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[Pages 479-472]

Chapter 9:

Altars of Learning

Small children started on the path to “Judaism” in Baruch Melamed's heder. Some older children still attended one or two studied with Pesah. The two heders were across the street from the big synagogue. Large alphabet tables made of cardboard were (spread out on the benches. The village melamed “Baruch Sobiesral” used his whalebone pointer to indicate the letters. There was a different picture for each letter: “Alef” - a man carrying a load over his shoulders that bowed him down; “Gimel” - a purse. “Learn children, learn. Purses full of silver will fall to you from heaven, “said the rebbeh. The children's eyes glistened, they knew that a single penny could buy them poppy-seed cookies and egg-biscuits (eyer kichlach) at Hayah-Sarah's store. At old Bobsehczyne's, the one with the “horn” on her nose, you could get a cupful of boiled chickpeas. “Dalet” was the flag for Simhat Torah (the Rejoicing in the Law, last day of Tabernacles). All around the letter “Hey” danced Simha the Lame and Ya'acov- Moshe with the short leg. “Het,” was the entrance to the heder The “Yod” was so tiny that it crept into one's heart. terminal “Koph” and terminal “Pay” were Yankel Tzaitag's tall lampposts. “Lamed,” was the hunchback, Moshe Soifer's wife. “Samech,” was the barrel of beer that stood in the priest's window “Ein,” a nose and two eyes. The “Shin” was readily visualized: carriage horses with leather blinders and a silver “shin” next to each eye.

The first days in the heder of the pleasant rebbeh were spent in playing alphabet games. Those good and happy days. But once the Torah nursling grew older, he fell onto hard times.

The letters joined forces and became words. There were blessings to be learned as one assumed the yoke of the Law. In a twinkling, the children were transformed into Jews who were obliged to fulfill the various commandments. One could no longer skip a word, eat before praying or forget the fringed garment. All at once, a heavy burden descended on the young shoulders, a yoke of commandments and transgressions, a life full of apprehension, almost like that of the adults.

For many years, Baruch's “heder” led the children on to the heder of Pesah “goatbeard” (kozi-bord). Study of the Pentateuch began with, “Vaikra” (Leviticus) accompanied by a Yiddish translation and an additional explanation. The yoke became heavier. Learning the alphabet was close to one's heart and easy.

The letters represented familiar persons and houses in the children's yards and streets.

While studying, the child's thoughts carried him far from town: to Haran, Padan, Aram, Alonei Mimreh, and to Hebron where Abraham met the sons of Het. They were lulled by the resounding waves of melody that made one's head heavy and forced one's eyes to close. In their minds, they wandered from Or Kasdim to Egypt over a hot and blazing desert. It was terrifying to experience the burdensome dream in the Convenant of Abraham, the dark terror that overcame Abraham, our forefather, and the promise, “I will make of thee a great nation” that caused the Jews so much suffering until this very day.

Suddenly the world was full of demons and evil spirits. At twilight, between Minha and Maariv, the city's skies were set ablaze not by the setting sun but by the fires of Gehinom (hell) where the wicked are roasted and burned.

Synagogue Street was no longer a peaceful lane in which one could see mothers, grandmothers and aunts in black silk dresses and Turkish shawls, and wigs full of combs and beads. It was no longer a place where Jews slowly streamed from the synagogue and the batei rnidrash.

Slowly, slowly everything assumed a different form. When a white dove alighted on the roof of the synagogue, it was a sign that an angel bearing good tidings had appeared. If a star twinkled far off in the dark skies, that was a pure soul meant to join us or leaving us now. The stars are the souls of small brothers and sisters who left us when still young. In those days many innocent little sisters and young brothers departed from each family and ascended to Heaven. One began to have fears and to search the synagogue for demons. Boys in Pesah's heder already knew that every night the dead came to pray in the synagogue. There were children who had seen this with their very own eyes. In the morning frightened children would point out black-and-blue marks on their hands, pinches by the dead.

Shaking hands on a deal with or without striking the palms with the fringed garment were new rungs in the long ladder of virtues, commandments and good deeds. Even when the child played with buttons or nuts, he was not allowed to forget him- self. A Jew was forbidden to cheat, lie or take false oath. He had to be “more humble than the grass and stiller than water” and lovingly accept the melarned's whippings.

