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Culture and Education {Cont.}

[Page 111]

A Teacher of the Tarbut School in Rokitno remembers

Itzhak Dichter (Kiryat Haim)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

Unfortunately, I will not be able to describe in full, in this article, the tremendous educational experience of the Tarbut Hebrew school in Rokitno. I spent only one year teaching in the school in 1927-8. I have forgotten many details in the interval. Hopefully, there will be others who will fill in the missing parts. The school was located in a rented apartment too small to accommodate all the children of the town. Even in 1928, we spoke of the need to build a proper building for the school. This was not an easy task. Where would we get the money? Wonders will never cease, for when I visited the school several years later, I saw a beautiful new building. I can only imagine the hard work and effort that the people of Rokitno put in until they were able to erect this building. There were about 300 children in the Hebrew school in Rokitno in 1927-8, i.e., almost all the children in town. It seems to me that no Jewish children attended the Polish school, or at least very few did so.

The residents of the town, mostly of meager means, made every effort to send their children to a Hebrew school. Many ate less in order to pay tuition. They knew that only through Hebrew school would their children learn about their heritage. They looked up to this sacred place and they sent their children. They never even noticed that there was a large and spacious free public school right across the street. This was a progressive town. The youth were dear and likable, happy and progressive.

They were interested in everything and they were sports-minded. This was a novelty. Not only the youth – the adults were also more liberal, progressive and enlightened than those of other towns. What a liberal atmosphere reigned in town! I did not meet in Rokitno any people who were stubborn and conservative. I saw neither shtreimels (fur hats) nor side curls. Certainly there were observant people in town, but they were not fanatics. They understood the spirit of the times and allowed their children to move with the times.

It was not an easy task for the parents committee to maintain the school, to pay rent and teachers salaries, as well as for the cleaning, heating and repairs. To this day I do not know how they managed it. At the beginning of every school year the committee decided on the tuition that all had to pay – according to their means. There were, of course, some complaints and discussions, but it never happened that a child would leave the school because of the cost.

The educational level of the school was high. The language of instruction was, of course, Hebrew, except for Polish language and Polish history. It is easy for us now to say Hebrew language of instruction. It is hard to imagine the effort, dedication and good will that the teachers invested in teaching in Hebrew. There were no Hebrew textbooks in science, geography or mathematics. The teachers translated from other languages. Can you imagine the effort put into a lesson plan for the study of science? Appropriate material had to be found in Polish, Russian or another language. Then came the translation into Hebrew before the students could be given this material. This went on daily. The teachers spent days and nights in preparation of these materials. There were no manuals or teacher guidebooks. The teachers had to create everything from scratch. Not everyone is capable of doing so.

The Student Library

There was a student library near the school. It was not an easy task for the principal and the teachers to obtain books since they had little money. Every year, books were added to the library. One of the teachers ran the library as a volunteer. There was such dedication to the library. Every book was lovingly handled. Books were exchanged twice a week. Twice a week the school was buzzing after hours. It was a pleasure to see the students hurrying to the school library and exchanging views on the books they read. They recommended books to one another. They had a great thirst for knowledge inside them. I loved to visit the school at that time, to listen to their conversations and to enjoy their evaluations. Who could forget it? Who could forget these sacred moments?

The Wall Newspaper

From time to time a wall newspaper was published in the school. It had two purposes: educational and instructional. The first purpose was to educate the child to read and to know what was happening in his immediate vicinity, in his school, his town, in the world and especially in Eretz Israel. The instructional aim was to develop writing skills.

The richest section was the one with news of Eretz Israel. This was our purpose in life. There were always enthusiastic students standing near that section. You could see in their eyes their happiness in reading about any accomplishments in the land – a new settlement or a new purchase. You could also see the deep sorrow when there were failures or tragedies.

The Work of Jewish National Fund in the School

The JNF served as a cornerstone for the nationalistic education – the value of the land to the people. The notion: “The land will not be sold for eternity” was well received by the students. Every new purchase of land was received enthusiastically and donations were increased. There was a JNF corner in every classroom and the blue box was the center of the corner and of the life of the class. Every happy event was celebrated with a donation. A god mark or the completion of a book brought a donation. Every event in the life of a child such as a birthday, a Bar Mitzvah, a birth of a sibling also produced a donation. The atmosphere in the school was one of pioneering Zionism. An atmosphere of complete identification with Eretz Israel and all that happened in it. We rejoiced with them and suffered with them. Every happening, of course, was immediately reacted to in the school, in classrooms, in the newspaper, etc.

