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[Col. 255]

The Jewish School in the Province of Vilna
(A Memorial to the Holocaust)

A. Golomb (Mexico)

Translated by Janie Respitz

 

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The decline of the Jewish towns in the Vilna region began earlier, even before the First World War. The improved roads brought the towns and villages closer to the big city. The noble courts were freed from the Jewish leaseholders. The inn/tavern lost its traditional role on the roads of Lithuania; the mail delivered by horse ceased to exist. Many Christians opened store in the towns and many villages now had Christian artisans like: blacksmiths, shoemakers, tailors and so on.

This resulted in shrinking Jewish livelihoods. The youth were longing for the big city. Also, America was now open and one did not need a special visa to go there. Slowly, the Jewish towns were emptying. The smaller the town became, the quicker its decline.

On a cultural and educational level conditions were changing and the Cheder (religious school) was practically bankrupt. It was no longer an organic part of the town, together with the house of prayer. It was soon realized the Cheder failed to provide the children with what they needed for the rest of their lives.

[Col. 256]

The simple Jews felt this way and an outcry ensued. Various towns sent letters to the school activists in Vilna asking for help.

During the interim days of Passover, for example, a delegation came to me from Shirvint and asked for help in organizing a Yiddish school. This was a sign the Cheder could no longer adapt to the new conditions. The same situation existed in other towns and cities.

The result was, in the middle of the First World War Yiddish schools were founded in many places.

In the entire region that was once the Pale of Settlement a movement to open Yiddish schools began to simmer.

I cannot recount the exact history of the birth of the Yiddish schools in the province of Vilna as I was in Russia and the Ukraine, torn away from Vilna. The main leaders and activists were killed. I don't know if material has survived somewhere. I can only tell about what I know from the period when I returned to Vilna at the beginning of 1922.

I mentioned above the words “founders and builders of the school movement” and can absolutely not continue without mentioning the holy name of the modest young man from Dunilovitch, Uri Kliansky, of blessed memory, who later worked at the Jewish bank in

[Col. 257]

Vilna and really dedicated his entire life to these schools in the Jewish province. He was a modest, quiet folksy man, not a big talker and not one looking for honours. His purpose was to oversee the loans to small towns and devoted his soul to the school system.

His acquaintances would laugh at him and say: “Kliansky is married to the Yiddish Schools”.

God! Where do such Kianskys grow? Will we ever see such a school worker again?

The chairman of the “Central School Organization for the Province of Vilna” was the teacher Borukh Lubatzky, of blessed memory, who was murdered with his whole family. His two sons fell as Partisans.

First “YEKAPO” helped improve material needs for the Yiddish schools, and then the Joint. However they struggled in the smaller towns. There was horrible poverty, a scant amount of children, a lack of teachers (not every teacher wanted to work in the back–woods with so few children), accessibility of the Polish authorities and the controversy between Yiddishists and Hebraists, or between TSISHO and “Tarbut”. All this together reduced the years of many Yiddish schools and created problems for the others, the stronger ones that were still functioning.

*

The outlook and the content of these schools were diverse. When I came to Vilna they sent me to Landverove to inspect the school. The train broke down and I had to travel by wagon. When I arrived in the town wearing glasses and carrying a briefcase I heard them call out: – Oy! A delegate! (From America)…and they fell on the delegate who apparently brought dollars

Suddenly such disappointment! A pity!

There were about 20 Yiddish schools in the entire province. I remember the schools we visited: New – Vialyke, Sventzian, New– Sventzian, Duksht, Ignalina, Pastov, Dunilovitch, Haydutzishok, Lida, Iviye, Baronovitch, Haraditch and others which I can now no longer remember.

A few schools had their own buildings.

[Col. 258]

The saying went: If a school did not have enough to pay rent, they built their own building.

It was a nice dream to build a school. Where would they get the money if they can't even afford to pay rent?

Jews gave advice. For the first one hundred they would ask a townsman who moved to America. After, they would donate. One gave a few wooden planks. A second – a few boards, and a third – a few Zlotys and they started to build.

If it was muddy and the wagon driver could not go to the forest, the simple Jews would carry the wood on their backs from the forest. There were a few such Jews in the Vilna region as well.

When I was told the story of Jews carrying wood on their backs to build a school, it pulled at my heart and I cried. Suddenly I heard – What is the matter with you Mr. Golomb? We are happy and you are crying?