This world and the world to come absolutely befuddled the small heads of the young children. Their faces became paler and paler as they continued on the mournful path that led to being good Jews. After a time the boys changed so that one could hardly recognize them. In Baruch's heder they still played games. In Pesah's heder, they boys were well aware of what a Jew was forbidden to enjoy.

In every corner demons lay in wait for a Jewish soul. It was forbidden to start the day without washing one's hands; it was forbidden to eat without having prayed; it was a sin to fall asleep without having recited the “Hamapil” prayer. There is “a watchful eye and all your deeds are recorded.”

During the long summer days, small children sat in Pesah's heder and in other heders until dark. In winter they sat there till late at night. The heder was their entire life. How pleasant it was for the boys to be together. Love awakened for their teacher. The boys enjoyed the tall tales that they told one another between the Minha and Ma'ariv prayers.

One must not sit on the stone near Simha Nitzkin's house, a dybbuk might possess one's body. The “Hanei Inshei” (demons) live in the well. Brave boys bent over the well and dared to sound a few words into it, then fled, until the echo faded. When Pelteh, Sarah's son, travelled from Chorzel to Mlawa, with his own eyes he saw a calf lying in the middle of the road. His father picked up the animal and put it in his wagon when suddenly, there was a peal of laughter. The creature stood in the middle of the road, stuck out its long, red tongue and laughed and laughed. Another time, a sheep was lying in the road. Palteh's father and the other passengers rushed to lift the animal but not even the whole lot of them could budge it.

At night the children were afraid to walk in the dark alone. That is why they left the heder together, holding tin lanterns with kerosene or candles burning inside. In order to dispel their fears they would yell out: “Haim - where are you? Are you there already? Have you reached the stairs? Are you at the door? “Haim would reply, “I'm here,” and his escorts then continued on their way until yet another one had reached his house. The children were afraid of the “Baba-yaga” (witch).

On winter nights the lights of the lanterns shimmered along the alleys and back streets. Each flame accompanied a little Jew on his way home from the heder where every day he was let into the world of Judaism.

The hoders prepared the Jewish children for a life of patience, a life of avoiding blows, of bearing the yoke of their faith. That was the nature of things and that was how it was meant to be.

From rebbeh Pesah one advanced to the Unearned (teacher) from Ciechanow, to the Ostrowite, to Mehl, to Moishe-Aron, Ya'akov Winiver and Itcheleh Czizewer. Wealthier children studied with Meir Shlomo, the official Rabbi from Wolka. The children of the poor studied in the “Talmud Torah.” There were many different sorts of melamdim. Some pulled the boys by the ear, others pinched, whipped with a lash or leather strap. One made them stand in a corner holding a broom, another did not insist on the broom but preferred a saucepan on the pupil's head and sometimes made the child pull down his trousers as well.

The Learn worked hard all week and lived like beggars. Saturdays they visited their pupils and posed questions. During the examination, the rnelamed's heart beat just as fast as the child's. If the boy did not know the answers, it was the rnelamed's fault and there was a good possibility that the father would not let the child attend the heder for an additional “spell of time.” That was why the melamdim labored so hard all week long, using both the carrot and the stick to force some Torah into the boys' heads.

In the crooked back street between Jedneralska and Plock Streets, next to Yosef Czarka's mill and adjacent to Ya'akov Shlomo Mondrzak's bustling yard, right next to Abraham Terzer's entrance and to many granaries, rebbeh David Gordon began to educate the children of Israel according to a new system. He had a few pupils, the children of the well-to-do. Gordon taught without benefit of a whip. He neither hit nor embarrassed a child by public punishment. He won over his pupils' hearts by his moderation, composure and authority. The parents respected him and had faith in him. Both Gordon and the parents were hounded by the Hassidim, who still controlled the town. But the Has- sidim's attempts were of no avail. Gordon's heder remained standing.

