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THE YEARS 1919-1921

Page 27

The Hebrew Gymnasium, whose earlier name was "Tarbut College", opened on 9 November 1919, 16 Marcheshvan 5680, in the "Zion People's House". (The "Tarbut" network, founded by the "Association of Lovers of the Ancient Language", was set up in Russia in 1917, and moved to Poland after the Soviet government changed the language of instruction of its institutions to Yiddish. For some time, its schools were under the patronage of the Board of Educators of the Zionist Centre in Warsaw, and in 1919 it came under the patronage of the Bureau of Education and Culture of the Zionist Organisation in Poland.

The Hebrew schools of Vilna, Bialystok and Rovno were under the patronage of district committees). In the "Jubilee Gazette", which was published in 1924 to commemorate the founding of the Gymnasium five years earlier, the introductory article, signed by "The School Board", contains the following passage: "The School must give our children a complete and full education to change the painful situation where our sons have either heard nothing about our own history, or have heard things they had better not hear at all...our School has to be, and is bound to be, humanist, and the content of its programme of studies must be Hebraic. The schools our children have attended have changed their language of instruction several times. The conclusion we have drawn from this is that the language of instruction of our school need not be dependent on the current political situation. The language of the New Jewish School, which allots so important a place to the works created by Hebrew culture, cannot be anything but the Eternal Language of Jewish Culture, which is, moreover, the language of our new life".

Yaacov, son of Lipa Patt, testifies: "Founding the Gymnasium was part of Eastern European Jewry's struggle for cultural autonomy. It was a twofold struggle, externally against the oppressive policy of the hostile Polish regime, and internally, in the Jewish population centers, against the trend which attempted to impose Yiddish on the Jewish populace and its institutions of learning. Poland, which at that time had regained its independence, had officially undertaken to preserve the rights of the Jews, and the need was felt to confront her with a fait accompli, the establishment of a network of Hebrew schools. At that time Hebrew education and Yiddish education were in competition".

To Joseph Serlin, who was then a thirteen year old boy, the founding of the Gymnasium was a kind of personal message of redemption. He was a student of a Hebrew elementary school, "The Second Common People's School" on Lipova Street, and one day the principal of his school announced: "From today, our language of instruction will be Yiddish". "We don't agree," declared Joseph, and he spoke to his friends and organized a strike. The strikers held out and did not come to class for no more than three days and then they all caved in, except for two students. One of them was the boy Joseph. The principal expelled him from school for being a troublemaker. "I left, and didn't know what to tell my father", said former Israeli Minister of Health Joseph Serlin fifty years later. "As I was walking home I noticed advertisements: 'A Hebrew Gymnasium has been founded. Students are invited to register'. Without asking my father, I went to the 'People's House' and registered. When I told my father everything, he did not reprimand me, but gave me a kiss".

The advertisements said that students who wished to be accepted first had to pass entrance examinations. Yona Kaplan, the son of one of the founders, related: "I failed the examination in Russian. Fortunately, I successfully passed the examinations in the other subjects, and was accepted". The parents of Eliezer Avinoam (Lipkind), aged thirteen, intended to enrol him in the Polish Gymnasium, so that he would "become a decent human being", that is to say, holder of a certificate of matriculation issued by the State. "My brother Reuben did not (p.29) agree", related Eliezer Avinoam many years later. Reuben, who attended a Polish Gymnasium, was born too early, and in the new Gymnasium there was no class for seventeen year old students; he did not want his brother to suffer the way he had suffered, and so "he did not rest until he had convinced our parents that my place was in the Hebrew Gymnasium. I received a Hebrew education, was a member of the Zionist Youth Movement, worked at a Training Farm (Hachsharah), emigrated to Israel, and stayed alive thanks to him. Blessed be his memory", wrote Avinoam. His brother Reuben remained in Poland and died in the Holocaust.