Soon I saw someone take out a bottle of whisky from his breast pocket, another brought some snacks. Everyone mad a toast in honour of the new school.

This is how the Jews from Duksht received a guest in their not yet completed school building, which they were then building.

It was Friday and the wagon driver said to me: Mr. Golomb, come quicker, we have to leave so I can return home on time for the Sabbath.

As we left he told me he was making the trip for the good of the school. He signed a promissory note for 25 Zlotys and they pay him slowly, together with his horse…who can be compared to that wagon driver from Duksht?

*

The schools in the Vilna province had a true folk character. In every town there were a few folksy types who gave all their energy to the schools, sometimes even their last bits of food.

There, in Vilna province, the Yiddish schools inherited the Cheders entirely.

[Col. 259]

They disappeared from the scene without a fuss. All the parents understood they were no longer appropriate for their lives.

The transition to the new Yiddish schools came naturally. The schools were as folksy and simple as the Cheder had been.

I'm reminded of an episode I would like to share: We had a tradition in the Vilna teacher's seminary. On the 15th day of Shvat we would take a hike, a winter walk out of town. Once we went to visit the Yiddish school in New – Vileyke. It was a distance of ten kilometres and naturally we were tired and frozen when we arrived. Impatiently, we waited for a hot cup of tea.

Meanwhile, the crowd was singing. I lay down on a bench to rest. Two students from the seminary sat down near me and began a discussion, God knows about what. Meanwhile the school board members arrived. Until today I remember one of them was the baker Rudoshevsky. He was a Jew with a lot of knowledge and a great memory. He had an entire library in his head and a big bag of troubles and poverty.

When the crowd quieted, he asked to say a few words. Of course they allowed him. He welcomed everyone in the name of the town and the school. He talked about the closeness between the intelligentsia and the folk. He spoke about the intellect who disseminates knowledge even when lying tired on a bench…

Of course, I had to answer him. I was so tired it was difficult for me to speak, so I asked my student Frenkl, may he rest in peace, to answer for me.

This student was a quiet dreamer with deep philosophical tendencies. (My God! How horrifying is it that they were all exterminated!)

He began to speak in the same spirit as the baker. He spoke about the closeness of head and hand, about Yokhanan the water carrier, and the Jews, who under their simple cold pelts have warm hearts, and these Jews with pelts, did not owe anything to the intellectuals…

[Col. 260]

This is how this young boy from Vilna spoke unprepared…and of course, he was right.

*

Vilna and the Vilna province did not jump into the cultural renaissance. It was a natural and gradual transition, totally normal. This is why Vilna never stopped being involved in cultural and communal activities.

We have to write a separate chapter about the teachers in these schools. It was not easy to have to provide good teachers in 20 schools spread out through small, far away towns. They were partly professional teachers from the former Russian schools. The rest were new: former students who attended high school, but did not matriculate, a few “condition teachers”, girls with high school education. Understandably the majority were former teachers from the Russian schools. They had good experience and lots of knowledge and good creativity. The human element was not cultivated on government Russian, but on the social fabric of Tsarist times and they were all satisfied with slogans of the mother tongue, which ruled all of Russia.

Later, students from the Jewish teacher's seminary in Vilna arrived and took over the top positions in the Yiddish schools.

*

The schools had a difficult existence. There was never enough money to pay the teachers, and this was not the main problem. The biggest problem was the Polish government, with its Jesuit tricks, with which they always seized the opportunity to destroy the Jewish school system. One of their ways was to reject the teacher's politics: whoever was not politically kosher could not be a teacher.

The government did not have to give any proof. A small letter was enough. No appeals were possible.

[Col. 261]

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A flower dance by children in the Yiddish school

 

The lack of teachers pressured the schools more than poverty.

Just from this point of view, the rejection of the teachers had a great advantage. Like the expression says: there is no bad without some good. The good from such an edict was:

The Yiddish teachers in Poland did not rush to emigrate, even when Americans and Canadians sent them the papers.

Before the war I asked a few of the students from the seminary to come to Canada to work in the Yiddish schools. They replied like this to all my letters:

–As long as we can work here, we will remain in Poland.

There is one incident I have to recount. The Rabbi from Malarita had a son who was a teacher. His name was Ruven Libshteyn. It has been said,

[Col. 262]

this Rabbi wanted to walk on the sidewalks like all other people and did not want to obey Hitler's order that Jews were forbidden to walk on sidewalks. Hereby, he came across an interpretation of Jewish law, that in time of edicts, a Jew must destroy, even for a shoelace, even for the smallest tradition.

