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Nachman Grosbard

The Ciechanower Polish State School

Ciechanow in the 1930's ------ Nadzetna Street, where one end reaches the Proshnitzer Way that leads to the large military barracks and at the other end -- the Lidinya River, the wooden bridge that leads to the ancient castle…

Nadzetna is a quiet side street. Why is it so engraved in my mind? Maybe because of the shtetl's electric power at the other end of the street, where the river is. There we used to, with childish delight, climb on the high windows and be fascinated by the long transmission lines that run so speedily and the long row of tops of this sort of strange machines that move so rhythmically up and down, just as though a long row of hens would be standing and pecking with their beaks … so how does the electricity come out and how does it travel such a long distance over the wires: The children's heads used to puzzle over this.

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There were also two Jewish mills on that street. One mill once burned down. There was a huge fire in the middle of the night that left a deep impression on my childish memory.

I remember this street so well because that's where the seven-grade state school was, a school for Jewish children where the language of instruction was Polish. All day long it was a buzzing like in a beehive, Jewish girls in black pinafores with white collars, boys with closely-shaven heads chased around and played hide-and-seek until the bell rang for going into the classrooms and the noise vanished for an hour or so, only to break out again in an even stronger noise and din.

In that school, the children learned the first steps in the spiritual life, started to learn about the world, listened in amazement to lessons about far-off lands and people that the teachers spoke about. The children nor their teachers knew what a turban is approaching them in the near future, that nearly all of them would perish through the hands of the treacherous German beasts and that only a tragically small number will have the bitter fate to write painful memories.

A State Jewish School in the year 1917.  In the center -- the director, Vishinskyb
A State Jewish School in the year 1917. In the center -- the director, Vishinsky

Picture Index

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In the above-mentioned Polish state school for Jewish children, I was educated in the years 1928-1935, and because it was a school for Jewish children, I want to devote the following memoirs, a modest contribution, a feature of the life of the Ciechanow Jews, just before the war, that the Germans burned.


The school stood in a large three-story building. The rooms were very bright, but the crowding was even greater and the classes were taught in two shifts.

In the program of the school, the main emphasis was, naturally, on the teaching of the Polish language, geography and history of Poland, and to educate a “loyal” citizen, one devoted and attentive to the reactionary regime. Yiddish was, in that school, not simply not recognized as a second language, but the teachers, themselves Jewish, absolutely forbade the children to speak Yiddish amongst themselves, even on the playground, supposedly so that they would better learn the Polish language, but more to the point -- because of the assimilatory approach and because of the view that Yiddish was a type of “jargon” and no less because of fear of the school administration. But the Jewish children did not want to abandon their mother tongue (mameh loshen) so, together with Polish, one could also hear the expressive Yiddish, first of all amongst the boys and in general amongst the children from ordinary homes where Yiddish was the only everyday language.


Yiddishkeit and the System of the Studies

The yiddishkeit of the school was expressed only in the teaching of religion, which was actually Jewish history as passed down faithfully through the Tanakh. For us boys who had studied before in cheder, see these stories from the Chumash and Pasuk that we already quite well know off by heart, so that lesson on religion was a cinch for us…

Not a word was said in school about the history of the Jews in modern times, about the Enlightenment Movement (Haskala), modern Yiddish literature; not one word was said about the works of Mendele Mokherasforin, not one word was said about the works of Shalom Aleichem, Peretz, Bialik, not even in Polish.

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In the first class, many children, and I amongst them, did not understand a word of Polish, but the teacher who knew how to speak a good Yiddish was afraid to, God forbid, help us with a Yiddish word, in order for us to understand Yiddish was treif.

History was, understandably, first about Poland. General history -- very little. A bit of ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. The history lesson was “saturated” with Polish nationalism and hatred of Russia, the so-called “Moskalyes, the destroyers of Poland.”

The lessons in mathematics, geography and nature study were quite good, but there was a great shortage of maps and equipment, etc.

Singing lessons were naturally conducted solely in Polish. The majority of songs were patriotic. Yiddish songs, even in Polish translation, were not sung. So it was that Jewish children were torn away from Yiddish word, thought and feeling.

The singing lessons were on a high level, thanks to the effort and experience of the teacher, Pafa-Herman. She taught us to sing heartfelt motifs that she accompanied on her mandolin. We used to sing in two or three parts. Children who had better voices took part in the general school choir under the direction of the same teacher. The choir sang at various celebrations. There was no piano in the school. For a while there were after-class lessons in mandolin and violin, but one had to have money to pay for these lessons, as well as money to buy an instrument, and the financial possibility often did not correspond the talent of the students.

There was also a library near the school, and the children had a special notebook in which the students had to write the moral lesson that they learned from reading the books. There was no community/social work carried on in the school. It was also forbidden for the students to be members in any existing political youth organizations. There was no organized friends help group organized in the school, as was practiced in other schools. Nobody was concerned about the conditions in which a child was studying or doing homework at home, or whether the parents have money to buy notebooks, texts and writing equipment, or whether the child comes to school well fed.

For a period of time a glass of milk was given to each child, with a cookie so that the poor children would not feel insulted, and the parents who had the means paid. There were also some poor parents who were ashamed to accept help and made strenuous efforts to pay, just as everyone else. This help for poor children did not continue for very long.

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There were almost no recreational facilities for the children at the school. Once a trip was made to Danzig and to Zakopaneh, but only for those children who had money to pay.

Radios were still an unaffordable item for the homes and therefore it was a great joy for the children when they were invited to the teachers' lounge to listen to a radio concert. There were no undertakings where teachers and students could enjoy themselves together in an intimate and friendly way. Generally, according to the program, the relationship of the children to the teachers had to be complete obedience and, of course, compulsory respect.

