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The Zionist Movement and the First Hebrew Schools


Eliyahu Khinich

Thirst for Learning Amongst the Jewish Youth

During World War I, I was destined to be in Ciechanow that was, at that time, under German occupation. The youth of the shtetl founded a school for poor children, and I, as a teacher, had to direct the school. At the first acquaintance with the shtetl two things drew my attention: It was the first time in my life that I saw young boys dressed in long capotes and in Hasidish hats. By us in Litn and in White Russia, I never saw this. Not only amongst the youth -- even the older men did not wear such clothing.

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Hebrew evening class with the teacher, Khinich, in the middle
Hebrew evening class with the teacher, Khinich, in the middle

Picture Index

I noticed, though, that regarding frumkeit the boys were not such angels. Just the opposite. Regardless of their frumeh clothing, they allowed themselves a lot of freedom and did not so easily observe all the Mitzvot: the davening, and were not afraid to “carry” on Shabbat. Boys flirted with girls, just as in our shtetlech, there were young people who were not even afraid to eat on Yom Kippur.

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The second thing that surprised me was the strong desire to learn Hebrew. Both boys and girls and even young married women were anxious to study Hebrew. In addition to the school, I started evening classes for Hebrew. I was amazed at the enthusiasm, love and devotion that the students showed in their studies.

After I became more familiar with life in the shtetl, I noticed some specific characteristics of the Ciechanow Jews (I attributed this to the Polish Jews), that distinguishes them from the “Litvaks”, namely: it seemed to me that they were more energetic with business/trade; they are warmer and more devoted to each other. They are much warmer than our Jews in Litn.

When I left Ciechanow, my students presented me with a book: All of Bialik's Songs (Kol Shirei Bialik), with a dedication in their handwriting.

In front of my eyes I still picture them, the dear and loving boys and girls of Ciechanow, and my heart pains me when I recall that they all perished at the murderous hands of the Germans.

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Rivka Kahane

The First Hebrew Schools in Ciechanow

In the year 1915, we started the first Hebrew School, called “Akhranka.” The idea of starting this school came about at a meeting of shul. Our distinguished Rov Reb Kh. M. Bronrot was speaking, but his talk was constantly interrupted by poor children without education, who were behaving wildly, jumping over tables and chairs, and made it impossible to carry on with the meeting. We, a group of women, tried to keep them quiet, but none of our efforts helped. We were ashamed, and felt guilty for this uncultured behavior of the children, and on the spot decided that we must do something in this connection.

After the meeting, we gathered in my house for a consultation in which the cultural activists participated. They were: Hencheh Mundzak, Taube Klinger, Dvora Kviat, Faigele Klainyud, Frumeh Rizikah, Roshkah Rakowsky and others. It was decided to found a Hebrew School. When the Germans entered, the school was closed.

The civic administration that the Germans established after they captured Ciechanow had not yet opened any other school. They did not hinder the population from doing so, though.

Once more we started to organize a school. In the discussion about the character of the school, one of those present, a daughter of the teacher (Blumstein), suggested a school where the main language would be Polish. Their argument was that Poland will become independent and we must be citizens of the country. They also did not feel that anything cultural could be established in Yiddish. This suggestion was rejected.

A Hebrew School was established, but just for girls. We understood that the boys would not be entrusted to us. The students were from the poorer classes. The wealthier ones sent their children to the Polish gymnasium. The wealthier women were altogether against such a school and did everything to hinder us.

The youth devoted themselves heart and soul to the school: recruited members who made monthly payments. The drama section worked constantly, gave performances, arranged literary evenings for the benefit of the school.

The Zionist idea grew stronger. The ranks started to grow. Boys from important Jewish families came forward from families for whom Zionism was out of the question. One of those boys was partially independent at that time. Amongst them: Shlomo Klinger, Avraham Hendl, Nachman Mundchuk, who contributed money from their earnings and already helped to rent a place and also be able to make the necessary installations for the school.

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The school was opened. At our request, the Organization of the Lovers of Hebrew (Agudat Khovavai Sfat Ha-Ivri) of Warsaw sent a Hebrew teacher, Khinich -- he was a quiet small-town man -- and for the second year a young man by the name of Gifs. He was ambitious, knew Tanach well, and taught the children in an interesting manner, thus elevating their cultural and spiritual condition. He also influenced their homes … and we were proud of our accomplishments.

The undertakings of the school grew. We also maintained a teacher for the Polish language, and the committee that consisted of the most active members of our organization did everything, availed themselves of all means, such as a “Flower Day”, Lotteries, Literary and Dance Evenings, anything, just so that the school should have all its necessities. The students were even supplied with uniforms that were initiated in all Polish schools and got free books and writing materials.

Later, we also received a monthly subsidy from the Warsaw Curatorium.

Our school and educational activities encountered difficulties on the part of the fanatically religious Jews. We did not want any “wars” nor brotherly hatred because of the Zionism to which we were totally devoted. At that time the school was our primary effort and we poured much heart into it, even relinquishing our private lives …

We also had wonderful moments in our school activities such as : Chanukah, Chamisha-Oser B'Shvat, Purim, Lag B'Omer, when the children, dressed in their uniforms with the white collars, marched through Ciechanow in rows, accompanied by the teachers and directors. Jews came out of their houses and stores and looked on, some with satisfaction and others with a scornful word at our expense.

The last and best teacher in our school was Plutzer, who gave his heart and soul to the school until it closed in 1921, when Poland itself opened up public schools and also included us in the school network, and turned it into a school with the same program as all the other schools.

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Parallel to the establishment of the school and its existence, that in time became the spiritual center of the national youth in Ciechanow, the cultural institutions were also established, that were, through the Zionist activists, established before the war with the help of the organization Mfitzai Haskala (Spreaders of Enlightenment);but at that time the Bund appeared and took over the above-mentioned cultural institutions.


The Party Struggle for the Hegemony in the Life of the Community

Both political groups often sponsored lectures: the Zionists and the Bund. The struggle for the hegemony in the established institutions was great. But we Zionists managed to gain leadership in a number of institutions, for example: when the “Joint,” in the time of the German occupation, opened the free kitchen for children, our people became the management. When a transport of shoes arrived for poor children, we were given the responsibility of distributing them, and soon.

When in the year 1917 England made the Balfour Declaration, the Zionist presence grew anyhow. A Zionist Women's Organization was also established in which a large number of our prominent women became members. Until that time they had not participated in the public national-cultural life. Amongst them: Frau Wise, Hanegman, Lakh, Rubinstein, Sarah and others.

At that time the Indik family came to Ciechanow and wanted to open a private high school. Through us they wanted to influence the wealthy parents to send their children to this school and not to the Polish gymnasium. We demanded that the school be a Hebrew High School. The initiators could not agree to this and a compromise was reached: Hebrew would also be taught. The school was opened with the participation of the Hebrew teacher, Saffron, who helped let in our Zionist work.

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