His son Ruven was not religious like his father the Rabbi, but he was fanatic in his belief, in the existence of the Yiddish school system.

Ruven Likhshteyn answered my request before the outbreak of the Second World War:

– The Yiddish schools in Poland are more important than the Yiddish schools in America. Here we are at the front and we cannot cede to it.

But when the Polish Government rejected the Jewish teachers, he without much choice emigrated and thanks to this, we in the Americas received a large number of devoted teachers who were excellent pedagogues.

Nobody knows that we have to thanks the Jesuits, the Polish anti–Semites from that time.

*

Let these remarks be a memorial for the Yiddish schools in the Vilna province and those active in the school and the teachers. I left Vilna eight years before the Holocaust, and who knows if there is someone who knows or remembers better and who could offer a better and clearer account.

Let us hope there are such people and let them discredit my account. Let us hope.


[Col. 263]

Educational Institutions and Culture in Sventzian

A. Hermoni–Ginzburg

Translated by Meir Razy

In addition to the “Cheider”s and the Talmud Torah (pre–World War I), there was a government Jewish school for beginners whose teachers received pedagogic education and training at the Vilna Teachers' School. Among its teachers were the renowned linguist Yehoshua Steinberg and his student – Nissan Turov, the well–known psychologist. About 200 students received elementary education in this school but most of the studies, as mentioned above, were in the Russian language.

Although there was also a Hebrew author among the teachers of this school, the Hebrew language was not taught, and only a few hours were devoted to theology (the prayers and the history of the Jews according to the chapters of the Bible).

Ostensibly, this school had an exemplary exterior appearance and cleanliness. The teachers would appear daily in their uniforms: blue suite with sparkling copper buttons embellished with the Russian royal emblem: a two–headed eagle. In addition the teachers would examine the students' heads and be meticulous about the laws of cleanliness. But the education was poor and the textbooks below any par. I still remember with disgust the visit of the chief inspector in our class. He was a high official from the Ministry of Education (and of course, a Russian–Pravoslav). His body was both gruesome and funny. He had the height of a ten–year–old boy with two protrusions sticking out, face and back. And an ugly head like this inspector's head I have not since seen! He, too, came in uniform: a blue tuxedo with many gold and silver honors. When he entered, we jumped and bowed as commanded. But he did not like my bow. He pounced on me: “How do you bow down? It should be like this!” and he bowed until his hat hit the ground. Almost the entire class with the principal and the teacher in front exploded with laughter.

– “Don't you know how to bow down? Do you know by heart the first episode in the Torah?”

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I was very embarrassed … I knew this story in Hebrew by heart but I began to stutter in Russian…

– “Shut up, you fool! And you will learn to bow down!”

Apart from this school, there was also a municipal (provincial) government school in the city. Many of the students were Jewish although an atmosphere of anti–Semitism and the “Pravoslav religion” was very prominent.

I remember that the headmaster of this school gave popular lectures with a magic lantern (this modest instrument was not for the “Jewish” government school). When the students of the upper class of the “Jewish” school tried to enter the lecture hall, the headmaster himself locked the door in front of us, saying: “These lectures are held only for Pravoslavs!” So, shamed, we went back and told the principal of our school, Katzenelson. He too was upset and apparently protested vigorously to his Russian friend. For the next lecture (“The Russian Pilgrims Trip to the Holy Land” – a lecture by the Pravoslav priest) we were assigned a place in the front row. But we realized that it was not worth all the pleading in order to listen to all that jabber.

There was no gymnasium or high school in our town, and those of our town who wanted to attend high schools had to travel far away. It was difficult for the ultra–Orthodox to enter high schools. In the big cities in the “Tchum Hamoshav” (“the Pale of Settlement”, a western region of Imperial Russia with varying borders that existed from 1791 to 1917, in which permanent residency by Jews was allowed and beyond which Jewish residency, permanent or temporary, was mostly forbidden), only 5% of all the students were Jewish. Others had to travel to Ponivezh, Lithuania. When these “gymnasiums” and “realists” (high–school students of science oriented schools) came home during holidays and vacation days with their shiny uniforms and shiny buttons, their demeanor was of pride. Their parents were also full of pride and pleasure while others would look at them a great deal of envy and respect.