We celebrated Rosh Hodesh (first of the month) in the school. On that day, we emptied the JNF boxes and the agents reported on the activities of JNF and its income. We heard news from Eretz Israel, sang songs from there, recited and danced. These celebrations transformed the children to an atmosphere of Eretz Israel and they imagined that they were also there building and creating and living a free life. How sad is it they did not live to see the freedom towards which they strove and for which they worked so hard.

Student Committee
for the JNF Tarbut School in Rokitno, 1937
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Holidays and Celebrations in the School

The celebrations held an important place in the work of the school. We tried to discover artistic talents in song, dance and the stage. The teacher spent many hours with the children in school after hours. She selected, taught and guided and she always succeeded in finding a talent – often in unexpected places. The school celebrations were famous in town. The parents and other residents in town crowded the auditorium at every event. The performance was a topic of conversation for a long time on the streets, in the stores and among friends. The teacher encouraged the children. She gave them aspirations and wings to soar on. Not just the teacher, but the whole staff and the parents helped to make it a success. The preparations were extensive in school and at home. They prepared backdrops and sewed costumes.

Purim Celebration
Tarbut School Rokitno, 1937
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As in all our work, we tried to emphasize themes from Eretz Israel e.g., drying the swamps, harvesting on the kibbutz. On national Polish holidays, our school performed together with the Polish school and we always outdid them. We were once asked by the principal of the Polish school how we managed to always do so well and why they could not compete with us. If that principal knew how much work, love and good will the teacher put into every performance, he would have understood how we did it.

Influence of the School on the spiritual Life of the Town

The school was a beacon of light in the life of the town and its influence was great in all areas – cultural life, Zionist movement, helping the youth groups and general atmosphere.

We often gathered the parents and lectured to them on different topics: education, literature, history, and Eretz Israel. We held these gatherings on Friday nights and the school auditorium was always full. The audience, tired after working all week, came to hear about the revival of the nation and redemption. They hoped for a miracle to happen.

Tarbut School in Rokitno Grade VI
Click here to enlarge the picture - rok115s.jpg [3 KB]The school even helped the Zionist movement and national funds. Mr. Gendelman served for many years as the JNF agent and he made certain that every Jewish home had the blue box and he looked after emptying it. One of the teachers was the agent for Keren Hayesod and helped with its collections. Much of our time was spent with the Zionist youth movements. We helped them with advice, guidance and especially in teaching the Hebrew language. It was not done in order to be rewarded. It is difficult to list all the activities of the school in town.

Parents Committee

I would like to recall the names of the members of the education committee and the parents committee (as much as I remember) who worked tirelessly for many years. I mention their names with respect and admiration: chairman of the Tarbut committee Yosef Baratz, Noah Soltzman, Kitziu (Katz), Moshe Ber Gutman, Moshe Roitblat and others (still among us).

These dear people dedicated a large part of their time and energy to building an educational institution in town. They often would not rest in order to do work for the school. I recall their names with trepidation and admiration. I am deeply sorry that these dear souls did not live to see the founding of the State of Israel – their lifelong wish. I bow my head in memory of these people and I pray for their souls. May their souls be bound with all holy souls who toiled for the revival of the Jewish people.

The Teachers of the School who perished in the Holocaust

With sadness and sorrow, with respect and admiration, I mention here my colleagues, the teachers of the school in Rokitno who perished with the rest of the Jews during the holocaust that befell our people: Shmuel Kulik, Shmuel Volkon, Itzhak Shpirt, Mordechai Gendelman, Israel Feldman, Podlis and Bronstein.

Dear teachers of Jewish children, I am heartsick that I must mention your names in a memorial book. We were partners in educating a generation. How much strength, thought and good will you invested in your work. You dedicated many hours to teaching the language in the youth movements. This was not done for any rewards.

