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[Page 23]

A German Jew Goes East

By Max Mayer




My first encounter, as a conscious experience with Jews from Eastern Europe occurred at a time when my whole life had already assumed a new direction with the emphasis on things specifically Jewish.

I was born into a German assimilationist family who attached the greatest importance to a thorough German and general education for their children. In my boyhood, notwithstanding, the religious teaching which had been introduced in the municipal and state schools, a knowledge of Judaism and its teachings, the very consciousness of being Jewish, were to me something supplementary, rather a domestic matter and of little practical significance outside the family circle. I was taught by my parents and religion teachers to answer to gentile schoolmates' embarrassing questions about my being Jewish that while it was true we had a different religion, we were like them in all other respects, that is to say, we were ‘Germans of the Jewish faith’. In my associations with Christian classmates, I avoided for reasons of expediency and wherever possible, displaying my fellow feeling with my Jewish fellow pupils, although such bonds did of course exist. In general, my Christian schoolmates did not ask any questions concerning my Jewishness. But to the few in the upper forms of the grammar school who did ask such questions, my answer did not seem very plausible. They argued that in many respects, not only in our religion, we represented a different though not necessarily inferior class of people and that we should not deny this. Quite a few of them in those years got their information from Houston Stewart Chamberlain's ‘Foundations of the 19th Century’ (Grundlagen des 19. Jahrhunderts), which was then being read by hundreds of thousands. The panoply of apologetic argument which I had been taught by my parents and my religion teachers or acquired through the reading of Jewish–liberal periodicals, pamphlets and books was in no way adequate to counter the interpretation of history propounded in this book, namely the concept of an ‘Aryan’ race.

There was no decisive change in this situation until I was about twenty, when I came under the influence of Jewish nationalist and Zionist students' associations which had existed in my home town, Munich, for some years and I began to follow a new train of thought concerning the ‘Jewish question’. This train of thought was markedly different, although in the beginning only in theory, from the prevalent in Jewish assimilationist circles. It was as a consequence of this influence that I joined the Zionist movement during my first term at the University. In this first term of my medical studies I came into immediate contact with Jewish students from Russia, a face which was to bring about such a radical change in my future

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It was in December 1918, a few weeks after the conclusion of the armistice, when a young man, who had been referred to me by the Zionist Actions Committee, came to my office in the Sächsischestrasse. He told me that he had come to Berlin on behalf of the Jews of his native town Mariampol in Southern Lithuania who had decided to found a Hebrew Gymnasium[1] (Grammar School) after the model of the Herzl Gymnasium in Jaffa and instructed him to start on the necessary arrangements. The provisional government of Lithuania had promised the Jews of the new state national autonomy, thereby making it possible for them to establish their own national school system; and he had been sent to Berlin to find a suitable headmaster and qualified teachers. I gave him a fairly long list of people whom I felt could be considered for this purpose: Eastern Jewish writers and teachers, and some German Zionist teachers.

A few days later the emissary from Mariampol returned, disappointed. All the candidates I had recommended had refused the offer, most of them with the explanation that the situation was too uncertain, in view of a possible Communist invasion of Poland and the Baltic countries. On the other hand, some of the people on my list had suggested me as a suitable candidate.

It is hard to put into words what went on inside me at this moment. With the end of the war, my work at the Jüdische Rundschau had come to a conclusion which I had secretly longed for. It was a period of general adjustment to new occupations. a long repressed desire to continue my Hebrew literary studies came to life again. Furthermore, I had clearly recognized during these years of journalistic activity that my heart really belonged to the education and training of Jewish youth. In addition, there was the tempting prospect of life with the Eastern Jew on his native soil. The impressions of my Lithuanian trip seven years before suddenly emerged from my memory. The person circumstances at the time, however, militated against the plan: how could I resign my editorial activity at such short notice? But above all: how could I leave my wife just now? Only a week earlier she had recovered from the Spanish influenza which had caused the death of so many hundreds of thousands during the autumn and the winter of that year. She was expecting our first child. I asked for two days in which to consider the proposition. My wife understood immediately that this was the hand of fate knocking at my door and on quick reflection agreed to the plan. I promised the emissary from Mariampol to be in Lithuania at the beginning of January and meanwhile to look around for suitable teachers. I was fortunate to find as my first and most reliable colleague for the new venture, Dr. Arthur Löwenstein, the mathematician. Without much hesitation he agreed to go to Mariampol with me.

We arrived in the small Lithuanian town during the second week of January. The place was situated on the Szeszuppe, a tributary of the River Njemen. Half of its 6,000 inhabitants were Jews. The Lithuanian landscape, the whole character of such a small town, the glaring colors of its houses, the cobbled streets and the different types of its population I knew from

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my first trip. What was new to me was the severity of the Russian winter, and everything connected with the German military régime which was still in force. The town resembled an armed camp. The streets were teeming with retreating German soldiers. Mariampol was one of the last rallying points before the border crossing into the new Germany of the Soldiers' and Workers' Councils.

The civilian population seemed like ghost from another world, furtively stealing past the rows of houses and fearfully avoiding the light of day.

