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[Page 303]

The Tarbut School, From its Beginning to its End

by Henoch Levin

Translated by Deborah Horowitz Nothman

1921. “On the ruins of Smorgon from World War I, the Hebrew School was founded on the Great Synagogue.”

After the Great Revolution and World War I, all of Russia was seeped in “mourning”. Roads were soaked with the blood of Israel's Jewish (the Jewish people), and our “nations' dwellings” were lit by fire (burned to the ground). There were miles of stretched out lines––masses of refugees returning westward to rebuild their ruined lives. Amongst these masses of refugees were the Smorgoners, a “unique tribe”. They were recognizable and distinguished by one noticeable feature, “Brotherhood”. These Echalons (Russian word) (likely echelons in English) of long trains transported human beings, as if they were cattle, and who lumbered along, weeks and months in caravans, on the winding and destroyed roads of Russia–were the families of Smargon (note: common variation of Smorgon spelling). Indeed, they were a rare breed! They sat bent over and huddled in one car. Men and women, old and young, sitting on their bundles, the only remainder of their worldly possessions, trying to figure out what their future holds for them. In these freight cars, the seed of the first and renewed community of Smorgon was born, and from which sprouted a new social order (activism). The main concern, however, concentrated on the livelihood and education of the children.

In one of these cars sat the teacher Katz, the first postwar educator to the children of Smorgon. At the end of 1921, there were about 51 remaining families in Smorgon. Perhaps, some returned earlier, but no one remained in this destroyed city. At the end of the year, the first assembled class of the Hebrew School met in a temporary abode.


Tarbut School
H. Sarachan, Margosia, M.Fisher, B.Weinstein, Katz, Z.Perga'ment,
Bernstein, Scultz, R.Weinstein, A.Brudno, Y.Grinberg

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The teacher Yosef Bernstein


This temporary abode was housed in the “woman's section” of the ruins of the Great Synagogue. No longer for women only, the section became the “House” for all of Smorgon. So, the house of learning was now called the “women's section”. The long narrow building that once stood in all its glory with prominent pillars was the complete opposite–this “House of G–d” that was once so magnificent but now ruins of its former glory. The synagogue was now the home to the school. All activity occurred on the second floor.

Immediately, after the adults attended morning prayers, the children would take over the space for Torah and higher education. Wooden benches, built by the carpenters of Smorgon were installed in the “women's section” as our first Holy contribution. The window panes were yet to be installed, and the window openings were stuffed with anything that was found suitable. The wind howled in the chimney, and the two groups of children, who sat huddled together, made the best of this saddening situation. The class was divided into two sections to indicate the difference in age and knowledge. There was no wall between them during the lessons, just empty space.

In one section, Mr. Katz taught, and in the other section, Mr. Beck, and alternately, a Mr. Masersky taught. Mr. Masersky was a young student who was from Vilna who happened to be passing by. On his head he wore a cap which was white with a red stripe all around (the colors of the Polish flag)–which created much amazement to the young children. The curriculum was agreed upon and compulsory–a first in the country. Learning was through improvisation, without textbooks. Instruction was taught orally; the Siddur was learned through prayer.

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An ordinary day for our students consisted of recitations from the “Chumash”. Slate boards were used to write and erase. A notebook was provided for all, and publications from the Widow and Brothers Romm from Vilna (they were in the publishing business) were provided (donated) to further instruct and teach. When the Hebrew textbooks arrived, it was like “Mana from heaven”! Greetings from another World! And what books!!–one had never seen such books: a book with pictures? And no more Chumash. With an annotated Bible and a history book by Trivitzh, Nudel and Kutik–––a whole new world enfolded! The pupils started to read and understand Hebrew, pronouncing it in the Ashkenazi pronunciation. They tried to impress their younger brothers and sisters by speaking in this “Holy” tongue and it was a great miracle: they would also sing the songs in Hebrew and read simple stories with great satisfaction.

The language of the state, Polish, was not yet instituted in Smorgon by 1922. As the government was not yet a functioning entity, it was still a time of political chaos; the education system was in a Russian/Lithuanian limbo.

Even so, the teacher's wife, Julia Katz, who herself was educated in Lisbegrad, decided to continue with Russian education in the “women's section” of the Hebrew school. She asked permission from the parents first, “Who knows, perhaps (they would mind)… in any case, knowledge never hurts!”

Although the school was small and poorly equipped in its first year and only with the very basics–––the building radiated warmth and laughter from the over the 150 children. Already, in the first days of its existence, the teachers of the Hebrew school of Smorgon laid the foundations of educational instruction. The education materials, although sparse, and funds were also not readily available, these teachers did everything to enlighten and brighten the lives of these children. Through songs, poetry, games and crafts, they ensured that this knowledge was readily and enthusiastically absorbed.


