Translated by Rabbi Shalom Bronstein
One of the undertakings during the period of independent Lithuania, of which the Jews were especially proud, was the network of Hebrew language schools established educate their children. Special emphasis was put on those topics generally known as Jewish subjects, that is Bible, elementary Talmud study, Jewish history etc. In particular, the Hebrew Gymnasiums in which the majority of Lithuania's Jewish children were educated stood out. This revolutionary step in Hebrew education was not easily accomplished. It encountered uncertainties and difficulties. In the end it was the new government that set the rules notwithstanding the desires of the parents, teachers and students alike.
In this book, the reader will find radiant living pictures of this wonderful experience that in a certain way served as a model for other Jewish communities. The graduates of the gymnasiums are spread around the world, but especially in this country, to which they brought their language and their style. A style that has almost been converted into a maxim: You come from Lithuania? Now I understand why you speak [Hebrew] fluently and correctly.
The stories of those who are still with us as well as the stories of those who perished in the Holocaust, together transport the reader to that special ambiance where Hebrew education in Lithuania developed. We are confident that reading this book will be both interesting and instructive. A comparable educational network did not exist before that which was established in Lithuania and there is no possibility that it will ever be reconstituted anywhere else. Its absolute uniqueness characterizes this interesting episode in the history of Diaspora Jewry.
Dr. Jacob Robinson
Translated by Rabbi Shalom Bronstein
With the completion of the book actually it is the time to wish all Israel g'mar hatima tova [may you be inscribed for a good year] we have a very pleasant task to highlight the work of our teacher and friend Yisrael Yablokovksy towards the publication of this book.
The same Yisrael Yablokovsky, who we knew in Lithuania as the youngest Gymnasium teacher and who now is almost the senior teacher of those who survive in our country, worked day and night for the past two years to see to the publication of this book. He was not only the living spirit of this endeavor who got others to participate but he himself was involved in every effort. Whether it was dealing with getting the written articles from others, raising funds for the enterprise, editing and seeing the book through its printing or with thousands of small details such as searching for photographs, ordering etchings, obtaining paper etc., etc our young-older friend's hand was in all. He did not limit his time nor worry about his health to take care of details small and large. In summer as in winter he would travel to Haifa and Jerusalem, to kibbutzim on the Carmel and in the Jordan Valley to increase the involvement of the graduates of our Gymnasium whether in writing, in raising funds or in just good will. More than once our graduates found him knocking on their doors in pouring rain shivering from cold with his easy smile making a clever remark that concealed his cold and his exhaustion. Every time we cautioned him on his disregard for his health, the only concern on his mind was the book!
So it was, except for the important contribution of the authors of the articles, the book is almost the exclusive production of our teacher and friend Yisrael Yablokovksy, who looked at its publication as life's mission.
We who stood with Mr. Yablokovsky, more as consultants than in deed in this great endeavor, consider it fitting that with the publication of the book we extend to him in our names and certainly in the name of all the graduates of the Hebrew Gymnasium of Kovno our esteem and deepest thanks for extensive work that he did for the publication of this book as a sacred mission without any thought of recompense.
To Mr. Yablokovsky CONGRATULATIONS!
Eliyahu Bils and Yoel Zohn
Translated by Rabbi Shalom Bronstein
After a period of two years of gathering the material and preparing for publication, we are pleased to present this book to the graduates of the Hebrew Gymnasium of Kovno and to the general public.
It is not an easy task to draw on memories from the period of time that has past and will never return especially when these memories are crowned in a black frame drenched in blood and tears
Quite a few responded to our request to lend their hands in this joint project for all of us and in the event that the material submitted was compatible to the nature of the book, it was included and published.
With the desire of maintaining the flow of memories, the various articles are arranged chronologically according to the events discussed. Articles by teachers appear in the beginning of the book and those of students appear afterwards according to their year of graduation.
Also included are abridged articles that appeared in the booklet Sefer Hayovel [Jubilee Book] from the period of 1920-1925, Nitivoteinu [Our Path], and articles from the newspaper of the Hebrew teachers of Lithuania B'misholei Hahinukh [In the Paths of Education].
