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History of the Tarbut School in Rokitno[1]

Eliezer Leoni (Tel Aviv)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The School during its Growth and its Destruction

School memories are the dearest and the most pleasant in the life of man since this is where the roots of our spiritual being are planted. All of our subsequent experiences stem from them.

This is what shaped our experience. It is said: “When the morning stars sang together and all the sons of G-d shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Our world was happy and full of hope and beautiful dreams. These were days of glee and devil-may-care days, which will never be forgotten.

I approach these memories of the Tarbut School in Rokitno with trepidation and love. Although I was not among its students, I was educated at the Tarbut School in the town of my birth. I remember my school days as a priceless heritage.

Everything I learned in those days is still with me to this day. I still drink from its fountain of knowledge.

This is not merely a chapter of history, but a memorial to wonderful souls. We were tied to them from early childhood. These young children provided the reason for the wonderful world of Rokitno. They were its beauty and decoration. They gave the strength to the Jews of Rokitno to bear the burden of exile. We see this wonderful group in front of our eyes. We will always cherish their souls. We will bequeath the story of their lives to the coming generations.

Preparations For Tarbut School

Tarbut School in Rokitno held an important place in the network of Tarbut Schools in Poland. The background responsible for its growth and its thriving is inherent in the local population which had an understanding of Hebrew and a nationalistic education. The school did not spring out of anywhere since a great deal of preparation was done. There were preparatory classes, which served as the seeds for the growth of the school. [2]

This preparatory nursery was founded in 1919 by the elderly teacher, Tozman. He rented two rooms in the home of a Polish resident called Dolgert on Soviesky Street and he taught Hebrew to the children of Rokitno. He was followed by his brother. The younger Tozman was a talented teacher, well versed in Hebrew, who produced hand-written grammar manuals.

He was followed by a modern teacher who had a European education – Yosef Melamed from Pinsk. He opened a “modern cheder” in the women's section of the old synagogue. There were two groups- 11 seniors and 20 juniors. There were two sessions – in the morning and in the afternoon. The students learned many skills in mathematics, geography, Hebrew grammar and literature from this teacher.

Sounds of Hebrew conversation – with an Ashkenazi pronunciation – were heard throughout the school and even in the streets. Mr. Melamed translated Varshatzgin's mathematics textbook from Russian to Hebrew and the students learned to solve mathematical problems.

When Mr. Melamed left Rokitno, the parents of children in these classes invited the teachers Volmark and Shmuel Volkon to come. The children continued their studies in the house of Leibl Lifshitz and in the old Halles.

In 1920 Israel Feldman founded a kindergarten in the women's section of the old synagogue. It served as a basis for the Tarbut School in Rokitno and Shmuel Volkon became principal.

The Founding of the School, its Teachers and its Curriculum

The founding of the Tarbut School in Rokitno, in addition to the existence of the preparatory classes, was possible thanks to the broad activity of the local Tarbut branch. Rokitno, a Hebrew town, had many cultural activities in the propagation of Hebrew culture, the sale of “Selah” and the organization of cultural performances.

At the beginning of the 1920's, there was a gathering of Tarbut activists in Rokitno. Among them were: Avraham Binder, Avraham Grinshpan, Shlomo Grinshpan and Aharon Slotzky. They decided to found the Tarbut School where the curriculum would follow that of the Tarbut organization in Poland. The number of students grew and the school moved from the women's section of the old synagogue to Shlomke Shapira's house, near the Noyedval Hotel. Soon, this too became too small for all the students and space was rented on the next street – two rooms in the Halles and two in Mr. Shafir's house (the Radomer tailor). From there, the school moved to the house of the shohet from Blezhov, across from the post office. This house had large and spacious rooms and was well suited for the purpose.

Tarbut School in Rokitno
Click here to enlarge the picture - rok089s.jpg [4 KB] Shmuel Volkon taught Hebrew grammar and literature in the senior classes and eventually was appointed principal. Israel Feldman taught religious subjects and Mordechai Gendelman – history, Hebrew, Bible, Gmara and music. Hillel Volmark – mathematics. Podlis – Polish. Later Mrs. Erlich taught Polish. David Shafran taught art, music and physical education. Other teachers were Shlomo Farber, Yakov Shlita, Chuprik, Atlas, Shpirt, Fishman, Dichter, Bella Muravchik, Hillel Kovner, David Shtern, Sarah Bronstein, Volodavsky, Kulik, Weintraub, Rosenfeld and Budnayev. [3]


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The parents committee was highly involved in the hiring of teachers from a pedagogic as well as a social point of view. This is why there were many outstanding teachers during the golden years.