[Col. 263]

The Methods of Study and Education in the “Talmud Torah”

I do not know exactly when the name was invented and in which countries it was recognized. In Tsarist Russia, Talmud Torah schools were found in every city and town in which Jews lived.

The “Talmud Torah” was especially famous as a school for the children of the poor. Pedagogically, they were the lowest on any scale, and it was difficult to define them as educational institutions for young children.

The students of the Talmud Torah were exploited for special purposes in ways that cannot be found in any other nation or language. They would have to, for example, recite Psalms in the home of deceased persons. In addition, they were forced to participate in funerals and accompany the deceased to the cometary and to recite Psalms in chorus.

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The right to be accompanied by the children of the Talmud Torah to the cometary was bestowed on all Jewish citizens of the city and of course no one was anxious to cancel this “benefit”.

Sometimes the deceased body would remain in the house for more than a day and the burial would be delayed because of the negotiations with the burial society. All the while the children were sitting in the home saying Psalms and were present in the oppressive atmosphere of weeping and tears.

The only benefit they derived from this day was that the children ate well, and the institution would also benefit because the family of the deceased would make a contribution to the Talmud Torah after the funeral.

[Col. 265]

The educational and pedagogical situation cannot be described. It was neither learning nor education. At most, the children were taught a little Hebrew and some knowledge about the prayer book and weekly Torah portions.

At Bar Mitzvah age, sometimes even earlier, the children would leave the Talmud Torah and were then accepted as apprentices to all sorts of craftsmen. Their suffering would continue, and perhaps even more so, in these places.

It was customary for the Talmud Torah administration in our town to send the teachers along with several children every Saturday to collect bread for the institution that would last for the entire week.

Every Saturday afternoon, the teachers would go out with their students and beg at the doorways and collect bread, which the housewives would generously donate.

And for the whole week the children were given bread after the morning prayers. Of course the bread was already dry, and sometimes moldy by the end of the week. And the hungry children ate this bread.

This situation prevailed in the Talmud Torah until two activists, with vision and courage, came and introduced changes in the management of the Institution. They were: Rabbi Yitzhak Kovarsky and Rabbi Avraham Cohen.

Both were well–educated people, not only in religious studies but also in general world knowledge. They contacted the “Spreaders of Education” company in (St.) Petersburg and convinced it to take the Talmud Torah in Sventzian under its wing.

The (St.) Petersburg Company agreed to this on the condition that the administrators would introduce far–reaching changes to the method of teaching and the institution's management. First of all, some teachers were dismissed and a new teacher was hired for general secular studies. He was instructed to teach the children arithmetic, Russian and Yiddish writing.

Later on the Company also appointed a new manager. His name was Pintzov and he effectively implemented all the changes and hired two other Hebrew teachers.

And then the Company allocated 500 rubles a year in support of the Talmud Torah in our city and the school improved significantly!

Within a short time, the Talmud Torah changed its face. Principal Pinchov and his brother taught general studies. And two other teachers, great educators, taught Hebrew and Jewish studies.

The pedagogical level of the institution was raised immeasurably and even affluent children came to study at this excellent institution.

This reform continued even more vigorously during the tenure of the new administrator, Rabbi David Koritzky (who eventually immigrated to Israel and died at a ripe old age in Petah Tikva).

To his credit, he was the first who dared send his son, Joseph, to study in the Talmud Torah. This required extraordinary courage in the social conditions of those days.

[Col. 266]

Other affluent families followed his example and did the same. This daring move changed the Talmud Torah's image and instilled a different social spirit in it.

The children of the poor did not feel isolated and disconnected from society as in previous years, and this also affected their mental development.

The weekly bread donation was canceled. Instead, a committee of distinguished women which provided daily bread for the poor children was created. The committee was headed by the director's wife, Mrs. Pintzov.

Shortly after, the committee decided to provide the needy children with a hot and tasty meal every day during the lunch break.

In addition, the harmful practice of reciting Psalms in the home of the deceased and accompanying his funeral to the cemetery was canceled.

The new reforms raised the image of the Talmud Torah in the public's view. Management also focused some attention on instilling courteous behavior in the students. The public was satisfied with the new spirit of the school and treated it with respect and appreciation.

The new teachers also did everything to help the progress and development of the children, both in religious and in secular studies.

