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[Pages 272-275]

The “Tarbut” School and Culture in Shumsk

By Zvi Rosenberg (Segal)

Translated by Rachel Bar Yosef

Notes: The translation of this article is in the memory of Max Katz of Shumsk, donated by his daughters, Marlyn Katz Levenson and Irene Rimer)

“Tarbut” was a Jewish school network in Europe in which the language of instruction for many of the subjects was Hebrew. The meaning of the Hebrew word 'tarbut' is 'culture.'

I came to Shumsk via Kremenets. That is, actually I had been offered a job as a school principal in Kremenets, but for local, internal reasons, Jews from assimilated circles there went to the trouble of closing the Hebrew school, which is how I eventually found myself in Shumsk.

It's not that the administration of the Kremenets Jewish school didn't try to find a different position for me, but they didn't succeed. There I was in Kremenets with no job. In the meantime, the central office of the Tarbut School system managed to get a license to open a Tarbut School in Shumsk, but again there were complications.

The Tarbut School license was given only up to the seventh grade. Government orders were that the school should be under the supervision of a board of governors in Rovno. And, as was government policy, the principal was to be the teacher of Polish, who happened to be a single woman.

At about the same time the rabbi, Rabbi Yosele, published a handbill expressing his opposition to the establishment of the school, as he was instructed to do by Agudat Israel, the party to which he belonged at that time. It read, in their characteristic style, “Anyone who registers his children in 'Tarbut' is sending them into bad ways and handing his sons over to Moloch.1 ...”

The handbill was devastating. Of the 120 children signed up, over fifty canceled. The future of the school was decided before it even opened.

The Zionists of Shumsk did not sit idly by. These were Jews of tradition, disciples of the same Rabbi Yosele. In fact, they were the ones who had brought him to Shumsk and made him their rabbi, so that an extreme and ultraconservative rabbi would not fill the position, and here their rabbi was such a disappointment. They felt cheated and betrayed.

All the town was up in arms together with them. But for some reason they didn't get the necessary assistance from the staff of the school. Apparently what was needed was someone from outside, someone with initiative, who would help them to get the matter moving.

One day a cart approached my house in Kremenets. Three Jews entered my home: A. Foch, P. Bat, and A. Jukelson, who introduced themselves as men of Shumsk, who had founded a school there. They needed an acting principal, they had heard that I was the man for them, and they wanted me to dress and get into their cart and leave with them right away.

I was hesitant. I asked them how it was that they needed a principal now, in the middle of the school year. What had happened? They didn't add many details. They said, “Come and see for yourself,” and they said no more.

I asked them to wait for me. I went to talk to Buzy Landsberg, a leading public figure in Kremenets who was very trustworthy. I asked him what he advised me to do. He answered, “Go with them. Talk with Motel Chazen there. If he guarantees notes to cover your salary, you can put your mind at rest.” He added, “To go to Shumsk is a mitzvah. It's a religious town, and their school is falling apart. As a man learned in Talmud, you are the man who can be a positive influence and can reassure those who care deeply about both the school and our tradition.”

I made it clear that when the Tarbut high school in Kremenets opened, I wanted to return to them, and the Kremenets people gave me their word.

I went with the men from Shumsk. We arrived in the evening. We went straight to Motel Chazen, and in that meeting they all promised me everything I wanted: an apartment, heat, light, and a good salary.

The next day, I called a meeting of the parents. I met the students. Finally, I met with the rabbi, and he liked me.

The first year was one of suffering for me and for the school. The government-appointed principal would arrive at least one hour late every day. Her class would wander around the classes that were in session and disrupt their learning, and when she did finally show up, she used to sit and write letters. She would give her students whole chapters to copy from the book, and would appoint a student to be monitor. With the cane that she handed him, she transferred her authority to him. Sometimes she would leave the school premises altogether, and the “monitor” would dirty the children with mud that was at the end of the cane.

At the end of the year I said, “Either she goes or I go.”

She was given compensation.

I went to Lvov and brought Munderer back with me.