When the student population grew to 200, the shohet's house was too small. The leaders in cultural and educational circles decided to build a permanent building for the school. A building committee was elected. It included Aharon Slutzky, Moshe Freierman, Sender Perl and Avraham Grinshpan. They went on a financial campaign. The amount collected was insufficient and they had to buy a lot behind the bathhouse. The parents opposed it saying it was not a proper location for a school.

A Russian by the name of Yozpin owned an appropriate lot in Rokitno. The lots were exchanged and he was paid the difference. This exchange drained the financial resources of the building committee. The committee, connected to the Tarbut organization in Rokitno, had no money left for construction. They turned to Yakov Persitz, manager of the sawmill in Rokitno and he donated lumber for the building. Foundation stones were brought from the nearby Klesov quarry. Other expenses were covered by donations and pledges from the Jews of Rokitno. Residents were assessed and they gave generously. They understood that as the influence of the synagogue study program waned, the school would serve as a source of learning of Jewish values and culture. Balls and plays were also organized as fundraisers for the school. Slowly the necessary funds were collected.

The construction of the school was begun in 1928 and it was completed in 1931. It was large and beautiful and equipped with furniture and learning tools. It contained seven classrooms, an office and a staff room. The classrooms were in the outer rim and the large auditorium was in the center. It was used as a gym and for assemblies and activities for the town Jews. On the High Holy Days, it was used for services.

The white eagle, the symbol of Poland, hung in the hall surrounded by large pictures of Herzl, Weizmann, Bialik and Ussishkin. Under Herzl's picture sparkled the slogan: “If you will it, it is no fable”.

Tarbut School Building
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Tarbut School 1926/7
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Students of Tarbut School

Next to the building there was a large yard with sports equipment, modern trapezes for all ages, nets and marked spaces for games. A botanical garden surrounded the school and it was used to cultivate plants for study and research, as part of the natural science program. The physiology of plants was learned in a practical laboratory in addition to theoretical studies. The care of these plants served not only for enrichment of the curriculum, but also as preparation for agricultural life in Eretz Israel. The teachers made certain that their students had some knowledge of working the land, as this would be useful in agricultural life in the homeland.

The guard and janitor of the school was Mr. Avraham Lifshitz (now living in Israel). He was highly devoted to the school and involved his sons in his work. They were students in the school. By trade he was a bookbinder and in addition to his official title he bound books for the school. He rang a large bell when he supervised recess. He watched over the order and cleanliness and took care of the furnace. He also collected tuition and he sometimes had to perform an unpleasant task – he would send a student home when his parents were delinquent in payment of the school fees.

The first secretary of the school was Mr. Yakov Frietel. He was an educated young man who was dedicated to the upkeep of the institution. After him, the position was filled by Mr. Yehoshua Gaier. The last secretary was Mr. Weinbrand.

When construction was completed, most of the Jewish students transferred from public schools to the Hebrew school. More than 90% of the children of the town and its surroundings were educated in the Tarbut School. It is important to point out the great dedication of the parents who willingly gave up the free public school whose building was spacious and well equipped. This was not true of the Tarbut School where the parents had to look after its upkeep and had to pay salaries to the teachers and other staff.

The school provided an education in all subjects. In addition to the curriculum of the government schools, Hebrew subjects were taught according to the Tarbut program and under its supervision. The inspector, Mr. Shmuel Rosenhek from Rovno, visited from time to time. There were also government inspectors who visited.

Except for geography, Polish history and language – compulsory subjects taught in Polish, the language of instruction was Hebrew. Until 1932, Hebrew was taught in Ashkenazi pronunciation and from then on the Sephardic version was used. The change to the new pronunciation was difficult, but the teachers became used to it and their Hebrew was precise and clear.

The educational level was very high. Textbooks issued by “Amanut” in Eretz Israel were used. Basic texts were: Divrei Yemei Ameinu (History of Our Times) by Zuta and Spivak, Lashon Vasefer (Language and Story) by Yakov Fichman and S. L. Gordon's geography book.

Woodworking Class in the School
Click here to enlarge the picture - rok095s.jpg [4 KB] Within the curriculum, handwork held an important position. The handwork teacher was Mr. Gurevitz who also taught physical education and art (replacing Mr. Shtern). The students learned to bind books and they did bookbinding for the school. They also sawed large wooden pieces and fashioned different things out of them. The girls learned embroidery.