You lectured to adults on the history of our nation, Bible and Hebrew literature. You lit the fire of Israel in the hearts of many. You were like a pillar of fire which lit the way for the people in exile. You educated generations of seekers of freedom and people who aspire and wish to achieve.

My dear friends, you must know that you did not labor in vain. Your sacrifice was not unworthy. The dream became a reality. Our country is free from rule by strangers. Our people returned from exile to their homeland. Our children are free of fear of the enemy. It is unfortunate that you did not live to see it. It is most unfortunate that those who worked so hard for redemption did not live to see it. I mention your dear names with those of the residents of Rokitno. You were loyal partners to them in life and now your names will be remembered even after your deaths. The guardian of Israel will bind your souls, for eternity, together with those of other educators who dedicated their lives to the education of others.

The Children of the School who perished in the Holocaust

Dear children of Israel; you wonderful beings, I cry for you and I mourn you.

Dear people of Rokitno. It is acceptable that there are bereaved mothers and fathers. However, no one imagined that the most bereaved would be the few Hebrew teachers who survived. We raised, cultivated and taught generations to perform good work and creativity, to love mankind, to be charitable. We hoped for good results, but evil befell us.

Beginning Classes in the School
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Since the Holocaust, joy has left me. My world is full of sorrow and darkness. What is the meaning of our lives, the lives of Hebrew teachers if our children are no longer with us? I recall those days, when the school was filled with children's voices. I remember this sacred corner that we created inside an alien and hateful world. This was a corner where our children absorbed Jewish tradition, love of mankind, equality of rich and poor, values of charity and truth. I recall the atmosphere of Eretz Israel which permeated the school and the emotional preparation of the children for Aliyah and for building a new society based on principles of truth and justice. I remember the Rosh Hodesh celebrations after the JNF boxes were emptied, the shining eyes of the winners of the JNF flag. When I recall all that, I appreciate only now the tremendous creativity of the teachers, students and parents. Even now it is difficult to get used to the fact that it was all cruelly uprooted. One million children. One million Jewish children were slaughtered in the Holocaust. The world shudders from the extent of the Holocaust. The numbers are shocking. For others, it is only a huge and shocking number. For me, it is not a number. For me these are live children, happy and excited, learning and misbehaving. They are still alive for me. Here are the children of Kokel, Gutman, Gendelman, Turok, Baum, Grinshpan, Korobochka, Binder, Tzipiniuk and Gitelman and many more. Where are you my children! Who cut you down so cruelly when you were so young! How many talents were lost!

There were so many talented children in the school in Rokitno. To this day I remember that we wrote across one report card in large letters one mark: Very Good. Unfortunately, I do not remember his name. Perhaps it was Frager.

How can the sun shine again if this happened to us? Such children fell victim to cruel hands and were obliterated. They live on in the hearts of their teacher. When I came to Eretz Israel you were still in front of my eyes. I remember you on every occasion and to my dying day I will carry your memory in my heart. I will mourn you forever.

[Page 119]

The Tarbut Library

Yakov Schwartz (Rehovot)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

The Tarbut library was attached to the school, but it was not always housed in its building. It moved, sometimes too often, from building to building. The reason for this was rooted in budgetary restrictions.

There were three sections in the library: Hebrew, Polish and Yiddish literature. Most of the books were in Hebrew, among them the latest editions from Shtibl and Amanut publishers. There was a good selection of children's books as well as adult books. The library served not only the students of Tarbut School, but the general population as well.

I remember that on book exchange days the line ups were long – consisting mainly of young people. During the 30's the number of Hebrew readers decreased and the number of Polish readers increased. The reason for this was that new and interesting books would appear in Polish, but not in Hebrew. The readers demanded the new best sellers.

The catalogues were well organized. The choice was great and the condition of the books was satisfactory. Rebinding was constant. The readers respected the books and never soiled or defaced them. No one wrote his name in the book. There was especially much movement of books during the summer vacation. The youths that studied out of town returned to Rokitno and were interested in reading new books. The cost was minimal and the deposit was usually another book. Although the library was situated far away, it did not stop the thirsty readers and they always eagerly waited for the opening of the library.

