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The Hebrew Gymnasium in Kovno (Schwabe’s)

By Tessa Rajak, March 2022

Schwabe’s Hebrew gymnasium in Kovno was the pioneer, flagship high school in the remarkable Hebrew education system of interwar Lithuania. It was much more than a school. Already in its day, and so much more in retrospect, this gymnasium stood out as a jewel in the crown of the vibrant culture of Lithuanian Jewry that was destroyed by the Shoah. Created through the dedication, creativity and unremitting hard work of educators, parents, communal leaders and thinkers, it was intended that Schwabe’s should educate succeeding generations of Jewish children in the city that was the capital of the new state. It is almost impossible to believe that this astonishing educational creation lasted barely twenty years before its abrupt closure and the unimaginably brutal end of so many of its teachers and pupils.

Schwabe’s, as it was known, got to be thus named after its much admired founding headmaster, and that it retained this name is surely testimony to his impact. This was Moshe Schwabe (1889-1956), a young academic from Halle, who had studied in Berlin with the great classical scholar Wilamowitz and had served and was taken prisoner by the Russians in the First World War. He became a passionate Zionist, of Socialist persuasion, and at the age of 31 he came to Kovno and was appointed Head of Education in the Ministry of Jewish Affairs (serving from 1920-1922). He was at this time also chosen by the parents’ committee to be head of the new gymnasium-to-be. Held in much affection and respect, after four years of substantial success, Moshe Schwabe left in 1925 for Palestine, where he became one of the founding lecturers in the Hebrew University, and in due course Professor of Classics and Rector of the University between 1950 and 1952. His name is associated with the publication of numerous Greek inscriptions of the region and especially the unique texts of the Beth She’arim catacombs.

In its short life Schwabe’s school made a great and lasting impact, first and foremost in the minds and hearts of those who passed through it, but also as a model in the diaspora and in Eretz Israel. The few students who had the miraculous fortune to survive transmitted in different ways the breadth and depth of knowledge and values that they had imbibed. They included the famous Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg, and, for the last two or three years of his education, the great philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. They also included the historian of Lithuanian Jewry Dov Levin, Joel Elkes, distinguished psycho-biologist and son of the Kovno ghetto leader Dr Elchanan Elkes, Miriam ben-Porat, the first woman to be appointed to the Israel Supreme Court and then State Comptroller of Israel, Raya Geenberg, one of the founders of the Bank of Israel, and both my parents.  

8th graduating class Schwabe Gymnasium 1928 pic 1

 Sonia & Shmuel Goldsmith pic 2  My father, journalist and writer S.J. (Shmuel, Sam) Goldsmith, worked for the Kovno daily Yiddishe Shtimme until its demise. 

Schwabe’s was founded in 1920, in the relatively supportive environment of the beginnings of the new Lithuanian state.

Ceremony at Laying of Cornerstone Schwabe Gymnasium pic 3

This was also the time when large numbers of Lithuanian Jews returned from their wartime exile in various parts of the Soviet Union, bringing economic pressures to the Kovno Jewish community, and also an urgent need for educational facilities. The newly recruited staff opened their doors to some 300 pupils in the modest premises of a defunct Russian Jewish commercial school.  pic 4

In the first four grades the language of instruction was to be Hebrew from the start, building up quickly to Hebrew throughout

Those doors were closed forever in June 1940 when the Soviet occupation banned Hebrew and required a Yiddish school. This in turn functioned for just the one year until the Nazi invasion.

In so many ways Schwabe’s was an extraordinary enterprise. We must imagine a school with the highest aspirations and standards, set up from scratch, functioning, not without controversy, in the medium of the revived Hebrew language, of which many of the pupils and their parents knew little at the outset. There were few Hebrew textbooks, none at all for less run of the mill subjects such as Latin, so that teaching matter had to be invented by the devoted and expert staff. There was not even an obvious agreed upon syllabus, given the novelty of the enterprise, the diversity within the Jewish body that the school was to serve, and the many demands made of such a school. Some ideas and materials could be adopted from the by then well-established Herzliya gymnasium in Tel Aviv, and the significance of this precursor should not be underestimated. Nevertheless, it was felt that Hebrew schools in the heart of Europe should develop along their own lines. A broad ‘humanistic’ and ‘universal’ education was to be combined with in-depth access to Jewish thought, encompassing both the religious tradition – first and foremost Bible (rather than Talmud) – and modern ideas, all of this bound together by the Hebrew language, both as learning medium and as subject of study, and presented within a broadly Zionist framework. Two European languages were part of the curriculum. On top of that came the requirements of a state with its own newly revived language, at first known to few Jews. Government demands tightened over the years, as nationalism increased, so that in due course Lithuanian history and politics had to be taught in Lithuanian even in Jewish schools.

All this made for a load that to us may seem overwhelming, but the founders’ vision was pupil-centred, in keeping with what were then the latest ideas in education, so that time and space were supposed to be given to drama, art and other forms of self-expression.

Purim Party 1930 pic 5

Also modern was the concept of an inclusive community, in which parents were encouraged to play an active role and given their own opportunities to learn and develop.