Special attention was paid to developing the aesthetic side of the students. Singing and music were held in high regard. The singing teacher, Mr. Gendelman, put his heart into it. He organized an excellent student choir, which used to perform at many celebrations and memorial assemblies. The songs were learned from music sheets.

In 1938-9 Shlomo Bar Shira (Baikovsky) joined the staff. He taught Polish language, Polish history and music. (He is now the principal of the Amal school in Haifa). He organized a children's choir, which sang every Friday at the school assembly. The students would donate to Jewish National Fund as they listened to the choir. He also organized a mandolin orchestra. This teacher did a great deal to inculcate modern Hebrew singing in the school. This singing created a Zionist pioneering atmosphere in town. Mr. Bar Shira also performed at violin recitals, accompanied on the piano by Mrs. Soltzman.

Physical development was of great importance. On rainy days and in winter, the auditorium was used. Students wore running shoes, gym shorts and white shirts. The volleyball and ski teams competed successfully against the teams from the Polish school.

The girls wore uniforms. At first, they wore a black apron with a large pocket and tied in the back with two loops. Later they wore black tunics made of shiny satin with a white collar, white buttons and two large pockets. They also wore berets with blue and white stripes. The school insignia depicted roots of a date palm on a blue background and initials in gold letters. The boys wore hats with the school insignia.

The school made all efforts to complete the curriculum. If a teacher did not finish any material, he would gather the students on Saturdays or after hours in order to give extra classes. Mr. Gendelman had a beautiful custom which did not necessarily depend on the curriculum. On Shabbat morning, after services, he would read to the students stories from Moladetenu Publishers (Our Homeland) in Eretz Israel. His students well remember the stories about life in our land: “A Story About An Arab Shepherd”, “The Young Heroes of Kfar Tavor”, and “Yossi in Eretz Israel”. During these story readings he deepened the understanding and breadth of knowledge of his students. He instilled in them an unquenchable thirst for learning. Even in early childhood they knew that there is no end to knowledge. There is always more to learn.

Education for Jewish National Fund in the School

Education about JNF was the mainstay of the school. The students elected a JNF committee, a treasurer and a secretary. It was headed by a teacher- at times Gendelman and at other times Kovner. The committee dealt in the collection of donations from students' parents, as well as those at Purim and Hanukah celebrations and family get-togethers. Fridays were full of content from Eretz Israel. There was Kabbalat Shabbat in every classroom and the blue box was passed around. Every month the boxes were emptied. The students held the box in awe as they had been taught by the song written in its honor: “You are a box, our box which redeems our land. You add fields to the countryside, trees in the valley and on the mountains”. In every class there was a corner dedicated to JNF and a central one was in the auditorium.

The students collected JNF stamps which were tied to the map of Eretz Israel, its landscape or to important Zionist personalities.

Every student had a collection of albums. The top class was awarded a prize – a flag or a special certificate. In 1937 the students received a certificate of distinction from the center in Warsaw. On Hanukah there was a JNF bazaar in the school auditorium with the participation of all sections of the Zionist movement in town.

The Celebrations In School

There were no better days in school than celebration days. The students were blissful. Hanukah, Purim and Lag B'omer parties were happy events not only for students but also for their parents. Every celebration was opened by the choir, directed by Mr. Gendelman, singing:
The day will come
A day full of light and goodness
In which our nation will live
And will call for freedom
Then all those exiled will gather
From West and East
From North and South
From the Jordan and the Sea.

First Graduating Class in 1928
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A very interesting experience was the Hanukah celebration in the school. There were many intricate preparations. Since there was great interest in the celebration, there was not enough space in the school for the large audience. A big hall was rented, some distance from the school, in an anti-Semitic area near the Huta. Usually it was the Apollo. Walking to the hall entailed some risk of physical harm from the locals.

At the celebration there was a two-character play. Its content was mainly longing for redemption depicted by signals and dramatic symbols. On stage snaked the Jordan River made shiny blue and well lit. The front of the stage was dark – a symbol for the exile.

In this darkness, full of yearning and sorrow, was a girl dressed as an old woman gazing sadly at the lit Jordan where her son stood near a tent holding a spotlighted hoe.

Between them a dialogue developed. The mother was emotional and full of longing and heartache. She sang: “What will I see, my son, in Eretz Israel?” The son, the pioneer answered: “Pioneers working on the road with a pick and a hammer. In the winter the trees bloom and in December we bathe in the sea. All over there is an endless sea of blue. Come, my mother, come”.