The school developed nicely. I conceded to the Orthodox and wore a hat when I taught Bible. Before each holiday I lectured to the students on the laws and customs of the holiday. The children would go home knowing more about Judaism than their parents, all based on the sources and with the strictest attention to the details.

I frequently visited the rabbi's house, and we became friends.

Thus the Tarbut School developed, drew most of the children of Shumsk to it, and became an educational center with a nationalistic, ethical, progressive spirit.

I tried to nurture in the children respect for religion from an ethical, moral perspective, while at the same time providing them with national and socialist values. Frishman's “Tit'chadesh,” Ahad Ha'am's “Moshe,” and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther became the children's spiritual heritage. Their horizons became broad and rich.

I felt immense satisfaction. My hard work was appreciated.

I worked in Shumsk for five years. I had to return to Zbrizh after my mother died in order to take care of my father's business matters. It was hard for me to leave Shumsk. First I sent my wife to Zbrizh, just in case somehow things might work themselves out without me. But in the end there was no choice, and I had to leave Shumsk.

* * *

Whenever I recall the town of Shumsk, I'm awash in memories that attest to the extent to which I had become an integral part of the life of Shumsk, with all my heart and soul. It's a pity that I can't write about everything, for it would take up too much of the reader's time. All the same, I do want to tell about some of the things that happened.

I was also a public figure there, taking part in public Zionist activity and taking part in decision-making. This public service caused complications for my teaching more than once, but it would have been unthinkable to sever the chain of the generations. I did the best I could to narrow the gap between my students and their parents, to foster progressive Zionist values among the adults. I became a bridge across the generation gap. But now and then, this offended the leaders of the town, who buttressed their position with outside forces.

* * *

When Yankel Akerman wanted to be elected president of the Shumsk community, I knew this would return the town to the norms of public behavior of the past. I was active in the opposition to his candidacy. He was not elected, and he sought revenge. What did he do? He went and informed on our school to the board of directors. They listened to him, and the school was on the verge of being closed.

What saved us was the fact that just at that time the Tarbut students and those of the Polish school were being tested jointly. The students of Munderer did better on their Polish history and geography tests than the students in the Polish school. It was a double success.

* * *

One time Motel Segal and Kopel Curif, wonderful public workers of Shumsk, invited me to join them in getting Avrohom Rajch to contribute to the Keren Hayesod.

Rajch's sharp wit and cynicism intimidated Segal and Curif. Motel lost his nerve, and only Kopel Curif joined me. We went in, and found Rajch battle-ready, “I know, I know. You're both naïve. Where are you going to put more Jews? Where will you take them from? Israel is not a country, and 'the House of Israel' is not a people.”

I answered him with the story about the heretic who taunted Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, denying the immortality of the soul. The rabbi told the heretic, “Maybe you can't be so certain and there really is immortality of the soul. If so, what do you lose by not killing and not stealing?”

Rajch, the nonbeliever, was taken aback. He donated $24. I felt I had really done something.

I was very involved and accomplished a great deal in Shumsk, but all I really wanted to do here was to give a little bit of the praise due to the people of Shumsk and their children. This was a town that thirsted for goodness, for Torah and its commandments, and that was its greatness. Shumsk will not quickly be forgotten.2

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Moloch (Heb.): A Canaanite god to which children were ritually sacrificed. Return
  2. Keren Hayesod (Heb.): The central fundraising arm of the Zionist Movement, founded in 1920, with the purpose of establishing Jewish settlements and funding economic undertakings. Avrohom Rajch was the owner of the -electric power plant and a flour mill in Shumsk. Return

[Pages 276-280]

On “Hechalutz” in Shumsk and its Members

By Mr. Yosef Sapir

Translated by Rachel Bar Yosef

Notes: The translation of this article was donated by Marlyn Katz Levenson and Irene Rimer, in memory of their father, Max Katz, of Shumsk.