These articles are for the most part products of the minds and pens of teachers who have gone and are no longer
In conclusion, we see it as our pleasant duty to express in our names and in the names of all our colleagues our deep esteem and thanks to all those who gave us their hands in both writing and working. Thanks to their generous contributions we have arrived at the fulfillment of our holy task to establish a memorial for that beloved school that is in all of our eyes the sacred temple from those days will be seen, the temple that sank [disappeared]
The Planning Committee
Tel Aviv 1962
Translated by Yocheved Klausner
|There on the banks of the Neman River
A palace of culture stood,
A house that was emptied
Of its children forever
Where are the little school children,
Where have they disappeared?
Surely they were destroyed
By the satanic enemy
A hut stood across the street
A man of vision was sitting there.
Every day the Love of Zion
Was with him.
He was delighted and content
He, the Visionary of Zion,
And his little broken-down hut
Was transformed into a palace
How terrible and bitter, woe is us,
All sounds were silenced,
They vanished and disappeared
In the gas ovens
Alone, forlorn you remained,
You the visionary.
You, the saved remnant
Who is realizing the dream
1/ Also the title of a book [Ahavat Ziyon, Publ. 1853] by Abraham Mapu (1808-1867), one of the first modern novelists to write in Hebrew.
Dr. Aaron Berman
Translated by Rabbi Shalom Bronstein
[Caption under his photo ]
At this time
Twenty-five years have already passed since the day I left Lithuania. A full generation separates my present from my past that was: to a large extent new experiences cloud the experiences of the past and it is very difficult to recall them in all their vitality and freshness. Add to this the fact that I do not have any written notes, photographs or articles that I and others wrote at that time that I could hold in my hands and in any event my words are fragmented and not precise sometimes even important facts are missing. I have no remedy to counter this
For you, too, the readers, my former students, a lengthy segment of your lives has passed. Among most of you this school is connected to childhood memories that have vanished and are no more. No one is still young [according to the author this is an original play on words in Hebrew] and your lives were augmented, for the most part by difficult experiences of all kinds over this period of time. They were far different from studying in the Hebrew Gymnasion. It must be, no more or no less, that among many of you studying in the Hebrew Gymnasion is like a multi-colored pleasant dream that you sometimes yearn for and that you know for certain will never come again and that it has totally disappeared from the world
[Theodor] Herzl in one of his articles provides a deep thought: All reality its beginning is a dream and its end is a dream. The end of that reality, known by the name The Hebrew Gymnasion of Kovno, is a bitter and cruel dream that is seared in our memory as a nightmare that we would want to forget, but it is the beginning of that reality, that only a few of you are aware of, that I would like to expand on a bit.
When I think back on the period of over forty years ago, when a small group of young teachers, most of whom were inexperienced, under the direction of the late Dr. Moshe Schwabe, had the daring to accomplish a dream of Hebrew culture and open against broad Jewish general opinion and in disregard of the day by day reality, a school whose language of instruction was Hebrew a language in which even the young teachers were not fluent. We must declare in all honesty that if we had understood from the beginning all the difficulties involved in this endeavor and all the problems that we would confront until we
succeeded, we never would have had the nerve to carry it out. However, they say 'the command of the spirit of the nation,' it is your duty to begin this bold new endeavor because there is no other choice for the Jewish people other than to take hold of its authentic language, the one in which its Book of Books was created, the one that permeated its culture for thousands of years, even though Hebrew became mixed with other languages such as Aramaic. Religion the indispensable connection and the only one for the Jews for many generations has weakened among large numbers. Yiddish the spoken mother tongue loved by masses of the people and also by a large portion of the young teachers, among whose devotees I was also numbered cannot serve as the only protection and motivation for our youth to see as their foundation. The Land of Israel began to revive in the year of the founding of the Gymnasion (1920) after the 1917 Balfour Declaration. The Land of Israel has the power to draw many of the youth who have experienced the taste of exile and darkness in the places where they lived and now see in the revitalization of the nation in its historical land not only a distant ideal fluttering in the wind, but something that is close to the heart of every young person who wants to live an intense life without inner conflict and 'oppressed souls.' Granted these were only a small minority among the youth, who returned in wave after wave from Soviet Russia at the beginning of the communist revolution.
