- IntroductionEducation for Its Own Sake
I had approached my studies differently from all the others—without a practical purpose in mind, without a materialistic goal. I studied only out of conviction. In a certain sense, perhaps, it could be called lishmah—that is, for its own sake.s. etonis, 1932
In the course of S. Etonis's autobiography, submitted to the YIVO youth autobiography contest in 1932,1 we witness his family and town buffeted by the First World War, the Russian revolution, border and troop changes, and post-war economic and political conditions, yet all of these major events are just the backdrop to his educational development. The real story is what S. Etonis learned in and from the various schools, traditional and modern, he attended and how his outside reading influenced him. Even as war and revolution led to dislocation and loss, S. Etonis narrated the variety of schools he was able to attend and what each one taught him.
For a young person, it would appear, the progression of teachers was of greater import than the progression of armies and regimes. These teachers, whom he describes as 'the grammarian', 'the mechanic', and 'the homeless former merchant and his daughter', represented stages in his apprehension of the world of the intellect. Politics as well were filtered through his classroom experience. 'Of course, every rumor', he informed his readers, 'makes its way to kheyder'.2 He and his classmates not only debated with one another and their teachers but were even inspired by the times to stage a strike against one of their teachers.3 [End Page 3]
Far more than politics, especially as he grew older, it was the content of his studies that animated his narrative. S. Etonis was torn between the offerings of secular and religious education. He found pleasure and frustration in both, and ultimately his mastery of musar (moral discipline) affected his reading of Hebrew literature:
Now, though, I read in a completely different way than I had before. I wanted to understand what I was reading. I had to make my own critique of each book, form my own impressions and judgments.4
By the end of the autobiography, S. Etonis had reached his twentieth year. He had completed his yeshiva studies and stood at the cusp of his future, with some experience as a teacher and unsure whether it would be possible for him to attend a gymnasium.
This, then, is the story of a life in education—a true Bildungsroman. And although his particular story is unique, the topic of education permeates the entire collection of autobiographies of young Polish Jews. Education was only one of a number of topics encouraged by the contest guidelines. The English version of the 1938 announcement read:
You and your family, war years, teachers, schools and what they gave you. Boyfriends, girlfriends. Youth organizations, [political] party life, and what they gave you. How you came to your occupation or how you are planning to come to your occupation. What events in your life made the greatest impression on you.5
Yet education, formal and informal, secular and religious, collective and self-motivated, is central to both the individual stories and the entire autobiography collection.
Each of the individual stories is powerful, captivating. Each one is also different and deserving of attention on its own. At the same time, there are recurrent themes. These young people were growing up in changing and challenging times. They wrote of the process of maturation and the uncertainty of the political, social, and economic situation around them. They wrote of their commitment to various causes as possible cures, or at least escapes, from the problems they faced. And profoundly, they wrote about education, in all of its forms: youth groups, schools, teachers, apprenticeships, books, libraries, political awakening, and religious study are all treated with the utmost honour and focus in these texts.
It is impossible to read these autobiographies without noticing the devotion to education. Perhaps it would be possible to read a single autobiography and be caught up in the drama of the individual story, but in aggregate the centrality of education is...