The audience was excited and moved by the performance. In this vision materialized all the longings, desires and hopes for redemption. We especially remember the assembly commemorating the 25th anniversary of the death of Dr. Herzl in 1929. The students presented a play on themes from Eretz Israel.

The celebrations at Shavuot were quite thrilling. Once, in addition to bringing the first fruits, a dove lost its way and flew into the building. One of the girls caught it and brought it to her teacher, Mr. Kovner and he placed it in a cage. At the end of the celebration he freed the dove and excitedly announced: “As the dove is free, so will the people of Israel merit its freedom in its homeland”. As he spoke, his eyes welled with tears. He expressed his dreams and those of all the students. All the celebrations were accompanied by violin playing. The violinist was Mr. Moshe Kaminsky who taught music.

On Tu B'Shevat the students ate fruit from the land – figs and carobs and they sang: ”In the land of Israel the sun shines and the vine blooms and my beautiful sister went to Eretz Israel”. On Lag B'omer the students went on a nature hike for the day. They went as far as Osnitzek or another village where they pitched tents and sang: “There we will build, we will erect kibbutzim and villages and lead a communal life”. On Saturdays they went under the bridge to the lake. In the quiet of the forest one could hear young voices hoping for a better future.

The Hebrew-Speaking Association

A big and rare event in the life of the school was the formation in 1934 of the Hebrew-speaking association named after Eliezer BenYehudah. Mr. Gendelman (the teacher) was the moving spirit behind this event. It was a source for the group whose members promised to speak only Hebrew. It was a renewal of a vow made by Y.L. Gordon: “ I am a slave to the Hebrew language to the end of times. I am committed to it for eternity”. This association followed the Association for the Revival of Israel founded by Ben Yehudah in Eretz Israel. Its purpose was the slogan: “To speak to each other in Hebrew in company, in council, in the market and on the street. They will not be shy.”

The founder of the association was Mr. Avraham Olshansky, principal of Tarbut in David-Horodok. Its purpose was to popularize the use of the Hebrew language and to make it into an every day language. When a language is alive so is its nation.
The anthem of this association was:
We are the followers of Ben Yehudah
We are the fulfillers of his mission
We did not abandon our language
We will continue his teaching
In every corner of our place
In every forgotten corner
We will enforce our language
Within all our brothers and sisters.
The members of the association kept their vow and spoke Hebrew at home and outside, in spite of the Poles. When they entered a Polish store they used sign language or winking and pointing to show the storekeeper what they wanted. There were some humorous incidents, but they persevered. Anyone who lapsed and used Yiddish or Polish paid a fine.

The members of the association held their meetings in the school. They read Hebrew newspapers, mainly the children's newspaper Itonenu (our newspaper) and they enjoyed the stories of Tarzan, which were published in installments. They also published a wall bulletin of high quality.

This association helped a great deal in the acquisition of language, enriched the vocabulary of the students and allowed them to speak naturally. The members of the association wore a pin. The pin was engraved with the initials D.I. (Daber Ivrit – Speak Hebrew).

The Teaching Staff

Blessed be the memory of the teachers of the school who always worked in a difficult, yet respected, field – educating children. They enriched their students' knowledge of their Judaism and reared a generation of young people longing for their homeland. In spite of the fact that larger communities competed for their services they left other places in order to inspire the students of the Rokitno Tarbut School. As much as we praise them it will not be possible to fully describe their excellence. We will not finish lauding them: “…beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and consolations…”

All these teachers are unforgettable. They are outside the realm of ordinary memory. The students absorbed from them values and concepts. The teachers awakened in them desires and longings for new ideas and for renewal.

There was no distance between them and their students. They were like older brothers to them. They were not afraid to do anything as long as it was for the good of their students. We know that souls do not rise again. That is why the students kept in their hearts all their wonderful experiences. Their memory remained forever inside their students. Fortunate is the student who was affected by the fire they lit.

Lack of space forces us to draw simple sketches only, even though they deserve an in-depth description of their spirit and inner being. Our sages said: “Every scholar who utters sayings in this world continues to speak in the grave.” These lines will revive them and we will erect gravestones of respect to them forever.

Teacher And Principal – Shmuel Volkon

He served as principal of the school and as teacher of science, geography and literature. He was very learned. From childhood he attended famous yeshivas in Novogorod-Volinsk (Zvihil) and in Brisk. He studied in Odessa in a rabbinical seminary founded by Rabbi Haim Chernovitz (the young Rabbi). He was a student of Prof. Yosef Klauzner in History; of Bialik in Agada (fable) and language; of Prof. Simcha Assaf- in Talmud. He studied literature with the poet Yakov Fichman.