The financial difficulties were not too numerous, testified Rachel Kreisman, the daughter of Eliezer Kahana. The Board of Directors took care of the initial expenses themselves. For several months, the Gymnasium was housed in the "People's House", afterwards it became necessary to move. A.S.Hershberg wrote: "The Authorities would not allow any teaching activities to take place on the premises of a political party. Having no other choice, the school rented an apartment at 74, Sienkiewitz Street, which had earlier been used by the Hebrew Elementary School". In the first year, the Gymnasium had 174 students, a hundred boys and seventy-four girls. They studied in three preparatory classes and three ordinary classes. The first teachers came from Galicia. The first principal of the school, Eliezer Furman (Karari) relates: "My teacher, Rabbi Prof. Moshe Shor, persuaded me to travel from Lvov to Bialystok, and to set up the Hebrew Gymnasium there. I went there, studied the conditions, met the people, and returned to Lvov. I hired teachers, and together we came to Bialystok and opened the Gymnasium in 1919". The teacher Aharonowitz (whom the students nicknamed "Kaykele") wrote in the Jubilee Gazette commemorating the fifth anniversary of the founding of the school: "In that difficult period when the Hebrew school was being created, the cultural activists realized that without a full complement of teachers having both a Jewish and a European education, a Hebrew school could not exist and had no future. Such people could only be found in Galicia, because early in the Enlightenment period in Russia our brethren did not have access to higher general and (p.30) Hebrew education. Galicia supplied a group of young, nationalist minded enthusiasts who set up, developed, and perfected Hebrew schools from top to bottom".

The complement of teachers who came from Galicia to Bialystok included Chaim Zweigel, Milgrom, Issachar Reiss and I. Krulik. In the early years teachers changed at frequent intervals, because not all of them had teaching skills, or were deserving of the task they had to perform. Yaacov Samid (Semiatitzky), who entered Class 1 in 1921, remembers the English teacher who taught Class 2. He was a businessman who had a good command of the English language, but knew nothing about educational theory and the methodology of instruction. During English lessons, he used to walk about in the classroom muttering to himself and doing calculations of profit and loss... After some years, the staff stabilized and consolidated, and the good teachers remained. "The principal, Dr. Furman, taught us Physics", relates former student Dr. Eliezer Remen. "There were no textbooks, and we would write down what he said in our exercise books. I have kept the exercise books to this very day". Similarly, Nathanel Katz remembers: "We were continually hunched over our desks, and our pens, which were not of the best quality, would dry up from time to time. Using hard pencils, we kept filling our exercise books with notes, notes, and more notes.... We wrote down the whole of world history, starting from the Middle Ages through to the Modern Age. We were very busy". Katz testified, moreover, that the teachers spoke "excellent Polish and the Hebrew of Abba Eban". The first principal of the Bialystok Gymnasium was not able to keep his job for more than a year. Late in July, 1920, the Red Army invaded the Bialystok district, and held it for less than a month. Within this short period of time, the "Workers' Representatives" managed to confiscate all goods manufactured in the town, the supplies stocked in the shops, and the assets of the Jewish community.

On August 22, the Polish Army reconquered the area, but they certainly did not come to the rescue of the Jewish population: General Haller's men attacked the Jews and ransacked their homes. "The Bolshevik rule in the town would have destroyed the Gymnasium if the members of the Jewish community and our students had not risked their lives to save the property of the school," reported David Braver in the Jubilee Gazette four years later. As soon as the Bolveshiks pulled out, the school re-opened. Though the number of new students was small, virtually all the students from the previous year returned. Furman-Karari was succeeded by Chaim Zweigel, who later changed his name to Zalzali, and then to Sarig. He, too, was unable to hold the job for more than a year, and later left Bialystok to take up a new post as principal at the Teachers Seminary in Vilna, but he kept in touch with the students and the teachers of the Gymnasium. This is evidenced by his letters, which were published in the magazine "Anachnu" ("We") in 1923. Zweigel went to Israel, and became the principal of the Teachers Seminary at Givat Ha'Shloshah. Two other principals served for short periods: Dr. Eliyahu Rosenbaum (1921-1922), who Hebraized his name to Meroz and served as Director of the Department of Education of the Tel-Aviv Municipality, and Dr. David Rosenmann (1922-1923).

The Story of the Hebrew Gymnasium in Bialystok find out more!

(c) Ya`acov Samid, 2003 Contact Ya`acov Samid