Most of the young Jews who returned from giant Russia to small Lithuania managed to absorb revolutionary ideas either consciously or sub-consciously. That could not serve as an attraction in the small country to which they returned. The Lithuanian language and culture were totally alien to the Jews. New energetic political ideas did not interest the narrowly focused Lithuanian politicians. It was enough for them to base themselves in some way on maintaining their own position from both an economic and political standpoint against the surrounding nations that threatened them, in particular among them, Poland. Therefore the young [returning Jews] could not find an outlet for the great ferment bubbling within them. Given that the Lithuanians had no interest in attracting Jewish youth to their ranks, the young Jews attempted to create distinct spheres of activity for themselves and for their fellow Jews. There was no possibility, for example, for Jews to find positions as senior officials in government offices or as officers in the army the attitude of the majority of [non-Jewish] youth to Jews and Jewish culture was less than neutral. The returning Jews absorbed from the air the general attitude in Russia - the opinion that religion was 'reactionary,' that the Hebrew language was 'dead' and that it was not worthwhile nurturing Yiddish. Most saw the revival of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel as narrow nationalism. They believed that the Russian Revolution would eliminate boundaries between peoples and all humanity would be transformed into a cosmopolitan socialist entity. Even though they left Russia and did not want to be part of actual revolutionary life, they imperceptibly absorbed something of that spirit. As a result, the idea of a high school whose language of instruction was Hebrew and was influenced by the revival of our people in the reborn Land of Israel was totally alien to them. Their parents were no different from them on this issue. The strong and powerful Russia of the Tsar still mesmerized them and little Lithuania with its narrow outlook from every standpoint and especially in economics, was not at all to their liking. They did not return to their country out of love of Lithuania but out of hatred of the revolution that prided itself with the negation of private property. Many of them were alienated from religion. Most, however, absorbed
Torah in their youth, but in commercial life, in which they were occupied before the war, they forgot their Torah. The years in Russia after their expulsion from Lithuania, when they were 'refugees' in exile and afterwards as bourgeois in the days of the revolution, did not draw them closer to Jewish sources. They were people of 'action' and still hoped that the revolution in Russia would end and that the Russian language would again be ascendant in Lithuania as before World War I. So it was their general opinion on their return to the city of their birth from Russia to establish a Russian language high school. They realized their dream and established the Commercial School where Russian was the language of instruction. All of the students were from our people and the majority was of the type described above. However, among the parents there were a handful of enthusiastic Zionists who felt that a revolution had begun in Jewish life and that our people would not be able to keep its youth in exile in a foreign language that was not the language of the country, in spite of the rich culture. They felt that the youth should be educated according to the ideals that emanated from the depths of Jewish culture. The magic of the Hebrew homeland in Eretz Yisrael must serve as a magnet for the youth, even though many of the parents knew that not all their children would leave Lithuania at the conclusion of their high school studies and go on Aliyah.
This enthusiastic group headed by the chairman of the Zionist Organization Dr. Benjamin Berger,
fought the Russian Commercial High School with all their vigor. At a general meeting they attempted to change the Russian High School into a Hebrew language High School, even though they knew that they could not expect that students aged 15 to 17 would begin to study everything in Hebrew. After all, their entire education from their early years up to this point had been in Russian. The students did not even know the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. They [the Zionist parents] demanded that Hebrew be the language of instruction in all the lower grades while Russian would only be the language of instruction in the upper grades. In the wider framework of the school, all would study Hebrew and over time Hebrew would gradually become the language of instruction in all of the grades. The Lithuanian government seeing the spread of Russian culture as a threat supported the request that Hebrew be the language of instruction. This was especially so since the study of the Lithuanian language and culture was just beginning to emerge from its swaddling clothes. After many tumultuous meetings it was decided to close the Russian language Commercial High School and to establish a Hebrew-Russian school according to the above stipulations. The parents selected Ch. Koppel Velutski as head of the institution. He had been the secretary of Kovno's Jewish community in the days of the Tsar and a high school religion teacher. If I am not mistaken, Mr. Velutski was already a man up in years. He was seen by all the parents as the perfect person since by his very nature he was a neutral person far from any revolutionary educational agendas, adaptive to social needs and did not have a rigidly held ideology. Everyone was convinced that, he, far removed from Zionism, would slow down the nationalistic enthusiasm of many of the young teachers.