Jewish grammar schools for boys and girls had been established in Kovno already during the war years by the representatives of German–Jewish Orthodoxy, rabbi Dr. Josef Carleback and Dr. Leo Deutschländer under the auspices of the German occupation authorities. They were modelled on Dr. Braude's Gymnasium in Lodz and covered Jewish and general subjects. The former were taught in Hebrew, the latter in German (Polish in Lodz). The Gymnasium of Mariampol where all subjects, including mathematics, general history, geography, Latin, etc. were to be taught in Hebrew,was therefore the first secondary school of this kind in the Diaspora. The first meeting of the school committee was held on the very evening of the day of our arrival. A circular letter about the formation of the school was drafted and distributed in Mariampol and the neighboring small towns, villages and Jewish farms.

I taught Latin, German and historical Hebrew Grammar in the middle and upper forms. My teaching activity was somewhat limited by administrative work, but it was exceedingly interesting. The task of conveying the language of Caesar's ‘Gallic War’, Ovid's ‘Metamorphoses’ and the lyrics


“Chalutzim” Group redemption All 5th Grade Pupils 1924


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of Horatius to my pupils in an adequate Hebrew translation, called for constant and intense intellectual concentration. Because of the closer connection between Ancient Hebrew and the Hellenic culture, I had originally intended to introduce Greek instead of Latin in the school; but this plan came to naught because of the wide–spread belief that Latin had greater practical value. The subject for which I felt most qualified was, apart from German and German literature, historical Hebrew Grammar.

But all this did not satisfy my ambitions. I wanted to penetrate to the heart of Jewish education and this could not be done without incorporating important Jewish subjects into my teaching. After three years I decided to resign my administrative duties at the school and to devote myself exclusively to teaching. The school committee agreed and appointed in my place my friend and colleague Dr. Arthur Löwenherz who had in no small measure contributed to the school's development. I was now free to pursue my longed for goal. To the subjects already referred to I added Bible, Hebrew language and literature. It is hard to describe the atmosphere of give and take that permeated the lessons. My knowledge of the Scriptures was based not so much on the traditional Jewish commentaries as on modern Bible research; its philological and historical precision and the scrupulous exactitude of its textual criticism opened up a new world to my pupils. In my long and varied experience as a teacher of, and guide to, Jewish cultural values I had never had more receptive, more impressionable or more appreciative students. My classes in German literature, too, received a new and unexpected impetus from the teaching of Hebrew literature. The threads connecting the Hebrew literature of Haskalah with the German classicist writings of Herder, Lessing, Goethe and Schiller became the basis for the idea of a common humanism linking the people of the Bible with the peoples of classical antiquity and the classical literature of Europe. This provided an excellent corrective for a one–sided education over emphasizing national values. Both teachers and pupils, though starting from different points, were well on the way to a meeting of minds in a common concept: world citizenship in the best sense of the word. This sense of mutual understanding created that spiritual element so indispensable to a genuine reciprocity between teacher and pupil.

I now became immersed in the works of the Hebrew writers and poets of the era of enlightenment and of the following period around the turn of the century. By far my greatest ‘discovery’ were the novels and stories of the finest of Hebrew–Yiddish epic poets of the 19th century: Mendale Mocher–Sfarim. The milieu in which I now lived – the small Jewish town with its striking Jewish types and the romantic scenery of the countryside, Mendale's world – turned these studies into a kind of waking dream life. Mendale's new Hebrew style – a prototype of the modern narrative – led me quite naturally to the language of the Mishnah and to the study of the style of the Aggada and the Aramaic vernacular of the Talmud. Mendale's woks were the gate to a later study of the prose writings of S.J. Agnon which continued for many years.

The success of the work we had set out to accomplish became apparent

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when, in 1922, there was no difficulty in the admittance of our first graduates as students at the universities and colleges of Germany, France, Belgium and Switzerland.

When, After almost six years of work in Mariampol, personal and family affairs forced me to return to Germany, I felt a stranger in my former homeland. After a short time the Zionist Federation of Germany offered me the directorship of its Youth and Cultural Department. This gave me the opportunity of returning to the Jews in the West all I had experienced and learned in the East. My activities were three–fold: I helped to organize Hebrew instruction in the classes and language schools of the Zionist Organization's local branches and introduced a Hebrew correspondence course for pupils living in communities without Hebrew teaching facilities. I became a traveling lecturer on the then novel theme; The new Hebrew Literature. But even more important for me was the closer contact with the Zionist youth of the land. While working at the Judische Rundschau I had been one of the critics of our Blau–Weiss youth, because of what I considered their estrangement from Jewish content and Jewish sources. All my sympathies belonged to the Berlin youth group founded by Gerhard Schlem and his friends. They had set themselves the task of mastering the Hebrew language and Hebrew culture. Meanwhile, the younger Jewish generation in Germany, as elsewhere, had formed a movement dominated by pioneering ideals of various shades. In this atmosphere I now felt as though immigration to Eretz–Israel had become the most burning question in my own life. That the Jewish Community of Berlin, in the last year before my emigration to Palestine, appointed me to the post of Director of their ‘Jewish Youth College’ – an educational institution for all, nationalist as well as non–nationalist, Jewish youth groups of Berlin – I owe, in all probability, to my ‘West–East’ evolution as a Jew.

