Rakishok, the Biggest Shtetl

by Cedric Ginsberg

(Jewish Affairs, February, 1988)

Researchers into the history of all South African Jewish community agree that most of the Jews of this country came here from Lithuania and neighbouring Latvia.

One of the towns in Lithuania from which South African Jews originated, was Rakishok. It was small but the biggest of the shtetlach in the surrounding area. It had a population of about 3,000 Jewish inhabitants, which was perhaps 50-60% of the total population.

Rakishok is situated in North-Eastern Lithuania, near the Latvian border. The nearest city is Dvinsk in Latvia. Looking at a map of Lithuania, the following towns lie within a radius of 50km from Rakishok: Salok, Utian and Kupeshik. A little further afield, perhaps 100km, are Poswohl, Ponevezh and Vilkomir, all in the north east of the country.

Shortly after the war, Rabbi Ephraim Oshry who lived in Kovno and survived the death camps published a book entitled Churbn Lite (The Destruction of Lithuania). Rabbi Oshry has been described in contemporary newspaper reports as the "last Rabbi of Kovno". From survivors, he collected as much information as he could of the history of the main cities and shtetlach of Lithuania. Included in this "chronicle" were the histories of the towns before 1939, and also descriptions of their destruction during the period 1939-1945 at the hands of the Nazis and their Lithuanian accomplices. He dealt with each of 44 cities and shtetlach in Lithuanian, and one of these was Rakishok. Rabbi Oshry spent some time in South Africa in 1947. He stayed with his brother Mr. Max Oshry, who lived in Troyeville. His experiences in the concentration camps, and his attempts after the war at reconstructing Jewish life, are described in articles appearing in the Zionist Record in August and September, 1947.

In recounting the history of Rakishok, he tells of a folk-legend about the early settlement of the Jews in the town. The shtetl he writes was not always situated in its present position. The story is told of the Countess Titoshevna, who was well-known as a soyne yisroel. One of her stewards had a son who used to play with a Jewish tailor’s lad. One day the children came to blows, as boys will, the tailor’s son beating his companion. The steward informed the Countess of the matter. She ordered the tailor to bring his son before her and instructed him to inform her when he would marry.

Several years later, on the day of his son’s wedding, the tailor sent word to the Countess. She duly arrived with her retinue, with a wagon load of wood. The wood was set next to the Chupe, and on this pyre the chosen-Kaleh were burnt to death. In grief and sorrow the Jews decided to leave the shtetl and to place a cherem on it. The wealthier Jews left immediately, the poorer ones moved a substantial distance away, and reestablished themselves. The "present" Rakishok is the new "yishuv". It is also told that the cemetery is on the site where the young couple was martyred.

Every town in Lithuania had it s own distinctions and Rakishok’s was that it had a large community of Hasidim. Most of the Jews in Lithuanian were mitnagdim, and so it was unusual to have so large a concentration of Hasidim in the town. The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe stayed in Rakishok for a while after having escaped from Russia. He was on his way to Riga. This sojourn raised the esteem of the shtetl, and people flocked from the surrounding areas (zu geben dem rebbe sholom, to greet the Rebbe), and to receive a brocha from him.

Rakishok was a town that boasted a Yeshiva. It was founded by Bershtik Zalkind, (who was, according to Rabbi Oshry, not a scholar in terms of the level of learning at the time). The Yeshiva served the whole of the surrounding area, and many of its graduates studied later at the great Yeshivas of Lithuania and Poland.

Rabbi Oshry quotes a description written by Avrohom Orelowitz, and published in die Afrikaner Yiddishe Zeitung. It is a whimsical, nostalgic account of the town on a shabbes afternoon. The townsfolk dressed in their shabbes clothes, walk to the markplatz from Yurdikegas and Neigas. Others sit on the stoep of Yankel der Zogotovchik and shmooze. The time for Mincha draws near, and the general movement is toward the Besmedrash. The shul is packed and quiet as the Rov delivers his droshe. And then Koppel der shuster, leads the congregation in davening Mincha. Rabbi Oshry’s focus was essentially religious, and he therefore concentrated on recording the expression of religious life in the shtetl.

In 1952, another book was published, which served to depict a more balanced reflection of shtetl life. This book, called Yizkor-buch fun Rakishok un Umgegent (Memorial Book of Rakishok and Environs), was published by the Rakishoker Landsmanshaft Society, under the chairmanship of the late Mr. R. Aarons. It is a collection of articles written by Rakishoker landsleit, in which they describe life in the shtetl and its surrounding towns. Many aspects of the shtetl way of life are covered by a wide range of contributors. The book deals mainly with the secular side of shtetl life, and there is a whole section devoted to "Social Cultural and Educational Institutions".

From its pages it emerges that there was a vital and vibrant secular life in this microcosm of Eastern European Jewish existence.