However, even after the founding of the Hebrew-Russian High School, that was known then as The Hebrew Gymnasion (I'll return to the name later), a tremendous battle erupted between the parents concerning the fourth class, that is the students in their seventh year. Many parents insisted that at all costs the language of instruction in that class should be in Russian. They argued, with a certain amount of justification that it would be difficult for students 13 and 14 years of age to switch to Hebrew as the language of instruction, especially since the majority of them did not even know the Hebrew alphabet. The standard bearers among the parents of the nationalist Hebrew High School knew very well that as soon as all the upper classes (the preparatory section made up of the first three years of instruction were not considered an integral part of the High School) would be taught in Russian, while only three high school classes would be taught in Hebrew, the spirit of assimilation and the Russian language would push Hebrew our national language into a corner and it would have no influence on the outlook of the Jewish youth. Therefore the nationalist agenda won out over the pedagogic agenda. The Zionist parents' committee with the faculty, who were solidly infused with the nationalist ideal and acting against the will of many parents taught the fourth class in Hebrew. This was a crucial decision concerning the fate of the school but very hard to carry out. We encountered enormous difficulties, to which I will return, especially on the part of the students who did not understand the material that was presented to them in the various subjects in Hebrew. The motto 'Ein B'reira there is no alternative' guided us and we knew that we had to overcome all these difficulties no matter what. Only our belief in the correctness of our goal of establishing a nationalist Hebrew language school and the enthusiasm of our youth helped us win over the indifferent young students and little by little the antagonistic students gave in.
Up to now I have covered the difficulties in establishing the High School from the parents' standpoint. Now I will focus on the other side of the coin, the teachers. In the end it is they who determined the character of the school and the present and future of the newly established school depended on the teaching staff. While the parents selected Ch. Velutski as the head of the school, the spiritual and pedagogical head was Dr. Moshe Schwabe. Ch. Velutski was head in name only as he did not have the power to stand against the pedagogic personality of Schwabe who was later the Rector of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I would now like to focus my attention on him.
How did a German Jew sympathetic to left-wing socialism, a philologist of ancient languages who only knew a little Hebrew end up in Lithuania as the head of a nationalist Hebrew institution? I will respond with an abbreviated answer: Schwabe, one of the dedicated students of Professor Wilamowitz-Mandorf, was a German soldier during World War I. He was captured by the Russians and when he returned after a few years of captivity, he was won over by the socialist-Zionist fever that was beginning to spread among young Jewish intellectuals in Germany. He learned that in Lithuania the [Jewish] nationalist spirit had gained wide influence among large segments of the population and that the Lithuanian government permitted the opening of state sponsored Hebrew language elementary schools. In addition, there was the possibility of establishing Hebrew high schools where modern pedagogical methods that were fostered by the new educators in Germany in the early 1920s would prevail. With the characteristic enthusiasm of youth, an attribute that remained with him throughout his years, he was attracted by the opportunity. Even so, Schwabe was only about thirty years old at its start. When the Lithuanian government's Minister for Jewish Affairs, Dr. M[ax Menahem] Soleveichik searched for a candidate to direct the department in charge of Jewish schools that was the responsibility of his ministry, Dr. Schwabe was the natural nominee for this position. The cold-tempered Lithuanian parents became reconciled to the fact that at the head of the school was someone whose pedagogic outlook was not similar in temperament to theirs. The Yekke [Hebrew slang for German Jew] educational outlook was alien to them but they were captivated by his unique personality. A testimony to this was that everyone called our school Schwabe's Gymnasia even after he left Lithuania to go on Aliyah to the Land of Israel.
