- Creating a New Jewish NationThe Vilna Education Society and Secular Yiddish Education in Interwar Vilna
In 1935 Max Weinreich, the Yiddish historian and a founder of YIVO, set out his views about the needs of young Jews in Poland. In summarizing the subject of his work, The Way to our Young People, Weinreich wrote: 'He who holds the young, holds the future.'1 His study was intended as the beginning of a larger project of socio-psychological research into young Jews, undertaken with the hope of providing a better future for Polish Jewry and ensuring a future for Yiddish in eastern Europe. Seen in a broader context, his statement embodies the goals of Jewish leaders in Poland between the First and Second World Wars. Education, the young, and a preoccupation with the future of Polish Jewry were intensely intertwined with issues involving the political and cultural rights of the Jewish minority in the Second Polish Republic.
Jewish pedagogues and intellectual and political leaders considered language as the basis for identity formation, an all-the-more complex issue in the city of Vilna, with its multi-ethnic population. During the interwar period, Polish Jewry had a wide choice of schools, spanning the political spectrum from right to left, religious and secular, and operating in Polish, Yiddish, Hebrew, and sometimes a combination of all three. While most were represented by a cognate political party, the secular Yiddish school system in Vilna, formally organized by the Central Education Committee (Tsentraler bildungs komitet; TsBK) from 1919 and later the Vilna Education Society (Vilner bildungs gezelshaft; Vilbig), founded in 1924, shunned overt political alliances and looked to Yiddish language and culture as the basis of its curricula, while also attempting to act as a voice for all of Vilna Jewry, supplying what it felt was best for its immediate and future needs. Its proponents championed Yiddish language and culture as the foundation of a new secular Jewish identity intended to lead east European Jewry into the modern world. [End Page 221]
Jewish educational institutions were prevalent throughout interwar Poland, yet Vilna was the only region to have an all-encompassing organization that sought to speak for all of Vilna Jewry, permeating all areas of their lives at all ages. As Andrew Koss has demonstrated, Jewish pedagogues and leaders in Vilna were able to establish educational institutions, which had not been possible under the tsarist regime, as a result of the German occupation during the First World War, the influx of Jewish refugees into the city, and the flight of those sympathetic to the Russian regime.2 Similarly in Warsaw, the German occupation provided a laboratory in which Jewish leaders and pedagogues established schools based on a variety of ideologies, in an attempt to ensure some form of Jewish identity. As in Vilna, those in Warsaw were unable to find common ground to establish a single Jewish school system. In addition, significant differences developed between secular Yiddish educational programmes in Vilna and elsewhere in Poland. The unique character of Vilna and its educational institutions continued throughout the interwar period.
When Poland was re-established at the end of the First World War, its leaders were compelled to sign the Minorities Treaty formulated at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, guaranteeing, among other stipulations, students' rights to education in their mother tongue and government funding for Poland's Jewish minority, the second largest in the state. Although these rights were never fully implemented and the Polish government disavowed the treaty in 1934,3 Jewish leaders throughout the country used the Minorities Treaty to lobby for government funding for Jewish-language schools. Jewish national and ideological movements with their origins in the late nineteenth century were able to flourish during this twenty-year period, establishing schools or school systems that adhered to their ideologies, and spanning the whole political and religious spectrum. The main issue at stake in the conflict between the different school systems, as it had been from the early twentieth century, was the question of choosing a Jewish national language as the language of instruction.4
Vilna was uniquely positioned during this period. It had a key role in...