“Hechalutz” is a Hebrew word meaning “the pioneer.” It is the name of a worldwide movement, founded in Odessa in the first decade of the twentieth century, of young people who were preparing for pioneering immigration to Palestine and later the State of Israel and were planning to settle the land.

One of the most inspiring chapters in the life of the town was written by the Hechalutz movement. The ideals espoused by this movement—preparatory training for and immigration to Israel—were not foreign to the young people of Shumsk, since the overwhelming majority were graduates of the Tarbut School, and the young people's homes reinforced the ideals that the school nurtured.

Officially, the Hechalutz organization was founded in the town in 1924, continuing its activity uninterrupted until World War II.

From its very first day, the movement became the mainstay of the life of the youth in the town, overshadowing all other public and political activity. Any young person with any talent could not but contemplate with dismay the life he could expect to live, forever a guest at his parents' table, with no productive work or clear-cut direction before him, and sooner or later he found his way to Hechalutz.

From the early hours of the evening until late at night, the clubhouse was full of life. It was a place for young men and women to meet, a place to learn and grow in both general and political knowledge, a center for learning the Hebrew language, and a place to learn what was going on in Israel. It should be noted that in spite of the great distance, the young Jewish person “lived” Israel, with all its doubts and struggles, much more than he “lived” the small space of his immediate surroundings in the city of his birth. In general meetings, which would last late into the night, everything relating to the movement's problems in the Diaspora was illuminated and clarified, together with ways of implementing our ideals in Israel. Those meetings were also excellent training for each of us to appear in public, teaching us to stand in front of an audience and express our opinion publicly, confident in the knowledge that we would be listened to patiently and tolerantly.

A visit to our chapter by a member of the movement's secretariat or especially by an emissary from Israel would turn into a day of celebration for the members of the movement and through them for the whole town. The simplicity and innocence, the egalitarian atmosphere and the dedication to the general good—all these left their mark on every single member of the movement.

The general meetings, at which candidates for aliyah1 were approved, became veritable days of judgment, a sort of mini-Yom Kippur. Discussion of the people waiting their turn for aliyah was conducted with no flattery or bias, in keeping with the requirements of absolute fairness and integrity, openly rather than in any aura of secrecy. A decision could always be appealed, if a person felt there might be any deviation from the group's principles. Many members who were then in the movement remember those extraordinary meetings very clearly.

And no wonder! Those meetings could make all the difference to people totally dedicated to Israel long before they actually immigrated, whose fate would be decided by the assembly.

The rebellion against accepted norms and the insistence that long-cherished beliefs be re-examined found expression not only in idle debates and behind closed doors; they also had a powerful impact on daily reality.

There were a few fearless individuals who made the transition from theory to action, rolled up their sleeves, and did hard physical labor. At first this would be whatever work they happened to find, such as cutting down trees for a neighbor or acquaintance; later, the work would be more permanent, like felling trees in the surrounding forests.

Hechalutz jokers used to say that there were two types of work: black—that is, regular; and white—in the town's flour mills. For some reason, that work was mostly done at night. When the worker would leave work at daybreak, he would be covered from head to toe with white flour; thus, the work was named after its color.

The implements which had always been associated with “Ivan the gentile”2 and which would never have been found in any self-respecting Jewish home, tools such as a saw, axe, or file, were now suddenly in favor, used by Jewish youth training for aliyah. There were also those, admittedly few, who apprenticed themselves to non-Jewish craftsmen in metalwork, blacksmithing, and carpentry. We enjoyed seeing them returning home towards nightfall, after a backbreaking day of work, filthy and black with soot but incandescent with the glow of inner happiness. Heroic and impelled by their idealism, they were able to carry on under these difficult conditions with barely a minimum wage. Their working day was much longer than our inviolable eight hours, lasting from dark to dark. It should be noted that the craftsmen who were their employers were ignorant of any laws of minimum wages or reasonable working conditions, and they, the owners of the workshops themselves, also worked from sunrise till sunset.

