The First Hebrew School in Buczacz

Baruch Y. Berkowitz, Translated by Jessica Cohen

In October of 1907, I was invited by the Hebrew school committee to accept the position of headmaster of the school which was to be established in the town (the members of the committee, if memory serves, were Itzi Hirsch Weisser, Bezalel Herzes, Matityahu Weinreib and Jacob Leib Alfenbein). Upon my arrival in Buczacz, I found the committee members, who were holding office in Itzi Anderman's hotel, busy registering students. A young man stood beside them, his face blushing like the cheeks of a young woman. He was greatly enjoying the events, as if it were for his particular satisfaction that the parents were coming to register their sons for the new Hebrew school. It was Shmuel Czaczkes (the author S. Y. Agnon). The committee announced that it had hired an assistant teacher: a private Hebrew tutor in the town, whose livelihood would be damaged when the school opened, and they therefore found it befitting to take him on as an assistant teacher in the school. I visited the teacher, Rosenman, in his home. He was a learned man, a kind of talmid hacham [1], his face emanating a childish innocence and a delicate soul. He expressed his fear that he would not be able to manage a class, for he was not accustomed to that. I assured him he would have my complete assistance. The committee rented an apartment, brought in used benches and a blackboard, and the studies began.

A few days after my arrival in Buczacz, two students from the upper class of the gimnazjum came to see me. Their names were Naftali Menatzeach (Sigman, now a physician in Hadera) and Yosef Tischler (now an architect in Jerusalem). They asked if I would be willing to accept a group of students from the upper class at the gimnazjum to study Hebrew, new literature, grammar, the Book of Prophets and so forth, as well as a group of young women who had graduated from the gimnazjum but were still at a beginner level of Hebrew. Of course my answer was: yes! They told me that they had decided to speak only Hebrew amongst themselves and now, with the opening of a Hebrew school in their town – their longtime aspiration – they had decided to propagandize the Hebrew language. They would walk through the neighborhood streets and speak Hebrew out loud. The public would hear and would know that our language was being resurrected. I explained to them that indeed that was one of the school's duties, but we should not be too hasty. If they waited a short while, within a few months they would see the teacher walking with the school students on the main roads, speaking Hebrew and singing Hebrew songs. We would also produce historical plays for the public in Hebrew, and it would be a natural, inartificial presentation. But they were insistent, they had made a decision that could not be changed. The student Naftali Menatzeach was particularly stubborn, he was an uncompromising radical fanatic. The second student, Yosef Tischler, was also a fanatic of the Hebrew language, but slightly more moderate. He was a sort of talmid hacham among the students. His knowledge of the Hebrew language was greater than that of his friends. And “the words of wise men are heard in quiet.” [2] As a Hebrew teacher, I stood ashamed before these pillars of fire. I said to myself: if only there were more fanatics such as these in Israel! These gimnazjum graduates perceived the new Hebrew school as a small temple, where the teacher was the High Priest serving in the holy temple, and when he touched the school it was as if he were touching the apple of their eye. Their love for the Hebrew language knew no boundaries. The Hebrew school served them as a symbol of the Hebrew national and cultural revival.

The religious people were opposed to the school from the first. Their attacks were particularly directed towards the head of the school committee, Itzi Hirsch Weisser, who was an enlightened religious Zionist. They spoke badly of the teacher, for being shaven and perhaps also irreligious. The sacred language was taught bareheaded in the Hebrew school (the Tanach was taught with covered heads). The teacher walked with his female students along the main roads, speaking the sacred language openly. And the head of the committee took out his anger on the teacher and the older female students, for not coming to study Hebrew, but rather to socialize with their friends the gimnazjum graduates. Matters even reached the court, and the head of the committee was punished for insulting the senior female students. He began to interfere with the internal affairs of the school, to judge what was permitted and what was not, and what he was permitted to do and what he was not. Fortunately for me, the students' parents were on my side and did not allow the school to be turned into a cheder. The gimnazjum students stood by my side as a rock, defended their school and teacher and repelled all the attacks.

