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  • Writer's picturePeripheral Histories ISSN 2755-368X

Unplaced and Unwelcome: A Story of the Yiddish School in the Ukrainian Shtetl

Maryna Batsman In 1917, the Russian Empire collapsed. The Bolsheviks began to reform nearly every aspect of pre-revolutionary life. The Jewish community received unprecedented support. The new state banned anti-Semitism and prosecuted its perpetrators criminally.

However, when it comes to Ukraine, the story was not that linear. The Soviet power came out of the Civil War. It substituted the UNR Government, which gave Jews the right of national personal autonomy in 1918. For that reason, the situation of Ukrainian Jews was unique. Having significant autonomy in political and cultural matters, they found it harder to negotiate with the Soviet power. Later, many of them became members of EVKOM, the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs, and Evsektsiia, the Jewish Section of the Communist Party, with the goal of attaining national-personal autonomy.[1] The Jewish Section was an intermediary institution for Jewish Affairs. The higher power tried to take more control over it, whereas many Jews perceived it as a Soviet institution full of traitors who, for the sake of gaining power, abandoned the interests of their own community.

A similar fate befell the Yiddish-language Jewish school. There is still a debate as to what extent it was ‘Jewish’. Was it Jewish because the language in which it operated was Yiddish? Before modernity, this rotten ‘dialect’ was not a language of study for the Eastern European Jews. It was a dream project of Jewish socialists and Yiddishists, who perceived it as the national language of Jews. Soviet officials welcomed the idea of Yiddish language; Hebrew, in conjunction with Zionism, was rejected as bourgeois.

On the other hand, was the Yiddish school Jewish because of the religious subjects in its curricula? These did not last long; the hours devoted to studying old Hebrew language and the Bible were steadily shortened. After all, did such subjects make any sense if the children were told that they should be free of religious prejudices and celebrate the “Red” holidays instead of Jewish ones?

In the 1920s, the Yiddish school was a solution for poor Jewish children who attended it. It was a solution in an allegorical sense as well: it aimed to dissolve the high, sophisticated, and incomprehensible Soviet ideology to the level of understanding of ordinary people. Until the 1930s, when the screws were twisted too fast and the national school system centralized, the school tested the high ideology on the local population, waiting for its feedback. From then onwards, the pupil, a central figure of attention in the 1920s[2], lost its significance in promoting the ideology. It was the state who dictated its interests to all.

Nonetheless, the Yiddish school was a Jewish school because it was attended by Jewish children. Moreover, it was Jewish because it was still in the shtetl, together with Ukrainian and very often Polish schools. Finally, it was Jewish because it was the realization of a dream of many Yiddish-Jewish-Soviet educators.

Many have heard about the experiment of Makarenko’s colony in Poltava, Ukraine, a colony designed to turn young robbers into respectable Soviet citizens. Only a few know about Malakhovker Jewish kinder-koloniye in the Moscow area, Makarenko’s predecessor, which was visited by Jewish artists like Marc Shagal and Solomon Mikhoels. However, few have ever heard about the childrens’ colonies in Pushcha-Voditsa, Kiev, or Albinovke near Zhytomir. Some of these institutions remained only as ghosts on a paper, while others were indeed realized.

The plan of Kitayevo children’s school with garden near Kiev. Fond 166, inv. 1, file 246, TsDAVO Archive, Kiev, 1919.

The material situation in these schools was dire. As a temporary solution, some schools had to settle in old buildings, expropriated properties of merchants, or in Talmud-Torahs.[3] The schools lacked buildings, teachers, and money. Many teachers worked in dreadful conditions and had to take care of Jewish (and non-Jewish) orphans devastated by typhus.

“Let’s go to the garden, to the lake, let’s do physical exercises” – the new school called the Jewish child, famously known in Yiddish literature as a pale, sick, and unhealthy, very alien to nature (which was a goyish[4] thing). Pedagogues of a new Soviet school saw the child’s development not only as intellectual and moral, but also physical. Going to nature and introducing common physical activities broke old world of unhealthy religious learning. Soviet power was supportive to these novelties: to the extent they facilitated building up a new collective. Inspired by the newest pedagogical reforms, Yiddish (Jewish) teachers brought up the new generation of the Soviet Jewish men and women, or at least were supposed to do so.

Jewish Yiddish School in Zhytomir, 1938. Source: YadVashem

However, in the 1920s, Jewish kids continued to attend old schools and study with private teachers to learn Hebrew, celebrate Pesakh, and eat kosher.[5] Although the Soviet Yiddish school did not become the most desirable and popular place to get an education, its story resembles the sad fate of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union. Being declaratively accepted and appropriated as part of the official policy of the state (korenizatsiia), it was nonetheless short-lived. Besides, being part of the state policy, it did not remain Jewish anymore. Nor was it a fully-fledged part of Soviet culture. The Yiddish school failed to create the new Soviet man and it was canceled in 1937.[6] The state took its power back by promoting violence, repressions, and anti-Semitism.

Maryna Batsman is a 2nd year Researcher at the European University Institute in Florence. Her dissertation is dedicated to forming the Soviet Jewish identity in and beyond the state-sponsored interwar Yiddish school. In her MA Thesis, “Crafting a Jewish School System for Soviet Ukraine: Interwar Nationality Policies and Yiddish Pedagogical Writing”, she explored the ambivalent figure of a Jewish cultural activist, who was at the same time Jewish educator and Bolshevik propagandist, and his role in formation of the secular Yiddish school system from 1918 to 1923. Her fields of interests include: Yiddish literature, modern architecture, innovative pedagogy. _________________________________________________________________________________

[1] Gitelman, Zvi. 2010. Evsektsiia. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed April 21, 2017). [2] The Jewish orphan who lost the parents in pogroms was an ideal model for creating the new Soviet man. In the 1920s, the pedagogues often discussed the children’s individuality and autonomy of making decisions. [3] Jewish religious communal schools for poor children. [4] Non-Jewish. [5] See Shternshis, Anna. 2006. Soviet and Kosher: Jewish Popular Culture in the Soviet Union, 1923-1939. Indiana University Press. [6] As a part of the official policy. Some schools were closed later. See Schulman, Elias. 1971. A History of Jewish Education in the Soviet Union. Ktav Pub. House.

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