At this juncture, it is appropriate to remember that most of the principals of the high schools as well as the teachers were not from Kovno or even natives of 'greater' Lithuania. The head of the first Jewish High School in Lithuania in Marijampole, although it was on a smaller scale, was Dr. Mayer of Germany (now in Haifa) and he was succeeded by Dr. [Arthur] Loewenhertz [Aliyah 1929], also from Germany (who for many years was the principal of the Kiryat Motzkin High School). When the Reali High School was founded in Kovno during the German occupation, it was headed by Dr. [Joseph Tzvi] Carlebach from Germany [until 1919]. When Hebrew became the language of instruction of the Reali High School, Dr. Sh. Y. Tsharna, was chosen to head it. He was also not a native of Lithuania and was one of the founders of the celebrated Gordonia Courses. The head of the Panevezys Gymnasia was Dr. Kloari (he came on Aliyah in the beginning of the 1920s and in his latter years founded and directed the noted Achva institution in Kiryat Hayim). He was succeeded by Dr. Yisrael Mehlman of Vienna [Aliyah 1935] (currently the head of the Department of Education and Culture
for the Diaspora of the Jewish Agency). The revival of the Hebrew language on foreign soil in a non-Hebrew speaking environment greatly captivated the imagination of educators outside of Eretz Yisrael with their new ideas in education. This, especially, when they knew that the Lithuanian government looked somewhat favorably on the establishment of Hebrew language high schools. This was unique and not found in other countries, except perhaps for Czechoslovakia but there the scope was limited from the outset since the majority of the Jews did not want to have special schools designated [for their children].
Even I will now reveal a secret to the public I am not a pure Litvak (based on the concept of ST Sefardi Tahor Pure Sefardi lineage). I was born in Lodz, the great industrial city of Poland. Even though the pragmatic business outlook dominated and its desire was to hug the arms of the world through commerce, [Lodz] was also permeated with the spirit of Hasidism. Even though my parents were devout Mitnagdim [those opposed to Hasidism], I certainly unconsciously absorbed something of the Hasidic enthusiasm. Perhaps I will add some details concerning my own education to explain how I ended up in Kovno.
Without going into details, I must say that I was not educated in the typical fashion. I did not study in the traditional heder or in a Russian or Polish high school. From the age of eight until seventeen, I was educated privately, almost individually, first at home and afterwards in the Yeshivot of Lithuania. There I was more or less, because of special conditions, able to study as I wished. This certainly had an influence. Now, when I look back on the course my education in my youth I was not subject to a fixed model. I did not see as the ideal either the accepted pattern of education in high schools or the opposite the approach that everything that goes on in high school is ab initio negative. I was open to new approaches in education without becoming at the outset excited by them or seeing them as the ultimate solution as did those who completed the rigid Russian or German high schools. Additionally, when I was a student I was drawn to young educators (mostly students). In spite of the fact that I completed medical school, I was drawn for various reasons (this is not the place to go into why) to study biology at the university. I planned to teach and be a school physician at the same time as private practice was completely against my nature. When the opening of a Hebrew Gymnasion was planned (the ending Gymnasion instead of the accepted Gymnasia was provided to me by Dr. Schwabe the Greek philologist who thought that in the restored Hebrew the model to use should be the original Greek ending 'on' as in the Hebrew word for theatre 'teyatron' rather than to replicate the Russian ending Gymnasia) I was approached in Zurich, Switzerland where I was living with a formal request to help in establishing a Hebrew language high school. The offer appealed to me and through the intervention of Minister Soleveichik I was provided a special permit to enter Lithuania on the basis of a Nansen Passport even though according to my papers I was a Polish citizen. In line with the thinking of that time I was the citizen of a belligerent nation.
When I first met Dr. Schwabe, I was impressed by his simplicity, innocence, the childish smile on his face, his enthusiasm for all things new, his energy and the warm relationship that existed between him and his students. He had charisma that cannot be described in words and because of that he attracted
teachers, students, older people as well as parents. His warm attitude towards his students led to his sitting on the desk (something unheard of in those days) and he would embellish his lessons by digressing from the subject and discuss his bold socialist pioneering dreams. His lectures were not limited to academic particulars but were a combination of information together with items of entertaining interest [feuilletons] that greatly pleased all of his listeners.