Several of the school graduates are in Israel: Dr. Naftali Menatzeach, Dr. Avraham Halfan (both in Hadera); Dr. Zvi Heller and his wife Dr. Esther Pnina Heller nee Anderman, his sister Dr. Pnina Neuberger (Tel Aviv), his younger sister Dr. Clara Kaner (Haifa), Chaya Rol of blessed memory, nee Biler, Dr. Emmanuel Pohorila (Jerusalem), Dr. David Pohorila, Attorney, Dr. Nussia Meibaum nee Tzeler, architect Yosef Tischler (Jerusalem), Dr. Pnina Shapira (Kiriat Haim).

For Chanukah, I prepared a play with the school students, “Chana and her Seven Sons,” as well as recitals and songs. Two days before the play, I received a notice from the district governor, prohibiting the production of the play, because it was “anti-Polish.” I immediately went to see the mayor, Barris Stern, a learned Jew, whose attitude toward the school was positive and supportive, despite being a pillar of the authorities. I showed him the governor's notice and the text of the play in Hebrew, which was an historical play from the time of the Hasmoneans and had nothing to do with the affairs of Poland. The mayor went to see the district governor, showed him the text of the play in Hebrew and asked him what was the meaning of the prohibition. The governor showed him an informant's letter claiming that it was an “anti-Polish” play, and asked the mayor to provide him with a Polish translation of the play by the end of the day. The translation was provided, and the play went on to be presented as planned. The informant's letter was the best possible propaganda for the school. The mayor and the Jewish and Christian government officials came to the play. The finest of the town's citizens came and the auditorium was full to the brim. When the informants realized that their scheme had failed, they published a manifest to the residents of Buczacz, by the name of “Shema Yisrael,” which was full of curses and abuses, and defamations of the teacher who was seducing the town's children away from traditional Judaism. They sent one copy to my parents in the moshava of Yavniel, [3] to influence me to renounce my evil ways, otherwise I would meet with ill fate. The opponents' acts strengthened my spirit even more in my determination to hold strong and not to flee the battle.

When I came to Galicia in 1906, the Hebrew school was still a newborn. The school was not built on firm ground. The school committee did not collect funds to reserve for times of recession. It did not sign annual contracts with the parents, so that they would pay for the holidays as well. As it happened, when everything ran smoothly, there was money to pay the teachers. But some of the parents removed their less advanced sons from the Hebrew school a few months before the exams in the public schools, as they were concerned that they would not be able to pass the government exams. The school's income decreased and there was no money to pay the teachers with, which was an obstacle for the development of the Hebrew school in Galicia. The committee did nothing on its part to fill the void, and its claims of having nowhere to obtain money from, did not satisfy the teacher nor his empty stomach.

A similar thing occurred in Buczacz. As long as the school attendant delivered the money he collected from the parents to me (many parents would send the tuition with their sons directly to me), there was money to pay the teachers, the janitor, the rent and the other expenses. I would present a monthly report to the committee. However, when the head of the committee ordered the collector not to deliver the collected money to me, but rather to him, he stopped paying salaries to myself and the attendant and did not pay the rent. When I asked the head of the committee where the money he had collected was and why he was not paying the salaries and the rent, he turned to me and said: how can you demand an account from me? The head of the committee was certain that he had grasped the bull by its horns. I had no choice but to turn to the parents and ask them to send the tuition directly to me, otherwise I would be forced to close the school. When the head of the committee realized that his control had been lost, he summoned a parents meeting and invited all the opponents of the school. He also invited the head of the teachers' organization and brought along a teacher who was to be given the position of headmaster instead of myself (I do not wish to mention any names, since I had a previous disagreement with the head of the teachers' organization and with the aforementioned teacher). The meeting was stormy, curses and insults flew over my head like hail. I requested permission to speak, so as to reply to my critics, and was not granted it. This created an even greater storm. The head of the teachers' organization and the teacher sat in anticipation of the moment when the crown of headmaster would be removed from my head and assigned to the awaiting teacher. And then came a man with a letter and delivered it to the head of the teachers' organization, and invited him and the teacher sitting by his side to accompany him. Upon their departure, the meeting dispersed. It was said that one of the parents had gone to the mayor and told him about the scandal, and he had summoned the head of the teachers' organization and the teacher, and warned them that they should leave the matter alone, because they might be about to unwittingly destroy the school. The head of the school committee returned home with his tail between his legs, for his honor had departed from him. And I was released from my shackles. I became free to realize my aspirations and my plans to establish the Hebrew school on a sound foundation, both materially and pedagogically, which would not be subject to fluctuations and shocks. This affair became well-known in all the Galician towns, from one end to another, and was the talk of the day, not only amongst the teachers. I met with M. Lipshitz, who later became the director of a Beit Midrash for teachers operated by the Mizrachi [4] in Jerusalem, and he told me: “We in Lvov knew of the scandal occurring in Buczacz. And we knew how the scheme was undone.”