Well prepared by these studies he was invited by representatives of the Rokitno community to serve as principal of the Tarbut School. During science classes he used various kinds of equipment to teach Physics and Chemistry. He went on many outdoor trips with his students to help them identify flora and fauna. When the students studied the anatomy of a lizard, they first caught some lizards, performed an autopsy and learned about the secrets of its insides. It was the same with frogs. They placed toads in an aquarium to watch the development of the embryo.

There was a science corner in the school which had skeletons of birds, fish, eagle, reptile and a snake preserved in alcohol. In the forest the students looked inside the tree to guess its age. The students learned from their principal that the age of a tree is discovered by counting the rings around its trunk. His aim was to make the students like nature. He also knew all the scientific terms in Hebrew. He taught general geography by following the books of S.L. Gordon and he always used maps in Hebrew published by Levin-Epstein. All the students respected and admired him.

In the mid thirties he left and settled in Volkorisk where he successfully directed the Tarbut School. It eventually became a Hebrew high school. Mr. Volkon perished in Treblinka.

Israel Feldman

He started his teaching career in Rokitno as a teacher of the kindergarten class which opened in 1920. Due to lack of proper space he gathered his pupils in the synagogue and became a kindergarten teacher. He was able to enter the inner world of his children. He would dance, sing and play with them. When Tarbut School was founded, he served as a Torah and Talmud teacher and he taught “Hebrew in Hebrew”. To make it easier for the students to understand the material he used visual aids. When he taught Parashat Terumah, where the mishkan (ark) is described, he took a cardboard box and drew on it the golden menorah in detail.

He was a fanatic about the Hebrew language. He inherited this trait from his teacher, Achad Haam who taught him during his wanderings in Russia. His accomplishments in research in Hebrew language were outstanding. In the evenings, he would discuss language and halakha with the Rabbi and the shohet.

Mr. Feldman endeavored to make his students like Hebrew books. In his house he had a treasure- a set of old textbooks – some volumes of Kol Agadot Israel (All theFables of Israel) by Lebner and the children's newspaper “Olamenu Hakatan” (Our Small World). He willingly lent them to the students for them to acquire more knowledge. In 1935 he left Rokitno and settled in Kamin-Koshirsk where he perished in the Holocaust.

Yavne School with Teacher Molchodsky
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Talmud Torah in 1926
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Mordechai Gendelman

He was a veteran resident of Rokitno. He was one of the leaders in Hebrew culture circles, an agent of Jewish National Fund. He prepared students for their Bar Mitzvah. On the High Holy Days, he would lead the services in the school auditorium organized by the Zionists. He was well received by the congregants. He organized the choir and was its director and conductor.

He awakened in his students the yearning and longing for Zion with a stanza from a famous poem by Mordechai Zvi Ma'ane:
Where are you, Where are you
Our Holy land
My spirit searches for you
The air of the land is in my soul
It even heals the dead.
He taught Jewish subjects – Hebrew language, Bible, history, grammar and Haftara reading. He was the lively spirit of the school. He implemented the Bar Mitzvah gift of registering in the Children's Book of the JNF in Jerusalem. The Bar Mitzvah boy would receive a large certificate from Jerusalem bearing his picture. It was quite expensive then – 2 pounds sterling.

He also inaugurated the writing of essays about books that interested the student and forced him to go deeply into the book. The student had to explain the theme of the book. He made sure that students would read Hebrew books that would enrich their thoughts and forbade any shallow content. He gave guidelines and only allowed reading choice material. In this way he developed in the students the making of choices, internal selection and proper and deep understanding.

In history classes he added a list of novels that highlighted the period being studied. When they studied about the Maranos he assigned the reading of The Maranos by Kantrovitz and Memories of the House of David by Friedberg. When they dealt with the false Messiahs, the students read David Hareuveni by Max Brodt.

Mr. Gendelman made his students enjoy Bible studies because he saw in it an expression of the original creative forces inherent in our nation. He instituted the “Bible note book” in which the students would make notes in every class according to the following headings: name of class, Hebrew date, chapter number, verse number, vocabulary words and their explanation, special verses as well as summaries and verses to be memorized. Every page had colored margins drawn by the students. These notebooks made the students love Bible studies.

