, to clean up the debris of the fire. They were ordered to gather all the religious books and talits and tefilin. The rabbi was forced to set fire to these religious treasures. Afterwards he was harnessed to a wagon loaded with garbage which he was then made to pull. He collapsed under this load, and suffered a heart attack. A Lithuanian collaborator shot him dead on the spot. Six young men were removed from the villa, accused of being Communists anil three of them were shot immediately. They were Felix Radiskansky aged 20 years, Herschel Gerber aged 29 years and Nachman Smoller. The rest had to dig their own graves and were then stabbed to death and thrown in. One of them was Moshe Katz.18
Most of ihe Jewish refugees were gathered in Rayin, a good 5 kilometres from Telz, where we met other people from the Lithuanian shtetlach. On 4 July many refugees were selected to go to Telz, the ablebodied on foot, and the weaker ones and children in wagons. We found on our arrival in Telz that many other Jews were gathered from the surrounding region. We were well received by them and given food and drink. That evening we were taken to Vishiviyan, since Rayin was earmarked for the people of Telz. We found Jews from areas such as Nornetver19 and others, totalling about 1,500 people. Here we again suffered hunger. The strong ones were sent to do hard labour in Telz.
On Monday 13 July, a truckload of Lithuanian collaborators arrived and hounded their victims backwards and forwards. They shot Yaakov Ber Girshowitz from Riteve and also Dr. Traub from Tvert and Itzikson from Telz. Two days later, on 15 July, a carload of Lithuanians and Germans arrived. They ordered the men and boys from 13 years of age and upwards to leave the barracks. They were driven to a nearby wood where they were put to death and buried in the previously dug graves. The next day documents and papers of the victims were found lying around the area. The women and children were driven to a village called Giroli, 7 kilometres away from Telz.
We remained there for six weeks. Our situation was appalling. We were kept in open barracks; the weather was bad; an epidemic broke out and many children died. We lived through terrible times and constant bad news added to our despair. Since there were no men among us, the women undertook every kind of work. They would travel into the town of Telz, accompanied by their Lithuanian captors, to obtain food. At the same time they secretly approached the bishop and pleaded with him to set up a ghetto for them in Telz. He promised to do whatever he could. Every night women took turns to be on guard duty at the barracks, because often the collaborators came in search of young women. When those on guard noticed the presence of these prowlers, they immediately sent a warning ahead, so that the young women had time to hide.
Friday, the 6th of Elul (September), when the women returned from the market, they reported hearing that the ghetto in Telz was ready and it had been decided that they would be transported there on Sunday. The mood in the barracks improved. On Saturday the 7th of Elul at 5 o'clock in the morning, our representative, Esther Bloch, entered, accompanied by one of the collaborators, and announced that Commandant Platokis demanded a sum of 30,000 roubles or else we would be shot. A great panic ensued, since we did not possess a sum of such magnitude. Everyone gave whatever she possessed in order to avert this evil decree. This sum was collected with great hardship, since we gave of our personal treasures in lieu of money. At seven o'clock, everyone was ordered to gather at the commandant's office. Here, the chief murderers of Telz awaited us, namely Vladas Yodakis and Vlodos Metkutzki. We were urged to remain calm as we were being sent to a ghetto in Telz. They promised a kindergarten for the
children while the adults would be given work. Now we were told to return to the barracks and to pack our bags for the trip, since the vehicles were standing by to transport the older women and the children. This was greeted with mixed feelings, since not everyone trusted their smooth promises.
The children were cheered up somewhat. They had been living with danger and threats of death. Now they were promised kindergartens. When everyone had packed, we were ordered to meet at the commandant's office and here we were ordered to kneel. Out of the whole crowd, 500 women under the age of 50 were selected to be sent to Telz. Young mothers were not allowed to take their male children with them. Some disguised their sons as girls and so got them through. Suddenly we heard shooting. There was great panic. The remaining 700 were all shot on the spot.
In Telz we were housed in a ghetto surrounded by barbed wire. A committee of five women was elected, with the Telz Rebbetzin (wife of the rabbi, generally active and acknowledged in her own right), Rachel Bloch, as chairman. Other members included Esther Bloch, Leah Koppel (now in Philadelphia) and Leah Fleisher. Women police maintained strict order. Many women were sent out to the surrounding districts as farm hands. This location was better than in Giroli because it was situated near the marketplace and the women were able to barter their last possessions with the Lithuanians through the wire fence.
On 2 December an order was issued to Lithuanian employers of Jewish workers that they be brought back to the Svekotos Potikrinti ghetto for medical inspection. The promise was that, after the New Year, the employers would be able to reemploy them. So, many women were returned to the ghetto. Some women, suspecting what lay ahead, managed to take refuge in other villages.
Back in the ghetto, no one was allowed out again. A message was received in the ghetto, warning that they would all be shot and a great panic ensued. Many tned to escape into the town. The guards turned a blind eye, because they knew that they could be rounded up quite easily. And so it was. On the evening of the same day, many of the escapees were brought back. Some managed to save their lives by taking refuge in villages among the peasants. Some managed to reach Shavli ghetto. On 14 December, the remaining women and children were transported to Rayin where they were all murdered.