Obviously, huge professional demands were made of the teaching staff. They contributed well beyond the call of duty. It was a principle that they should be decently paid. When all this is added up, the financial costs were evidently fearsome. There were, moreover, numerous poor parents who could make no contribution and indeed required assistance. Yet, in spite of constant nervousness, a committed and enterprising Jewish community, which included a rather small number of philanthropists (notably the Wolf family), rose to the challenge, with the help of very limited subventions from outside bodies such as the Joint Distribution Committee. In 1927 the school was able to move into a fine new building, spacious, light and airy, on the banks of the river Neiman. This is the building that can be seen standing today. It has housed a nursery school in recent times and it has undergone an even more recent refurbishment after passing into the hands of a private college. Nowadays, an appropriate plaque, an initiative from Israel, tells the world what happened within.   pic 6,7

In conclusion, I cite the words of Sam Goldsmith: ‘My school is infinitely more precious to me than my alma mater, even though I was fairly happy at my university, despite a pervasive anti-Semitism…At our Hebrew school, we felt protected; at university we felt naked. Suddenly we were exposed to the whims of a society we had no part in shaping. At school, we were children; at university, we were step-children…In our student days, our lives centred more on our Jewish corporations and societies than on university life as it is lived all over the world. For our existence as students was merely tolerated – and we knew it…In the end it has all disappeared like Atlantis but in a sea of blood.’ (‘Reflections on Reunion Night’, 60th Jubilee Almanach, Union of Lithuanian Jewish Academicians, Tel Aviv 1985).

Goldshmid children Jonava (Sam standing) pic 8Professor Tessa Goldsmith Rajak pic 9

Illustrations

1. 8th graduating class Schwabe 1928, private collection framed in office of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel.

2. Sonia & Shmuel Goldsmith, personal collection of Tessa Rajak.

3. Ceremony laying of cornerstone of Schwabe building,  A37/113.26.4 – Archive of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center Archives, Tel Aviv University.

4. Schwabe Gimnasia, Hichal Sheshaka, ed. I[srael]. Yablokovsky. Tel Aviv: Organization of the Graduates of the Hebrew University in Kovno, 1962 (translated from the Hebrew), 64 [book] Archive of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center Archives, Tel Aviv University.

5. Purim Party 1930, A37/624 – Archive of the Association of Lithuanian Jews in Israel, The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center Archives, Tel Aviv University.

6. Memorial plaque on former Schwabe Gimnasia. personal collection of Tessa Rajak.

7. Former Schwabe Gimnasia as it appears today, personal collection of Tessa Rajak.

8. Goldshmid children in Jonava, personal collection of Tessa Rajak.

9. Professor Tessa Goldsmith Rajak, personal collection of Tessa Rajak.

Bibliographical notes

  • The story of the school is told, in a series of essays and memories, in a Hebrew volume called Heikhal She-Shakah(A Shrine That Has Vanished), edited by J. Jablokovski and published by the school’s Association of Alumni/ae, Tel Aviv, 1962. This has testimonies, small photographs etc. in the manner of a Yizkor book. A translation is underway at the initiative and under the supervision of Susan Goldsmith.
  • Volume II of Yahadut Lita (1972) contains a short contribution (not yet translated) on the Hebrew Gymnasium of Kovno by Aharon Berman, its second headmaster, 1925-1936 (which summarizes a much longer opening chapter of Heikhal). This is accompanied by a brief piece on the Hebrew Reali (science) gymnasium in Kovno, as well as contributions on Jewish high schools in other Lithuanian towns.
  • For a more systematic, illustrated account, including a list of the school’s teachers and some alumni, see the entry in the Hebrew collaborative encyclopaedia HaMichlol (Hebrew Wikipedia carries a similar entry): https://www.hamichlol.org.il/w/index.php?title=הגימנסיה_העברית%22ש_שוובה_בקובנה&oldid=684744
  • Written material and oral testimonies are studied in an extensive master’s thesis, The Hebrew Gymnasium in Kovno between the Two Wars (1918-1940) submitted in 1977 by Leah Alexandrov to the School of Education of Bar-Ilan University.
  • On Schwabe’s later academic career and his personality, see ‘Professor M. Schwabe, 1889-1956: In Memoriam’, Israel Exploration Journal4, 1956,pp. 273-275.
  • On Levinas’s Litvak Jewish formation, with reference to what he learned at Schwabe’s (though the name of the school is not given), see https://www.lzb.lt/en/2018/01/30/emmanuel-levinas-and-his-connection-with-lithuania/

 

about the author
Tessa Rajak

Tessa Rajak is a classical scholar who has written and lectured all her life on the history of the Greek and Roman worlds and on Jewish history. She is especially interested in the interactions between Jews and Greeks. She is Professor of Ancient History Emerita in the University of Reading, a Senior Research Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford and a member of the Jewish Studies Unit at the Oriental Institute, Oxford. Her books include: Translation and Survival: The Greek Bible of the Ancient Jewish Diaspora; The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome and Josephus: The Historian and His Society, and she is now completing a book on Josephus in English culture. She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and was Chair of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society between 2015 and 2021. She lives in London with her husband Harry (also a Litvak), and she has two children and four grandchildren.