The German military commander of Mariampol had promised to place at our disposal a suitable building in the center of the town which had until then served as the officers' mess. After minor changes and repairs had been completed and the necessary equipment secured, the two and a half stories of the building were ready for their future function.

During the first few weeks of our activity we concentrated on obtaining an idea of our students. Our first impressions of the young people were very promising. The majority of the boys had attended a Talmud–Torah school during the last few years of the war where, in addition to Jewish subjects, arithmetic, geography and some German as well as Russian had been taught. For the girls, the German occupation authorities had organized special primary schools where instruction was given in German. The teaching staff at these girls' schools consisted of German teachers and soldiers and, to some extent, local Jewish personnel, i.e. former graduates of Russian grammar schools who knew German. This disparity in educational background made us drop the idea of co–education for the time being. There was a third, but numerically small group of pupils who had attended Russian secondary schools before the war and whose schooling had been interrupted by four years of fighting. A special form had to be

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arranged for them. It followed the curriculum of the grammar school in Lodz, with instruction in general subjects being given in Russian. Thus we started the first school year with four Hebrew forms (with parallel classes) and a fifth ‘Russian’ form. This arrangement vividly illustrates the difficulties created by four years of war. In all the forms there were boys and girls differing in age by two, three and sometimes even four years.

A body of teachers who enjoyed their work and respected one another was an essential condition for the success of our undertaking. We were fortunate in finding excellent Talmud–Torah teachers in Mariampole who knew the students from their earlier teaching activity and who took over instruction in specifically Jewish–Hebrew subjects. The general subjects were divided between academically trained Jewish teachers from Germany (it so happened that the majority of these such as Chanoch Enoch, Dr. Arthur Joel, Frieda Burchard, a.a. came from Hamburg) and academically trained teachers from pre–war Russian, i.e. from Lithuania and the Baltic countries.

Because there was a common (Zionist) approach to education, there was also harmony in matters of curriculum and teaching methods, which left ample scope to the individual teacher. From the very beginning, the teachers from Germany enjoyed the unreserved confidence of both pupils and parents. Their reputation as good organizers and competent teachers had preceded them. The good relationship which existed between them and the Jewish population of Mariampol was encouraging. But the other members of the teaching staff, too, were greatly respected. Still, at first some of the older students were influenced by the news from Soviet Russia of the new educational methods which had been introduced there. They organized a students' council after the Communist pattern demanding representation and a voice in the meeting of the teaching staff and tried particularly to exert an influence in questions of promotion. It was not easy to keep them within the bounds of a sensible discipline. In the end, however, the voices of reason and an age–old tradition prevailed.

Textbooks presented a serious problem. Our teachers had to write their own. An ‘Opalograph’ duplicator which required laborious handling, supplied the text material from one lesson to the next. Every year thousands of copies of these Konspekte (as they were called) were distributed to the pupils. Other material could be imported from Germany, such as maps and charts for the study of geography, anatomy and the natural sciences, or apparatus for experiments in physics and chemistry, and appliances for gymnastics and sports.

Our institution had become a district school in the first year of its existence. The pupils came from far and near, some even from such distant places as Suvalki and Grodno at the northern border of Poland. In the curse of the next few years, similar schools were established in Virbalis, Volkovishky, shavli, Ponievesz, Kaunas and other towns. At these too, headmasters and staff were drawn from German Zionist circles. (Dr. Max chwabe, Moshe Calvary, Dr. Levinsohn, a.o.). The first headmaster of the Gymnasium in Virbalis was Dr. Jakob Robinson; of that in Volkovishky, Dr. Cahan who had been form–master of the ‘Russian’ class in the early days

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of our own school. The establishment of these new schools did not affect the number of our pupils. We had an average of 300–350 students. After only two years, the school was officially recognized (as the first of its kind) by the Lithuanian Ministry of Education which contributed increasingly to the teachers' salaries. Attempts at organizing the now existing Hebrew Gymnasia (over 12) did not progress very well. Competition between the individual schools was too keen and the time was not yet ripe for the introduction of uniform curricula and methods. By and large the schools paid their way out of the tuition fees.

In the course of the second school year it was found absolutely necessary to divide the upper forms into science and arts sections. The multitude of languages presented great difficulties. Lithuanian was an obligatory subject. A knowledge of German was essential both for practical reasons and because it was required by the Lithuanian government in place of Russian. From the Zionist point of view it was considered desirable to introduce English – the language of the mandatory power of Palestine – as an optional subject; almost all the pupils availed themselves of this opportunity. French was taught in ‘Russian’ upper forms. finally, there was Yiddish, the students' everyday language, spoken at home. Small wonder that the timetable in the middle and upper forms was exceptionally crowded.




  1. ‘Gymnasium’ on the European continent means a Grammar school with a prevalent curriculum of the humanities. Return


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