The teachers prepared compulsory reading lists and those books were placed in the library. I remember that the most popular and beloved books were those of Yehudah Burla, Knute Hansen, Walter Scott, Emle Zola, Yakov Dingzon (mainly in Yiddish) and, of course, the Hebrew classics. There was a great need for a library since, unlike now, there did not exist secular books in the homes. There were books in almost every home, but they were only sacred texts. For that reason the library was the only location where secular books were available.

In order to widen its activities and to enable the general public to read newspapers and to find out about events in the world and in Eretz Israel, the library established an excellent reading room. However, it did not last. I do not know the reason. The room was quite attractive and served its purpose. It contained newspapers in Hebrew, Yiddish and Polish. Newspapers from Eretz Israel and the Diaspora were delivered. The reading room was located in the home of Avraham Binder on Poniatovsky Street. In spite of its success it was closed, probably due to budgetary constraints.

The last home for the library was on Messiviche Street (Soviesky). From there it went to the furnaces of the Red Army. I recall the dismantling of the library. When the Red Army entered Rokitno, the order came to bring all the books to the former officers club of the Polish army. Nahum Turovitz, who served as the librarian, packed the books. He hired a wagon and transported the books to the required location. We hoped that they would save, at least, the Yiddish and Polish books and allow them to be circulated after inspection and censure. Our pain was great when we were told by those who resided nearby that the Soviet soldiers were using the books as furnace material. In the officers club there were also books from Polish libraries. The magnificent bindings from the library of a Polish aristocrat from one of the villages stood out.

Among the refugees that arrived in Rokitno during the Soviet occupation, there was a Jew from Warsaw who owned a large library. He was surprised to find out that a small town like Rokitno had such a rich library.

The Soviets erected a new library on the ruins of our library. It was opened in February 1940 and it contained books published in the Soviet Union – some even in Yiddish.

[Page 120]

The Drama Club in Rokitno

Izia Golod (Haifa)

Translated by Ala Gamulka

It is not known when, exactly, the Drama club in Rokitno was founded. It is not essential to determine this. However, there were real sparks of theater during the national reawakening after the Balfour Declaration. The club fulfilled the tasks of Zionism, propaganda, education and explanation. All that was advocated by the Zionist speakers and orators on synagogue stages was also done by the club through song and dance.

I remember a Zionist presentation in 1920. It was performed in the women's section of the old synagogue. It had the participation of Noach Soltzman, Leitze Kliger (the shohet's daughter), Liova Soltzman, Sheintze Lifshitz, Haya Sara Lifshitz and Liova Geipman. The theme was harvest time in Eretz Israel. There were sheaves of wheat on stage. The song: “Are there foxes there, my dear young man?” was accompanied by hand and shoulder movements.

A short time after this performance, a group of young men and women was established. They called themselves the Drama Club. The number of participants grew since the following joined: Fanya Klorfein, Liova Litvak, Moshe Shechtman, Nahum Katzenelson, Avraham Schwartz and Yentl Weiner. Some of the plays I remember are: “God, Man and the Devil”, “Mirele Efros” by Gordon, “Motke the Thief” by Shalom Asch. When I think of “Mirele Efros”, I must discuss the prima dona who appeared in this role and who was a central figure in the club – Fanya Klorfein, the wife of the photographer Pinchas Klorfein. She always found time to actively participate in the club, even though she had three children and a home to run. She often invited the cast to her home for rehearsals. She usually played tragic figures like Mirele Efros and the mother of Motke in “Motke the Thief”. Her acting brought the audience to tears. Yonas Turkov said that her acting reminded him of Esther-Rachel Kaminska and invited her to join a professional group. The income from the performances was dedicated to Zionist and civil institutions.

Drama Club Performing
“Tevye The Milkman”
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Over the years, a new generation of young people joined the club. They studied in Rovno and in Vilna where they had seen performances by the Vilna Troupe. There they learned to appreciate theater. The leaders of the new addition were the brothers Reuven and Yakov Freitel. The members were: Bat Sheva Shohet, Haya Berezovsky, Breindl Tendler, Esther (Etia) Klorfein, Izia Golod, Baruch Levin, Moshe Binder, Taibl Shapira, Grisha Litvak, Leibl Lifshitz and Rachel Trigun.

This group also functioned for the good of the public. We did not only perform for Rokitno audiences, but we also presented plays in Klesov and Dombrovitza. The big attraction was when Lionka Kublchuk (non-Jew) joined our group. We needed a tsarist-type guard and Lionka filled the role tastefully and pleasantly.