In addition to the principal and his brother, there were also two Hebrew teachers, Abramowitz and Absyovitz, loved and respected by the children and their parents.

The teacher Absyovitz then left the Talmud Torah and went to study at the teachers' seminary in Grodno. He later immigrated to America where he was appointed lecturer in Hebrew literature at a university in New York.

All his articles on literary subjects appeared in a book printed by the university which was then presented to him as a gift upon his retirement.

He spent his last years in the State of Israel and died in 1958. He was a prominent scholar and knowledgeable in Hebrew and general literature. His students adored him and, in particular, those who had learned Torah from him in the Talmud Torah in Sventzian.

Finally: Special mention should be made of Mrs. Shifra Pintzov, the principal's wife. She was, in the full sense of the word, the mother of the poor children. She also influenced the rest of the wealthy women of the city to act for the betterment of the children. The children received not only food, but also suitable clothing and footwear and thanks to her, the attitude towards them changed completely.

The school's leaders managed to receive donations for the Talmud Torah from overseas. Every resident in the city paid membership dues every month. The allotment from the “Spreaders of Education” was always received on time. The government also gave an allowance from the meat taxes to the Talmud Torah after improvements were made to the institution.

In the end – the institution flourished and its name became famous throughout the region.


[Col. 267]

The Talmud Torah and the Young Cantors

Ber Karmatz (Charmatz)

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

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The building of the Talmud Torah was left as an inheritance after Reb Aharon Nisale departed (he was a storekeeper of dry goods and was once sent to Siberia for selling contraband).

The courtyard of the Talmud Torah was four cornered (square), at the entrance to the courtyard was a large gate which was seldom opened. Everyone entered through a small side door.

At the so–called “paradise–home,” the building had a beautiful glass porch. The children passed through the porch and then they arrived at a long corridor. On both sides of the corridor were rooms, like in a hotel. On the left were three rooms which were the classrooms of the third, fourth and fifth classes.

Crossing the courtyard, opposite the main building, were the classrooms of the first and second year students.

In the first classroom was also the children's synagogue, where they prayed every morning. All the young cantors, Bal–Tefillot, Bal–kriot (Torah readers) were pupils from the higher grades.

In my days, the teacher Abramovitch attended the prayer services every morning and supervised them.

Among the youth that demonstrated their talents as Torah readers were Yechutiel Podgrunt, who now lives in Chicago and Katzine.

Near the first class lived the Masgiach, Boruch–Yoneh. The kitchen and dining hall, where the children ate their lunch, were also in this building.

The kitchen and dining hall were organized

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by the ladies' committee, who also portioned the meals. Of those devoted women who we should mention are Hena–Mirel Yavitch and Chaitze Shpiz.

The Masgiach (person in charge of the kosher food) controlled the special clothing which the young boys had to wear at mealtime, and if they forgot them, they were punished by not receiving their lunch.

All the Gabbais that excelled in the Talmud Torah were: Meir–Ali Swirski, Tavroginski and Dovid Kuritzki.

The teachers that should be mentioned are: Pintzov, Avramovitch, Koshar, Kadushim and Leibovski.

The director was a small man, but large in spirit and intelligence, he had a gentle and friendly approach to the pupils and was loved by all. He taught physics and geography in the older classes, and in his classroom he had a collection of books, rocks, maps and even a globe.

As he was from Odessa, every summer he returned there, in the days of Czar. When he returned he was accustomed to bring back various fruits which were a novelty in Sventzian, what a sensation! One time he brought a banana and we couldn't get over such a delightful fruit!

Abramovitch was an entirely different type of teacher. One can say, he ignited the Zionist spirit in us, the love for our Jewish folk and for the land of Eretz Israel.

He was a very keen Zionist. He made us children bring the written notebooks (used)

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and sold them for wrapping paper and the proceeds went to the “Keren Kayemet.”

 

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The drama club and the play “Mirale–Apirot” with some of the teachers, Pintzov, Leibofski and others.
The players: Rozenthal, Porus, Ginzberg, Markelevitch, Goldman, and Niame Tarasaiski

 

The teacher Kashar, was a wonderful person. He was well built and dressed elegantly. He taught us Russian. He left for Vilna from Sventzian and became a well– known teacher.

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The teacher Kadashim was always sick. He taught us Hebrew, dictation and all the Yiddish subjects.