The First Class of the Tarbut (Culture) School

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Every Friday, the end of the week, an hour before the last lesson, Mr. Katz would assemble the students (there were three classes already) and teach them a Sabbath song and tell them a story for the Sabbath. The first song he sang was:

Tomorrow is Sabbath, tomorrow is Sabbath
To school we will not go
Only rest
Only take a walk
And play all…day.

And since this song had no rhyme at the end, a group of jokers from among the pupils rewrote the final clause in Yiddish as: ”az gehn zal a reich” (to go for a smoke). The reference is probably because teacher Katz always had a cigarette in his mouth!

The financial support of the school was made possible, right from the start, by contributions from “YEKAPO” (JEWISH COMMUNITY RELIEF WAR VICTIMS). Tuition and distribution of “chits” by the school board to the teachers (used like cash for merchandise, meats, vegetables and other produce) was donated though Yekapo. This first phase in the development of the Hebrew school in Smorgon soon came to an end. The people remember it as the era of the “women's section”, appropriately named from the place where the school was housed.

Smorgon continued to grow, and eventually the upstairs place of the Old Synagogue was too small to house its students. The leaders of the community, namely Rabbi Yacov Pererofski, Rabbi Gershon Weinstein and others, decided to transfer the school to another location! Do you know where? To that hostel (poor house) that stood at the outskirts of the city. A place that was locked up so it could be available should your distant relative, a second or third cousin, even a first cousin, should wander back from exile and need a place to stay. People were still hopeful that some may still return. No way! The hostel stood empty, looking out at the cemetery.

In that case–we will put the school there! First of all, we will get rid of the noisy children (after all, it was also a synagogue) by sending them far away! And secondly, the cemetery might instill a sense of respect and obedience––meaning it would produce a more moral youth (even in those days). So, instead, a closeness to the cemetery could be a blessing!

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Even today, it is not known if this was exactly the reason the community leaders made the decision to move the school to the hostel, but the reason is attributed to the jokers who used to meet at the barber shop of Berl Levin (father of Henoch), may he rest in peace. While they waited for a haircut or a good shave every Thursday evening and Friday, they would discuss local matters and news of the world–of course, with the usual clowning and joking! And thus, the school was relocated! After Succoth in 1923, the school moved and now the second phase of the school began–––known as the “hostel” era.

What was the uniqueness of this place? For two years, the Hebrew School of Smorgon was in the hostel that belonged to the community. The cemetery did not frighten its small occupants. On the contrary, “the Children of Israel” learned the truth of the passage “the dead will not praise G–d, nor any worldly beings”. In addition, they learned the lessons of life and death, owning possessions versus not having anything: a lesson found in Tikkun Olam. The school had four classes, with a total of seventy pupils. All was orderly and the teachers were well excelling. Report cards were distributed at the end of the year to indicate the child's progress. New subjects of study were introduced; this was a period of enlightenment. The old subjects of Torah and Hebrew were still taught, but the focus was on broader subjects of knowledge. Mr. Katz taught botany and mathematics. The Russian mathematic books were well known, especially one by Varshchgin, and were made available to these students who understood their importance in the larger world. (So close and yet still far from their little shtetls where they would go into the Litchnik forest on Lag B'Omer, with bow and arrow). The material was understood by the fourth grade students. A new teacher has arrived!



One day, a young Jew is seen in the town, reportedly from the town of Krasna, wearing a Polish military uniform. The coat suits him well, offsetting his virility and youthful expression.

[Page 308]

On his head is the Polish, four cornered army hat (called “rogatywka” in Polish), adding a sense of mischief to his demeanour. He is lodging with his relative, Damta, the butcher, and Rabbi Cohen. After several days, there was a rumour in town that he was the new teacher of Hebrew subjects. Shortly after, he changed out of his uniform, and appeared at the school. He brought with him a new vitality to the school. His name was Joseph Bernstein. It was quite apparent that he was the exact opposite of the teacher Katz.

There were of two different temperaments: Katz, the peaceful and calming individual, and Joseph Bernstein, the tempestuous and effervescent one. Katz was completely calm, walking and smiling with his understanding eyes, immersed in his own world, and deep in thought. And Bernstein, one does not exactly know [what he was thinking?]. He was excitable and full of laughter and energy. This is what the students needed!

The teacher Bernstein, was the leading force behind all the Zionist activity in Smorgon. All cultural activities in the school were met with great enthusiasm by the students. His appearance in the school led to new cultural activities and a renewal began for all.

One day, in the year 5684, a functionary from the Tarbut School of Vilna came to Smorgon, by the name H. Tzemel, may he rest in peace. He resembled the writer Y. L. Peretz: same build and mustache. He walked proudly, laughing and full of energy. Once, Tzemel assembled the parents of the pupils and praised the study of the Hebrew language, the teachers, and the existence of the school. He then said “Here, Yosef, (I) come to bring you enlightenment”–and all eyes turn to Yosef Bernstein, who smiles, as if to say, “I deserve that!”

