- From Theory to PracticeThe Fight for Jewish Education in Vilna during the First World War
In 1916—while the eyes of the world were fixed on the bloody battle between France and Germany at Verdun—Moyshe Shalit, a Yiddish-language journalist in Vilna, proudly described a recently created elementary school as 'the first experiment with a model elementary school [folks-shul] in Yiddish'.1 A few decades later, another Yiddishist writer, K. S. Kazdan, would claim that 'in the whirlwind of the First World War the Jewish [yidishe] secular school was born'.2 These statements raise several important questions, most importantly: why did the First World War bring about such a long-awaited development? At first sight, it would seem that a time of intense social, political, and economic crisis (which would in fact lead to the collapse of the tsarist empire), when Russia's Jews suffered from pauperization, antisemitic violence, and physical dislocation and when most of the Pale of Settlement was turned into a war zone, would be an unlikely moment for major changes in education. Furthermore, there were Jewish schools in tsarist Russia that offered secular education and used Yiddish as a language of instruction: in what way, then, were these new schools different? Finally, what were the long- and short-term consequences of these new schools?
The statements by Shalit and Kazdan were, if anything, understatements. The First World War led to major changes in Jewish education that were by no means limited to advances in Yiddish-language secular education. Jewish Vilna experienced a particularly dramatic wartime transformation of its educational [End Page 195] institutions, as documented by a substantial body of archival and contemporary published sources. Here the war gave a group of Jewish activists and intellectuals an opportunity to carry out one of their longstanding goals: the creation of a network of modern Jewish elementary and secondary schools that would give children both a secular education and a strong sense of Jewish identity. The war saw the founding of Vilna's first Jewish kindergartens, its first Yiddish-language primary schools, and its first Hebrew and Yiddish gymnasia. These institutions came into being despite the burdens of wartime poverty and constant lack of communal funds. They succeeded, in part, because wartime population movement and economic devastation uprooted existing educational systems, leaving some children without access to schooling, while simultaneously creating room for new kinds of institutions. New schools also succeeded because of the educational policies of the German military occupation (1915–18), which were liberal in comparison with those of the tsarist regime.
The wartime flourishing of modern schools, however, dashed any hopes of a unified system of Jewish education. Ideological differences eventually undermined co-operation between the various proponents of school reform. By the end of the war, multiple organizations, representing different political and cultural ideologies, ran competing Jewish school networks. While debates over schools often pitted socialists and diaspora nationalists against Zionists, the conflict was not simply the pedagogical manifestation of pre-existing ideological and political divisions. The very process of creating new schools shaped ideological stances and in fact led to political realignments. In other words, education became the tail wagging the dog of politics.
jewish schooling during the first year of war, july 1914‒august 1915
When war broke out in 1914 most children in Vilna continued to attend school as usual. The war's effects were, at first, only gradually felt. A few teachers were called up for military service or auxiliary civilian activities. Growing economic problems may have affected enrolment patterns, but they would only have significant effect later on. The first major strain on wartime education came from the influx of refugees from nearby provinces. Between the outbreak of war in July 1914 and Vilna's occupation by the German army in September 1915, over 22,000 Jews fled to Vilna, many of whom were victims of the Russian army's violent expulsions of Jews from the areas near the frontlines. Jewish organizations in Vilna, in addition to having to provide food, clothing, and shelter for these refugees, faced the daunting task of educating their children. The response of these organizations to...