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[Page 108]

The Tarbut School

by Israel Gvint (son of Sima nee Meltzer and Zalman Gwint)

Translated by Eilat Gordin Levitan

kur107.jpg [16 KB]
Israel Gvint

Many wrote reminiscences of the Hebrew schools in Kurenets to hail the images of the students and their teachers who were annihilated in the holocaust. Still there are many unrecorded memories that live in the hearts of those that relocated to a safe haven and now find themselves scattered across the world. Although the following lines aim to convey a shared testimonial by many, but to which I know I can't avoid bringing my own knowledge and intimate connections. My father of blessed memory was a person for whom the school was the center of his universe. This fact would be clear in my story, because many of the obstacles that the school encountered somehow intermingled in my personal life.

When was the school established? When I try to answer a question like this I have trouble pinpointing a specific date. Supposedly the school was established after WWI, around 1921. Guided by my old memories, which were validated by others, I seem to remember that during the years of the war there was an attempt to establish a school in town. And what I speak is not in reference to the Cheder metukan were they taught Hebrew in Hebrew which started before WWI, the one I had heard of in tales. Those Cheders of those earlier generations had their own important place in history but they could not fulfill the needs of following generations. The town, which was situated on main roads and near a train track, saw the war face to face. Here settled at one time, battalions from the German army, Kozaks brigades from the Tsar's army, battalions of the Red Army, and battalions of the Polish army. The different battalions exchanged places according to the results of the battles. One would leave and the other would enter, and the town kept changing rulers. Many of the soldiers would live in our homes and that made life very unsettled. Also, many of the town's natives were ordered to serve in the army and were far away from their families. In those days there were many cheders where the children of Israel would receive an education. But this system of education lost its zeal during those days and the war very much affected the spirit of the children. It was as if a sense of lawlessness controlled the streets. The children watched the adults and started busying themselves with their own wars. The battles that the children waged took place on two hills that were situated between Smorgon and Myadel streets. It was in Dysyanka that the children would stand and throw stones at each other. One of the most common games was to light bonfires and to put live bullets that we found in the area and watch as they exploded. Often these mischievous games ended in accidents.

We watched as beaten battalions would retreat. We also saw splendid battalions marching in pristine uniforms to the sounds of drums and army bands. And we, the young ones, would run after them all the way to the edge of the town. The days were tinted by shades of changes. In such an environment, something new easily captured the hearts of the children and controlled them. But it had to be something fresh and something exhilarating, and the cheder was an old tradition, which could not extend this vigor over the children. Opposed to the old system, the new procedure where you had a recess between studies and a bell and youthful teachers appealed to the children and woke the town out of its sleepy educational routine. The days of the Russian revolution initiated a permanent imprint upon the town. The manual laborers of the town, who were the sons of the poor, together with many of the youth, became welcoming candidates for the new ideology. In the central town's market, many ecstatic speeches were made. Also, the Red Army spread their propaganda through theatre troops that traveled to the area. The Bolsheviks confiscated the mansion of the paritsta, where subsequently the army would host plays that the whole town would come to see. To top it all off, there was tidings in the Jewish world about the Balfour Declaration and the return to Zion. All these factors deeply affected the population.

At the same time, these circumstances that offered diverse ideologies affected various people in a different way. Even in the days when the battle was raging around us, there was a female teacher who gave lessons to both male and female students and it was like provisional school.

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During the German occupation in the First World War (1917),
with the German teacher bottom

Left to right: Leika Meirovitz, Chana Alperovitz, Batia nee Gurevitz Bender, Rachel Alperovitz, Ema nee Alperovitz Zivoni.
Middle: Henya (Menachem Mendel's) Kramer, ?, The German teacher, Feygel Alperovitz, Frumka Meirovitz, ?, Feya nee Alperovitz Rubin, the boy is the son of Zipilovitz.
Others are unknown.

For a short time there was a school with one or two classes that was managed by Yudel Dardak, where the studies were done in a combination of Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian. More wonderful memories of the great personality of Yudel Dardak stay with me than memories of the lessons. There was also an attempt to open a night school. The teacher there was the son of Chaim Baruch the Shamash and also Isaac the son of the mill man from the village Khallafi. Different enterprises worked for awhile until the war ended.

The war seemed to sow the seeds to institute a new school and the prior lack of clarity as to whether the school should be in instructed in Yiddish, Hebrew or Russian became clearer. The Balfour Declaration and sons of Eretz Israel that prior to the war were only talked about in hushed tones were now talked about in real and clear statements. Now and then we received letters from the land of Israel and some people were taken with the idea of going to live in Eretz Israel. Once in a while, preachers of Zionism came to town and the entire town would gather in the synagogue to hear their speeches. A Zionist committee was established in town by the name of “Tzeirey Zion”, (the youth of Zion). And also for the teenagers there was a committee, “Herut VeTchia” (Freedom and Renewal.) One day someone brought a new song in Hebrew to town and this immediately became the “song of the season”. They kept bringing new songs and one of those songs, which I recall

“Shalom Allaychem Yehudi, meayin Yehudi ba LeEretz Israel?/ Peace to you Jew. Where does a Jew come from to the land of Israel?. For the first time you would hear people speak to each other in Hebrew.” The words came out hesitantly but with much love.