The years 1907-1908 were full of bitterness for me. But they were also years of much experience, during which I became familiar with the ills of the Hebrew schools in Galicia, but also with their healing methods. Difficult pedagogical problems presented themselves and demanded solutions. The Hebrew schools in Galicia were schools only by name; in reality they were places of Hebrew lessons for only one or two hours. One group left and another came. I was faced with the question of how to create a comprehensive Hebrew school.

In November of 1908 I traveled to Palestine to visit my parents and take a rest from my wrath and anger. I gave the task of running the Hebrew school in Buczacz to one whom I had educated as a teacher in Rohatin and later in Buczacz, Yisrael Farnhof. In Palestine, I visited schools, in particular nursery schools. In April 1909 I returned to Buczacz. I rented a large garden with fruit trees and shady trees, from Moshe Weisser. I built a large, spacious shed in it. I announced that I was opening a “kindergarten” for ages three to seven. Two days before the opening, I received a notice from the district governor that I must dismantle the shed within 24 hours, otherwise the municipality would dismantle it, at my expense, and I would have to pay a fine. This time too, I went to the mayor, showed him the notice, and explained to him the purposes of the kindergarten and the educational value of preparing children for school, and that it was the first Hebrew-Polish kindergarten in Galicia. There were almost no Polish kindergartens in the entire country. The mayor went to the district governor and asked him why the notice had been given. The governor showed him an informant's letter, according to which I was intending to open a cheder opposite the council house and the national bank in town (the word cheder was a derogatory word among the Poles, implying a place of dirtiness and lack of order). Of course, the kindergarten was opened on time with no obstacles. The informant's letter only managed to create wide publicity for the new kindergarten.

Some two months after the opening of the kindergarten, I notified the chairman of the “Organization of Hebrew Schools in Galicia,” Dr. P. Korngrein (who later became a judge in the Tel Aviv District Court), of the opening of the kindergarten in Buczacz. I mentioned that I was willing to allow female graduates of the Hebrew schools in Galicia the opportunity to receive a practical education in my kindergarten. I requested that the school organization send a delegation to visit the kindergarten and ascertain whether it was worthy of its duties. The organization sent Dr. Moshe Yisrael Ratt to visit the kindergarten. Dr. Ratt heard the children speaking, telling stories, singing, making crafts, playing and talking Hebrew among themselves. He asked me how many years these children had been studying in the kindergarten. I told him that the kindergarten had only opened some three months prior, and he thought I was fooling him. After that visit, the school organization published a notice in the newspaper, calling on headmasters of Hebrew schools in Galicia to send their outstanding graduating female students to Buczacz, to receive an education in nursery school teaching, and to later open kindergartens in all the towns of Galicia (one of those educators, Pnina Stein, has been operating a kindergarten in Tel Aviv for several decades). That year, the editor of the newspaper “Ha'Mitzpeh” in Krakow, Dr. S. Lazar, published an article in his paper in which he described the great shortage of teachers in Galicia, and asked the headmasters of the Hebrew schools to enable young people to train themselves as teachers, under their administration. In a letter to the editor, I replied that I was willing to do this. After the editor of “Ha'Mitzpeh ” conducted an investigation and ascertained the quality of my school, he published an article in his paper about Mr. Baruch Berkowitz's school in the town of Buczacz, and called on young people who wished to train themselves as teachers to travel there and be educated at the school. (One of those young people, who has been in Israel for several years, is the Hebrew linguist Nissan Bergreen, author of the grammar book “The Theory of Forms.”)

