I was born in Goniadz to my parents, Elihu-Nechamia son of Shimon Halpern, and Chanah-Chaya, daughter of Reb Moshe Hillel. My father of blessed memory was one of a few well-educated men in our town, and was known as a man of books and languages. He was involved in the meetings of Russian intelligentsia in our town. He made a meager living through teaching, therefore my mother was inclined to offer her assistance and strength in earning an income, and together they were able to provide for the family.
When I was twelve I completed my studies in the heder [elementary school], and my father of blessed memory continued my education in Judaic studies and in secular subjects as well.
There was a Russian elementary school in our town that had only three classes, and only the children of Polish families studied there. I decided that I would be the first Jew to study in the state school in our town, and since my father of blessed memory was a crony of the principal of the school, he lobbied for my acceptance as a student, and his request was granted.
I was the first and only Jew among hundreds
of Catholic students, boys and girls, but I tolerated my isolation in silence. The teacher received me warmly, since he was used to meeting my father of blessed memory on a daily basis at the postmaster's or in the rooms of the Catholic priest, Josef Malishowitz. He knew the Hebrew language fluently and was a righteous gentile. He was a lover of the Jewish people who suffered at the hands of his own kind for his tolerance of Jews.
The other Jewish children my age became jealous of me, that I was a student at the school, and let me know that they also wanted to study there.
With the help of my father of blessed memory, I lobbied on behalf of my friends, that they also be accepted into the school. I was successful in my efforts. The following academic year the number of Jewish students reached eighteen, in spite of the opposition of the Catholics who objected.
Thus began the first breath of the spirit of Haskalah [Enlightenment] in our town.
The Goniadz Hebrew School that was founded during the First World War (in 1915), and which existed until the Holocaust, excelled, as is known, with its very high level of achievement. All of the Goniadz young people who emigrated to Eretz-Yisroel during that period of time were actually former students of that school.
But historically this was not the first Hebrew school in our shtetl [town]. The very first Hebrew school in Goniadz was actually Gdalke Kozlowski's Kheder Metukan [improved religious school] where we learned loshn kodesh [the holy language – Hebrew]. A new approach to Jewish education in Goniadz began with Gdalke's school. The school existed from around 1901 until close to the First World War. I can write about the school from intimate acquaintance because I was one of its first students.
The founding of the Kheder Metukan truly signified a revolution in our shtetl. It is true that there was no active opposition to the divergence of the kheder [traditional religious school – khederim is the plural form] from the old style, but there were enough people in the shtetl who related to it with suspicion. Despite the fact that the founders and supporters of the Kheder Metukan were themselves pious Jews.
In 1957 it is difficult to show how much daring and effort was demanded more than half a century ago that only a few people could break down the Chinese wall represented by the traditional kheder, both as a fortress and a protection against foreign influences – from outside.
In kheder – in the best case – a child could learn Khumish with Rashi [the Torah with Rashi's commentary], a little of the Prophets and the Writings and sometimes a little of the Gemara [Talmudic commentaries]. The knowledge of loshn kodesh that a child could acquire there was very limited. (In a few khederim children were taught to write Yiddish, do calculations and sometimes also Russian. The supplementary education was supposed to teach a child to write a Yiddish letter and a Russian address. A teacher would come to certain khederim for an hour a day for this purpose).
Such an educational scope did not satisfy a number of people in Goniadz. Efroim Halpern, of blessed memory, with whom a son grew up, his first-born son, Josef, whom he wanted to give a more modern education in loshn kodesh, was particularly dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction led to the founding of the Kheder Metukan.
It is known that of all of the surrounding shtetlekh [towns], Goniadz excelled with its spirit of the Haskalah [Enlightenment], which reigned there. It is difficult to say with certainty how this came to Goniadz. A hypothesis that the nearness to Krepost Osowiec [Osowiec Fortress] with its large number of Russian military men, from whom the shtetl drew its income, brought new winds to Goniadz. But one thing is
sure – that the Zionist spirit which ruled over the shtetl since the publication of Doctor Herzl was the decisive factor. For Zionism two things were necessary: the settlement of Eretz-Yisroel and the revival of Hebrew.
Since that time it is an indisputable truth of more than half a century, but I remember how a number of young people would stroll around on the synagogue hill with Hebrew books in their hands I remember several of them by name, such as: the four sons of Reb Gdelia the rabbi – Moshe-Meir, Pinkhas, Zalman and Welwl; the four sons of the wife of the religious judge; Dovid Rudski, and Moshe Lewin (Klewanker). (Abraham, the son of the wife of the religious judge, and Moshe Lewin now live in Israel.)
