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The Tarbut School and Its Teachers

by Eliezer Melamed

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

Between the two World Wars, Zionist education occupied an important place in the life of our small town. Every household strove to provide its children with traditional Torah or Zionist – secular learning. A tuition fee which constituted a considerable amount in the family's budget was set.

There were two types of schools in our small town: The Chorev school, to which children of religiously observant and traditional families were sent, mainly from homes which opposed the idea of Zionism. This school was founded and supervised by Rabbi Yehoshua Lieberman, of blessed memory, an opponent and daring fighter against the idea of Zionism. The other school was a branch of the network of Hebrew schools founded by the Tarbut organization, whose object was to provide Hebrew and general education and to foster a connection with the people and the Land of Israel. Children of Zionist parents and lovers of Hebrew attended this school.

Members of the Bund[1] party, standard bearers for Yiddish, whose number was quite significant among us, sent their children either to the Chorev religious school or the Tarbut Hebrew school or straight to the Polish public school as there was no Yiddish school in our local town.

The Tarbut school was founded in 1922 by the teacher Alter Yossilevitz, who returned to our town from Minsk in the first years after World War I. He was an ardent Zionist and was devoted to the idea of Zionism in general and to Hebrew education in particular. He was ready to fight for his beliefs at any time. His way was not paved with roses. There was no shortage of opposition and disturbance. However, possessing momentum and great energy, he overcame all the obstacles and established an educational operation worthy of praise and admiration. Hundreds of teenagers, boys and girls, who acquired a Hebrew and secular education based on the spirit of Judaism and Eretz–Yisrael[2] graduated from this school.

I remember very well the festival parties that were held at the school. Two rooms were partitioned off by a wall and during an important event or festivity, they would shift the wall to the sides in such a way that a large area was formed which could accommodate many children. On the eve of every holiday, all the children would assemble in this spacious auditorium. Alter the Teacher would open the program with a comprehensive explanation of the content of the holiday or the event from an historical–nationalistic point of view. His words always raised the spirit of the pupils, who would disperse to their homes enthralled, after the festivity.

Alter Yossilevitz was also the center for Zionist work in our town. He would always open the explanatory meetings on behalf of the national funds[3] as well as the meetings in advance of the elections for the Zionist Congress or the parliamentary institutions in Poland. This thin, tall man with a small beard would stand at the rostrum of the old study hall, and exciting words would emanate from his mouth. His very appearance would imbue us with a supreme spirit. Opposition party members would interrupt his remarks at these meetings. This upset Yossilevitz to such a degree that he would often require medical help after such an incident. He suffered from a heart illness and his doctors forbade him to get riled up. However, he didn't heed their advice as he saw his work on behalf of the community as the purpose of his life.

All the people of Steibtz, especially those who studied in the school, will recall the image of the Teacher Alter Yossilevitz (for he was thus called in Yiddish, Der Lehrer Alter by the public). Trembling with respect and admiration, they will elevate his worthy deeds to the level of a miracle in our town for the education of an entire generation of Jews, to which he was devoted with all his soul and faithful to the values of his people.

His colleague was the teacher Meir Yosef Schwartz. The two were as different from one another as day and night. I imagine that they studied in cheders[4] or in yeshivas[5] when they were young and in the course of time they completed their studies on their own. Meir Yosef came to us from Eretz Yisrael, where he had gone to live as an immigrant during the Second Aliyah[6] and who returned to the Diaspora due to poor health. He was a cripple. Severe crises which befell the country [Eretz Yisrael] at that time caused him to return to Europe. He was accepted as a teacher in the Tarbut school. According to his outlook, he was an ardent Zionist and

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one of the supporters of the religious block in the Zionist movement Ha'Mizrachi[7]. He was irascible by nature. He was accustomed to telling the pupils exciting stories about life in Eretz which aroused warmth and love for the legendary country in the children's hearts. He was devoted to his work and profession, possessing the ability to explain things well and was meticulous regarding every interpretation and elucidation. He was an expert in Scripture and had a deep knowledge of Hebrew literature. He also taught crafts and drawing. On a holiday or at the end of the academic year a play was presented by the pupils. The main executor of the play was Meir Yosef: he was the planner and producer, he built the scenery by himself, he adapted the melodies and tunes for the songs that were sung in the play. In addition he would teach a page of Gemarah[8] to the older pupils. This lesson would take place as usual in the last hour of the school day after the youngsters had gone home and quiet reigned within the school. We delved into a page of Gemarah and we enjoyed the hair–splitting arguments and the clarifications. Meir Yosef the teacher treated us like equals. We had lengthy friendly and cordial conversations which interested all of us. At the end of our conversations he used to say: Well, “hodzi” – (that's enough) to inform us that the free conversation was over.

