By Zippora Kaplan
The Jewish community in Lithuania was generally poor before World War I, but it was rich in spiritual matters and in the love of Torah. The vast majority of the Jewish people in Lithuania lived financially oppressed lives, but they all sent their children to cheder, and they used part of their meager food to help sustain yeshiva students.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw an awakening in education and youth activism. There were three major educational directions in the Jewish world at that time: The traditional cheder with translations into Yiddish; Yiddish schools of the Bundist movement (this was the time of vigorous youth rebellion and the peak period of the Bund); and the Hebrew-immersion schools.
At the outbreak of the world war in 1914, the government of Tsarist Russia banished most Lithuanian Jews to internal parts of Russia, fearing they would become enemy spies. At the end of the war, Jews started returning to their homes. Lithuania, which had gained independence with the support of world Jewry, gave the Lithuanian Jews a high degree of cultural autonomy. A special minister – a Jew, Dr. Soloveitchik – was even appointed to handle Jewish affairs.
During the period of banishment to Russia’s vast interior, horizons widened and eyes were opened for the Jews of the Lithuanian towns. This was the period of the Balfour Declaration. As is usual, war aroused patriotism, and a strong Zionist movement arose in Lithuania. Hebrew schools were set up, under the guidance of Tarbut1, encouraged by the Jewish ministry and recognized by the government. Not many teachers knew Hebrew, and many Hebrew speakers suddenly became teachers at that time. Supplementary courses for teachers were set up in the fields of general knowledge, psychology and pedagogy. The government also demanded that teachers learn Lithuanian and be examined to receive teaching certificates.
The Tarbut center in Kovno devoted itself to creating of a corps of certified teachers, with the aid of summer courses, to overcome the shortage of teachers in the schools. The courses were overseen by experienced teachers and graduates of the Hebrew gymnasiums who wanted to be active in the field of education.
The Tarbut school
In the summer of 1923, the parents’ committee of the Tarbut school in Keidan approached Dr. Schwabe, principal of the Hebrew gymnasium in Kovno, asking him to recommend one of the gymnasium graduates to teach in their school. Dr. Schwabe recommended me, Fania Vinitzky, as a teacher. I had just finished the Hebrew gymnasium. This is how I got to Keidan, city of my dreams, from which I went to the land of our fathers.
My aunt, Beile-Neche and uncle Chaim Blumberg lived in Keidan. My uncle Chaim’s formal name was Yedidiya, and he was, as his name hinted, a friend to all. My uncle Chaim was active in many civic affairs, but the thing closest to his heart was the Tarbut school. His children studied there, among them his son Gutman, who was in the first group.
This school was well managed by the talented teacher Chana Landsberg, who was dedicated in heart and soul. The Tarbut school was on a main street called Langer Gas [Long Street], which was later called Gedimino Street. The school occupied the second floor of a brick building. The rooms were high, large and whitewashed, without any decoration. The school did not have a courtyard at all. The very large rooms, larger than needed, were difficult to heat on cold winter days The government did send wood for heating, but very little. On winter’s coldest days the children sat with their coats on. It was difficult for them to write with frozen fingers.
Chaim Blumberg, Yisraelov and Mislovaty – the head of the Young Zionists’ movement in the city – bore the burden of the many troubles that befell the Tarbut school. Some of the school’s teachers received government salaries, which were very low.
A parents’ committee was elected for the school. Its functions included supplementing the teachers’ salaries and paying the unofficial teachers, as well as meeting the school’s other needs such as additional firewood, so that classes could be held more or less normally even on very cold winter days.
Apart from the Tarbut school, there was also a Yiddishist school. In addition to regular studies, children there also absorbed the Bund’s leftist ideology and a hatred of the petit bourgeoisie. They mocked the Hebrew language, calling the children of the Tarbut School “alte sheymes” [old scraps of paper]. These insults inflamed quarrels among the children.
The reformed cheder
The third school, apart from the few cheders run by rabbis, was the orthodox school, a sort of reformed cheder, where studies were in Hebrew and also included general studies. Its tendency was not Zionist and the students devoted themselves mostly to studying Bible and Gemara. In the synagogue yard there stood a special building which was intended to be the school. It included a long corridor with classrooms on both sides as well as a teachers’ room. It also included a large courtyard, which aroused intense envy from the students and teachers of the Tarbut school.
This school’s management was incompetent and there were internal intrigues. The parents’ committee decided to look for a principal. They received a recommendation for the teacher Kaplan, who was a well-known teacher and devoted educator. When Kaplan came to manage the school he introduced new methods. He had a different approach to discipline and education. With the help and support of the teacher Blushtein, (the Bible teacher, a wonderful man and a dedicated teacher), the school changed its character, which had previously been close to that of a cheder, and became a good primary school.
As principal, Kaplan got the teachers and students to participate in the creation of the Keidan Hebrew primary school. The hours dedicated to Hebrew teaching were increased. Nature and geography studies were added as well as gymnastics, while the large courtyard was used for free games, in which teachers took part with enthusiastic students. During his second year he teamed up with the teacher Landsberg, and they merged their two schools into one both physically and spiritually. The teachers taught subjects in which they had specialized, moving from one school to the other.
In the school on the synagogue grounds, we also found a place to set up a nature corner. A human skeleton was brought in. By chance I found and brought in a real human skull. We started drying flowers and plants, and displayed them in albums. After some effort, we received geographical maps from the government, and the children started to learn about lands and seas. We found that tracing a voyage to the Land of Israel over land and sea was especially pleasant for all. These activities all fanned enthusiasm among both teachers and students.
For those of us in Israel, where children speak Hebrew as a mother tongue from childhood, free education is a given and sport is an integral part of the system, it is difficult to understand that in this period, it was a wonder to speak Hebrew during lessons and during some breaks. We had to look for Hebrew terms before each lesson and make lists of these terms in order to dictate them to the children. They had to learn to love words such as “flower” and “tree” from these lists, since there were no Hebrew textbooks. We told them that the Jews were actually tilling the soil in Eretz-Israel, demonstrating this with JNF pictures. We wanted to give them a feeling of pride and a love of their ancient homeland.
In 1925, before the opening of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, the teacher Kaplan left us and made aliya. He passed the management of the school to the teacher Liss, who had just returned from Eretz-Israel. Kaplan’s aliya strongly influenced the students – he was a living example and a source of admiration. The town’s Young Zionist movement also picked up extra momentum. I myself, the teacher Vinitzky, made aliya in September 1925. For a few years we hoped that Chana Landsberg would join us and make aliya. It was difficult for her to part from the school, which was like her child, or from her home and her mother and family, which remained in Keidan.
Almost 50 years have passed since I left the school I so loved. I have forgotten many things through the years, but the events that happened in Keidan and the joy of creativity, which I felt in my work at the school there, as well as the public and cultural work that we did there I have not forgotten. So my town has remained engraved on my heart as the “city of my dreams.”
Many Keidaners made aliya and were saved from the Holocaust, which was a bitter fate for the Jews of Lithuania. To a large extent their aliya could be credited to the spirit of love, which the primary school planted in its students, as well as its continuation – the Hebrew progymnasium (under the management of the teacher Magentza). And even for those who survived in Russia, despite their many years in exile, its spark did not die out.
Translated by Chaim Charutz