Even Gordon's appearance and that of his heder were different. Gordon was tall, calm, and had a beard that was starting to turn white. He was dressed neatly and in good taste. He carefully weighed each word he spoke and gave the impression of a person with self-respect and self-confidence. Gordon aroused the respect and faith of those around him. He was not to be compared with the other melamdim in town, not in knowledge nor in appearance.

They barely eked out a living and were looked down on. Gordon's heder was clean and separate from his living quarters. The other heders were in the mefamdim's homes and sometimes, a part of the kitchen (the wife's domain).

In Gordon's heder the lessons were set according to a schedule and there was a recess between one lesson and the next. Also, the pupils did not study for as many hours as in the other heders. They learned Bible, Hebrew, Jewish History and secular subjects. Gordon gradually fostered in the hearts of his pupils a love for the Land of Israel, for the Hebrew language and for the Jewish national holidays. These were happy days of freedom for the Jewish children in town. But,Gordon's work ended cruelly and tragically. On a gloomy night in 1914, savage Cossacks burst into his apartment and shot him and his son, Anszel, to death. Blumkin, the teacher, who was in the apartment at the time, was wounded.

During this period, the teacher Raphael Gutman settled in town. After some years he became famous throughout Poland as a pedagogue, headed a teacher's seminary, was the inspector of all the Jewish schools in the Warsaw community and was the celebrated author of many textbooks.

Raphael Gutman was not content with a one-room heder. With true Lithuanian stubborness, he founded a heder for over one hundred children. Gutman was a man of presence not commonly found in Mlawa. He did away with the caftan and even with his long beard. He was an energetic Jew who wore a short jacket and a stiff black hat. Only a hint of a beard decorated his smiling and clever face. He chose to open his reformed heder (“heder metukan”) in the house of a Gur Hassid, David Henoch Fraenkel, on Nieborg Street. The Hassidim called it “heder mesukan” (dangerous heder), a play on words. The boder's course of study and its appearance suggested a modern school. It was divided into classes and the pupils sat in pairs on benches, just as in a real school. The secular lessons were taught bare- headed; only Hebrew, Bible and Talmud were taught in skullcaps. As far as most of the townsfolk were concerned, this was con- version. “Why send your son to Gutman? Better take him to be converted directly,” they would say to the teachers, pupils and to the parents who dared to send their children to Gutman's school. They were expelled from the Hassidic houses of prayer and placed outside the pale. All these people lost their friends and intimates; their lives were ruined.


Hebrew was taught using the method Hebrew-Hebrew (without translating into Yiddish). In the higher grades the pupils spoke Hebrew among themselves. After each lesson there was an intermission. The ringing of the bell announced the beginning and the end of each session. In each class there were monitors who saw to it that the premises were kept clean and orderly. There were singing lessons and gymnastics, a novelty for the Jewish children. The pupils were taken on hikes and excursions. They had a summer vacation, just as in any modern school. On Hanukah and Purim the children staged plays for the parents. There was a library in the school and the children became accustomed to reading books. Well known magazines and children's periodicals such as “Prahim” (Flowers) “Nitzanim” (Buds), “Bikurim” (First Fruits), “Hashahar” (The Dawn) and “Ben Shahar” (The Morning Star), were passed from one child to the next. In Gutman's heder, “Hatikva” was sung and heard for the first time.

Later there was Levin, a Lithuanian Jew who was a great scholar. He traveled around the Yeshivot. He did not grow a beard. Gutman and Levin's wisdom and learning opened the doors to many religious Jewish homes. People enjoyed discussing the fine points of religious law with the two sharp-witted Lithuanians. One just had to respect them. They were appreciated by their friends and even the Mitnagdim held them in regard.

The reformed heder undermined the weight of the old boder and helped precipitate its end. In order to survive and to avoid being closed, two hours a week of secular lessons were introduced. The Hassidim founded a religious school for girls, “Bet Ya'akov.” But all this was in vain. New ways of life, new ideals captured the Jewish street. The heder, like anything else out-dated, had reached the end of the road.