Obviously, from the outset, these brave pioneers had to deal with incredulity coming from every quarter. There were those among the Jews of the town, sensitive and compassionate to a fault, who would not employ them: They truly couldn't conceive of so-and-so, the son of so-and-so who is a respected person in town, engaging in such demeaning work, the work of a gentile. Furthermore, how could the employer face the parents and the family when they had occasion to meet? It was indeed very discomfiting to employ a pioneer, since the latter looked down on his employer. Not only that—one couldn't ask a pioneer to work faster, or reprimand him.

The town loafers found the whole matter highly entertaining. In the morning they would gather around the workplace near an enormous pile of wood waiting to be hewn, taunting the pioneers and making bets that by the afternoon nothing would be left of the three hewers of the wood. “They'll scurry away like mice,” they would decree. They used to stand and measure the thickness of every single piece of timber, counting the knots in each one, and swearing that the hand of no Jew could ever get the better of those boards. This was a matter for the hand of Esau. It should be noted that these jokers invariably ended up having to eat their words. None of the pioneers gave up. In the evening, they would return home exhausted and then, by lamplight, they would prepare for the next day's work, sharpening their saws and axes. This became yet another vocation, as it were, one also foreign to our fathers. And when they finished that work, they went straight to the movement, to find the all-encompassing involvement that they craved.

The revolution brought about by this phenomenon of Jews working among non-Jews is inestimable. People declared that a “catastrophe” was now threatening the world, the world order was changing, and this could only signify the end of the world. And should a Christian woodcutter haggle with a Jewish employer without being able to reach a compromise, the gentile would say to the Jew offhandedly, “At that price your pioneers can do the work for you, not us!”

We acquired a reputation among the owners of the neighboring estates and forests for being good workers, and we seized upon every job that came our way. One Polish morning in spring, a group of us went out to work at the crack of dawn, saws in our hands and axes on our shoulders, and on the way we bumped into a battalion of Polish soldiers. Seeing us thus equipped amazed them, and we heard them say, “Look at this! People blame the Jews for being parasites who don't want to work, but it just isn't so.” We really, really enjoyed hearing such words from the mouths of those Jew-haters.

Very slowly, we won the confidence of the Christian farmers in the neighborhood, who began to employ us to work in their homes and fields, out of complete trust in our ability.

When the time for one's aliyah finally came, one's worries became concrete: to actually make aliyah, to expedite it. Some comrades who had undergone aliyah training were of scant means, or their parents wanted them to prevent their immigration. For them, paying for the trip was a problem.

There were those whose training lasted a number of years because the gates of aliyah were closed. When several of our pioneers were left without money to pay for the trip and without help from their families, the movement felt an obligation to solve the problem. They obligated each one of us to give one day a week's wages to a fund for Hechalutz. One whole day's labor, literally, with no monetary remuneration of any kind. Another decision was to automatically expel any comrade who shirked going out to work for three weeks without a good reason. In this way, two objectives were achieved: First, comrades who had not yet gone for their full preparatory training for aliyah were required to take the first steps to partial self-fulfillment; and second, the aliyah fund was enriched, and every Shumsk pioneer, wherever he was, knew he had his group's support. This way of doing things made waves in the area and word spread as far as the movement headquarters in the capital, Warsaw. There they highly approved of our action and publicized it widely. Nevertheless, in a general meeting they demanded that we compromise, claiming that this measure was draconian and one that the majority would not be able to abide by. We disagreed and continued doing things our way, thereby helping many comrades to make aliyah. They are with us here to this day.

I don't know if I've managed to do justice to the Hechalutz movement in Shumsk, which was a shining beacon in our lives and in the life of our town. We few who remain recall those days with fond longing. That was a time when our private worlds and the shared world of our dreams—a world of renewal and idealism—were one. How painful and tragic a loss it was that all of that beauty, warmth, and purity was ruthlessly destroyed with the craven massacre of our people.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. Aliyah (Heb.): literally, ascent; used to refer to immigration to Israel from the Diaspora. Return
  2. A common expression, mildly condescending, for non-Jews who engaged in things that Jews generally did not engage in. Return


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