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A School for Jewish Children

From: Sefer Vladimirets, 1963

Author: Yitzchak Pinchuk

** Webmaster Note: The following is a translation from Hebrew by Laia Ben-Dov as sponsored by George Zilbergeld. Notes for clarity or explanation have been provided in brackets.

A SCHOOL FOR JEWISH CHILDREN

Since ancient days, the education of the boys In our town was conducted as it had been in all of the Jewish towns in the Pale of Settlement:  in the cheder, the Talmud Torah and the yeshivot.  Already at the age of three, an infant was brought to the cheder, where he began to learn the aleph-bet [Hebrew alphabet].  After that, they began to learn chumash [the five Books of Moses], Tanach [the entire Bible], or, as it was called by the people, "pasuk" [verses].  After that, they moved up to the higher stage learning Talmud.

Most of the talented boys would travel to yeshivot that were located in other cities.  Learning in a yeshiva cost the boys' parents very little money.  The yeshiva boys would eat by "days" at the homes of local families [each boy was assigned a different family for each day of the week, where he would be given his meals], or whatever was available in the yeshiva, usually without any payment.  After a few years of learning in yeshiva, a boy would be "prepared" for his life.  The superior students among them obtained a broad knowledge of Judaism, and the average students left the yeshiva with scanty knowledge, to begin the struggle of their lives for independence all according to the boy's talents and his family's situation.

After World War I, agitation grew among the homeowners in the town, especially among those who were involved in public life and had heard the echoes of progress and the Bolshevik Revolution.  They began to act toward establishing a modern school.

To this day, there is engraved in my memory one Sabbath in 1919 or 1920, at the beginning of "The Time."  A meeting of several public-service-minded parents was held in the home of Simcha Hanagar, in which they discussed the question of the school.  We, the children, were talking among ourselves about this meeting, and the words that we heard then remain in my memory:  "culture," and "folks schule".  We didn't know precisely what the meaning of these words was, but a kind of pleasant feeling surrounded me when they spoke about a school that would be established in our town.

To the best of my remembrance, the participants In this meeting at the home of Simcha Hanagar were Simcha himself; Moshe Schwartzberg; Aharon Reznik; my father, Gershon Pinchuk; Nathan Tscherniak, Mendel Hanagar, and more.

From that time, it was the highest dream and wish of the best public servants of the town to see a Hebrew school for the Jewish children of Vladimirets.  They dedicated their best initiatives and strengths to this dream.  It appears to me that in 1921, they merited to see the first Hebrew school in Vladimirets in the "Gralnya" building.  This establishment existed for half a year.  Shlomo-Sender Volok, Hurwitz and others taught there.  Apparently the Polish regime was unhappy about a secular Jewish educational institution and caused administrative difficulties regarding its existence.  After the school was closed in its first location in the Gralniya, it moved to the Talmud Torah building.  After several other wanderings, it was closed down altogether. 

The official reason for the closing was the lack of a proper building. Indeed, the building was closed, but secular Jewish education was continued by Jewish teachers in the form of private group lessons.  The teachers were locals or from outside the town.  In particular, it is worth mentioning the elder of the Hebrew teachers (in Yiddish, "lerer," contrary to the "melamdim" who mostly taught religious subjects), Chaim-Shalom Boksar, and his sons, Avraham and Hirsch-Leib.  Other teachers were Shlomo-Sender Volok, Dumnitz, Maglan, Avraham Garmarnick, Pinchas Shlita, Yisrael Ziniuk, Rudya Muchnik, and more.  Vladimirets did not merit a special building for a school in which the voice of Torah would be heard from the mouths of schoolchildren, but the voice of Torah was heard in all of its homes.  The Hebrew language was heard from the mouths of its children and youth, in spite of everything.  The Hebrew language echoed through the streets of the town at every gathering.  On summer evenings and on Sabbath afternoons, the number of pedestrians in the streets of the town, and outside the town, spoke a great deal of Hebrew, even when there was no official Hebrew school.

For many years, the entire time of the regime of the New Poland in the border areas of Western Ukraine, the people of the town wished to see an established Hebrew school.  For that purpose, they collected money, established all kinds of projects, and also received donations from those who had left the town for America, but the residents of Vladimirets did not merit seeing their dream come true.

At the end of 1924, they set a foundation for a building and conducted a celebratory cornerstone-laying ceremony, but up to the arrival of the Soviets, only the framework of the building remained.  This framework was a kind of witness to the sad and difficult material condition of the townspeople.

In the afternoon of Yom Kippur in the year 5700 [1940], the Red Army arrived in Vladimirets.  When the holiday ended, there was a meeting of all of the supporters of the new regime (Ukrainians and Jews, in the building of the local council the "gamina" or "volost"), and a new, temporary local regime (Ukrainian) was chosen from among those present, which, among other matters, also handled the question of local education.