There was an article by Moshe Katz, concerning a cheder metukan (a "reformed" heder), which he ran for a brief period before World War I. The heder was "reformed" only in comparison with the traditional education of the Yeshiva, which concentrated on Limuei kodesh (religious studies). Reb Moshe taught his pupils until 6 pm each night. The syllabus included: Hebrew, Tanach, a blat gemore (a page of Talmud), bar-mitzvah training, Arithmetic, Yiddish and a little Russian.

In South Africa Reb Moshe’s first post, as a Reverend, was in Ophirton. In the 1940’s he served at the Braamfontein Shul as Rabbi, shochet, Chazan and teacher). Two further articles deal with the Russian Government School (entry for Jews severely restricted), and the Lithuanian Gymnasia, respectively. In one, Taibe Orlin-Kiel writes about her school-days. During World War I, the Germans had opened Tzwangshulen (compulsory schools) for all children. After the War, heders were once again opened, as well as the Tarbut school. Instruction was in Hebrew, and Biblical and modern Hebrew literature was taught. The education was Zionist orientated. Mrs. Orlin-Kiel also mentions the strong Hashomer Hatzair movement in the shtetl.

In the second article, Sara Spivak writes about the Kultur-Liga in the town. It was founded in 1919, and was well supported by the Arbiter Yugent (Working Youth) "who (after the War) had returned from various large Russian cities, where there was intensive political and social activity. The Revolution in Russia infused them with a new burst of social energy, enriched their ideas and fired in them the need for freedom and culture" (p. 222). A library was established, as well as a Yiddishefolkshul and evening classes for adults. Meir Nochum Katz was the driving force behind this movement.

Orke Nochumowitz writes about the Jewish contribution to the Left Movement. In 1923, the government was taken over by the Lithuanian authorities. They became aware of the radicalism of the Kultur-Liga, and banned it. They confiscated the library, and arrested the leaders. After the banning of the movement, a strong need for social activities emerged. A sports organization was therefore established as a front for continued Jewish socio-cultural activity. "The meeting-place of the sports organization became the home of the whole Jewish Leftist movement in the shtetl. Later on the Society of "Liebhobber fun Vissen" (Lovers of Knowledge) was established. Folkists, Yiddishists as well as people accepted by the Lithuanian regime were involved in this organization. The library was reopened, and the confiscated books returned.

Another very active organization was Maccabi. It was also established after World War I, and the publication of the Balfour Declaration. It was a markedly Zionist organization in orientation and in addition to its sporting activities, catered for many cultural and recreational undertakings as well. They organized evening classed where Hebrew, Jewish History and Yiddish literature were taught. Literary "Trials" were convened where literary works like Bontshe Shvaig by Peretz were discussed in a courtroom-like structure. There was an amateur dramatic group, and an orchestral group comprising violinists, a clarinet player, and a balalaika player, among others.

The same book deals also with the shtetlach in the vicinity of Rakoshik  - Ponedel, Dusiat, Antalept, Ponemunok, Sviadoshz, Anushishok, Yuzint, and Natzunishok. Some of these place names do not even appear on a standard map of Lithuania, yet they had a Jewish presence.

The warp and weft of Jewish life and culture, together with the tapestry of life in the towns and cities of Eastern Europe has been annihilated. It was rich in religious life. Talmudic scholarship and Yiddishkeit (in the religious sense). Its secular Jewish existence flourished as well. In most cases secular activity was inextricably bound up with a strong Jewish consciousness. If an Eastern European Jew became a socialist, he usually chose one of two paths: he synthesized Socialism with his strong feeling of commitment to the establishment of the Jewish Homeland, and became a Zionist Socialist; or he synthesized Socialism with his strong commitment to secular Jewish Nationalism through the Yiddish language and worker solidarity. In general terms, then, whatever his approach or choice, it was made within a specifically Jewish frame of reference. Such was the all pervading influence of the Jewish component of life in Eastern Europe in the first three decades of the 20th century.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies has come by several copies of this book (in Yiddish): Yizkor-Buch fun Rakishok un Umgegent, from Mrs. R. Aarons who served on the Rakisker landsmanshaft committee responsible for its publication. Members of the public who would like to acquire a copy may contact the Board.

The following sources were used to compile the above:

1.  Oshry, Rabbi Ephraim, Churbn Lite, New York, 1951.

2. Yizkor-Buch fun Rakishok um Umgegent, Johannesburg, 1952.

3. Encyclopaedia Judaica.

NOTE:  The author, Cedric Ginsberg, is Professor, Department of Classical, Near and Far Eastern and Religious Studies, University of South Africa, Pretoria.  
Published with permission of David Saks, Executive Editor, Jewish Affairs, Beyachad, South African Jewish Board of Deputies, Johannesburg, South Africa.

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