In 1910 the Organization of Hebrew Schools in Galicia held a “Day of Hebrews” in Lvov. I was invited to participate in this occasion. I replied to Dr. Korngrein, the chairman of the organization, that I was willing to come and bring with me “an exhibition” of the work of the children in my kindergarten. I asked to be informed whether they would provide me with a space to present the exhibition. The response was positive. When I arrived with the exhibition at the “Tikvat Zion” auditorium, where the “Day of Hebrews” in Lvov was to be held, they showed me the area they had assigned for the exhibition. I took out the children's works and began to arrange them. The exhibition made an indescribable impression! Each of the representatives wanted to take one of the children's works, to show the people of their towns the wonders of the kindergarten in Buczacz. And thus the town of Buczacz became a small center for Hebrew education in Galicia. The years 1909-1912 were glorious years for the school and the kindergarten in the town of Buczacz. They represented a certain compensation for the years of suffering and anger during 1907-1908.

In July 1912, I traveled during the vacation to the village of Mikoliczin Wirmaczia, in thug the Carpathian Mountains. There I met the Zionist leaders from Lvov, Dr. Michal Ringel, Dr. B. Hausner, Jacob Bodek, and the writer Eliezer Rokeach. They asked me why I had chosen the distant town of Buczacz, of all places, as a location of educational action, rather than Lvov, the center of Zionism. The Zionist organization could be of assistance to me and could be useful for extensive educational activity. When they tried to convince me to move to Lvov and begin everything afresh, I told them of my educational plans. I told them that the kindergarten I established in Buczacz was not an end in and of itself, but rather the means to a greater end. The kindergarten would be the foundation for a comprehensive Hebrew school: an elementary school and a Hebrew-Polish gimnazjum. Dr. Ringel replied: in that case, there is all the more reason for you to move to Lvov. The Zionist organization will help you with everything. In September, I moved to Lvov. The Buczacz episode was over, and a new episode – the Lvov episode – began. Some of my dreams in that realm came true in Lvov. In 1914 the First World War broke out. Lvov was conquered by the Russians, and “during war, the muses are silent,” as the old Greek saying goes. As a result of my endeavors, a board was chosen which included Zvi Karl (who is now in Tel Aviv), his brother-in-law Dr. Teuber, and the Zionist Shlomo Ducker (now in Tel Aviv), and they opened a Hebrew-Polish elementary school. I managed a kindergarten and a Hebrew school. I also gave lessons to teachers, both male and female, and to kindergarten teachers. The Jews of Galicia experienced much turmoil – the conquering of Galicia by the Russians and its liberation, the pogroms conducted by the Polish armies and the “Holertziks” against the Jews of Lvov and other towns after the end of the First World War, the collapse of the Austrian monarchy, the Bolsheviks' storming of Galicia in 1920, their approach to Lvov – all these forced me to comply with my parents' request to return to Palestine. In 1920, I returned with my family to Palestine.

The history of the Hebrew schools in Galicia, the great educational activity carried out by the teachers for the benefit of the students, by means of the Hebrew schools, as well as the results which were later discernable among the Hebrew youths who left the schools, the gimnazjums, the universities, and came to Palestine to participate in building the country – all these deserve to be recorded as memories for the next generations.

Baruch Y. Berkowitz


1. Talmid hacham: lit. "wise student" (Hebrew). A phrase used to describe a scholar of Jewish law [tr.] Back

2. Ecclesiastes 9:17 [tr.] Back

3. Moshava: The earliest type of Jewish settlement in pre-state Israel, originally agricultural [tr.] Back

4. Mizrachi: An international religious Zionist movement, founded in Vilna in 1902 [tr.] Back