Until the Soviets arrived in Vladimirets, there was only one Polish language school, where all of the town's children and children from the surrounding areas learned Ukrainians, Jews and Poles.  One of the decisions of this new temporary regime was to divide the Polish school into three independent units, according to the three nationalities that lived in the town.  In other words:  Ukrainian, Jewish and Polish.  On behalf of the temporary regime, they asked me to establish and manage the Jewish school, in Yiddish, of course.  I assembled a group of teachers, from those who were then in the town and also from outside.  They were:  Pinchas Shlita; Zeev Burak; Sarah Perlstein; my sister Charna; Sarah Zhuk (Sender's wife), who taught Russian; a teacher of the Ukrainian language, and two teachers from outside town, who are presently working as teachers in Israel, Chanina Rabinowitz and Emanuel Kozetchkov (who was also my vice-principal).  Esther Burak-Baar served as the school's secretary.  The question of a school building was solved by the regime in a simple manner:  the Ukrainian school held its lessons in the large building of the Polish school in the morning, and we learned there in the afternoon.  For the 1941 school year, they remodeled the apartment of the Polish doctor, which was next to the local hospital, for us, and thus, our school was located outside the town.

In 1940, we had seven classes.  In 1941, we had eight.  The official name of the school was "Yiddishe Nitpula Mittelschul in Vladimirets" in other words, "Jewish Incomplete High School in Vladimirets."  It should be pointed out that the Jewish children and their parents in the town excitedly accepted their school.  All of the Jewish children of school age were registered in the school, even those who had finished the Polish school years before and had not had an opportunity to continue their studies out of town.  These were registered in the highest class and studied intensively and enthusiastically day and night, as their fathers had done in the beit midrash and yeshiva.  Only two Jewish children were registered in the Ukrainian school, and none were registered in the Polish school.

Thus, the Jewish children of Vladimirets merited learning in their own school for two years, until the German invasion.  During these two years, our children reached wonderful achievements.  The competition in studies was fierce.  They sat over their lessons day and night, as if they wanted to fill what had been lacking them during the years of deprivation, when they did not have a school.  As is known, in Soviet schools there are competitions in every field, such as theoretical studies, sport, art, crafts and more.  In all of the competitions between schools in our region, our children reached first place.

Every year, there also were competitions at artistic appearances that were called "Olympics."  Our students' choir, their dances, their recitations and plays always won the best evaluations in our region.  This, by the way, caused a strengthening of the hatred against us, especially in the circles of non-Jewish intelligentsia.  And how heartening it was to see the appearance of our children, with what innocence and pride the people of our town accompanied our children, with their rejoicing eyes and with blessings, when they appeared at different opportunities in public halls or street rallies.  From every side, you would hear the heart-felt, warm and proud whisper from every mouth:  "Di Yiddische schule geit, di Yiddische schule geit (He goes to the Jewish school)."

About 210 students learned in our school.  Indeed, the program and spirit were Soviet, but the mother-tongue, Yiddish, in which they received their knowledge and education, brought warmth and Jewish spirit into the lessons, even though it was, it appears to me, forbidden for this educational institution, which, by Soviet definition of educational institutions, was socialistic in content and nationalistic in form.  The school actually was a focus of Jewish life in the town.  Around it discussions and arguments took place.  Parents' meetings and talks brought light into the grey life of the town during the Soviet regime. 

The regime sensed this and tried to eliminate this Jewish spot, even though they themselves had established it.  They wanted the Yiddish language school to turn into a Russian language school.  They quietly propagandized among the Jewish population, that they should request the educational authorities to change the language of instruction from Yiddish to Russian.  There indeed were a few parents who agreed with them, but they didn't dare to voice their opinion in surroundings that loved the school so much.  It was the independent Jewish institution that they had dreamed of and wanted to achieve for many years. 

I also, as principal of the school, struggled against these Russian fictions. I didn't correctly estimate the situation and then I did not know how much I was endangering myself with such a revealed position in favor of Yiddish as the language of instruction.  More than once, I argued with my friends, the teachers, who were prepared to give up Yiddish and prepare the children for "reality," which many people saw in Russian language studies.

We didn't feel, and didn't know, that soon the question would be solved in such a threatening and cruel way.  We didn't see, and didn't feel, the footsteps of the Angel of Death, who was already standing behind our walls.

On Saturday night, June 21, 1941, we held a celebration in the school upon the ending of the school year for the upper grades.  The joy at this party was great.  But this was the last party our children had.  The next morning, we heard that the Germans had attacked Russia, and from then on, our world became dark.

Only very few of the students of the school survived.  Of them, one or two are in Russia, four or five in American countries, and the others, five or six, reached Israel.

Some of the older students took part in the War against the Oppressor, whether as partisans or fighters on the front.  Some of them, like Pinchas Rotenstein,   fell with weapons in their hands, and others, like Borak and Yosef Leshetz, were wounded and remained disabled.  To this day, the school is engraved on the hearts and in the memories of its few students and teachers who remained alive.


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