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Vilkaviškis (Vilkovishk) {Cont.}

Education and Culture

Instead of the traditional educational system of “Khadarim” and “Talmud Torah” a modern Hebrew educational chain was established. It included a kindergarten, an elementary school of the “Tarbuth” network, a religious school of the “Yavneh” organization and a high school.

The high school was established in 1919 at the initiative of a founders committee whose members were intellectual Jewish merchants, advocates of the Hebrew language who cared for the education of their children. They were Ya'akov Khmilevsky, A. Zeiberg, A. Volberg, Ya'akov Solomin, Peretz Silver, Yosef Sperling, Shimshon Volovitzky, Neta Teitelbaum and Neta Matz.

In August 1919 hundreds of children started their studies in this high school, where all subjects were taught in Hebrew with Sephardi pronunciation. The first director was Dr. M. Cohen and after him came Dr. Tsemakh Feldstein, Dr. Yehoshua Fridman, Dr. Mosheh Yardeni, Shelomoh Trachtenberg, the last director being Shraga Halperin.

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The invitation for the celebration of the tenth anniversary
of the High School and the laying of the cornerstone
for the new building of the High School and the
Vocational School, June 20, 1929

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Among the teachers were M. J. Mendelson-Mishkutz, Dr. A. Rozenberg,
B. Meshorer, Dr. Yehudah Holtzman-Etsyoni, J. Strelitzky, D. Zilberstein, A. M. Tshertok
and others.

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The teachers of the Hebrew High School
Sitting from right: B. Meshorer; Dr. Cohen; Dr. Tsemakh Feldstein; Dr. Y. Etsyoni; Lithuanian teacher
Standing from right: Y. Zilberstein; – ; M. Y. Mendelson; – ; Shimon Zak; Hayim Vilkovishky

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The tenth anniversary of the Hebrew High School
Sitting from right: A. Volovitzky (delegate of the pupils); Dr. Cohen (Teacher of Science);
Rabbi Grin; Dr. Sakenis (Education Minister); Head of the department of high schools in the ministry;
Dr. Yardeni (headmaster); Y. M. Mendelson (lecturing).

The first graduation class completed its studies in 1921 and the Lithuanian government representative at the matriculation examinations was Dr.Yosef Berger (Harari), the director of the Education Department of the Jewish ministry. This was the only occasion during the Jewish autonomy in Lithuania when the government authorized a Jew to participate in the matriculation examinations and to sign matriculation certificates on its behalf.

The school was financed by tuition fees paid by the pupils, but due to the deterioration in the economic situation of Vilkovishk Jews many of them had difficulty in paying the high fees. For several years the Lithuanian government supported the school, and in 1929 the cornerstone for a new building of the High and the Vocational schools was laid (see the invitation for the celebration above). The building was erected thanks to donations of a Vilkovishk Jew who had immigrated to London named Krovelsky of the “Joint” organization, and of the Sobolevitz Brothers from Vilkovishk. The new building housed both the High and Vocational schools, where subjects of metal and electricity were taught. The vocational school was connected to the “ORT” network and teaching languages were Yiddish and Hebrew.

In the middle of the 1930s, after the Nazis seized power in Germany, a group of Jewish youths from Germany arrived at the school to learn a vocation prior to their “Aliyah” to Eretz Yisrael.

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A class of the high school 1926 or 1927
First line sitting from left: Nekhamah Openheim, Ya'akov Cohen,
Rachel Mikhnotsly, Sheine Stalovsky, David Fainberg, Frida Melamdovitz
Second line sitting from left: Aryeh Balberishky, Shmeriyahu (Zunia) Pustopedsky,
Nekhamah Rabinovitz, Teacher Mishkutz, Sarah Neishtot, Goldshmit, Imanuel Albom.
Third line standing from left: Shifrah Sider, Mordehai Shershenevsky,
Hayim Srolevitz, Yehudith Shperling, Alter Hayat, Frida Hayat,
Reuven Levin, Hanah Tchernotzky, Meir Tabatchnik.