The teacher, Leibofski, was tall and thin. He organized the children's' plays for Purim and Chanukah. I remember, for example, a play, when Ishuhe Liberman played Achashverosh (King of Persia).

A second outstanding play that remains in my memory, was Chanah and her seven children, and he also showed us cards (maybe postcards) depicting scenes of Eretz Israel.

The Talmud Torah owned a large terrain, the children of all the classes played there on their breaks.

On the side of the terrain many shopkeepers of the shtetl set up their stalls.

We have to point out that the Talmud Torah attained a very high standard. The devoted teachers must be thanked for this, as well as the Gabbais, the people involved in its foundation and the ladies' committee that worked with love and devotion.

 

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[Col. 271]

My Teachers (Melamdim) of Torah and Talmud

Yizhak Shibovski

Translated by Anita Frishman Gabbay

 

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In early Jewish life the teachers (melamdim) of the Cheders played a very important role. They carried out one of the most important contributions to the history of the long Jewish existence. It was on their shoulders the very difficult task of educating and instilling Yiddish values into the soul of the Jewish children was given.

No one can lie, that they had an important role to play, which they did with great devotion.

Yes, one can say, each one had their own style of teaching and another approach to the child, but in the end, they were all equal. All the teacher's, without exception, main goal was to mould the child into an honest, proud and enlightened Jew.

Each sentence from the Torah, each page from the Talmud, every prayer and Tefillah (psalm) was taught to fulfill a Holy duty.

The work of the teachers was not an easy way to earn a living; there were many easier and more profitable ways to earn a living. They all had to endure many difficulties. They had to endure both physical and material hardships, as well as spiritual perseverance. They worked very hard, from sunrise to sunset, more than twelve hours a day. Their earnings were small, they barely survived. In the end their work was not well acknowledged, teaching was not considered an important job, they were called “not successful.”

Their whole lives hinged on the caprices of the parents, who were hard to approach. Each father had their complaints to the Rebbe, if the child was not learning well, does not behave, knows less than the neighbour's son, and other things.

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Especially around the holidays, Pesach and Succoth, when the Cheders were closed and the teachers needed to rest, the difficult days started again for the teachers. They had no way to feed their families and besides that, they didn't know what the new semester will hold for them.

During those holidays, each one had to go to from house to house to find work, to ask the parents to send their children to their school (recruit students.)

This was the worst time for the teachers. They had to listen to various complaints and pleading, how could they (the parents) burden the teachers with such problems?

For example, a mother and a father wants to know why the neighbour's son is better than their own. The teacher can't tell them the truth, the other child is brighter and more talented, you can't give a child a new head!

No one wanted to understand that each child possessed a different mind. Everyone blamed the teacher. The teachers had a difficult time earning their living. They spent over twelve hours a day without a break. Sometimes they taught several students together and had to keep a strict discipline.

It is a wonder, until today, how they endured? Besides all the pedagogical subjects they still managed to raise good and honest Jews.

The Cheder enhanced the Jewish folk for hundreds of years during their “exile” and it is a wonder, it seems, they were “hungry like malnourished children” in the eyes of our enemies.

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Everyone understood here lies our foundation for our “existence” and that is the reason they wanted to murder the important national “nest.”

The teachers were true to their calling and tried their best to get out of difficult situations.

For this they will always be remembered as our folk heroes. They didn't sit in the eastern section in the synagogues but close to the “Oren Kodesh.” These were Jews that sat around the Bima, they earned their place with their strong work. These were the true and spiritual people of the street.

They, the teachers, and to thanks them, our children grew up in an atmosphere of love and with a heart for their Jewishness, their people and for the love of Eretz Israel.

In hindsight, we can say calmly, these teachers laid the foundation for a Jewish homeland; unfortunately many of them were not fortunate to live to see its declaration of statehood.

All the teachers with whom I had the honor to study, planted in us the desire to return to Zion. Each one of them taught us in his own manner. They instilled in each one of us a spirituality that led to our development.

Some of the best known teachers of Sventzian should be mentioned and they can set an example for others.

Reb Moishe Benjamin

It is an old Jewish folk–tale, the Mohel earns the greatest reward, as he makes the young boy into a Jew.

We can say the same for the teacher, Reb Moishe Binjamin. He also performed this Holy duty as well as planting the spiritual upbringing of the Jewish child. He breathed a Jewish soul in each of his students, that “drop of Jewishness.”

He was a good–looking Jew, with a combed beard, with bright intelligent eyes, and a wide philosophical forehead.