The natural continuation of the modern and reformed heders was the Yiddish and Hebrew secular elementary schools and high schools throughout Poland. All these educational institutions, both the heder and the secular schools, became Jewish strongholds. The Jews financed them and determined the cur- ricula. These schools were of no interest to the Gentile authorities. The elementary schools that the government au- thorities established for the Jews had nothing in common with Judaism, neither in principle nor in program. For many years there were two elementary schools in Mlawa for the children of “the followers of the faith of Moses,” directed by Moshe Golomb and, later, by Moshe Laski. At first, only Jewish teachers taught there; later, the teaching staff included Christians as well. The lessons were in Polish.

Yiddish was the language of instruction in the heder. In Gordon's heder, the lessons were taught both in Yiddish and in Hebrew; in the reformed heder only in Hebrew, except for the other schools Polish was used, except for the Jewish subjects.

In 1917 the Jews of Mlawa finally had a Jewish gymnasium. It was established by the Zionist activists: Berish Perlmutter, Haim Eliyah Perla, Motteh Greenberg, Mendel Aks, and Koppel Pizicz.

From an overall, cultural point of view, the gymnasium was a big achievement for the Jewish youth of Miawa and the sur rounding towns. The Jews greatly benefitted from this situation. But, at the same time, there was no lack of criticism. There were those who maintained that a trade school was preferable - it was more suitable and of better purpose for the Jewish youth. And indeed, after some time, the gymnasium built workships. Others found fault with the curriculum, with instruction in the Polish language, and giving in to the authorities, in order to enjoy state privileges. They called the gymnasium “a small factory for matriculation degrees.” The Polish universities were at any rate closed to the Jews. Continuation of one's education abroad was possible only for the wealthy, they claimed. After graduating high school, most of the youth again stood at the crossroads with no chance for any future. The majority was not interested in learning for learning's sake, claimed the critics.

In spite of all these objections, the gymnasium developed from year to year. Youth from all levels of society in the city and in its surroundings, streamed to study there.

The gymnasium's beginnings were where the tar pit was, near the Mikveh and the stream, rzeka, bordering the Jewish area that extended, like a chain, from Synagogue Street and past the heders, the Hassidic houses of prayer, and the Mikveh. The red building provoked and aroused the wrath of the Gur Hassidim. They came enrnasse, took over the building and used it for the city “Talmud Torah.” From then on, the “Judaism” circle was closed once again. Actually, the “Talmud Torah” was no longer what it had been in previous years. There too, secular subjects were taught. The melamdim even dared to make a strike there. But the “Talmud Torah” remained an institution in which the melamdim were forced to suffer the heavy yoke of the despotic beadles.

In its later years and until the very end, the gymnasium housed in the Pizicz building, in a Gentile neighborhood, next to the two Polish high schools. Girls and boys studied together in the Jewish gymnasium.

The gymnasium's first years were honeymoon years. Under the directorship of Haim Millenband and the teachers: Goldberg, Merker, Wohlfrost, Czerski and others, the students, teachers, and parents comprised a tight unit. In time other teachers were accepted. The institution expanded and tried to obtain state benefits which, in the end, it did receive. But slowly, the atmosphere in the gymnasium changed. From a general, cultural point of view, the gymnasium undoubtedly was an achievement. Children from 0 levels of the Jewish population obtained an education and, to a certain degree, in Jewish studies, as well. This would not have been possible except for the gymnasium. Some students contained their education at Polish universities, and abroad. The entire course of life of the city's youth drastically changed during the twenty two years of the gymnasium's existence. Many of its students would find difficulty remembering that the gymnasium was a bridge between the heder and the university.

Officially, the gymnasium was under the supervision of the Polish Ministry of Education. It, in fact, served as a center for the Jewish cultural and social institutions. “Hashomer Hatzair” head- quarters were in this building. “Wizo,” The Jewish Women's Federation, the drama club, lectures, all theatre performances, meetings of all the political parties, social gatherings, Keren Kayemeth (Jewish National Fund) bazaars and other events - were all held in its halls.

There was a dormitory for external students right next to the gymnasium. The city's entire concepts and ways of life had changed so that even the children of religious and of non-progressive families, for whom the gymnasium had once been “trayf” (tabu),attended this school.

Yizhak Hirschhorn was its last principal and also taught there.

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