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Tales of Goniadz

by Mordechai Nilovitzki, Haifa

Translated by Amy Samin

A. The Hebrew School

The school in Goniadz was an original creation - not an imitation of some foreign example, nor according to any other kind of model, but was rather created out of a very specific need and that was its magic for all of those who took part in the work. It was not a Tarbut School, it was established before the founding of Tarbut in Russia, and about four years prior to the founding of Tarbut in Poland. The unique character with which it was imbued at its founding was preserved for many years. Even though the teachers changed frequently, the school's advancement continued in the same direction and trend that it had had from the beginning. In its momentum and scope, the Hebrew School in Goniadz was different from all of the other Hebrew schools.

One institution, founded at about the same time as the school in Goniadz, was the Hebrew School of Lodz, which was started by the poet Yitzhak Katznelson of blessed memory. But what was the significance of one school among many in a large city and the one and only school for the children of a town? The school in Goniadz was, for much of its existence, the only source

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of education and knowledge for the Jewish children there. For only about the last ten years of its existence there was a Yiddish school, but the Hebrew School's standing as the first could never be undermined.

And I can tell you something about its position among all of the other schools in the country.

As is known, a network of schools sprang up along the geographic margins of Poland. In Congress Poland and Galicia there were almost no Hebrew schools for a very long time. And yet I had the opportunity to become well acquainted with a fair number of Hebrew educational institutions in Volhynia, on the outskirts of Vilna, in Bialystok and in Pinsk. The schools in Volhynia were reasonably modern, but they were established by Tarbut in Moscow, before the region became separated from Russia. In Vilna and its surroundings, there were local arts schools, but their tone was more local and relatively irregular. They had one significant good thing about them – they were the natural continuation of the heder [religious elementary school] and the modern heder. The most advanced

 

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Teacher M. Nilovitzki and His Class

 

and modern were the schools around Bialystok and Pinsk, and it is natural to think that the school in Bialystok itself would be at the top level. But it is known that in the establishment of the first Hebrew public school in Bialystok those who had the greatest part were the founders of the school in Goniadz.

To date, there has been no written record made of the history of this special school, and certainly many have already forgotten the memories of the past due to the frequent change of teachers and management. And that is a shame!

Correcting the distortion of the neglected past is possible only through systematic study supplemented with the obtaining of evidence and written documents. Thank God more than a few of the teachers are still among the living (Mr. Moshe Levin and Shmuel Sakliot, Mrs. Shteigman-Sakliot, the columnist M.Z. Golman, Peretz Sandler, H.S. Raigrodski-Barkai, Aryeh Arad (Axelrod)), community leaders and students. I also have close to hand: copies of minutes, children's newspapers, letters and photographs; of course, others have such items as well.

Altogether, I worked in Goniadz for about five years, which was about one fifth of the school's years of existence. According to the distribution of my working years, indeed I was the last of the first (the years 1920 – 1921), after receiving my commission directly from Mr. Moshe Levin, and my three years of work later on (1930 – 1932). I was the last in and the first out. Also

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during the eight years' break (1922 – 1929) I was not completely out of touch with the school. I had contact both in person and through letters from pupils and teachers and public figures; those letters have remained in my possession ever since. Because of all that, I believe I have been given the opportunity to describe the history of the school from my own perspective.

 

B. How was the Idea Realized?

A Hebrew school – the idea seemed clear to those in the know. No need to continue running after students from the heder system (even the modern heder). For those more advanced, the heder had basically ceased to exist. And what an insult it was, that an advanced, intelligent people with an ancient cultural heritage, would move to the institutions of foreigners – beneath them in terms of education – to teach their sons reading, writing and arithmetic, and even there not be able to find a spot! And even if you accept the decree that the beginning of wisdom and knowledge is in the study of the alphabet of a foreign language – in the words of Bialik – there still remains the question: which foreign language? Russian, German or Polish? And even so, we were then in the period of the First World War, when it was still impossible to know to which country the portions of the land currently occupied by the Germans would belong. Therefore, those people had no choice but to have a school of their own, and this of course must be based on the agreement of

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the cultural values of the entire people from time immemorial and on their national language, and not upon part of the culture of a small portion of the people during a brief historic time, and in Yiddish.

