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Education and the Arts

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The Tarbut School

By a group of students

Translated by Jerrold Landau based on an earlier translation by M. Porat z”l

that was edited by Judy Feinsilver Montel

As in every Jewish settlement, the Jews of Volozhin received their primary education in the cheder. The boys mainly studied with the melamedim in the cheders, beginning with the aleph bet and reaching the point of studying chumash with Rashi. Of course, they also prepared for their Bar Mitzvah celebrations with the aliya to the Torah. The well-known melamedim included Reb Betzalel and his son Chaim Yeshayahu (Chaim Shia), Reb Yekusiel, Reb Moshe Shlomo Wolkovitch, Reb Nachum Yudel, and others. There were also teachers from the “new generation” such as Hershel Zeltzer and others, who taught privately in their homes. These melamedim and teachers also planted the love of the Land of Israel in the hearts of their students, since for the most part they were lovers of Zion.


Girls of Volozhin who studied in the Byelorussian high school in Horodok

Standing (right to left): Ethel Paritzki, Rivka Brodna, Sonia Pereski, Weisbord
Sitting: Elka Kaganovitch, Sonia Kozlovski


Only very few people sent their children to schools outside of Volozhin. The girls would mainly go to Horodok to study in the Byelorussian Gymnasia. They were not able to study there for an extended period,

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The Tarbut Committee, 9 Elul 5685 (29 August 1925)

From right to left, standing: Liberman (from Smorgon), Yitzchak Perski
From right to left, sitting: Noach Perski, Yeshayahu Kaganovitch, Binyamin Shishko


because the gymnasia was closed when the Polish regime consolidated. During that period, the boys studied in the gymnasia and Hebrew seminary of Vilna.

In the year 5685 (1925), the leaders of the Zionist movement and heads of Tarbut of Volozhin decided to found a Hebrew school based on the Tarbut [network]. The actualizers of this idea were Yeshayahu Kaganovitch, Chaim Golobenchich, David Yitzchak Kontorovitch, Shevach Rogovin, Avraham Berkovitch, Yitzhak Shapiro, and others.

As has been stated, the Tarbut school of our city was founded in the year 5685 (1925). They hung a sign: “The Hebrew Public School of Volozhin” on a blue and white background. It had only four classes.[1] Mr. Chaim Golobenchich was invited as the principal. He taught Bible, literature, and other subjects. Mr. Gurevitch from Sol, and Mr. Chaim Levin from Iwye, also taught there. Binyamin Shishko and Noach Perski were among the teachers from Volozhin.

The students wore uniforms. The girls wore blue dresses, black aprons, and blue hats with a blue and white apron upon which the word Tarbut was written. The boys wore blue shirts, blue pants, and hats that had the same colors as those of the girls.

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The students of the Tarbut school with their teachers in the year 5686 (1926)

Sitting: the teachers with the members of the committee (third row, right to left): David Yitzchak Kontorovitch, Noach Perski, Avraham Horowitz (Gur), Ratner, Chaim Golobenchich, Binyamin Shishko (Shapir), Yeshayahu Kahanovitch (chairman of Tarbut), Yosef Tabachovitch

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From the outset, the school struggled with a lack of budgetary resources. It did not receive any support from the city council, which was in the hands of the Poles. The municipal government claimed that a government public school (powszechna) existed, which charged no tuition. However, our parents sought to give their children a Hebrew education. Therefore, they willingly accepted upon themselves the heavy yoke of supporting the school.

The authorities compelled the school leadership to teach Polish language and history. Polish teachers were invited for that purpose. Later, they were replaced by Jews, including the teacher David Bram of Konin.

The most impressive event during the first year of the existence of the school was the celebration in honor of the opening of the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. It took place on 7 Nisan 5685 (April 1, 1925), when Balfour stood on Mount Scopus and announced in front of the entire world that a great institution of learning was being founded there. Bialik concluded his great speech with “news of redemption for the entire human race.”


Uncaptioned: The sign and the seal of the Hebrew publlc school of Volozhin


The emotions and festive feelings of the Jews of our city were very high. Many people blessed each other with the Shehecheyahu blessing, for they saw a victory of Hebrew culture in this. Due to the passage of time, we no longer remember the particular details of this. In honor of this festival – the festival of 7 Nissan 5685, candles were lit on the windowsills. The great light that spread forth from the houses imparted an atmosphere of sublime spirit in the city. The students of the school appeared on the streets in their official uniforms. They spoke a living and fluent Hebrew, and sang songs of Zion. The joy was very great. A public assembly took pace in the Great Synagogue in the evening, at which the school principal, Mr. Chaim Golobenchich spoke. He called upon those gathered to donate money or jewelry for the university. Many enthusiastically responded to his call.

