« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

[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.

[Page 180]

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

[Page 181]


Graduates of the Jewish-Polish gymnasia in 1926


[Page 182]

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.

[Page 183]


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.

[Page 184]

The Poet Kalman Liss

by L. Olitzky (Warsaw)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

People of Thoughts and Predictions

There was a certain man from Ramataim-Zofim: Rav Hanin said a man who descends from people who stood at the height of the world”

Megillah, 14



During the years following WWI, I lived in my hometown -Trisk, Volyn. From time to time I amused myself by visiting the capital, Kovel. I went to see my school friend, Moshe Perl.

It was a time when Jewish culture was growing, in Volyn, also. The larger towns had Tarbut high schools, but the smaller ones had Jewish peoples' schools. Hebrew and Yiddish libraries were established, named after our classic writers. Drama clubs and other clubs were formed with the cooperation of Yivo in Vilna. In the larger towns, the publication of periodicals and weekly newspapers was begun.

Volyn Province had the ambition to follow the capital of Poland- Warsaw. Kovel had a Tarbut high school, Hebrew and Yiddish elementary schools. In general, it was a Zionist town and there was also a weekly Zionist publication. My village, Trisk, was only 18 kilometers away. Kovel had its militant Jewish youth, outstanding Jewish schools, a library, a good drama club. It represented the Jewish fortress of Volyn.

[Page 185]

Once I went to Kovel to give a review, in a Hebrew-Yiddish publication, of a local production. I was caught in a dilemma. I did not have anything good to say and I did not feel like giving a bad review.


Kalman Liss, z”l


There was a poem in the presentation called “Little Beast”. It appealed to my critical eyes with its simplicity and muted language. Something in it felt true. The song filled my head and I was deaf to the rest.

Soon afterwards, I again came to Kovel. A young, working class man came to see me. He was wearing a gray military cap. He took it off and was red with embarrassment. Under his messy hair I saw a pair of eyes filled with happiness:

G-g-ood m-o-rning! - he stammered. Are you Leibel Olitzky?

[Page 186]

I am Kalman Liss. You liked, I heard, my Little Beast. I want to show you…

…who is this stutterer? – I was not disposed to listen to him. What Little Beast? Ah!...
I was involved with my own problems and I was not really pleased. Just because I like Little Beast, I would now be subjected to this “country pastor”, like a flock of geese or a compulsive cow. I was uncomfortable and I took him outside the house.
-Let us sit down here.
He did not do it. He was unhappy with the “test”.
-Hum. I will recite a few poems…I have many…

- I don't have much time… What does it mean that you will recite?

- I will recite- he says stammering still. His eyes were filled with delight. – I know my poems by heart.

He then began to envelop me with his poems to the tune of “Ashrei” of religious Jews of yesteryear. I, a man with poor memory, wondered about his and complimented him. I thought I would thus get away from giving my opinion about the poems. They did not leave any impression on me. He insisted on hearing my thoughts.
-I must say that I still prefer your Little Beast. But, continue to write…
He said good-bye and left with a glowing face. It meant that he would now truly devote himself to his work.

I did not see him again for a long time. He did not come to Kovel, but he stayed with his grandfather in the village of Frovol. I later learned that he was studying in Vilna at the teachers' seminary run by Dr. Charna. When he graduated, he took a teaching job in a shtetl in Volyn. When he left there, he came to Trisk to see me. In spite of his stammer, he showed himself to be a friendly guy, involved with people.

[Page 187]

He immediately got to know the teachers and leaders of the Jewish Peoples' school. He befriended the students. He brought poems he, himself, had created and written. The Jewish youth were quite taken by him.

-We should hire him as a teacher in our school.
Within a few months he made himself ridiculous by his correspondence with someone in the weekly Kovel publication. It was about the cultural activity in the village where he was working. He did not forget to recall, with a provincial self-pride, that he when he went there, he stopped in Trisk to visit the writer L.O….
-A country bumpkin! - said the so-called “sophisticated” people of Trisk about him. “He plans to be a poet! It is not enough for him to be a teacher.”
As if overnight, Kalman Liss, in whom young blood, energy and spiritual powers of creation were active, overcame his Little Beast and his correspondence. He produced beautiful poetry in the journals of Warsaw.

He had already lived in Warsaw where he co-edited a journal for young people. He soon began to work successfully in the “Tsentus” of Otvotsk. We heard that he had an excellent approach to developmentally challenged children that were attending the school.

Whenever he came to Kovel for the High Holidays to visit his mother and sister, he stopped in Trisk to see me. He did not only visit me, but also the school. The school population was thrilled with him. He became a child again among the children.

He was already, even then, wearing the cape of an important poet. The young poet was even quite gracious towards the town and me, the elderly writer- still living in a rural place. He told me, indirectly:

-Don't take it to heart that you live here. In Warsaw, we speak of you…
He immediately would start to speak of his own affairs.