If it were only the untroubled “detached” environment that the Kurenets residents would look for, the new school would not have been established. To establish the school, you needed people that were entirely dedicated to the idea. I would not be untruthful if I said that my father, of blessed memory, was the most involved in this endeavor. He was one who sacrificed every day of his life for this enterprise. Here I must say that his great involvement was deeply affected by finding me, his only male child, without any proper education when he returned from his service in the First World War.

The beginning was very difficult because my father had to fight much ignorance and many old fashioned ideas. He had to rent a place for the school, get school benches and find appropriate teachers. Many memories come to me from those days. I remember that in the very beginning, the school was not in just one building but in town. There was one class in the house the Shochet; Rafael Cohen, at the back of his house. And the second class was in the house of the mother of Shmuel Spector. At that point the studies would be done in two languages, both Hebrew and Yiddish. The teacher who taught the subjects in Hebrew was Berl Dardek and the Yiddish teacher was Rabinovich. The singing teacher was Yosef Shimon Kramnik, (who perished in the Holocaust ed.). Other than having the most beautiful voice, he also had the most beautiful penmanship and we all tried to imitate him. Many desired to equal his very curly signature. At that point there was still a quiet war between the Hebrew and Yiddish as to what language should dominate school studies. If the Hebrew won this war it was because of the special personality of the teacher Berl Dardak.

At this point, the image of the teacher Berl comes to me. Berl came from the near-by little town of Ilya. He was short, a red head, and wore glasses. He was very easy going and kind. Even when he would get mad it was easy to imagine that he was not really angry. We knew that he wrote poetry in Hebrew, and that made him very respected in our eyes. Some of the poems became songs and they were sung by the youth from the “Tzeirey Zion”, and “Herut VeTchia”. In their essence they were humorous poems and this was very attractive to us, the young children. Although we knew that these poems were not written for children, and truly we were not allowed to sing them, but somehow we learned them secretly and they were as sweet to us stolen water.

We knew that Berl and his brothers Shmaryau and Yudel Dardak were the descendents of a well-known rabbinical family from Illya. We also knew that they had a deep education in yeshivas and were very knowledgeable about the Bible and religious studies. This fact added to the respect we felt for them because now when we had to argue with people who were old fashioned and wanted to keep the traditional type of education which was essentially religious in nature, we could argue with them that our teacher was not a nobody, he was a telmid khakham . “You must be careful when you speak against him.”

When Berl would get mad at one of us he would use biblical sentences to express his dissatisfaction. He would say, “ben naout vemrdut”. In the essence of this sentence there was everything we desired, here was a religious language turning to a “real language” where biblical passages contained emotion. Passages from the Bible became material for common phrases of reproach. At that point we had no schoolbooks in Hebrew and Berl would write his lessons on the blackboard and we would copy what he wrote in our notebooks.

Berl lived in a tiny, dark room of Shmuel Spector. In his room there was an oil lamp that burned day and night as an eternal flame. Clearly our hearts were pulled to this room which became inseparable from the school. Here many youths would gather. We sang songs and told jokes and from there we would leave for walks in Vileyka and Dolhinov streets in Kurenets. I remember one journey that some older kids took all the way to the village Retzke and of how jealous I was of my peers that followed the older students there.

Having the school in two homes so far from each other made it very difficult. After a short time they rented a home of Eltka Nee Perski Rabunski (ed. the sister of the father of Shimon Peres). This was a comparatively big house. It had three rooms, a hallway and a large yard to play in. During the holiday of Purim, just before the school was transferred to this place, we held a play there. It was King David. The play was written by Berl Dardek, who was also the director and was responsible for the clothing the scenery. The walls were taken out and the space became one big room. Still the room was too small to hold all the people who wanted to attend. When I arrived with my father, and I was one of the actors in this play, many people stood by the door looking in and all the other actors watched so that more people wouldn't try to come in. Even Batya nee Gurevitz who had the main part as Batsheva took a turn watching the entrance. My father and I could hardly make our way through the people. My father somehow succeeded in getting in and I stayed behind among the people. Since there were so many people the girl who played Batsheva (Batia nee Gurevitz Bender) couldn't see me despite the fact that I was supposed to be her son in the play, I was King Solomon. Finally my father came to my aid and picked me out of the crowd. Besides the play we recited poems in Hebrew and Yiddish and it was a big success and many of the parents in town were so impressed that they began accepting the idea of a more secular education.