During the second year of the existence of the school, they began to study the Latin language in the fourth grade. They invited the teacher Mirer from Vilna for that purpose. The intention in introducing the study of that language was to enable

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The Tarbut school orchestra in the year 5686 (1926)

From right to left, standing: Mina Berman, Lea Shchwartzberg, Fruma Rogovin, Efraim Rogovin, Shlomo Gurevitch, Yisrael Berkovitch, Yaakov Rogovin, Shlomo Liberman.
From right to left, seated: Bella Potashnik, Mina Berman, Rafael Weisbord, Shoshana Berkovitch, the teacher Avraham Gurevitch, the conductor Chaim Ratner, the teacher Chaim Golobenchich, the teacher Noach Perski, the teacher Binyamin Shishko, Peshke Rogovin, Bella Kramnik, Mina Berman, Tsirke Bunimovitch

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the students to continue their studies in the high school in which that was a compulsory language. The level of knowledge in that class was sufficiently high. The students exceeded the requirements of the curriculum. Thanks to their excellence, the students received a certificate through which the students were accepted to the fifth grade of the high school.

The school took also care of the artistic education of the students. They invited Mr. Ratner, the music teacher, to create a string instrument band. The band participated in all the school celebrations and in many general cultural activities. The teacher Levin taught us singing and directed the choir with the accompaniment of a concertina. That teacher founded the drama club and chose good singers from amongst the students. The first play performed was an operetta called Haroeh [the Shepherd]. The plot was about an ewe who separated from the flock and was torn apart by a wolf. The costumes of the actors were formed by wearing hats in the image of animals. Other plays were Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and The Daughter of Jephthah. The content of the plays grew more sophisticated as the students matured. Rasha Berkovitch, Bella Kramnik, Efraim Rogovin, and Mina Berman (the daughter of Leibe Zecharia) had main roles.


The Tarbut School Mandolin Orchestra

Standing right to left: the teacher Shlomo Bar-Shira (Beikalski), Gershon Lunin, Feigel Berman, Golda Rubinstein, Itka -- , Chaya Rudnitzki, Velka Brodna
Seated from right to left: Sonia Perski, Fruma Podborski, Etel Rogovin, Fruma Golobenchich, Fruma Alperovitch, Miriam Levin

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These performances had an actual effect on the development of a sense of beauty and art. The performances served as a source of income for the Jewish National Fund and the school.

The school leadership also developed the art of declamation among the students. After hearing Chana Rubina, the actresses of Habima declaiming chapters of the Bible in Warsaw, Mr. Chaim Golobenchich led declamations from the Bible in school. Mina Berman was one of the excellent readers.

Along with the development of a sense of esthetics, the school ensured that the students could express themselves in writing and by heart, and could present individual before the audience of students. To this end, a wall weekly newspaper was formed. One of the students would choose a specific topic, write a composition about it, and read it before the students. People with a talent for writing would choose the topic of the life of residents of a far-off land for their speech. They would read various books and conduct serious research. During the afternoon hours, they would lecture about Japan, China, etc.

The school had a rich library, which included many textbooks and reading books. The students of the upper grades served as librarians in a weekly rotation. Graduates of the school, and members of the Zionist youth movements also served as librarians. The librarians excelled with a pedagogic sense and knew how to find books appropriate to the age and power of comprehension of the students.

The school maintained a regular connection with the Land of Israel. The students purchased Jewish National Fund stamps with the coins that their parents sent them to purchase a snack. They affied them to a stamp book. Anyone who filled the book would get a note of praise from the school, and a prize from the Jewish National Fund.

We had visits from emissaries from the Land. The students would listen with open mouths to the stories of the emissary about sabras, about their strength of heart, and the development of their independent characters. Once, during a Tu B'Shvat celebration, the emissary distributed fruits from the Land. We recall very well the visit of the leader of the workers movement in the Land, Mr. Yitzchak Tabenkin. He was hosted in the home of Aryeh Tapaf, who lives with his wife Musia in the Land of Israel for a certain period, and moved back to Volozhin after the disturbances of 5689 (1929). Mr. Tapaf knew Tabenkin and invited him to visit our city.