In general, we performed comedies or melodramas. It was the era after World War I and there was much sorrow in town. With our plays we hoped to reawaken the spirit of our Jews. We performed “The Witch”, “Tevye the Milkman”, “Dos Pintele Yid (A spark of Jewishness), and “The Big Lottery”. We were inspired by the Ararat Revue Theater of Djigan and Shumacher who sometimes performed in Vilna. We were able to see these comedians and to enjoy their performances.

We also performed revues by combining songs and local current events. We were not satisfied with only local directors and from time to time we invited directors from other towns. They volunteered to work with us for a long time, not for any rewards. We received a great deal of help from Mr. Fridzon from Warsaw who was a talented dramatist. He came to Rokitno for his lumber business and he directed “The Witch”. There are many songs as well as musical accompaniment in this play.

I always had a funny part – Hotzmach in “The Witch” or as an experienced matchmaker. There were many such parts since it is almost impossible not to have one in a Jewish play. I tried to look stereotyped: yellow beard, dirty cloth hat, red kerchief and a broken umbrella in my hand. I did not always follow the script and I often improvised and ad-libbed. I added local content and folklore. The audience was always amused.

In addition to the drama club, there was an orchestra conducted by the experienced musician Moshe Kaminsky. At first, the plays were presented in storage places and eventually we were able to use the stage and auditorium of the army barracks. It was the only chance for citizens to visit the barracks.

As to costumes – we adhered to realism. A matchmaker would lend clothes to the actor playing one. We also borrowed clothes from the rabbi, shohet, dry goods store merchant and the rabbi's wife. They gave us clothes willingly. When we needed a bridal gown from bygone days, we borrowed from older women who had kept theirs. In this way, we broke the barrier between imagination and reality, between the world of the theater and the real world. The audience was quite influenced by these plays. They laughed and cried at appropriate moments. As proof of this, that the plays touched the spectators, is the fact that discussions and arguments went on after every performance. They analyzed the text, the acting and the staging. There was no giving in during these debates. They discussed everything and they were not afraid to pan the play if it did not reach an acceptable level or if it did not satisfy their artistic expectations. As stated earlier, many of our young people studied in big cities and they were immersed in a high cultural environment in general and in good theater in particular. They knew what to accept and what to reject. This criticism was, after all, for the good of the club since it allowed for growth and prevented deterioration.

The part of the prompters is very important in the theater. The prompter sits in a crate hidden from view. Our veteran, professional prompter was Iliusha Freierman. In addition to his task, he was also asked to report at meetings of the club about the movements and acting of the performers, whether they followed theatrical protocol and if they did their best to portray the roles in an artistic manner. These meetings were very useful since they helped the actors to perfect their art.

Every play was given a permit by an office in Sarny. For that reason we needed to translate every play into Polish. We were obliged to omit the word goy from “Tevye the Milkman“ since it was insulting and we had to replace it appropriately. Certain Yiddish expressions seemed immoral to the Poles and we had to soften them and to find the proper terms in Polish. This permit was not easily given and we had to travel to Sarny several times in order to obtain it. At times, things dragged on and we needed to ask local Polish dignitaries for help.

In 1936-7 new members joined. A group of young people was organized. They followed in the footsteps of the veterans. The amateur director of this new group was Syoma Klorfein. Its members were: Moshe Kutz, Yakov Levin, Haim Lichtman, Pearl Perl, Zlatke Perl, Toddy Linn, Yosef Golubovitz and others. These years did not produce successful progress in the theatrical life of our town. There were no real plays presented, only revues.

When the Soviets came, I am told it was possible to develop the activities of the club – in Yiddish, of course. However, there were some serious limitations since the Soviets did not permit any plays from our national repertoire. The club participated in regional drama contests. The Soviets called the contest an Olympiad. The club presented two short plays by Shalom Aleichem – “The Doctor” and “The Agents”. The performances took place in the cinema near the glass factory.

Although the audience was not entirely Jewish, the performance was well received. If we had not been Jewish, we would have won first prize. The government representative invited the club to another contest, but in the meantime the war and ensuing Holocaust broke out.

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