Certificate-Jewish National Fund
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Children's Book of JNF

“And they shall bring thy sons in their arms, and thy daughters shall be carried upon their shoulders” Isiah 49:22

He knew how to teach poetry verses with a special melody and he insisted on proper pronunciation. He read with enthusiasm and intonations. When the students learned El Hatizipor (To the Bird) they went through a special experience. He would accompany the poetry by singing since he had a good voice.

With the Soviet occupation, he was jailed because he was the official JNF agent. Others arrested with him were Avraham Schwartz, Shimon Klorfein and Noah Soltzman. He was brought to Sarny for questioning. There he was forced to sign a document which denounced publicly Zionism, his educational work during the Polish regime and his world view.

We must not speak badly of him and denounce him. Whatever he did, he was forced to do. He accepted his bitter existence which confined him against his spirit. He was completely broken. In those times it is useful to read the words of a great Jewish prophet: “Do not laugh at man's actions. Do not rue them. Do not repel them, but try to understand them.” Therefore, it is essential to understand what he did considering the background of these wretched times. If he had a choice, he would have refused to contribute to this destructive deed. He was subjected to ideology that was totally against his spirit and he was caught between the sacred beliefs to which he remained true in his heart and the desecration which he pretended to follow. He walked around disjointed as an abstract being, as if his artistic world and his ideas were blocked off. However, since he saw that the devil was at him at the time, he bowed and scraped and pretended to follow an alien culture. He was afraid to show his true colors to the authorities since he knew what awaited him.

Although he turned in the wrong direction, we must not misjudge him. It was said about Elisha Ben Aboya in the “Zohar” that he was not given the opportunity to come back and that when he died a voice was heard proclaiming all roads above and below would be blocked for that person, that he would not be able to enter the next world. We must not pass judgment and we should not close the roads to the next world for the martyred Gendelman. His promises were not promises and his oaths were not oaths. He was forced to do what he did.

Polia Erlich Volkon

She was the wife of the principal, a native of Zmoshetz. She graduated from the state teachers' college and received a teaching diploma. She taught the Polish language and did her work faithfully. She tried to teach her students proper Polish language and she insisted on a correct and clear Polish accent. She founded a Polish library full of easy and entertaining children's books. Slowly, she acquired more serious books. Polish was not taught every day. She used the newest textbooks. The government inspector would visit her classes every so often and he was pleased with her teaching methods.

Rivka Volodavsky

She came from Yanov-Polsky. Her father was a teacher and her mother a kindergarten teacher. She was a graduate of the teachers' college in Grodno. She was young, pretty and energetic. She was endowed with special pedagogic talents. She was on friendly terms with her students, without any boundaries.

She was an excellent athlete. In her spare time in the winter she went ice-skating with her students. In the summer she took them bicycle riding. She enlivened her students and they truly appreciated her. She did not only teach, but she spent a great deal of time as a counselor in Hashomer Hatzair. She taught in the lower grades from 1936 until the Soviet occupation. After much wandering, she managed to return to her hometown and there she perished.

Hillel Kovner

He was born in Vilna and graduated from the teachers' seminary there. He arrived in Rokitno in 1933 as a young man and immediately became a favorite of the students. He was a nice man with impeccable manners. He was an intelligent young man with a fountain of knowledge.

He loved people and he dedicated himself to helping them. He was chosen as the JNF agent, organized beautiful Shavuot celebrations, gathered the parents on Shabbat for orientation sessions and dedicated himself to informing the general public about Eretz Israel and Jewish values.

He taught geography of Eretz Israel and general geography. In grade 7 he taught demography, a new subject in those days and he brought the students to Jewish awareness.

His classes were well prepared and were popular among the students. He awoke in them the will to learn, not through rules and punishment, but by his personality. He was a friend to the students and he wished all of them well. They became very close and were part of a mutual admiration society. His home was open to his students and they often came to chat with him. Children who needed special attention received extra help after hours. This was not in order to receive a reward, but to help them to keep up.

He was highly involved in all the cares and worries of the students. He knew how to lower himself to enable a student to rise above. He was quite successful with this approach. There was an atmosphere of trust and friendship and Kovner was thus able to reach deeply and to find talent and capability inside a child without needing tests.

Many schools competed for his services and in the end he moved to Sarny in 1938. He came to Rokitno with love and left it that way.

The last Days of the School

When the Soviets entered Rokitno in 1939, they found the school at the height of its development from the point of view of the quality of its staff as well as the caliber of its students.