Excursions played a recognizable role in the school experience. The traditional excursion took place on Lag B'Omer to Mount Bialik and Rudnik's grove. The students went out all day with their instruments, guided by the teacher Gurevitch. Once, we went to the nearby town of Ivenets to become acquainted with the students of the school there. We went on wagons hitched to horses. The reception was very enthusiastic. Yitzchak Ponet greeted us in the name of the students. The students hosted us in their parents' homes. The connections forged were permanent.

As we are talking about the school, it is a pleasant duty for us to recall Manya, the Christian housekeeper, with gratitude and love. She was tall and refined. Her love of the students and dedication to the school were boundless. In the winter, during the fierce cold and snowstorms, she did not concern herself with her health, and she went out

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Lag B'Omer excursion of the students of the Tarbut school to Mount Bialik, 5684 (1926)

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to cut wood to heat the ovens, so it will be warm and good for the student. She regarded her role as holy work. Manya displayed the finest of her moral powers during the period of the Holocaust. She risked her life in smuggling food into the Volozhin Ghetto. It is fitting and appropriate to describe her as a Righteous Gentile.

Our memories of the school are also woven with days of sadness. We recall the bitter news that reached us in Vilna regarding the untimely death of our beloved teacher, Mr. Gurevitch. Even though he taught in the school for a very brief period, we built a strong connection to him. I will never forget the mourning assembly arranged in his honor, and especially Bialik's poem “Thoughts of Night” that we sang in a mournful tune: “ I know that my weeping – the weeping of an owl amongst the ruins, will not reach people, and will not break the hearts.”


The Tarbut committee in the company of the writer Daniel Perski on his visit to Volozhin in the year 5688 – 1928

Standing right to left: Yitzchak Perski, Binyamin Shishko, the teacher Efrokin
Sitting: Yaakov Baksht, Yeshayahu Kahanovitch (chairman of Tarbut), the writer Daniel Perski. Chaim Derechinski, David Yitzchak Kontorovitch


Mr. Chaim Golobenchich left Volozhin in the year 5688 (1928). Mr. Binyamin Shishko was chosen as the principal of the school. He served in that position until the year 5691 (1931).

Mr. Yaakov Lifschitz of Rakov served as the final principal. His wife Fruma Lifschitz, Rachel Meltzer (wife of Shneur Kivilevitch), Chaim Portnoy, Rachel Lapa

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and Shlomo Beikelski (a professional violinist) served as teachers during that period. The teacher Beikelski continued the musical education and organized a choir and a mandolin band. Both the choir and the band received a prize in the regional choir competition.

The school had seven classes at that time. Sessions were held in the morning and afternoon. They began to expand the school building, but the building effort ceased due to a shortage of funds. During those days, a miniature revolution took place in the leadership of the school. The Revisionists took the upper hand, and in the year 5695 (1935), the leadership of the school transferred to that faction. This stirred up emotions and shook up the other Zionist parties, but it did not disturb the regular course of studies in the school.

I will conclude with the words of the illustrious principal of Volozhin, Mr. Chaim Golobenchich, who lives with us in Israel:

“The Tarbut school in Volozhin was one of a kind. It raised a banner in the revolt against the grey realities of those days, in which the community had been immersed for generations. Everyone who passed through the threshold of that old building and saw the teachers and the students, whether during class time or during recess, immediately sensed as if they were all at once transported to a new world, in which everything was different and unusual, and nevertheless was so close, so attractive, and evocative of thoughts.”[3]


