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[Page 179]

The Jewish-Polish Gymnasia

by Dr. Yaacov Hasis

Translated by Amy Samin

In 1917, one of the young women of Kovel, a teacher, returned to the city from Russia. Her name was Klara Davidovna-Erlich. Working together with a veteran teacher named Shebtzov, who was the principal of the Russian gymnasia before the First World War, that year she opened a gymnasia in which the languages of instruction were Russian and Ukrainian. The gymnasia was opened on Karoliova Boneh Street, where the state gymnasia for girls was once located.

Aside from Klara, all of the teachers were Christians, and a number of Christian students, boys and girls, also studied there. One of the first teachers, Mrs. Miller, who taught German, is worth mentioning. She was a musician by profession, and when the Bolsheviks entered the city she was active in the field of music. Gabriel Nikiporovich taught painting and technical drawing, Iben Vasilivich taught mathematics, Serafima Victorovna Ositskia taught French (she was the only anti-Semite amongst the teachers. She was the daughter of Polkovnik, a Russian from the era of Nicholas), Yevgenya Nicholivna – history, Lisenko taught the Ukrainian language, and Nicholai Piodorovich – physics.

When the Polish government was established it became necessary to abandon the Russian language, and in 1921 the gymnasia stopped being “Russian-Jewish” and became “Polish-Jewish.” This change brought about the need for adjustments in the teaching staff, because neither Klara nor the rest of the teachers knew the Polish language. Furthermore, not a single teacher in Kovel could be found who had a Polish education. With no other choice, Klara brought in teachers from Galicia, who spoke Polish fluently. Those teachers saw it as their duty to promote Polish culture in the school.

The first teacher to arrive was Dr. Flack, a mathematician by profession. He also served as the principal of the gymnasia, because the authorities deprived Klara of the right to hold that position because she did not speak Polish.

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Mr. Horvitz, a science teacher, also arrived with Dr. Flack. He was one of the most talented and notable teachers for a considerable period of time, and he left an impression on many of the children of Kovel.

A German teacher also arrived, whose name I cannot recall; the Latin teacher Turnheim, Crome – Polish literature, Dr. Mazelas – the Hebrew, religious studies and history teacher. A. Ratt, – German language, Dr. Shafroch – physical education, M. Zeidenzeig – drawing, M. Reis – physics and mathematics, the principal Klara Erlich taught science, and Dr. Ziskind may his blood be avenged – served as the school's physician.

They were joined by a Galician who came to the city with the Austrian army, settled there and married a Kovel girl. His name was Fesler. He taught general history. He was a talented educator, magnanimous and very well loved in Kovel. Later he settled in Robna and worked as an attorney.

Until 1927 the gymnasia was not recognized by the authorities, and they refused to grant it any rights. This meant that the graduates of the gymnasia found the doors of the universities in Poland closed to them, and anyone who dreamed of obtaining higher education would leave the gymnasia by the sixth or seventh grade and go to Brisk or Vilna. The gymnasia in those cities were recognized by the government. In fact, there was a recognized Polish gymnasia in Kovel with full rights, but there prevailed there the infamous “numerus clausus” [methods used to limit the number of students], and only a few Jewish students were accepted there.

Various cultural activities developed in the gymnasia. There were various groups such as the drama club, a club about the geography of the Holy Land, a literature club, a football [soccer] team called Lagia, along with an academic journal which was published in three languages – Polish, Hebrew, and Yiddish – very precisely edited.

In 1927 the gymnasia was granted rights by the government, and many of those who had left in earlier years returned in order to receive their diplomas, which would allow them to continue their studies.

The first class to receive a diploma with full rights graduated from the gymnasia in 1928.

A common expression in the city was: the Hebrew gymnasia creates pioneers, and Klara's gymnasia creates educated, knowledgeable people. There is a little bit of truth in the saying, because a few of the students of the Jewish-Polish gymnasia studied medicine in the universities of France, Prague and Italy, and became known as important doctors in the city. I will mention their names: Tania Neimdack finished his studies at Warsaw College and worked as a physician in Kovel; Moshe Wisberg pursued his studies abroad, returned to the city and worked as a doctor; Grisha Verba studied medicine in Prague

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Graduates of the Jewish-Polish gymnasia in 1926


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and Yosef Melamed also studied medicine in Prague and later in Italy, and then worked in Kovel as a surgeon. During the war he worked as the head of the surgery department in a military hospital in Russia.

Two other figures in the gymnasia worth noting are: Eliezar Hodorov, organizer of the Tzofim [scouts] in Kovel and who is currently one of the outstanding captains in the state [Israel], and Ruth Deshbeski of blessed memory, who studied veterinary medicine, an unusual profession amongst Jews in general, and especially Jewish women. During the war she went to Asia where she worked as a veterinarian, where her reputation preceded her on the steppes of Kazakhstan. She would ride on horseback in order to make her rounds amongst the communes and farms in the area. She became a living legend among the Kazakhstani people in the region.

The gymnasia prepared an entire generation of free-thinking intellectuals and professionals. When the war broke out, Mrs. Klara Erlich left the city and went to Russia to live with her sister in Moscow. The gymnasia building became a pile of rubble and no sign of it remains.

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Class 6, 1926 – 1927

Back Row, from right to left - Moshe Gelman, Yeshayahu Skolnik, Mika Gelman, Esther Sass, Bennick Petrakovski, Selah Mendel, Moshe Gelman, Meirom (Meir) Rosenblatt, Eli-Yitzhak Verbe.
Second Row – Velvel Lipshitz, Nina Ladrahandler, Chaike Glazer, Shapira…Damav, Roizya (Ruth) Deshbeski, Esther Flott, Chaike Erlich, Brunia Beronzpat.
Third row – Nunia Oppelind, Grisha Shemstein, Yisrael Geller, Satran, Rosa Bonn, teacher Dr. Fesler, Jania Burstein, Yisrael Fuchs, Yagodnik, Leah Pogtash, Stinberg.
Seated on the ground – Sheindel Roisen, Regina Friedman, Y. Rosensveig, Yoske Gurtenstein, Tzippa Bayerach, Hina Asiok, Yagodnik.


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