The director and teacher of this school was for several years (1929-1933) Aryeh Volovitzky, born in 1908 in Vilkovishk. He immigrated to Eretz-Yisrael, where he changed his name to Ankorion. He was a lawyer (Dr. Jur.) and worked in the public sector, later being elected to the “Kneseth” on behalf of the Israeli Labor party.

Many of the graduates of the high school continued their studies in the Lithuanian University in Kovno and also abroad. Some of them immigrated to Eretz Yisrael where they became doctors, lawyers, teachers, merchants, Kibutz members etc., all loyal to Jewish culture and to the spirit of Lithuanian Jewry.

In 1935 there were 120 pupils in the high school, its conditions worsened from year to year, but none the less it survived until Soviet rule in Lithuania in 1940.

In Vilkovishk two Hebrew books were printed: “Speak Hebrew – about the question of Speaking Hebrew”, by M. Yardeni 1932, and “The History of the new Hebrew Literature, Vol. 1, the 'Haskalah' literature in Central Germany (1784-1829)” by H. N. Shapira, 1940, a lecturer of Judaica in the Lithuanian university, who was murdered by the Nazis in the Kovno Ghetto.

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1931 High School Class with the gymnastics teacher Starkovsky
In the years 1918-1919, at the initiative of the “Bund” and “Poalei Zion-Smol” who dominated the community committee, many cultural institutions were established. They organized the “Kultur Lige” (League for Culture), a popular university, a Yiddish school, a consumer cooperative, the trade union of the brush workers, which became the center of all brush workers in Lithuania and also a sick fund. All these institutions existed till 1926, when they were closed together with the liquidation of autonomy, when the nationalist party began to rule in Lithuania.

In 1925 a branch of the association “Libhober fun Visen” (Supporters of Knowledge) was founded in Vilkovishk, which established a library with 1,500 books in Yiddish. Next to it was a reading room where lectures on different themes took place. There was also the Zionist-Socialist “Sirkin Society”, which maintained a large library in Hebrew and Yiddish.

The Jewish theater from Kovno often presented its plays and so did the “Hebrew Studio”, which existed for a only few years.

In March 1939 “The Artisans Association” arranged a big party in the big hall of the cinema, where the play ”Two Kuni Lemel” was performed with great success.

There was also “The Society of Jewish ex-soldiers who fought for the independence of Lithuania” with its 25 members.

Zionist and Other Activities

During the autonomy the workers parties “Bund” and “Poalei Zion” dominated the Jewish public. At the head of the “Poalei Zion” party stood Efraim Bruker and his wife Rashel, the accountant Album and Yisrael Nitzevitz.

A delegate from Vilkovishk participated in the regional conference of “Poalei-Zion” which took place in Suvalk in 1919.

The “Bund” was forced to stop its activities in 1921, where some of its members merged with the underground Communist party and others with the “Poalei Zion-Smol (Left)”, which too was forced to disband after the nationalist party took over in Lithuania.

From the entire Yiddishists group in Vilkovishk there remained only the “Folkists” (populists), who stood for the use of the Yiddish language and opposed Zionism. Their organ of opinion was the daily newspaper “Folksblat” published in Kovno.

In those years the Zionist organization with all its nuances became the dominating movement among Vilkovishk Jews. All Zionist parties were active there: Z”S (Zionist-Socialist), Z”Z (Tseirei Zion) from the labor movement; the General Zionists; Mizrakhi; Revisionists; WIZO (Women International Zionist Organization). The Zionist youth organizations who were active were: HeKhalutz, HaShomer HaTsair, Betar.

One can judge the state of mind among Vilkovishk Jews according to the results of the elections for the first Lithuanian Seimas (Parliament) which took place in October 1922: Zionists received 609 votes, Akhduth (religious) 290 votes, and Democrats 92 votes. In the table below we can see how Vilkovishk Zionists voted for the different parties at six Zionist Congresses:

Year Total
Total Votes Labor Party
Revisionists General Zionists
Grosmanists Mizrakhi
14 1925 120
15 1927 264 170 44 27   16 75 8
16 1929 664 268 102 17 83 61 5
17 1931 351 268 138 16 60 46 8
18 1933 724 398 151 60 5 10
19 1935 1,001 896 596 56    109 97 38

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