Translator's footnotes:
  1. Mr. Porat added the following details: The building contained four rooms and accordingly four learning classes only. There was also a fifth one, the Mekhina (preparation) class in which the new coming pupils were prepared to use the school's main language, the hitherto unknown Hebrew. A second afternoon shift was organized for this additional class. Return
  2. Mina Berman is mentioned three times in the caption. I suspect this is an error in the original text. Return
  3. Mr. Porat added some of his own material to this article on the Tarbut school, much of which does not appear in the original book. It is as follows, in his own words:
    The school was positioned near the Great Volozhin Yeshiva. Its fame and tradition influenced our behavior.
    Well educated, very polite, we stood up as a teacher entered the class. To our teachers we turned only after raising a hand if permitted. We called them respectfully: “My distinguished schoolmaster or schoolmistress” (Adoni, or Gvirti Hamoyre/a).
    Although, following tradition, we were able to behave like the Volozhin Yeshivah students. It was known that they did not greet the Netziv and boycotted his lesson after the Rabbi slapped a colleague student's face for having spoiled his peyess- side locks. A teacher once slapped our Tarbut - student with a ruler over his hand and it was resulted in a strike. We opposed the teacher's entering our class until he excused himself following Hanaziv's famous example.
    Chaim Golobenchich left Volozhin for Israel in 1928. Mr. Benyamin Shishko replaced him until 1931 the year he followed his predecessor and went to the Holy Land.
    The last Tarbut principal was Mr. Yaakov Lifshits from Rakov. During his time in the position there was a major demand for higher classes. The community decided to enlarge the existing learning space. Building materials were bought and amassed on the courtyard. But the shortage of resources disabled its construction. Despite this, classes were added. And towards the last year of the Hebrew School's existence seven regular classes plus the very important “Mekhina” were functioning. The problem of space was meanwhile resolved, until better conditions would come, by enlarging the second shift and by occupying a part of the women's section in the Volozhin main Synagogue, which was situated some hundred yards away near the Yeshiva.
    During Yaakov Lifshits' tenure as principal, new teachers were required. Mrs. Fruma Lifshits, Yaakov's spouse, and Ms. Lapp (Lapoovna) were teaching the mekhina and the children in the lower classes. Yaakov Finger from Soll became our teacher for Hebrew language and its grammar and literature. He gave also lessons on Jewish history and the geography of Erets Israel.
    Ms. Rachel Meltzer, our natural science teacher, was a native Volozhiner. She was married to Shneur Kivilevitch (Judenrat head in 1942). Rachel spoke with her students only in Hebrew, avoiding Yiddish even during the breaks, whereas the children in the elder classes spoke Yiddish.
    Mr. Taller from Molchad was responsible for the religious branch: all 5 Pentateuch Books, Judges and Prophets, Kings, Prayers and some Gemara chapters. Mr. Taller used to privately prepare some boys to the Bar Mitzva ceremonies.
    Yakov Lifshits, as well as managing the school also taught us arithmetic. Each Friday he would also gather all the students and read before them chapters from Sholom Aleichem in Yiddish. We were enchanted by the Yiddish writer's stories. It is a pity that the Volozhin Tarbut School did not find time or resources or did not want to teach us some Yiddish writing and grammar.
    All these disciplines listed above were taught in Hebrew Ashkenaz-dialect. In Israel the Sefarad dialect dominated. The differences are in pronunciation. In Sefarad-dialect the emphasis is put on the word's end, in Ashkenaz - on its beginning. Some characters are spelled otherwise, so the same words written in equal way are read differently; for example: the word “letters” becomes in Sefarad Hebrew “otiyOT”, in Ashkenaz - “OYSSIyoys”; “shaNA toVA” - in Sefarad, “SHOno TOYvo” -in Ashkenaz and so forth.
    Some Volozhiners who made aliya to Eretz Yisroel visited the Shtetl with their children in the mid thirties. We heard the “new” Hebrew, and asked to learn the language in the “new” way. Our demand was fulfilled but partially. The prayers and Bible we continued to read in Ashkenaz dialect. Arithmetic, Grammar, Literature (Bialik, Mapu, Mendele) and Hebrew songs were changed and taught with the modern Sefarad pronunciation.
    Thanks to our Tarbut teachers we arrived in Israel after the war with good Hebrew and we were able to begin a normal life immediately after landing in the Holy Land.
    Mr. Shlomo Beikalski the handsome, smart, and talented young man from Zheludok taught us the Polish language, its history and geography. During three years (1935-8) with Beikalski we were able to thoroughly learn the Polish language. He encouraged us to read books. We managed to read at this short period hundreds of books all of them in Polish: H. Sienkievitsh, A. Mitskievitsh, I. Kortshak, Dolenga, Mostovitsh, B. Prouss, L. Tolstoy, N. Gogol, Jack London, Mark Twain, D. Amicis, A. Dumas, E. Zola, F. Cooper, K. May, Dickens, Walter Scott and many, many others. (Due to this massive reading, I am currently able to read and to write Polish after not using this language for more than 60 years –Translator's note).
    The recreation time we passed in children's games, volleyball (siatkoovka in Polish), ball throwing camps (Makhanayim – in Hebrew) and reading books.
    The Volozhin Tarbut School functioned from 1925 until 1939. At the beginning of the 1939/40 school year after the Soviets occupied Volozhin it acted as a Yiddish school, this school year it finished as a Belarus School.
    The school and its building were completely destroyed in 1941. Return


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