[Col. 274]

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Reb Moishe Binyamin Oster

 

He limped, but it didn't interfere with his strength. He was agile and walked quickly.

On another note, the community was so enthralled with his pure and sweet voice when he was the Bal Tefillah in the synagogue. Listening to his Tefilloth (psalms) he attracted everyone to the synagogue like a magnet, if we knew he would be there, the synagogue was packed.

He was a teacher of the younger children. His fate was also to be the Rabbi of the builders in the community. He got used to his situation and became somewhat of an authority.

His Cheder was in a large, bright room with many windows. All the tables and benches were laid out in the best way. It was always peaceful and quiet in his Cheder.

He looked at us lovingly with a friendly smile. His fatherly demeanour encouraged us young children, and we felt at home in his Cheder.

It was “homely” and comfortable. We came here with enthusiasm.

He also had his “cane”, as the custom for all the teachers in those days, but he rarely used it.

He kept the cane in his pocket and when

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a young lad made him crazy, we already knew the punishment. He took out the cane and started banging on the table or bench, this is how he wanted to “shake” us as a warning.

His wife was different, she would come running out of the kitchen, screaming–why don't you beat the child, instead of the table and benches. This would teach him a lesson and you will not suffer from heartache.

Her pleading didn't help. He never hit the students.

His greatest pleasure was when the students recited the parasha and understood its meaning and he felt rewarded. This was his joy and pride.

Our love for him was so special, the children didn't want to leave his Cheder to study with another Rabbi. With sadness and heartache we had to move on.

Honestly, we knew that he was our teacher for a short while and we had to move on to a second teacher. We wanted the time with him to move slowly, if only a minute longer.

Such love and respect remained with us until today.

Reb Pesach the Teacher

After leaving the Cheder of Reb Moishe Benyamin, we arrived at a completely different type of Cheder.

Here at Reb Pesach the style was of a Cheder Metuken. Reb Pesach was a specialist of grammar, Chumash and Tanach. He was very strict with his students. He didn't have a cane for punishment, instead he used his fingers. When he smacked us, we felt it several days later…

We always remembered Reb Moishe Benyamin's Cheder with longing and sadness. We missed the Rebbe with his warm smile, his friendly and homely upbringing.

[Col. 276]

 

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Pesach Voliak the teacher

 

However strict Rabbi Pesach was, the female teacher was exactly like Reb Moishe Binyamin.

We called her Chana the Righteous, and this is exactly how we can describe her. A true mother for all of us. We can seldom find such a woman on this earth.

She suffered a lot from our pranks. Very often, one of us would misbehave and disrupt the lesson. She took the child by the hand and left. When she returned we saw the tears in her eyes. We felt sorry for her. We sat at our desks with bowed heads.

There was always a commotion in Reb Pesach's Cheder, a fight, a disarray. He was always exhausted and tired. After a long day at the Cheder he left to study with the children of the middle school (Gorodshokai Utchelishte).

Besides this he studied with the other scholars. He hypnotized them with the tales of old Jewish folklore, about the kings and judges, about the prophets and the day of judgement. After these lectures at the synagogue the students left with a renewed spirit and full of awe.

Friday was our favorite day of the week in the Cheder. With all the difficulties the Rebbetzin endured, every Friday we smelled the aroma of her freshly baked challahs and sweet rolls. This reminded us

[Col. 277]

that today we studied half a day. And tomorrow we will be free…such a delight.

Chana's face shone from pride and delight. She was thankful that she was able to prepare for the Shabbat, as was fit for a Jewish woman, a righteous one.

She also dreamt of the one day of rest away from her lessons, the noise and the childish pranks.

We all waited for the Shabbat. No lessons and the Rabbi and Rebbetzin will have a day of rest.

In the end we still have to remind ourselves, that in spite of it all, we learned a lot from him. He kept a watchful eye on all of us and knew each of our characters individually. He was so proud of us when we recited our lessons well.

This was his true nachos (joy).

Yacov–Dovid–the Gemara teacher

Yacov–Dovid was an elegant man, a well–dressed Jew with a combed beard and a golden chain in his vest. He was always in deep thought, and each word that came out of his mouth was weighed and measured.

He was a proud and older Jew. When he walked in the streets he appeared to all that this could be a wealthy merchant, no one could imagine that this was only a teacher.