During the last months of the first year of the school there was still a silent war between Hebrew and Yiddish but it was becoming clearer that Hebrew would win. By the end of the school year a child by the name of Yitzhak Raykhael visited Kurenets from the big city of Vilna. He was a student in the Hebrew Gymnasia in Vilna and on his hat there was an emblem in Hebrew letters that said 'Gimmel' and 'Ein' For us the students, it was a very special thing, although we had become more accustomed to Hebrew as a living language, a language that came out of holy books to secular books. Still to see Hebrew letters on a hat was very surprising to us and we saw it as a big victory. At the end of the school year there was again a play held in the big barn of Schmuel the son of Yente. The subject of this play was a lesson in school. The role of the teacher was played by Aron Meyrovich. I found myself in trouble and it is a miracle that I emerged unscathed by it. My role in the play was to demonstrate a science experiment to Yokhevet Zipilevich, the daughter of Zalman Mendel Zipilevich. I took a glass filled with water and I covered it with paper and supposedly the air pressure would prevent the water from spilling when I turn it. But to my great dismay, in front of all the community the water spilled on the floor and I felt extremely embarrassed. All of a sudden a thought came to me. I adlibbed and said, “And here I showed you how not to do it. The glass was not filled with water, now I will fill it to the top!” and I tried it again and the water did not spill, and my teacher was very happy with my adjust text.

The second year all the studies were taught purely in Hebrew. The teacher by the name of Kozch'akov taught us. But after some time he emigrated to Eretz Israel there were many thrilling rumors told of how he managed to move to Israel illegally. He was very skilled at forging stamps and with his own hands he made his own stamps and forged to certificates to cross the various borders to get to Israel. In our eyes the image of our teacher Kozch'akov was imprinted as a mythical character that allowed our fantasy to run free with images.

Shmuel Dardek the brother of Berl and Yudel replaced him. He looked very much like his brother Yudell. He was a doer, full of energy and very involved with people. During the lessons he gave, the children were very focused on his words and in their respect for him were elements of worship. He taught us grammar and Bible studies. He was very quick and fresh and had the reputation of being a very brave and strong person. Just about that time Hannah Spector, the mother of Shmuel passed away. In the house during the shiva days there was a gathering of people every day for priers and the minyan. People said that our teacher Shmuel Dardek would read between the prayers of Mincha and Maariv from the book of Job, which elevated his image among the religious people of the town who saw our almost “secular school” in a negative light.

As I mentioned earlier, the hat with the emblem caused great envy among the children. Some of the adults also took this seriously and not many days passed before the children in our school started wearing hats in blue and white. One morning my father returned from Vilna and when I went through his belongings I was very excited when I found shiny metal emblems. On the emblems were inscribed two wings with Jewish stars in the middle and underneath there were three letters 'b' 's' 'h', which means Hebrew School. Who could imagine what I looked like that morning when I came to the school with a true emblem on my hat. It was the first emblem and for that special event I wrote an essay in our school newspaper, “Beit Sifrenu”.

Berl Dardek poured much love and toil into the newspaper “Beit Sifrenu”. He was the editor. The student who had the best handwriting would rewrite the essays. As I remember the first poems by Ahron Meyrovich were published in this paper. In the first edition there were also poems by a student by the name Leibke, son of Haia Rashkas' who later immigrated to America. I remember a story by him, Anotosh the Drunk, with a wonderful description of how Anotosh tries to catch his rooster so he could sell it in the market and use the money to buy alcohol. During that year a guy by the name of Volkovsky came to town. When he first came he was a photographer, but having quickly become a soul mate of the Dardek brothers he became very involved in the school. Although he believed in Yiddish, he had no conflict with the brothers because he had such a lively personality. Volkavsky was very creative: he wrote poems, painted and made sculpture. He was also the orchestra conductor, played musical instruments and was a P.E. teacher. He wasn't officially a teacher but had great influence on us, the students. (He later married in Vishnevo an aunt of Shimon Peres)

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We loved the school and we happily volunteered to come early according to certain role to light the furnace. During recess between classes, we held dances and for the first time boys and girls danced together, and here the first romances were initiated. Anyone who remembers those times would clearly recall the Luria sisters Minoukhka and Mikhla (Louria?). They were twin sisters who came from the Soviet Union with their mother. They were on their way to join their father who had left earlier for the U.S. Minoukhka would dance beautifully the ballet of Swan Lake and Mikhla had a beautiful voice and many of the boys were secretly in love with them.

The studies were very intensive. There was a period where we also studied Talmud. Some of the students were able to read from the gmarrah independently. Still there was something very exciting about these new studies. We studied from the ???. The brothers Dardek once again proved that in this field they were very gifted. When spring came we started taking journeys to the forest. I remember one meeting in the forest in Vileyka, where our school and the Tarbout school of Vileyka met. When the students from the other school arrived one of us made a welcoming speech to the guests in Hebrew. He expressed hope that the Hebrew language would spread like the sounds of the birds chirping in the branches of the trees. It was a very poetic speech and the respect that our school received was tremendous. Just before we parted we sang together the song in Hebrew 'Sham beEeretz Avot' (In the land our forfathers). The town of Vilejka was considered a enlightened, cultural, modern , and cosmopolitan town by us. It was the main town in the district. Her houses were larger and more beautiful and her residents were wealthier. Considering these factors, the children of Kurenetz felt inferior. But during this meeting of the two schools, Kurenetz showed itself superior in education and creativity and we felt that more of a balance had been established.

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