I am one of those who escaped to Shavli.20
Thus the town was destroyed
In 1940 the Russians arrived. All the shops closed. Property was nationalised, goods sold off, only one school remained. The library closed down. No kosher slaughtering was available any longer. A cooperative was set up. Parcels of land
were given out to the disadvantaged, the youth went to work. Some people got up at 4.00 am for the morning prayers. Uri Gross, owner of the wealthy homestead, was replaced by the Communists who had intended taking the Zionists, but took the bourgeois instead. Slowly but surely the town emptied out; all the Jews' goods were sold off until all trade was discontinued. Anyone with a little money left to buy provisions was arrested.
On 22 June 1941 the Germans entered Riteve. It was 4.00 am. The town began to reverberate with the sound of cannon fire. Verza, near the border, refugees began arriving in town, penniless and barefoot. We began packing whatever we could put our hands on and loaded up the wagon to ready ourselves for escape. Our neighbour, Gershke Wolfovitz, helped my brother and me get on his wagon. We barely made it out of the village, reaching the town of Boderick where the neighbour had a sister. But it had already been destroyed and we managed to escape to the next village. It was from there, with much grief, that I saw our village go up in flames.
As a young woman, I personally experienced all the details I recall, and hereby record them from memory, in order to comprehend the extent of the tragedy.
I believe that to my dying day I will not be free of my memories. I review in my mind the efforts and prudence that were needed to keep my head above water, to survive, until the storm passed. I find it especially difficult to relate the details of the story which I personally went through, from the Russian occupation to the Nazi conquest to the day on which Riteve was destroyed.
How shaken I was in my grief to see the good citizens of Riteve, gentle, kind and loving mankind, give up their lives before their time, cruelly tortured. The first victim was my brother, Moshe Olshwang, may his blood be avenged. The second was Buka Babuv. The third was Rivkin. the husband of Rivka Schweitzen.
We returned to Dobrik. There were soldiers all along the way. Many Jews had hidden in the silo. Penniless, hungry and needy we wandered, barely walking the 4 kilometres to Riteve. Behind me walked a German; in one of the yards in Riteve we found a lot of Jews, some of whom managed to escape from time to time.
Many of the Jews of Riteve went to work in the Germans' kitchens. Jews were not allowed to walk on the town's sidewalks. Any goy who hated Jews, and there were plenty of those, joined the murderers. The Jews were sent in groups to Telz. I started wandering again 49 kilometres on foot, without food or water. A few hundred people would fight over one loaf of bread.
It went on like this for quite a long time new decrees each day, new
actions, new victims. From far and rear terrible reports arrived of slaughter and the liquidation of ghettos. The tired and homeless souls, wavering between life and death, retained their hope. So long as they deceived themselves with false hopes while heroically bearing the weight of the decrees, the wishedfor miracle and salvation had a chance of coming true.
In the meantime, the fire raged on in Riteve, the synagogue burned, the Beit Midrash remained standing. While they were still in the camp in Riteve, five girls were sent to clean up the Beit Midrash and were forced to burn the holy books kept there.
Then the ‘Aktionen’ began in Telz. Near Telz was the Ravin homestead where the people of Riteve were taken when the citizens of Telz were already in the camp. The first ‘Aktion’ was personal revenge on the part of the ‘nationalists’ from Riteve who got even with the youth of Riteve who held progressive views. From Rayin they were sent to Yasavian near Telz. And on the 20th of Tammuz all the men of Riteve were taken together with Jews from other towns; they were brutally tortured and gunned down.
After this cleansing action, the Nazis came, rounded up all the women left in town and lectured them on the Jew, the criminal, because of whom this whole disaster had come about. Because there were camps in the vicinity of Telz they were to be sent there. The old and weak women were sent to Giroli near Telz where they met their death. There were five work camps near Telz and any woman who fell ill or who was unable to work was immediately sent to Giroli. We faced fear, danger and death every minute of the day.
On 30 August 1941, the 7th of Elul, all the women in Giroli were put to death in the camp. Those at the homestead were brought to the ‘ghetto’ at Telz. Their names were put on a special list and they were put under the jurisdiction of the Lithuanian police. On the 4th of Kislev, late 1941, the murderers liquidated the ghetto of Telz as well, including the women working in the camps. The sword of death hovered over them all.
Then a messenger arrived from the ghetto of Telz and told my landlord that I was to go to the ghetto of Telz for a medical examination. My landlord, who took pity on me, said: ‘We are going to sleep. Take whatever you want, and go where you wish.’ Then I began wandering, until the Red Army came.
The moral suffering of the Jews in the ghettos was great. From behind ihe fence they saw how the Lithuanians took pleasure from the property of the Jews and built themselves from their ruins, while the wearers of the Yellow Star of David, the members of the cursed race, were imprisoned, hopeless, exhausted, awaiting their end. Anyone who did not personally experience the atrocities of the Nazis is incapable of fathoming what happened to us then. The days were grey and the nights were blackgrey.
Trembling, I record these memories of Riteve, the memory of my nevertobe forgotten loved ones. My heart, my heart goes out to you!
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