A number of capable people were found, including the veteran, experienced teacher Mr. Moshe Levin, who took upon himself the role of establishing the Hebrew school. He hesitated over the monumental size of the task, and only after consulting with his young friends who promised to give him all the help they could, did he agree to accept the offer of the position. Then the group came together, Moshe Levin together with Y. M. Cohen, Shimon Halfran and Yonatan Neiman who brought along Shmuel Skaliot, a student of the pedagogical courses in Grodno who had tarried in Goniadz as a war refugee. The principal's wife, Hinka, (she and her husband established the first Hebrew home in Goniadz and then later in Bialystok), did her part in the work of helping the students who were struggling, so that they could remain in the school. And still there were not enough resources.

 

C. The School and Its Area of Influence

The Goniadz Hebrew Primary School – that was the name

 

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Teacher A. Gevirtzman and his Class

 

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given when it was founded, and that is what it was called for as long as it was in existence. The school maintained a level and method of instruction that was in no way inferior to that of any other culture. The founders had in mind the curriculum of educational institutions in the Holy Land, which was secular in nature and there was no need to publicly emphasize such agnosticism. In Goniadz, for example, they did not study sacred subjects bareheaded [i.e. without wearing a yarmulke] and, as a matter of fact, they always showed respect for the holy aspects of the people. That being the case, there was no longer a need for the heders, and even the sons of rabbis attended the school. And it truly was popular; no one remained outside its walls from any strata, not for spiritual reasons or for financial reasons. Hebrew was the language, a simple and clear Hebrew without hesitation or unnecessary phrases. The writing of the pupils which has been preserved – for over fifty years! – is in no way deficient in comparison with the Hebrew used today in Israel. A significant emphasis was placed on language, on literature, on biblical verse, and on history. At various times they also taught Mishnah and Talmud. The school caused the permeation of Hebrew – to the home, the shops, the street, the society of young men and women, and even more so to the public institutions. It was possible to live in Goniadz and not know any other language. The graduates of the school promoted the

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Hebrew language in the training farms throughout Poland, from whence came teachers. An excellent library was founded in Goniadz, as were theatrical groups which put on performances in Hebrew, also in the surrounding areas. There were parties to welcome the Sabbath, as well as literary and practical speeches, literary discussions, newspapers, and journals for children. Someone might say, “provincial art”, and it's possible that we ourselves belittled those things at the time, and concerned ourselves instead with other matters that seemed important at the time, and with financial enterprises and the like. In any event, this created a good social atmosphere – we didn't settle down with cards

 

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The Tarbut School of Goniadz 1928

 

and as a result of that, “modern” matters. Hehalutz, Hehalutz Hazair, pioneering moshavim [settlements], “Youth Days” – all of these were a part of the school, and in all of them the teachers and employees played an active role. During Sukkot 1931 there was a Tarbut conference in Warsaw where for the first time a pioneering group was established, initiated and run by a core group from Goniadz. Thus, an island of modern Hebrew grew up in and around the school, whose influence spread out far and wide from there.

However, that school, whose destiny it was to raise a generation of

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pioneers who built our country, did not exist in a vacuum: it was the fruit of the labor of common sense combined local social forces and was used as a fulcrum and a anvil for the local public in its struggle for real national autonomy. It must be remembered that during the days of the German government (1915), many special schools for Jewish children were opened in the neighboring cities with instruction in German, and a few in Yiddish which was like a form of German, from which were created typical Yiddish schools as they were known later. All of those schools were, of course, closed when the Polish government took over. The new government thought they would just as easily destroy the Hebrew school in Goniadz, and to further that goal they opened a Polish school for Jewish children. But they came up against the vigorous opposition of the entire public – the community leaders, the parents, and the children themselves. The matter reached the representative of the Jews in the capital and in the Sejm, and after a prolonged struggle the school was reopened. The Polish school closed for lack of pupils, and “Israel gained its inheritance”…It is no coincidence that among the leaders of the organizers of the autonomous community in the Bialystok region, the leaders of the Goniadz community held prestigious positions (an important note

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from Yeroham Levin of blessed memory: “At the time of the German occupation, all of the places in the area were under the uberhost verwaltung [over-host administration]. There, the Germans opposed the Hebrew school, although Goniadz, which was included in the area of Poland, was able to open a Hebrew school. That possibility was given to every place in the same range, but the others did not have enough desire for such.”)

 

D. The Goniadz Community

Goniadz was different from the neighboring towns and cities, with which it was very familiar. On my arrival there one fine Spring day, I was impressed with the scenery, the Bobra [Biebrza] River curved to the foothills in the East, with the lively and vivacious youth and – most of all – with the school!

