The Situation of Teaching History in Jewish Gymnasiums and Progymnasiums of Lithuania in the Period of 1919–1940
Keywords: Lithuania, History teaching, Jewish gymnasiums, Jewish history, Hebrew
AbstractThe aim of the present study is to explore the situation of teaching History in the Jewish gymnasiums and progymnasiums in the period under discussion, and alongside to reveal differences in the content of teaching history in Jewish and Lithuanian schools as stipulated by the country’s government. The study is based on the documents found in Lithuanian Central State Archives available in the collection of the Ministry of Education of the Republic of Lithuania (f. 391), and in the collection of the Jewish society “Tarbut” (f. 552); use was made of the periodicals of that period, for instance, the Jewish newspaper Apžvalga (The Overview). The obtained findings revealed that after the First World War, in the newly established state of Lithuania, Jewish children could attend government-funded schools with Lithuanian as the language of instruction. The government allowed the Jews to find their own private gymnasiums and progymnasiums with Hebrew and Yiddish as the languages of instruction. That kind of schools soon appeared in different towns in Lithuania: in 1919 such schools were established in Kaunas, Marijampolė, Virbalis, and Vilkaviškis; in 1920 – in Skuodas, Kaunas, Ukmergė, Panevėžys, Šiauliai, Telšiai, Kalvarija; in 1921 – in Jurbarkas and Raseiniai; in 1922 – in Ukmergė, Kėdainiai and Alytus. The number of those schools was steadily growing as new schools were established: in 1923 – in Kaunas, Šiauliai, Utena, Mažeikiai, and Kretinga; in 1925 – in Panevėžys, Kaunas, and Tauragė; in 1926 – two schools in Biržai and Kaunas. In the period under discussion, 30 new schools were founded. In later years, the situation was gradually changing as the number of newly founded schools decreased, and some existing schools had to close for certain reasons. All the afore-mentioned Jewish schools, both gymnasiums and progymnasiums, followed three different ideological directions, and thus three networks of Jewish schools had been formed: Tarbut (a worldwide network of schools with Hebrew as the language of instruction), Yavneh (orthodox school with instruction in Hebrew), and the Culture League network (secular school with instruction in Yiddish). To some extent, those different school networks pre-conditioned differences in the approaches to the teaching content in the school curriculum. The study has revealed that as the subjects taught in private Jewish gymnasiums and progymnasiums focused on Jewish identity, the mother tongue was given top priority. In most Jewish schools, Hebrew took this position, and only several schools chose Yiddish as the first language. There were cases of disagreement and even conflicts arising over the language of instruction and its influence. As religion played a very special role in Jewish identity, several Jewish identity-related subjects were taught at schools: “The Bible”, “The Talmud”, “Torah”, “Mishnah”, and the like. Subjects of religious education were given several weekly contact hours and occupied the key position among other subjects in the curriculum. Jewish history was the second in importance. The present study has revealed that the syllabus of history comprised three subjects: world history, the history of Lithuania, and Jewish history. Up to 1924, school head teachers were authorised to design school curricula independently and to assign a certain number of contact hours to each subject. Within the context of history teaching during that particular period, the greatest number of hours was allocated to the teaching of Jewish history. From 1924, school curricula did not distinguish Jewish history as a separate subject any longer. However, in reality, the segment of Jewish history remained strong, except that it came under the subjects of world history and the history of Lithuania. The findings of the present study suggest that the content of Jewish history included materials of the period from the end of the fifteenth century up to the beginning of the twentieth century. Most attention was given to the issues of Jewish history in Europe and the surrounding countries. Among the topics of the teaching content, the emphasis was placed on the issues of the study of the Judaic tradition, the most prominent rabbis, outstanding philosophers, and renowned figures of Jewish culture. In the 1930s, it became common to focus more on the issues of Jewish emigration of the end of the nineteenth century and issues of Zionism. Teachers Jews sought to achieve enhanced teaching of Jewish history in their gymnasiums and progymnasiums whereas education officers of Lithuania sought adequate teaching of the history of Lithuania to ensure an adequate education for the young Jews to become dedicated citizens of Lithuania, the country they belonged to.