Bitter was the fate of the disobedient and unruly pupil or the one who did not do his homework. He got his share of curses and revilement. One incident involved our classmate Yosef Harkavy. He was an excellent pupil and a stickler for accuracy, but he violated some prohibition in the opinion of the teacher Yosef Meir Schwartz. Since he was by nature a bad–tempered person, he grabbed the pencil box and slapped him in the face with it. From the force of the blow or from the sensitivity of his gums, a tooth had to be extracted. Schwartz the teacher, who became alarmed and who did not know how to ease the tension, claimed, in opposition to his pupil: “Why are you making such a fuss over this? After all, only one tooth fell out”….

Schwartz the teacher's life came to an end in a mass grave. During the period of the German occupation, he lived in the adjacent small town of Swerznie and was a member of the local Jewish council (Judenrat[9]) charged with overseeing daily activities in the ghetto. During the first massacre, he was among the candidates selected to remain alive, but he, of his own free will, chose to go to the mass grave together with his family and all the residents of the town.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Bund – A socialist party. Return
  2. Eretz Yisrael – Hebrew: The Land of Israel, Palestine as it was then known. Return
  3. National funds – relates to the Jewish National Fund (JNF acronym, Keren Kayemet Le'Yisrael KKL – acronym) and the Keren–Ha'Yesod – The Foundation Fund, now the United Israel Appeal. Return
  4. Cheder – religious elementary school. Return
  5. Yeshiva – religious academy. Return
  6. Second Aliyah – second wave of immigration from Europe to Eretz Yisrael, 1904–1914. Return
  7. Ha'Mizrachi – religious Zionist movement. Return
  8. Gemarah – Discussion and elucidation of the Mishna – compilation of the Oral Law (the Talmud). Return
  9. Judenrat – German: a German–Jewish administrative council set up within a Jewish community in Nazi–occupied Europe to implement German policies and orders. Return


by Tamar Amarant (Rabinovitz)

Translated by Harvey Spitzer

I see the Tarbut School building before my eyes. It was a square four–room building. There was a library in one room for the use of the pupils and opposite the library were two rooms separated by a moving wall. When there was a festivity, the moving wall could be pushed to both sides, creating a long room which also served for school plays.

The rooms were very crowded. The furniture consisted of long benches and long tables. When a child wanted to go out,


The Tarbut School
In the center of the picture, the teachers (R–L): Alter Yossilevitz, Mrs. [Chana] Danzig, Leah Tilman, Meir Yosef Shwartz

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the whole row had to get up, or the child would crawl under the bench and suddenly his head “sprouted” near the door.

I remember that in these four rooms the following teachers, of blessed memory, taught me: Reb Alter Yossilevitz, the school principal, who taught Hebrew and grammar. The teacher Reb Meir Yosef Shwartz taught Torah and Nach[1] and the teacher Leah Tilman taught arithmetic. As there was no staff room, the teachers would crowd together with the pupils during recess and while standing, they would sort out many issues, but in that crowded school house, there reigned incomparable warmth.

Were the teachers graduates of seminaries? I don't think so!! But apparently they were teachers from the womb, from birth. Their faces were pedantic, but the teachers' warmth enveloped us – the pupils, like protective armor, stimulating us to study, review and memorize so as not to disappoint the teacher, God forbid, or fail. Where did the teachers get their strength from? I think they loved their profession and they loved us. Without any systems of methodology and pedagogy, they knew how to maintain control in the class and hold sway over our souls.

Exemplary brotherhood reigned among us. I do not recall any “hitting” in school. I can attest now, as a teacher, that our children are blessed with over–aggressiveness, and one child cannot forgive another for a gentle nudge – and then? Did the “gentiles” who lived around us have an influence, that we always knew how to maintain peace and quiet and good manners and courtesy?! Were our households different? What was the source of such restraint? Our games too were quieter and more restrained. Behind the school, which was located between two synagogues, there was a very wide lot in which we found our satisfaction– playing games. I still remember Yossilevitz the teacher's lessons–there was no more noble and delicate soul than his. Despite his serious appearance, his cordial laughter and warm eyes always aroused in my heart a desire to know everything and to excel in my knowledge. No spur was necessary for learning. The teacher's quiet remark was sufficient. I still remember a few complete chapters from the Book of Jeremiah, which the teacher Shwartz of blessed memory taught me. His sweet melody still resounds in my bones.

“What do you see Jeremiah?” “I see an almond staff.” The melody would reveal Jeremiah before me wearing a broad cloak, with a long beard and sadness in his fathomless eyes. And this teacher who, because of his bad temper, was not the favorite of the pupils, knew how to open the children's souls in preparation for a chapter in the Bible.

A few decades have gone by and I still remember these chapters by heart as if I had just learned them yesterday.

And from this crowded school emerged culture, politeness, and Torah.

Translator's Footnote

  1. Nach – prophets and writings. Return


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