And Katz, like a true Cohen (the name consists of two letter” kaph and tsadi, short for Tsadik–a righteous one) sits in his corner, a true gentleman. He sits stooped, his head bowed, rolling a “papyros” (cigarette) and sticks it in his mouth. He is impervious to what's going around him.

After this general meeting with the parents, the meeting continues with the school committee to discuss finances. From this aspect, the school has not been as successful. The amount of tuition collected was low, and some parents could not afford to pay at all. The teacher's salaries were not paid.

“Aha!” said Reb Sutzkever when he was asked to pay his son's tuition.

[Page 309]

“Outside the frost will eat
The north wind blows free!
And tuition we must pay!…

But never mind! Merriment reigned in the schoolhouse. During the breaks, the children hurried to the schoolyard–which was the cemetery–to collect snails (berelach), along the ditches that still remained from the wartime days and to play hide and seek amongst the tombstones rooted in the ground.

It must be mentioned to greatly praise the older pupils who helped their fathers immensely in those first few days when they returned to Smorgon. These older pupils helped with the task of bringing the bones of the deceased Jews “from the valley of bones”–––to a Jewish burial site.

From this “hostel” school, the Hebrew language emerged in this town. It was quite an achievement, to speak it with the Sephardic accent that was taught by Mr. Bernstein, and all teachers followed the same course. The schoolchildren had a great sense of achievement: they wanted desperately to please and also to prove their abilities. Not to speak in the Holy Tongue would mean punishment. Trouble however started brewing: grandmothers and grandfathers of those pupils attending the Tarbut school started grumbling amongst themselves that a common language was needed between them and their grandchildren. “See how these outsiders (teachers) insisted on speaking only in their Holy mumble jumble? They decreed a silence on us and there is no one to prevent this disaster…”


Kindergarten class under the direction of Shoshanna (Alte) Danishevsky and Rachel Gass

[Page 310]

In this period of the Tarbut School––social activities sprung up from which many youth movements originated. The first Hebrew play that was performed by the pupils under the direction of the teachers–who were very generous with their time and effort–was “Two Melodies” or otherwise titled, “The Kidnapped”. From Succoth until Passover (the first term) the rehearsals took place. During all those days, especially during the winter, the children were enthusiastically engrossed in the play. Not only the actors who participated, but also all the children in the school. Sorrow and mourning descended on all, as they were engrossed in the fate of Dudel Bendes (who played the part of the kidnapped child). They prayed for his safety; they pleaded for mercy! It was a great day for Hebrew in Smorgon–the day when “Two Melodies” was performed and for the many days following when the song “This is a Great Day” from the first act–was echoed in the houses of Smorgon on Sabbath nights. This degree of devotion and love of Hebrew plays and everything literary and cultural attributed to the Hebrew language, was an indication of the social activities that these pupils engaged in after school hours. Many of the readers amongst us till today, can still remember our childish attempts to re–enact plays on Friday nights and holidays in our own homes: giving out parts, rehearsing, and culminating in using one room for a stage and the other for the audience, with a curtain in between.

How much apprehension was generated from the point of view expressed in “Rejoice with Trembling” (Psalms ll, 11)? How much joy of creation?! There were such joyful times in the house of Rivka Danishevsky, a young girl in the first graduating class of the Tarbut School, and also in that gloomy house of Gudel, one of the owners of the lumber yard (on the way to the train station). (Remembering or reflecting on the days of his youth)

The pupils of the Tarbut school, in the time of the “hostel” era, were also partners in an archaic quasi–framework of a children's movement before the pioneering youth movements that sprung up in the Vilna district. The “Agudah”, the first such organized group which originated in the “slaughterhouse” was the precursor to the other social movements. Cold and dark, the building was unsurprisingly available, and the club began to meet there.

This four room building served as storage for all kinds of produce. In one of the rooms, we held meetings for the boys and girls. From this place, the ideals of Zionism started to enfold: a new club was formed, with Hebrew as its language, to consider and discuss new and idealistic ideas. From the original “Aguda” (a religious group), the new movements of Hashomer Hatza”ir, Gordonia, and Hechalutz Hatza”ir began to take shape. (Note: ir as in the first era–––which ir refers to the “women's section”)

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So, the “second era”, was a continuation of the “woman's era”, and ended in 1925. The foundation was set: standards of higher learning and the planted roots for the Hebrew language to be spoken in Smorgon. Culture and education was now in the forefront. A new building, which we shall now call the “third era”, was now transferred to the new building called the “Internat”.

This building was erected after World War I by Jewish Welfare Agencies from the U.S. in order to service the poor and needy that returned to Smorgon. It housed the poor and the displaced war orphans and provided assistance and food so these people could renew their physical and spiritual strength to ensure an easier transition into moving forward with their lives and education.