The principal, Mr. Shmuel Kulik came from Sokolka with his wife, also a teacher. He was an ardent Zionist, a big man in all ways. He was an experienced teacher and a dedicated educator. He was well known among the staff and in Jewish circles in Poland for many years as a man of inner peace. His extensive experience in education and his good relations with the staff, parents and students helped to raise the status of the school.

On staff was Mr. Israel Einav (Weintraub) who taught general history. During the Soviet occupation, he was appointed educational director and also taught Stalinist constitution in the senior grades. In 1940 he organized a choir, which sang in Yiddish and in Russian. The choir was of a high quality. At a choir convention in Rovno, the school choir won first prize and Mr. Einav, as conductor, received an award of distinction.

Mr. Yosef Bar Niv (Budnayev) taught natural science and chemistry. He replaced Gurvitz who married a woman from Sarny and went to teach there. During the Soviet occupation Mr. Bar Niv was appointed inspector of schools in the area and chairman of the teachers association of the area.

Mr. Gendelman taught Yiddish. Mr. Itamar Zomberg (now a lawyer in Israel) taught mathematics and physics. The teacher of Russian in the senior grades was Mr. Shmuel Weinbrand. He had earlier been the school secretary. Mr. Bronstein, who taught Polish before the Soviet occupation, began to teach mathematics and geography. Mr. Dichter (now a teacher in Kiryat Haim) taught grade 8 algebra, geometry and physics.

Feigl Rosenfeld (now a teacher in Kibbutz Hama'apil) served as a teacher in the junior grades. She especially shone as a ballet teacher. She organized a ballet group in the school which was highly regarded. Malka Rotenberg, a student, was the ballerina and every performance of hers was amazing. Other teachers in the junior grades were Mrs. Hanna Dichter (now a teacher in Kiryat Haim), Sara Isserlis (she also taught German) and Mrs. Kulik, the principal's wife. Mr. Forman was the school secretary.

The Soviet occupation caused an assault on all aspects of Jewish life, especially in education, culture and Jewish identity. The authorities had as their main purpose depriving the Jews of their national characteristics, their love of past history and Jewish sources. This regime can be defined in one encompassing statement: “Burn the soul and the body!”

The Jews of Rokitno, who were loyal to Zionism and the Hebrew language, began to live forced lives. They were compelled to perform many tasks. These forced lives touched children most seriously. The school children had difficulties in understanding the events that were taking place.

The most tragic and painful surprise for the students was caused by the following declaration, in Yiddish, by the beloved teacher and educator, Mordechai Gendelman: “Go away despicable Hebrew language! Go away the language of the counter-revolutionaries and opposers of progress! Our language is Yiddish only!”

The students could not believe their ears since they did not know that he had been forced to make this declaration by the powers that be. The students did not understand the forces of assimilation that were unleashed or the cruel reality. They announced that they would fight back. They stubbornly refused to get used to the destructive change. This struggle of the students of the school in Rokitno to preserve their Judaism, nationality and Jewish identity, is one of the most wondrous and admirable events. It was a result of an excellent Hebrew education which could not easily be cast aside. The struggle began on Yom Kippur. The Soviets had just entered Rokitno. The teachers announced, on the eve of Yom Kippur, to their students that they had to attend classes on the next day since it was no longer a holiday, but an ordinary school day. They were ordered to bring books and food. The students of grade 7 initially decided not to listen to the orders and to stay home on this Holy Day. However, they feared that the authorities would retaliate by arresting their parents and their teachers. They went against their conscience and appeared in school.

They were in shock when they saw Mr. Gendelman eating a sandwich on Yom Kippur. Gendelman, a yeshiva graduate, an exceptionally traditional man who led services on the High Holy Days – eating on Yom Kippur! The students could not imagine a worse calamity. Out of deep ties to the people came their decision to fast. They came to school without books and without food and went on strike.

The School during the Soviet Occupation
Click here to enlarge the picture - rok107s.jpg [3 KB]This was the final curtain for the Hebrew school. It was forbidden to study Jewish history. Any mention of Judaism was erased from the textbooks. It was meant to enable the students to become part of the Communist world.

Yiddish became the official language of teaching in the school. Woe to the Yiddish and woe to the printing. The books came from Moscow written in the Yevseki font. It was difficult for the students to pronounce Shabbes instead of Shabbat and baalmeluche instead of baal mlacha (tradesman). They were depressed and sad.