I also remember Yehoshua Sufraski as if in a dream. He left for deep Russia during my time – to Kursk. Later, he became a Zionist leader (a colony near Ramat Gan is named Neve Yehoshua for him).
The pious in the shtetl also looked at Zionism with suspicion because this meant the delay of the end of the Diaspora by sinful deeds. But the spirit of the time conquered: Goniadz became Zionist and the Kheder Metukan was founded and remained a permanent institution, parallel with the khederim.
Gdalke Kozlowski was one of the younger ones among the maskilim [followers of the Enlightenment] and the son of a teacher at a religious school (his father was Chaim Hersh the Melamed) and Efroim chose him as the appropriate teacher for the Kheder Metukan. The choice was a good one. Gdalke showed himself to be a capable pedagogue. The students loved and respected him and automatically listened to him.
It does not have to be said that the Kheder Metukan was religious in essence and that we studied in hats. We began the mornings with praying
Shakharis [daily morning prayer] out loud – understand, with the correct vocal music. After this we studied Torah (Khumish [The Five Books of Moses]) and Tanakh [Prophets, Writings]. We studied Khumish according to the textbooks of M. B. Sznajder, in which all the new words in each chapter were translated into Yiddish. There were also the inclinations of the old paper documents and the edicts of the verbs. We filled entire notebooks with the usual exercises and what we learned in childhood certainly had a great effect on our knowledge of Hebrew. There were also stories in Yiddish in the same schoolbooks, which the students had to translate into Hebrew. It should be understood that the spoken language in school was Yiddish.
Gdalke would actually capture the hearts of the children by reading stories from the Hebrew children's newspapers, Oyem Kotn [Small World] and HaKhaver [The Friend]. Hebrew songs were an important subject in Gdalke's school. There we sang all of the Songs of Zion that were then popular.
We sat in a modern school on seats that we would call skamyeikis [benches] in Russian. These benches helped to create the character and the atmosphere of the school. There were regular breaks in the learning and the ring of a bell would call us back to studying. If a child received a punishment, it, too, was in a modern way – with a lineyke (ruler), or by being placed in a corner. When there was more than one boy in the school with the same name, an alef, a beis, a gimel [a, b, c] and so on were added to the name (for example: Moshe alef, Moshe beis).
We behaved according to the order of the Russian school in more than an external respect. For example, we also
went home at three thirty in the afternoon and we would have a great deal of homework to do, such as: writing development, learning poems and pieces of Tanakh by heart and translating (Aramaic translations of the Bible) from Yiddish to Hebrew. Gdalke's students did not actually have more free time than the boys in the khederim.
Strolling outside the city were wonderful experiences for us, which were a part of the teaching program. We would march in pairs according to military order and we would start singing as soon as we would be outside of the city. Khushu Akhim Khushu [Feel Brothers, Feel – known as the Balfour Declaration March] was the most popular marching song. On one of the strolls, I remember Zeydke Tikocki, the fervid Zionist, treated us with a full basket of cherries
Josef Halpern, Jakov Murainski (Jankl Joyske's son], Yitzhak Bejkowski, Zuske Mechaber, Sender Miltszon, Moshe Kantorowski and Zeydke Tikocki's two sons, Tselke and Leizer, studied in my school group. Two others studied in a higher group: Zelik
Newodowski and Mosh'ke Furman (Yitzhak Joske's son). The two big young men, who were in a group of their own were: Motye Leib Frydman (Petye the Stoznower's son. He is now called Mordekhai L. Absholom, lives in Argentina) and Hilel Biali (Chaya Tsirl's son). They would help Gdalke with the schoolwork.
Then, when Gdalke appeared for military service and he surrendered as a soldier, Efroim brought a teacher from Suchowolie [Suchowola]. He was named Leibl Wajnsztajn, but he was called Leibl Suchowolier in the shtetl.
When Gdalke returned from the Russian Army in 1906, he again took over the school and led it with great success until close to the First World War when he moved to deep Russia where he had the right to live as a result of his taking part in the Russo-Japanese War. With Gdalke's departure from Goniadz, the Kheder Metukan chapter ended. The road had then been paved for a modern school.
HeHalutz-HaTzair [young pioneers - in Goniadz, 13.8.1928 [August 13, 1928]. Photographed on the river.
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