He was a widower and married a second wife, who cared for him as “an eye in your head.” She knew all his caprices and did as he wanted.

His children from his first wife were all in America, and in my days, his youngest daughter also left. This was very difficult for me to endure, when they said their goodbyes.

He loved her very much and knew he would never see her again.

He taught us Gemara. He was a great teacher and all he wanted was to teach us.

His Cheder was not so welcoming like in the other Cheders. There was a certain distance between him and the students. We were all

[Col. 278]

such big–shots in the tailor's shul. Reb Yacov–Dovid was a crown jewel here. The congregants had great respect for him like for a Goan, he was so loved and dear to them. Every Saturday, after lunch, he studied Chumash and Rashi with them, and they were entranced listening to his biblical stories and translations, casting a spell and our hearts were bursting from joy.

The Other Teachers

Together with the three above mentioned teachers there were others that should be mentioned: Reb Zavel the teacher, Reb Shmuel–Yacov–the Gemara teacher, his wife Tzipe–Beile, who was also a teacher but for girls only.

She didn't have a cane, understandably. They didn't hit girls in those days. Therefore she needed her long pointed fingers and she often used them, to pull a braid when they upset her.

Another teacher for girls was Reb Aba–Leizer, his Cheder was in a nice house, but a small one, in the middle of the Shul–Hof.

His beard was cut short and he always wore a white coat and a cap.

He was considered one of the intelligensia of the shtetl. He taught the girls Russian and in the Shul–hof they often teased him. He took the place of an “object of admiration.” (flirting)

The girls came to him to ask him to answer a letter, or to address the letter to America.

He read the newspaper and every Saturday, after lunch, he went strolling with his acquaintances and told them the news that happened in the world the past week.

His orientation was towards political questions and always had interesting answers and his audience would listen to his answers with great interest.

The over–worked, simple folk loved to listen to his discussions, and also managed to learn from him a little Torah and Rashi.

All these different types of teachers that were brought here to us give us a sense of the important role they played in every aspect of Jewish life in Eastern Europe.


[Col. 279]

The Government Jewish School for Beginners

Ben Ir

Translated by Meir Razy

The origins of this type of school goes back to the days of Tsar Alexander II, who was called the “Liberating Tsar”. The government intended to give the Jews a replacement suitable for their Cheider. It sent a German Jew named Lilienthal to promote this idea.

I do not intend to analyze the whole thing, but in the course of my story I shall examine the characteristics of this school and the parents' negative attitude towards it.

The school included three departments. Each department was divided into two classes with one teacher for the entire department. The teacher conducted a conversation or engaged in reading with one class while the second class would be busy writing in accordance to a list that the teacher suggested. The order was reversed in the second half of the lesson. The teacher gave a written assignment to one class and the other class dealt with the explanation. This was because the two classes were not equal in their knowledge and one exceeded the other.

The school taught almost nothing but secular topics. Only one hour was devoted to reading a few verses from the Russian–translated Bible. And since the children knew neither the language of the Bible (Hebrew) nor the language into which it had been translated (Russian), it is easy to understand what a meaningless study this was. This lesson was hated by both the teacher and the children. Usually these teachers were assimilated Jews who had nothing to do with Jewish people. In one case a teacher named Zhitomirski cut the fringes (ziziot) from the four wings of the praying shawl (tallith) of a child with scissors. This was a lesson to the rest of the students not to wear the prayer shawl when going to school.

[Col. 280]

Next to this school was a workshop for teaching older students about metalwork, but only a very few attended the workshop.

There was another municipal government school with six grades in the city where Jewish children studied together with the children of the gentiles. Many of those who had already decided to send their sons to the municipal school preferred it over the Jewish school for two reasons: in this school, the fathers said, teachers would not convert the children to their religion. The Gentile teacher had no business with religion and he treated the Jewish child's fringes like a crucifix that the Christian boy carried around his neck, and secondly, this school was better than the Jewish school. In our home the attitude toward the school was negative. My brother Moshe and I did not visit a school at all, and father hired a private tutor for us. He came to our house and taught us the Russian language and also arithmetic. This was not the case with my brothers Aryeh and Zalman. The world had progressed in three years and our parents could not resist the pressure of life and accepted the idea of sending their sons to school.

A girls' school with four departments stood next to the boys' school. Our sister Batya attended this school. Recently a girls' pro–gymnasium was opened in the city, and the girls attended it.

 

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