There were additional teachers who were attracted to him and his new ideas that led to establishing a student council, student court, a club, debates and workshops of all kinds. It cannot be denied that he did not have opposition from among the teachers, and these were natives of Lithuania, who did not have higher education but were graduates of Russian high schools or those who abandoned the Yeshiva world. They were not interested in the fundamentals of education but saw high school as a place to impart information and that it was the role of the teacher to impart basic knowledge to the students in various subjects. They saw as unacceptable all the new ideas in education since they detracted somewhat from the course of formal instruction. So it is difficult to achieve good formal academic results and good educational results simultaneously. The student council, student court, choir, parties and plays to a certain extent resulted in the cancellation of classes which could not be avoided. Therefore not a few teachers who saw academic studies as the main focus objected to all the educational reforms of Dr. Schwabe. However, in the early years the enthusiasm of some of the teachers who were connected to the new ideas won out over the ambivalence of other teachers. All went fairly smoothly without specific difficulties. Everyone recognized Schwabe as a man who believed in his ideals and whose entire effort was devoted in trying to realize them. Belief and enthusiasm have the power to attract adherents in this world even from the ranks of their opponents.
Among the first teachers of the institution who were later pillars of support of the Gymnasion I recall: (I emphasize, that I am only mentioning here the earliest teachers who left their imprint on the school and I am not mentioning those pillars of support that came later: Y. [Julius] Brutzkus, Natan Greenblatt, Moshe Frank, N. Lidsky, A. Pinchuk, N. Kantorovitz, Eliyahu Bils, as well as the teachers of foreign languages and many, many more )
He was a demanding teacher requiring his students to prepare thoroughly for his classes including
I will not discuss the teachers of Russian, Lithuanian, German, English, home economics for the girls, physical education and art etc. who taught the first year that the school was established since they left shortly thereafter and did not leave a lasting impression on the school.
I limited myself to a short list of teachers in the first year of the school even though each deserves a more detailed account. However, I feel that in a few lines I can convey the nature of each.
I will now return to what I stated at the outset. We would not have had the audacity to open a high school whose language of instruction was Hebrew if we knew from the start all the difficulties involved in the project. Now I will focus on the major difficulties faced: By the very nature of things the teachers were divided into two camps that had difficulty finding a common ground on which to communicate. I do not mean to treat this lightly but basically the elementary tools required for a high school were lacking.
The school was located in a rented facility on two floors on Mayeronio St. 12/14 that was meant for individual apartments and not a school. The rooms were small and narrow, with little natural light penetrating and the classroom furniture was old and worn. The equipment for physics, chemistry and biology was very meager. There were neither labs nor a gymnasium worthy of the name. The yard was narrow and surrounded by the apartments of other neighbors. There were very few textbooks for the subjects. The Lithuanian government did not allow the importation of texts from Eretz Yisrael and we did not yet have textbooks. Only later Patshak produced numerous textbooks especially for our colleague Shmuel Kapit in all areas of mathematics. Our Hebrew teacher, Noah Lidski printed grammar and syntax books and Joseph Levitan did the same for Latin books. Levitan and Schneider together published a book on the problems of engineering for the fourth level as well as other books. The students had to rely on the hand-written lists that were dictated to them by the teachers the lists were, naturally filled with mistakes and errors in spelling. In addition many of the teachers themselves, especially in the general subjects, were not fully conversant in the material the taught which came across muddled. We lacked parallel [Hebrew] terms in mathematics, physics, chemistry and biology. It was unreasonable to expect of the students to learn in an organized fashion when the teachers were disorganized and lacked texts from which the students would acquire basic knowledge. [As it states in the Talmud] If Rabbi did not teach it, how did Rav Hiya come to this conclusion? There is the well known declaration docendo discimus - We learn through teaching [the material]. Indeed, the teachers themselves learned the material by teaching it. Gradually the teachers learned to speak [Hebrew] and the language mangling ceased. They more or less found the appropriate terminology. The students, for whom Hebrew sounded foreign, adjusted to it quickly, since instruction for most of the hours of the day was in Hebrew. This brought them closer to our national language. Our requirement that they speak only Hebrew in their free hours led to the students seeing it as a living language even though outside the school there was no reinforcement as the newspapers and the store signs were not in Hebrew. Conversations in the street and at home were conducted
for the most part purely in Yiddish. There was no such thing as Hebrew language theatre. In short, the only place to absorb Hebrew was in school and nowhere else. In spite of all of this, only a few months passed and Hebrew was more or less the living language spoken by the students. It was the living language in which the teachers taught their subjects. The language was, on one hand, weak [in terminology] and was not always nourished from the sources. The students and the teachers learned and benefitted from each other and after the most difficult first year, we knew that what we attempted succeeded. Over time the Hebrew language won out and Hebrew culture continued to develop among our teachers and students.