There was no parents' committee to have a say in the program of the school. Parents used to be summoned once every three months for an evening of “information” in order for them to get a report about the behavior and achievement of the children. Only Polish was spoken with the parents and they were far from understanding what was being said to them.


Types of the Jewish Teachers

When I recall that Polish education for Jewish children -- I recall the types of teachers: the good-spirited, warm Jewish intellectuals, the female teachers generally more sympathetic, perhaps because of their femininity.

The female teacher of our first class was called Flata (later Hermanova). She remained in my memory as a good-natured, lovely, beautiful woman. In a childish way I was in love with her. When we went into the second class, the children were very sorry that she was leaving us. Later we got her back as singing teacher.

The teacher Mandzshainova seemed at first to be more strict. She remained our teacher until the fourth class. We grew attached to her and loved her like a mother.

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A class in the state school with the director Yovl
A class in the state school with the director Yovl

Picture Index


A class in the state school with the teacher Golomb
A class in the state school with the teacher Golomb

Picture Index

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Our teacher in the seventh class -- Rochele Zelaner, a wonderful woman in all respects who knew Polish and literature very well, was a very good educator. The teacher Burstein specialized in mathematics. The children who were weak in addition had grounds to consider her strict, but those students who knew what they were supposed to know, and especially those few amongst them who felt the inner beauty and even warmth in the outer cold formulas, and had the spiritual pleasure of solving difficult complicated problems, if those students are still alive -- they are certainly grateful to this teacher for her strictness.

The teacher Mondshein, whom we called Shaini Lmelekh (next in rank to the king) was strict, but at the same time a kibbitzer. He laughed at the children who spoke “jargon” (Yiddish). “Your language only helps you get hit by the shkotzim (non-Jews) -- he explained to us. The ironic destiny was that this teacher, Mondshein, should get beaten up the hooligans, in spite of his perfect Polish.

And last of all, the beloved “king” himself -- Leon Yovl, the long-time school director -- a good, soft-hearted man under a mast of strictness, better as an administrator than as a teacher. Perhaps because of the fact that for many years he carried on his shoulders the burden of the school, the constant fear of the Polish reactionary organ of the Ministry of Education, the constant fear of the inspector and the therefore fear of the children speaking “jargon” -- that they should not go to any youth organization -- all this together worried him tremendously. During the visit of the inspector, the Jewish school director humbly brought in the chair.

A fact about the seventh class: the inspector examines the cleanliness of the students. He finds one not so clean. He says, emphasizing each word: “You Jews have to take particular care to keep yourselves clean.” Yovl gets red in the face, everyone's blood boils.


Jew-Hatred in the School

The Jewish students suffered a lot from anti-Semitism in the school because of the anti-Semitic attitude to them on the part of the higher school authorities. I remember an event from the first class: an important guest came to the shtetl, the president, Moshchitsky himself. The school children came to the railway station. It was raining. We waited for hours. The Jewish children kept being moved from place to place. They couldn't get rid of the zhidovkes (Jews), so they wanted to at least have them off into a corner.

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During a Polish national holiday, the Jewish children went in an organized way to the shul. The choir sang the Polish hymn -- Yeghtche Polska. The chazzan made along Mi Shbairakh (a Hebrew prayer) for the President Moshitsky and the “friend” of the Jews -- Marshal Pilsudski. The children dispersed and went tot he marketplace for the march-past. Yovel and the two prettiest girls from the seventh class (his weakness) were at the end of the file, with the large school banner that is a reminder that there is also a “Jewish” school in the shtetl. The special banner is huge. It is let down from the teachers lounge into the yard through the window and the “hero”, the strong boy from seventh class, carries it…


What happened to all those Yovls, the Mondsheins and the Zeloners? Who of them survived? And where are the children who often acted spitefully doing mischievous acts: did go to the cinema and went to the organizations? Didn't obey though they were a little afraid, but always from the depths of their heart cherished and loved their Yiddish teachers.

The seventh class of that school naturally remained very firm in my mind. Oft times the picture of those living children appears before my eyes, my school chums, seated on the school bench, and I can almost remember the order of who sat near whom. Very few of them survived.

In Israel I met Yisroel Shlezinger, with whom I used to do my homework, and Moishe Kolko, and who else survived? On one of the first benches sat a girl, a member of Hashomeir Hatzair, who didn't distinguish herself at that time. Her dear memory is everlasting in the history of the uprising against the German murderers -- Rosa Robota -- this modest girl of the seventh class in the Polish Povshekhner School.

By the time we were in seventh class in the Polish Povshekhner School, looking forward to finally being free from the yoke of school, and becoming independent. None of us imagined with how much nostalgia we would look back upon those school days.

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After finishing the school, a graduate class was started under the patronage of the school director, Yovl. Through this group he wanted to establish a contact with the school and have the youth participate in sport and cultural events. The actual aim was to draw the youth away from political activity.

To this graduate class I did not belong.


September 1939. Vacations were over but the school year had not yet started, The school benches were piled up outside. In the classrooms, instead of children, there were German soldiers. A cold, dangerous winter was approaching. It foretold no good.

On a cold December day I said goodbye to my home. Mother sobbed bitterly and father heartrendingly held back his tears. After one last glance at the school that bordered on our courtyard, I set off with other harassed and suffering Jews on a long way eastward -- a distance of thirteen thousand kilometers. On the way there I took along a pack of old clothes, and in my heart a growing longing

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