Goniadz was a typical border city. The elders of the city maintained the custom from the start of the previous century, when after Poland was divided the city changed from Prussian hands to Russian, and so forth, and on the walls of the synagogue could be found signs leftover from the wars. In the World War of 1914, Goniadz and the Osowiec Fortress were in close proximity to the line of fire, and many of its citizens fled to nearby towns. When the Russians left the line of the Bobra, the Germans took control of the area. Three years later, a third side – the Poles – came and occupied the place without lifting a hand. Soon the Russian wave returned for a time – in new packaging - claiming ownership of their little brother, the Belorussian. The Lithuanians also tried to make a claim, and so a place that was claimed by three kingdoms, was actually ours, and none of the other peoples in the area were able to impress their cultural stamp upon us, the Jewish population there. We left our mark there, and created a Hebrew school, in which we had complete spiritual control. Its spiritual fortress – insofar as we could have one in the Diaspora – was destroyed at the hands of those who were not spiritual at all. But the work we invested in the quarter-century (1915 – 1939) of its existence was not in vain. And the part of the Hebrew School in Goniadz in the process of our cultural rejuvenation is not negligible at all.

The Jewish community of Goniadz, which arose in the

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environment of society, and state, with the influences of various nationalist policies, was the most independent in terms of modern national integrity. It was never felt that we lived within the range of Polish culture. It's possible that the Jews of Goniadz did not see themselves as Polish Jews. Moreover, at one time they certainly felt themselves to be Jews of Russia, so in the days of the extensive Russian Empire, when an abundance of income and affluence flowed from the Osowiec Fortress and their trade relations with the large cities of Russia were strong. But even then there was no adherence to Russian culture or any blurring of the Jewish consciousness; they were far from devoted to the lords of the land.

Goniadz was a modern, educated community – education acquired, of course, through independent study. There were wonderful types of autodidacts, people knowledgeable in the law, etc. there, including teachers, and there were attempts to establish modern educational institutions, partially in the format of a modern heder. Not surprisingly, it was here the need for a Hebrew school was felt most acutely. The presentation of Reb Yaacov Rudesky – a Torah scholar and knowledgeable man, a completely educated personality – who was a candidate for the rabbinate, can only be imaginable in Goniadz. Although he was not chosen - and it is only natural that as a local figure he would have opponents including the man who held the position before as head of the rabbinate, a great Torah scholar, a wise man, respected and enlightened, Rav Wolff of blessed memory – he could have graced a large and important community.

The population of Goniadz was an active one, lively and connected to the broader world. Once, there had been trade relations branched out throughout Russia, which furthered the establishment of spiritual connections with people of action in the yet-to-be-built Land of Israel. Goniadz was also represented in the pioneering section by one of its brightest sons, Yaacov Toker, one of the heroes of Tel Hai, the son of a widow of Goniadz. It was common to find there people who took bold action, imaginative people. In other words: people of action who also had vision, vision that could be made reality. They, of course, belonged to the upper strata, the commercial and the affluent. They were also homeowners, whose income to some extent was based on nature: owners of water stations, orchards, milk cows, and so on. Also common was income from the marketplace, and they were peddlers in the nearby villages and also craftsmen: carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers and tailors,

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including village tailors. Types of Mendele: the village tailor Isaac Nefha, and Hertzl the Carpenter, and their ilk, as well as characters from nature like Moshe Stabasky, “Laban the Aramean” – which stirred the hearts of the children and their creative imagination.

Earlier, pioneers – good ones – from Goniadz had immigrated to the Land of Israel. Since then, the flow has not ceased. Among them

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were merchants and artists, and those holy instruments, the people who left, were people of action, founders of enterprises, foremen of major factories, people who did great things in the Haganah, members of the kibbutzim and founders of moshavim, exemplary artists, young women who acclimated well to farming, teachers, kindergarten teachers, school principals – men and women with drive. In short, typical of the youth of Goniadz.


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A Cherished Town

by Arieh Arad (Axelrod)

Translated by Selwyn Rose

I knew Goniadz intimately. For two whole years I lived there. I was engaged as the manager of the “Tarbut” school until the day World War II broke out. On September 1st 1939 I left town.

For two whole years I shared their joys and their sadness together with them; they were very close to my heart. I discovered in that town a national–cultural life, lively and effervescent. Among themselves her youngsters spoke rich, correct Hebrew. Songs of Eretz–Yisrael were heard in the streets and squares in the evenings. The “Hechalutz” [“Pioneer”] organization …from among whose ranks, magnificent cultural work was done, with the best of their youth being sent to Palestine.