In this informal 'conversation' I tried to highlight the beginning of the Hebrew Gymnasion in Kovno. I hope that I presented a more or less accurate description of the first year of its existence. In this way the reality of the first year of the Hebrew Gymnasion of Kovno was recreated. In the meantime it has been transformed into a dream.
by Dr. L. Gorfinkle
Translated by Rabbi Shalom Bronstein
The Hebrew High School (Gymnasium) in Kovno, popularly known as the Schwabe Gymnasium was a link in the chain of Hebrew educational institutions in Lithuania that resulted from working against great challenges, with enormous effort and extraordinary dedication. This chain established in Lithuania an active Jewish community with Jewish national awareness that was not broken until the very end.
It all began in a rather spontaneous manner. The majority of Lithuania's Jewish population, as a seemingly disloyal element, was [exiled] and scattered throughout Russia during World War I by the Tsarist government. At the war's end they began to stream back to Lithuania which became an independent nation in 1918.
The process of setting up a network of Jewish schools, elementary and secondary, received impetus and strong encouragement at that albeit short but important period, when the leaders of the new government, perhaps for their own reasons rather than for ideological purposes, sought both the support and goodwill of Lithuania's Jews. They then declared, and publically obligated themselves, [stating] that the Jews of Lithuania would enjoy not only political rights as citizens, but would with the support of the government be able to conduct their national needs through their own chosen institutions.
In addition to the office of the Minister for Jewish Affairs, which over time became in reality a special ministry, a particular law passed by the government established some ten democratic communities [kehillot] throughout Lithuania. They had the right to impose an obligatory tax on the Jewish population to provide for religious, cultural and social needs. At the conference of representatives of the communities a national Jewish council known as the Natzionalradt was established. It was the central organization of the national [Jewish] organizations and the highest representative body of all of Lithuania's Jews.
This was the ideal period in the relationship of the Lithuanian majority towards the Jewish minority. It created a perfect climate for establishing all kinds of [autonomous] Jewish national institutions. Foremost of them was a network of schools where the language of instruction was Hebrew and in some cases Yiddish.
The Jewish elementary schools were integrated into the general network of schools
of the country. This resulted in unlimited financial support and provided their teachers with the status of government employees. The Jewish high schools were also recognized by the Lithuanian government, but its financial support of them was negligible. An official of the ministry of education of the government participated as the supervisor of the final examinations.
Graduates of the Jewish high schools were generally accepted to institutions of higher learning in the country. There was practically no discrimination between them and graduates of the Lithuanian high schools. In later times, with the rise of anti-Semitism in Lithuania, the situation changed for the worse. The autonomous Jewish institutions were gradually shut down by the anti-Semitic clergy's majority in the Lithuanian Parliament (Sejm) during the short period of the so-called democratic government (1919-1926). At the end of 1926, after a military coup, the entire government was handed over to the Tautininkai (Lithuanian Nationalist Union) party of Smetona and Voldemaras. The fascist authoritarian period which lasted until its rule ended in 1940 began in Lithuania.
In the first years of the Tautininkai government there was practically no change in the status of Lithuania's Jews. However, the system of political repression they carried out in the country was definitely felt in the communal life of the Jews. Beginning with the 1930s, in the public and political life in Lithuania the nationalist and fascist trend increased. With the decline of sovereign Lithuania in 1938, the evil winds that originated in nationalist Poland and Nazi Germany were in the air. Anti-Semitism increased year by year and assumed an increasingly bitter and dangerous form. At that point there was a direct attack against all Jewish activities, especially in the economic realm. The Lithuanian government made no secret of its almost official identification with the anti-Semitic trend in the country. But even then the Hebrew educational system in Lithuania remained firm against the evil winds that engulfed it and they had almost no effect on it.
Yet at this dark time the fascist Lithuania government did not dare to raise a hand against the country's Jewish educational system. Only in 1940 when out of the good will of the Soviet Union, Lithuania was annexed and became one of the Soviet republics the bitter day for Hebrew education arrived. There was an absolute prohibition to study the Hebrew language and literature and this also included the Bible. The Hebrew language schools were shut down or were turned by order of the government into Yiddish schools. At that time, Yiddish was still kosher in the eyes of the Soviet government. Zionism in all its forms was declared anti-revolutionary and reactionary and all of its institutions were banned.