Of course, there were always, different opinions expressed by the people of Smorgon: who should have access to these welfare facilities? Only the needy, or, was it available to all? Remember the commandment, ”Love thy neighbour as thyself”? It is a “Mitzvah” to provide welfare assistance and encouragement to one's brothers! But, they must also think of their needs. As a result of a committee meeting, the Tarbut School was transferred to this new “Internat” building. Large crates started to arrive, a gift from “Yekapo” (the Jewish agency at that time) and books from the Smorgon library to the classrooms, then the school equipment, desks, chairs, blackboards, benches, and closets that filled the large classrooms.


The Library Board of the World Jewish Aid Agency, 10–11–1938

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Management: 1. Rafael Weinstein, 2. Anzelevitz, 3. Grinberg,
4. Mira Danishevsky, 5. Hannah Alperowitz, 6. R. Cohen, 7. Katz


Rafael Weinstein officiated as Chief Librarian of Smorgon. He founded the library with boundless dedication and as a result of the effort through his work over twenty years, created a cultural institution concerned with the social activities of the youth of Smorgon. The library became a cultural meeting place, a stage for free discussion and debate. And for many years, the library served as a reading room which provided daily newspapers and periodicals in both Yiddish and Hebrew. “Writers and fighters” (the Children of Israel) descended upon Smorgon. Books were becoming the new order of the educational forefront.

The large, two story “Internat” building also housed a large auditorium on the first floor, with an imposing stage and beautiful wall hangings. The school, with the classrooms and books (some rooms on the first floor) also had room for an auditorium. The auditorium became a cultural center of Smorgon; it had great lighting, a curtain on the stage, and hosted many Yiddish and Hebrew plays as well as literary events, concerts, and dances. It attracted large crowds. Smorgon was finally enjoying a cultural revival and the town became known in the area. Visiting troupes came to perform, some of a very high caliber. Appreciation for literature, education, and a better quality of life began once again in Smorgon.

The Tarbut School, took up seven rooms on the second floor (it shows you how large the building was). They had definitely outgrown the “hostel” school. There was more room to breathe–––more pupils were added, new teachers arrived, a new administration was elected!

The principal was Mr. Fisher, may he rest in peace. He was a veteran teacher and a graduate of the first class of “Tzerna” in Vilna, a native of Glubokie. He was very friendly and created a warm atmosphere amongst the community.

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He was active in all cultural events and voiced his opinions, introduced new pedagogical learning methods in the school, and established a healthy and growing framework for the school. He was considered “a worthy proprietor” who was constantly looking to improve the quality of “his baby”–the School. He was very involved with the drama group where he performed with his pupils. In the play, “The Sale of Joseph”, he played the role of Joseph, the Patriarch, alongside his students. On the initiative of Fisher, the teacher, the first choir was formed under the leadership of the teacher Yitzhak Zuckerman (Y. Ben Abraham, may he live a long life). The young teacher knew, being a graduate of the Vilna Tarbut Seminary, how to introduce to the children, as well as the adults of Smorgon, praises (likely liturgical songs) to “the Holy One”, Blessed Be He. He introduced all types of songs: folk, songs of Zion, songs of the labour movement. The choir “Zamir” that was founded by Yitzhak Zuckerman was one of the best in the area. Its success was no doubt to Zuckerman's professional knowledge and good taste. The “Nightengale”, and its accompanist, the string orchestra “the Organ”, under the leadership of S. Magid, the violinist of Smorgon, (a native and a graduate of the Vilna Conservatory), contributed a large impact to the cultural heritage of Smorgon.

The Tarbut school was merely a part of the foundation that became rooted in the city of Smorgon. From that foundation sprang many ideas and areas of growth. “What will the fields create” (what lies ahead, what can these students create, where can they go, what contributions to society can they develop? Thus the reference to the garden of fields).

And what light will history shine on them? As in the play, “The Land of Israel”, the much anticipated homeland of the Jews, where brothers and sisters had already immigrated to and toiled the fields and forests of Hadera (Israel) [see David Shimonowitch, The Jubilee of the Carriage Drivers] as well as in the Valley of Jezreel.

In 1936, the school had 7 classes as well as a full–fledged elementary school, which was recognized by the government of Poland. This was quite an achievement for us, a school of 390 pupils. The school was considered a second home for the children of Smorgon, second to their parents' homes: their lives had new meaning, full of contentment, spiritual and educational, with high hopes to bring them to a higher level in society.

These 300 plus schoolchildren, our”nightengales”, became the renaissance of our city, and were armed with wings to fly. Who knew what lied ahead? Neither the children, nor their parents, that this illustrious, enlightened and progressive Tarbut School would have to shut down. A new world order was to begin, the arrival of the Nazi “killing machine” would soon be upon us.


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