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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.