Hebrew was not the language of instruction in all the Jewish schools of Lithuania and not all of them were based on Zionist or national [Jewish] ideals. There were also schools where Yiddish was the language of instruction and in some of them an anti-Zionism spirit prevailed. There were some Hebrew language schools that were not anti-Zionist but where the emphasis was on instruction of a religious character. There were also mixed language schools where Yiddish was the language of instruction but Hebrew was taught
as a subject. However, with all the wide-ranging types of instruction in Lithuanian Jewish education, the dominant factor was the scope of material studied as well as excellence in achievement. The pattern of education in the Hebrew language schools of Lithuania provided the example for the Hebrew language schools in Israel.
The vast majority of the Jewish youth of Lithuania received their primary and secondary education in the Hebrew language schools. This left a unique imprint on the students and their parents. The sounds of Hebrew were often heard in the cities and towns of Lithuania, on the street as well as in the home. It became something natural for Jews as well as non-Jews.
There were without a doubt objective reasons that enabled Jewish education in Lithuania to strike deep roots in all aspects of Jewish life.
The Lithuanians in the 1920s and after were not interested in involving themselves with the Jewish population. They understood that even if they wished to do this, they did not have the required means to do so as their literature and national mores were not full developed. On the other hand, the Jews of Lithuania, with the possible exception (from an economic standpoint) of the thin upper level were deeply rooted in the Jewish national identity and could not assimilate into Lithuanian culture. With all its achievements during independence [Lithuanian culture] still remained meager and could not captivate Lithuania's Jews to turn a blind eye [to this fact].
Another factor in favor of the Hebrew language school system was the strong attachment of the majority of Lithuania's Jews to Zionism and the upbuilding of the Land of Israel. This did not in any way detract from their fulfilling all their obligations as loyal citizens of the Lithuanian nation. In addition to the factors mentioned above there was another very important aspect the very idealistic character of the Hebrew teacher who saw teaching as a national goal and a pioneering endeavor. This was shared by the Jewish parents who did not hold back from contributing their limited funds to guarantee that their children received a Hebrew education. The students of the Hebrew school system enthusiastically and lovingly accepted the heavy load of studies that combined the twin obligations of receiving both a general and [Jewish] national education. It should be noted that educating their children in the Lithuanian school system would have cost the parents far less.
It would not be proper to overlook certain shortcomings in the Hebrew school system in Lithuania. The source was in objective problems that could not be overcome such as lack of proper buildings, lack of experienced teachers with pedagogic backgrounds, lack of financial support and the disconnection between the Hebrew atmosphere of the school and that which existed outside its walls. But in spite of all of this, if we were to take a retrospective look at the level of Lithuania's Hebrew language schools we could say with a clear conscience and without any exaggeration that they certainly justified their own existence from both a financial and national standpoint. They provided their students with both the theoretical and practical knowledge that they needed in their lives, whether they established their homes in Lithuania, came on Aliyah or immigrated to other countries. It gave them the intellectual and spiritual capacity to enable them to adapt without any difficulty to life in Eretz Yisrael and to be numbered among its sons and its faithful builders.
Even if the only merit of the Hebrew school system in Lithuania was that its education and character gave impetus to thousands of its students to leave Lithuania while there was still time and to settle in Eretz Yisrael, the thrust of the education they received saved them from the inferno, the massacres and the destruction of the Shoah and they joined in an active way in the building of the Land we could say Dayenu [it would have been sufficient to justify its existence].
Lithuanian Jewry, its Hebrew language school system, Schwabe Gymnasium, the chain with its links all this was destroyed, all of this is part of the past and exists only in our memory. However, the Jewish national and humanitarian values that its school system nurtured and cultivated they were not destroyed and they could never be destroyed, for they are woven into the very fabric of our lives, in our creativity in Eretz Yisrael and through this they have achieved immortality. As the poet said:
From each and every one springs eternal life
One will blossom into a flower and another will grow into a tree.
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