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  • Between Church and StateJewish Religious Instruction in Public Schools in the Second Polish Republic
  • Sean Martin (bio)

Janusz korczak, physician, writer, pedagogue, and Jewish community leader, described a public school classroom in which religion was being taught in 1932:

I see a classroom: a class of forty or fifty students. Young and old, in the third or fourth lesson of the day, in the days before or after a holiday, during spring or fall. I see a teacher: sometimes feeling good, sometimes not. A teacher repeating the same material for the fourth or fifth year. I see a bored class and a bored teacher, who has to teach the lesson because of the mandatory curriculum. The hour, which lasts sixty minutes, passes slowly. And in these hours, on a topic that is supposed to enthral children, to give them eternal truth, the task is not easy. In each kind of work there are hours that are tiring and torturous and hours that are noble and beautiful.1

Korczak's depiction of the bored teacher and students may not necessarily describe every classroom in which the Jewish religion was taught to Jewish students, but he thought this scene typical enough to introduce his short remarks on the topic of religion and the child, which he published in Dziecko, a journal of the Central Organization of Care for Jewish Children in Poland. The Jewish religious instruction in Poland's public schools described by Korczak may have been intended to impart the values of a living tradition, but it is difficult to see how this could have been done successfully in such an environment.

After the First World War, when Poland regained her independence from the partitioning powers of Prussia, Russia, and Austria, the new Polish government needed to integrate the school systems left behind by the fallen empires. Students in independent Poland's public schools received two hours of religious instruction a week. This chapter explores the role of Jewish religious instruction in these schools and how the new government's requirements affected Jewish children and the Jewish community. Efforts to ensure that Jewish children grew up within the Jewish tradition were certainly not limited to the public schools, but it was in [End Page 265] the public schools that the conflict between the religious faith of a national minority and public institutions that were meant to support that faith but, in the eyes of many Jewish observers, often failed in their task can be most clearly seen.

A survey of the role of religion in public schools and the related legislation reveals the value placed on religious education by most citizens in the Second Polish Republic. Many Poles and Jews expected religious instruction to be part of the curriculum, but for many within the Jewish community the subject was never accorded the treatment or consideration it deserved. Nonetheless, the effort to provide Jewish religious instruction in public schools is a further example of the complex relations between Jews and Poles. While private Jewish educational networks developed and flourished, the remaking of public schools in Poland and the inclusion of Jewish religious education compelled Jews to define and defend their religious practices in public and to confront their relationship to both their religion and the Polish state. At the same time, the Polish government, on both a national and local level, was forced to consider the needs of a religious and national minority. Examination of religious instruction in the public schools of the Second Polish Republic offers insights into the role of religion in multi-ethnic democracies.2

The problems associated with religious instruction in the Second Polish Republic included both the practical logistics of scheduling and the challenge of accommodating minority religious views and practices within the modern educational system of the majority. Even as the problems themselves illustrate increasing interaction, and sometimes conflict, between different national communities living under the same government, the Jewish response to these problems reveals the often innovative nature of minority communities. While the majority of Jewish students in independent Poland attended public schools, there has been little research on their experiences or on how the authorities developed and implemented the system of religious...


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pp. 265-282
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