A Brief History

Early beginnings
The first Jews are said to have come into Lithuania in the 12th century as refugees from the atrocities of the crusaders.  Compact settlements appeared in the early 14th century, when many Jews came among artisans from Western Europe.  Privileges granted to the Jews by Duke Vytautas (Witold) the Great approved equality of their religious and civil rights and exempted synagogue and cemetery land from taxes.  Thereafter Lite served for centuries as an asylum for Jews from all over Europe, where they sought and found refuge from persecution and hostility. 

The first known record of Jews in Ritavas itself dates back to 1662, when they numbered 421.  By 1897 they constituted 80% of the population:  the census of 1895-7  recorded 1,397 Jews in the town out of a total population of 1,750.

The nineteenth century
B efore 1861, all land in the Russian Empire was owned exclusively by the Tsar and the aristocracy.   In West Lithuania the aristocrats were Polish.  Although the serfs were emancipated in 1861, few could afford to pay the money required for the redemption of the land, and at  the turn of the century almost half the land was still in the hands of Polish and Russian landowners.

In Ritavas the poretz  who owned the town's lands and neighbouring estates from 1812 - 1909 was one or other member of  the Oginski family.  Count Mykolas Kleopas Oginski purchased the lands in 1812, and these passed to his son Irenaeus (Yeronim) (1808 - 1863).  Irenaeus was an anti-semitic tyrant who was much feared by the local Jewish community.  On one occasion, when he felt himself offended by the Jews of the town, he sent a group of servants into the Beit Hamidrash, and they removed the holy articles and let a herd of pigs loose in it.  The building was then used as accommodation for his staff. On another occasion he had the old cemetery ploughed up.   In 1863 an attempt by the Tsar to conscript young Poles into the army led to a revolt which Irenaeus supported, and in an attempt to provide arms for the rebels, he began to pave the road that led to Memel and the Baltic Sea.  The Tsar sent some Cossacks to arrest him, but Irenaeus committed suicide before they got to him.  This coincided with Purim, and the Jewish community celebrated the death of both Haman and Irenaeus.

But despite this, Iranaeus did a great deal for the town.  The Oginski palace was actually in the town itself, separated by a large pond.  The family spent a great deal of money beautifying the town.  The streets and market place were paved with river stones, and they established a large park, with antiquities and hothouses.  (After the 1914-18 War it became an agricultural college). Many of the contributors to the Ritavas Yizkor Book recall having spent pleasant days there, although this would have been in the early 20th century.  Many flower beds were also established.  In the centre of the town Iranaeus also built a Catholic Church with a spire so high that it could  be seen from miles away.

Iraneaus was in many respects progressive: he abolished serfdom on his land as early as 1835, long before it was abolished in the rest of Russia.  He encouraged the opening of the first six savings-banks to be opened in Lithuania.  In 1846 he supported the publication of the first calendar in Lithuania, and 10 years later, the first weekly newspaper (prohibited soon afterwards by the Tsar). 

His son Bogdan who succeeded him was more liberal towards the Jews of the town.  He permitted them to build a new Beit Hamidrash, which was added as a wing to the existing synagogue.  He was a great innovator.  In 1859 he developed the first professional music school, and by 1885 they had developed a 60-piece orchestra.  He installed electric lights, not only in his palace, but also in the streets of the shtetl:  Ritavas was the first town in Lithuania to have electric lights - even before Kovno.  In 1882 the first telephone line in Lithuania was opened between  Ritavas, Plunge, Kretinga and Palanga.  Bogdan also established a fire brigade.  Fires were a common hazard as most of the houses were built of wood, and the roofs of wooden shingles, so that every village had been devastated by fire, often more than once.  The fire brigade saved the shtetl from many potential disasters, but the town was nevertheless destroyed by fire in 1911, when the fire brigade was away dealing with a fire that had broken out in a nearby forest.

As early as 1590 Ritavas had been permitted to hold a market on two days a week, and an annual fair.  Nearly all the Jews lived in the town, and they made their living by trading with the non-Jewish farmers who would come to the market to barter their produce wit the Jewish shop-keepers, tailors, cobblers and craftsmen. 