[Page 188]

He spoke proudly and enthusiastically about his wife. She is extremely intelligent, smart and a connoisseur of poetry. She also stems from an honorable family- the Lubavitch Schneersons.

A few years later I moved to Warsaw. However, neither one of us looked for rapprochement. Perhaps we had a mutual suspicion of each other. As a rule, we did not meet too often. I worked in a school and I kept myself far from literary circles. After he was married, he lived in Otvotsk and he only came to Warsaw on social business. He was a member of the “red” group of writers while I had the impression, perhaps a false one, that he did not approve of me because I was working in a Bund school, even though I was impartial.

Nevertheless, when we once both came to Kovel for Pessach, we, as colleagues, invited each other to our homes. His mother, a slim, gray-haired, pleasant-faced woman, said: it pleases us, my son and I, the in-laws of the famous Schneersons. We drank a glass of wine, but we did not get any closer. In Warsaw, we remained strangers. He never invited me to his house in Otvotsk. Not even when I was there for the summer. I did not think highly of him then.

We again found ourselves on foreign soil- on the river of Krinitz. He introduced me to his wife. She seemed, and actually was, older than him (he was her second husband). She was a nice woman with red hair. Her face was reddish-white and full of freckles. She was not a beauty. However, her stature, fine attitude and her manner of speaking showed her aristocratic and intelligent background. Did she, the “red” one bring him to the “red” group of writers?

Their mutual attitude confirmed the belief of their friends that he was under her intelligent and smart influence. Even his poetry was guided by her. She knew literature well.

[Page 189]

She directed the rich flowing stream of his creativity so it would not flood empty areas.

His material good fortune had already come to him. He was well loved. His movements were controlled and his face was earnest. All this did not fit in with his white linen shirt embroidered with a Ukrainian colorful pattern. However, it really emphasized that this was a Volhynian poet of proletariat stock. His little pipe, always sticking out of his mouth, emitted smoke which obscured his face and made everything worse. It drew the attention of passers-by – here goes a poet!

Nevertheless, his face, crowned with his blond mop of hair stood in contrast to that of his wife with her red hair. It looked like the moon, near the sun, receiving light from it. He always seemed to look at his wife's eyes and mouth in a subdued manner. Well, what? She came from Lubavitchers and he- from a small village called Frovol.

When people spoke of Kalman Liss, about the good in him, they always remembered it. If they had complaints about him, they would often forget to remember.

The Communist party in Poland was dissolved by an order from the authorities. Kalman Liss, the vehement combatant within the “red” writers' group, left his comrades. Was this not a “miracle from heaven?” However, his friends only blamed him for this and not his wife. A teachers' strike was organized in “Tsentus”. He did not join the strikers and he was declared a strike-breaker. No one faulted his wife for his behavior.

On the first day of WWII, the Germans bombarded the “Tsentus” and killed teachers and children. Kalman Liss was badly wounded. He was taken to a hospital in Warsaw. He remained there until the city fell. He was then brought back to Otvotsk. Before I escaped from there to the Soviet side, I went to say goodbye to him.

[Page 190]

He was improving by then. He smiled happily at his beautiful child, sleeping in his bed. It was rumored that, he, too, as soon as he felt better, would need to escape. Not one of us had done it. He spoke with excitement of the destruction of Warsaw:

-No…One cannot imagine it if one did not witness it with his own eyes…
His mother and sister in Kovel waited for him. Why was he not coming there as were thousands of refugees? Kalman Liss did not return.

One does not speak badly of the dead. I believe, still, that those holy ones who died in the ghetto are absolved of all their sins. They are all placed on the list of martyrs. We will remember them for generations to come.

In our list of holy poets, I see the star of the Volhynian poet, Kalman Liss.

Dear Kalman! A poet from my homeland, Volyn! You went to the slaughter with your dozens of handicapped children. No good angel was saved. Your own child in your arms. The sun shone on you and flooded you with light. The sky, even then, was full of clouds. Kalman, every step purified you. Even if there were marks on your conscience, the sun lit them up. Together with the pure souls of your students you were called to the highest spheres. Your blood-stained body remained holy together with their blameless bodies. The letters of your works fluttered like a wreath around your poet's head.

May your holy memory remain as a remembrance of our people.


« Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page »

This material is made available by JewishGen, Inc. and the Yizkor Book Project for the purpose of
fulfilling our mission of disseminating information about the Holocaust and destroyed Jewish communities.
This material may not be copied, sold or bartered without JewishGen, Inc.'s permission. Rights may be reserved by the copyright holder.

JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material for verification.
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.

  Kovel', Ukraine     Yizkor Book Project     JewishGen Home Page

Yizkor Book Director, Lance Ackerfeld
This web page created by Jason Hallgarten

Copyright © 1999-2024 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 30 Apr 2020 by MGH