The school continued to exist as an elementary school with 7 grades. A high school was opened in a new building originally prepared by the Poles for their school. The official language in this school was Ukrainian. The graduates of the Yiddish school were forced to continue their studies in this high school. Soon the students went on strike. They wrote to the Education Department in Rokitno and asked for continuation classes to be opened in the Jewish school. They were even prepared to study in Russian instead of Ukrainian if Yiddish was not feasible.

At first there was strong opposition as the inspector felt there were not enough teachers who could teach in Russian. In spite of this, a grade 8 was opened in the Yiddish school and it was taught in Russian.

The strength and courage of the students of the school reached a pinnacle in another instance. The students successfully prepared a Yiddish play. It was presented in the cinema theater to an overflow audience. At the same time, a festival of school drama groups was being planned and it was recommended that this play be presented since there was also an individual Russian recitation in it.

Two weeks before the festival began, its program was received by the school administration. The Jewish school play had been deleted with the excuse that it was too long and in a language not understood by all. This caused great bitterness among the students. They boycotted the festival and decided that even the individual reciters would not perform. All the participants hid in their homes.

They were liable to expulsion from the school for this deed, or perhaps even worse. Their pain was too intense and the insult to their national pride too painful and they were prepared for anything. In their hearts the teachers commiserated with their students and they felt pity for them. The only punishment was rebuke.

The condition of the teachers was not better that that of the students. They walked around looking sad and depressed, full of bitterness and disappointment. The secret police were watching. Under these conditions their sharp teaching skills were dulled. Their resources dried up and they were forced to teach heretical material. Their fields were barren. The teacher became a tool for the authorities. The ideals of the teachers and the students were smashed to pieces. Their work was done under duress and with fear. They became passive and stopped being pro-active. Their faces were somber, but they still hoped that this will pass, that this was a temporary situation.

The teachers were only active in school since they could no longer do any social activity. They lost their contact with the parents and they became a world onto themselves.

This is how the Hebrew school in Rokitno was terminated, together with the Jewish population. The destruction began with the burning of the body and soul and ended with extinction.

The Influence of the School on the spiritual Balance of the Rokitno Youth

The school spurred the students to continue their studies. Many of its graduates continued their studies in the high school of Rovno, Sarny and Vilna. The students of Rokitno stood out in these institutions with their talent and knowledge.

A Group of young People
who left to study in Vilna
rok109s.jpg [3 KB]
[Click here to enlarge the picture]

The school shone its spirit on the local Jewish public. It represented the spiritual world of the Rokitno youth. It was a place where the soul of the youth was created. The students left the school equipped with spiritual and emotional values, which influenced them all their lives. This spiritual crown was ingrained in them and it formed the image of this youth. There were none like them in other towns. The youth were emotionally healthy, built out of strong bricks. They were not torn by doubt. They had the gift of sharpness, strength of spirit, ideas and character. They never succumbed to beliefs other than Zionism and Hebrew. They continued on a straight road, which led them to the Hebrew country and settling on the land. They always looked up towards Jerusalem.

The adhesion of these young people to the Hebrew language is amazing and fills us with awe and wonder. There was hardly a Jewish child in Rokitno who did not know Hebrew. This was not just any Hebrew, but one with depth and instilled with holy spirit. Parents denied themselves food to give their children a Jewish education, so they would grow up knowledgeable and comfortable with their background. It is thanks to the understanding and devotion of the parents that the children were educated with Jewish values and Hebrew language. When they made Aliyah, they seemed and felt like native-born.


My story is ended but is incomplete. The memorial that I have created of this wonderful institution is inadequate. Even if my words were poetry as full as the ocean, my language like waves of music and my lips as full of praise as the skies are wide, I still would not complete the praise of these children. “There was nothing lacking in them”. They were the offspring of Volyn, our Volyn whose name still makes us tremble. Their names will never be forgotten and we will always remember them in our speeches. We will mourn them for eternity.

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  1. I wrote the history of the school based on notes provided by Mr. Avraham Grinshpan (one of the founders of the school).
    1. Yosef Bar Niv (Budnayev)
    2. Shlomo Bar Shira (Baikelsky)
    3. Israel Einav (Weintraub)

    1. Pnina Orteger (Fuchsman)
    2. Haya Katz (Gotlieb)
    3. Zehava Nevo (Perl)
    4. Hadassah Kedem (Freiman)
    5. Tzilla Kilim (Kaminsky)
    6. Ronka Rosenstein (Greber)
    7. Yakov Schwartz
    8. Haim Shteinman                                Return

  2. Preparatory classes from the Greek “paedeutik”.  Return

  3. Unfortunately, we do not recall the names of all the teachers. Return

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