The community prided itself as a centre of learning and scholarship.  They took their Torah studies seriously, and many of its inhabitants were experts in the Mishnah.  Many notable scholars were either born in Ritavas or lived there.

The 1914-18 war

In 1915 German troops occupied Lithuania.  The Jewish community now found itself experiencing greater freedom.  Access to Memel was easier, and they were able to extend the scope of their trading.  The Germans also established a German school, and many of the Jewish community went there to learn to speak German.


From 1918 to 1941 — the Lithuanian state
The end of the First World War saw the establishment of the independent state of Lithuania.  The Jewish community continued to enjoy greater freedom.

In 1918 Count Zalutski took over the town from the Oginski family  and returned the old Beit Hamidrash to the Jewish community.  In 1925, when some young members of the community decided to organize a local Maccabi, he provided a football field and even became a goal keeper of the local football team.

With the greater freedom of movement the Jewish traders were now able to buy goods in Memel, and as one contributor to the Yizkor book put it, "suddenly they became wholesalers".  But their apparent profits disappeared in 1923 when the Germany mark (still the currency in use) fell dramatically, and they lapsed back into poverty. 

The community of Ritavas was in great need, but received assistance from a benefactor, a Mr Kruskal from Frankfurt am Main, who had been born in Ritavas.  He put a large sum of money at the disposal of the community, and left it to them to decide how to spend it.  A public meeting decided to spend it on a Talmud Torah and a house for the rabbi.


The extermination of the community by the Nazis

On Monday 22 June 1941 the German army invaded Russia.  Close behind the troops came four Einsatzgruppen - units formed specially to implement a drastic new policy of exterminating Jews which had been adopted only a few months previously by Hitler.  On the northern front (which included Lithuania) was Unit A.  Ritavas, being closed to the border, was one of the first towns to suffer the consequences of this new policy.  On 23 June  fire destroyed all but a few houses.  Some say this was because the fleeing Russians set fire to the town, others say that it was the result of the German bombardment. 

Many of the Jews fled also, but could find little assistance elsewhere, and returned to the destroyed village, where they were beaten, humiliated and tormented by the Germans and a number of willing Lithuanians. The testimony of eye-witnesses, as recorded in the Yizkor book, is not always consistent in detail, but it would seem that the community was rounded up on 27 June and confined in Oginski's villa.  Six young men were removed from the villa, accused of being communists, and were put to death, three being shot immediately, and the others stabbed after having made to dig their own graves. 

A number of Jews  were ordered to collect all the religious books, the taleisim and tefilin.  The Rabbi, Shmuel Fundiler, had half his beard cut off, he was made to burn what had been collected, and was forced to dance in public.  He was then forced to cut logs and drag a load of logs.  He collapsed under the load, and suffered a heart attack.

By the second week, the men were separated from the women and were sent to Heidekrug, a small village near Memel, together with the men from a number of surrounding shtetlach.  After three weeks, the old were separated from the young, and were killled in Neustadt.  After Rosh Hashana, there was another selection, and of the remaining men, the weak were put to death.  Approximately 750 remained in Heidekrug for about  two years, and were then sent to Warsaw, Auschwitz and Mildorf.  By the time the war ended, there were only 30 survivors.

The women were sent first to Telz, and later to Vishtivian, a small village nearby, and then to Giroli together with women from other villages.  After six weeks, on 7 Ellul (September 1941), 500 of the women were selected to be sent back to Telz, and the others were killed by machine gun fire.

Those who were taken back to Telz were housed in a barbed wire compound, but many were sent out to work as farm hands in the surrounding area.  On 2 December 1941 their employers were told to send them back, but a number managed to escape to the Siauliai ghetto.  On 14 December those remaining in Telz were taken to Rayin, where they were all executed.

In compiling this history I have drawn heavily on notes contributed to, and witness testimonies collected in, the Yizkor book for Ritavas edited by Alter Levite. 

The first edition, published in Israel in 1977, was largely in Hebrew and Yiddish.  A revised  edition, edited by Dr Dina Porat and Ronib Stauber, translated into English and supplemented by additional articles, was published by The Kaplan-Kushlick Foundation in 2000.

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Webpage compiled by  Sam Aaron  February 1999    Last Update: March 2020