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Her Jews donated generously to national foundations. And above all – the local “Tarbut” school, in which the town's children acquired knowledge and wisdom in their people's tongue, was a national cultural center for the town. The children created a Hebrew–speaking group – “B'nei Yehuda” that took upon itself to speak Hebrew not only in school but also with their parents and acquaintances and thus, the sounds of the Hebrew language was heard throughout the town's streets. The teachers were not satisfied with the regular curriculum alone but introduced several different extra–curricular activities for the pupils in the evenings. Graduates of the school would come on Shabbat and festivals to hear Torah readings from the counselors and the teachers. Next door to the school a course was instituted for the town's family heads of families to study Torah. Among the participants were community leaders under the tutelage of Zelig Niewodovski. On one side stood the community Rabbi, Shlomowitz and on the other, the writer of these lines. Together they discoursed on the Torah…

Grief over the cherished town that is no more…


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The Yiddish School and People's Library

by Leibl Mankowski

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund

 

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The beautiful, colorful Jewish communal life in Goniadz drew its spiritual nourishment from the daily problems as well as from the various generational wells of knowledge that help to develop and validate the social and spiritual life of the shtetl [town].

The ideals and ideas of the various strata of the population came to expression in their activities. I will illustrate several of them here.

The erection and support of a Hebrew school and library and, later at the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish children's school helped enrich and elevate the general spiritual life in the shtetl to a higher level of achievement.

Leadership strength moved into the foreground during the process of this and other accomplishments;

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that with their capabilities and with their sincere sensible relationship to the needs and problems of the time, many contributed to the improvement and beautification of city life, often with self-sacrificing efforts.

One of those beautiful leading personalities, who won the love and respect of the entire city population, was Leibl Mankowski. Although he belonged to the Bund

 

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Founders of the Jewish School Organization (YSHO - Yidishe Shul Organizatsye) in Goniadz, 1921

From the right: Borukh Trachimowski, Yankl Trachimowski, Alter Michnowski, Shimeon Jewrejski, Nekhemia Atlas, Henokh Gelbard, Leibl Mankowski, Moshe Feywl Bialosukenski, Josl Alszanicki, Leyzer Trachimowski, Sholem Grobard, Yankl Ruwin)

 

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whose ideology stood in contradiction to the ideas of other groups, both on the right and on the left, particularly of the Zionists, this did not disturb the friendly and most respected relationship of everyone to him.

Leibl Mankowski always stood in the front rows of the workers, artisans and, in general, with the ordinary people and worked with them with all his strength to reach the achievements which they recorded in the economic and in the cultural realms. He particularly, contributed much to the founding of the Yiddish People's Library and Jewish Children's School.

These two institutions enriched the cultural life in Goniadz, fulfilling their assignments with success: systematically presenting the reader with the latest Yiddish books from the best Yiddish writers, as well as from world literature, which had been translated into Yiddish. And providing good teaching personnel and appropriate Yiddish and general scholars for the children's school.

In an indirect way, the two institutions helped expand the cultural life in Goniadz but

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the support and the constant expansion of these institutions brought great expenses that the low tuition or, in relation to the library, members' dues, could not cover. Even the support of the American landsleit [people from the same town], which was received from time to time, could not cover the deficits. A dramatic circle was founded for this purpose which, in a short time, presented capable young men and girls who produced performances from time to time for fully packed rooms; sometimes in the Polish school and sometimes in Yankl Rudski's piwowarnje (beer brewery). They would also sometime travel to give a performance in the nearby shtetl of Trestiny [Trzcianne].

The school children would also present Chanukah and Purim performances with the help of their teachers.

Leibl Mankowski played a very great role in all of the undertakings. The events not only covered the deficits of the above-mentioned institutions, they also brought a great deal of joy and encouragement to the shtetl.

Leibl Mankowski was also a correspondent of the Warsaw Folks Zeitung [People's Newspaper], as well as the Bialystoker Shtime [Bialystok Voice].

For a time he was also a councilman in Goniadz city hall.

He died young, after a long illness, in his late 20s. But most of those who worked with him perished at the hands of the Nazi murderers along with all of Jewish Goniadz. They were all loved and dear to us without difference and they will eternally remain etched in our memory.

 

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