Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Hebrew Real ("Reali") Gymnasium in Kovno/Kaunas, Lithuania before WWII


My father Aaron Rachowitz attended the Hebrew Real/Reali Gymnasium (Kauno žydų realinė gimnazija, today Kęstučio g. 85 [1] formerly  Kęstučio g. 59, in front of the theater/Valstybės teatras בית הריאל-גימנסיון העברי בקאונסin Kovno/Kaunas for four years, i.e., completed four beginning or preparatory classes/'progymnasium': from 1936 to 1940 (the above pictures [2] show the gymnasium building then and today). His younger brother, Nathan Rachowitz, also attended this school. My father's good friend Eliyahu Stoupel (later to become a well known cardiologist in the world -- Professor Eliyahu Stoupel[3]), was his classmate. Most of their friends and classmates were killed during World War II in Kaunas, at Dachau and other locations. Hadassah Gorbulski (the sister of the famous Lithuanian composer Benjaminas Gorbulskis), Shura Katz, David Shein (former EL AL director in New York), Shlomo Yarmovski and Nissim Krakinovski were among those who survived the Holocaust. [4] The principal language of instruction in the high school was Hebrew but students communicated among themselves in Yiddish (the spoken language of Jews in Eastern Europe. They also studied Latin and Lithuanian (it must be remembered that Lithuania was a Catholic country). All courses -- except for Lithuanian language, literature and history -- were taught in HebrewAccording to my Dad, the gymnasium was a private institution. If parents do not pay their tuition fee on time (by the due date), the students will be reminded, in front of the whole class, to settle the debt. The gymnasium was on the name of Edward Azriel Chase (Eduardas Čais or Čaisas in Lithuanian), the famous Jewish philanthropist who was born (1874), grew up and spent the greater part of his youth in Tsarist Alytus/Alite (between the two World Wars and since the end of World War II, the town has been a part of Lithuania), but later immigrated to the United States and lived in Manchester, New Hampshire. With his financial help, a new building was erected for the Hebrew Real Gymnasium in 1930 (pictures above) in Kaunas (a formal inauguration dates from August 30, 1931, in the presence of the Lithuanian Minister of Education Konstantinas Šakenis, the mayor/burmistras of Kaunas, Juozas Vokietaitis, as well as Edward Chase and his wife, Dr. Zemach Feldstein, Nathan Greenblatt/the list of teachers below, and many others---250 guests took part in the event), where thousands of Jewish children received their education and Jewish upbringing. The Hebrew Real/Reali Gymnasium had a good academic reputation all over the country (The roots of this gymnasium go back to 1915, i.e., the period of German occupation of Lithuania. Jüdische Realgymnasium was founded by Jewish-German Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hirsch Carlebach, who was charged by the German Occupation Authority in Lithuania with organizing a secondary school system. By the late 1920s, the gymnasium had earned good name but lacked adequate premises, i.e., had been housed in various locations/rented buildings). The total cost of the project, including Chase funding, was estimated in 1931 at 700,000 LT (approximately $70,000). The new gymnasium building (nauji žydų realinės gimnazijos rūmai) accommodated both girls' classes and boys' classes. It had two big halls: the gymnastics hall and the celebration hall; 19 classes; physics cabinet; a technical drawing hall; buffet; 4 wardrobes; 4 rooms with showers. Every floor had two corridors and etc. [5] The Hebrew Real Gymnasium was designed by Baruch Kling who also supervised the construction. From an architectural point of view, the gymnasium has features derived from the German Bauhaus style or Dutch De Stijl style. [6] Edward Chase also established the Chase Fund that gave dozens of Jewish students the possibility of studying abroad or in Lithuanian universities. In addition, Chase established a scholarship fund to help outstanding students from different religious backgrounds. He contributed much for the development of his native town of Alytus (built houses, awarded scholarships to local students, etc). And his last dream during his visit to Lithuania in 1938 was to turn his former house in Alytus into a Jewish cultural center for Lithuanian youth. At its peak, the Hebrew Real Gymnasium had 40 teachers and 1,000 students. Dr. Zemach Feldstein had been the director of the gymnasium during 1922-1940 (Previous directors: Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hirsch Carlebach, 1915-1919; and Dr. Shalom Yona Tscherna, 1920-1922). By the way, My Dad served as a goalkeeper on the school's football team, defended staunchly the goal and had been called (in Yiddish): "ארקה די הינדשה פלייש" ("Arke die hundische fleisch").

The Jews had enjoyed full cultural autonomy in prewar Kaunas, according to my Dad. In addition to the Hebrew Real/Reali Gymnasium, my Dad also mentioned frequently other Jewish gymnasia and schools that were established in the city: a "Yavne" Hebrew Gymnasium for girls; a "Yavne" Hebrew Gymnasium for boys. Yavne schools were well known for their strong religious education and were partially supported by religious-Zionist Mizrachi organization; a leftist "Commerce" Yiddish Gymnasium (named later after Shalom Aleichem); the Hebrew Gymnasium headed by Dr. Moshe Schwabe and thus called the "Schwabe" Gymnasium (In 1924, Dr. Schwabe immigrated to Eretz-Israel where he was a lecturer in the newly created Hebrew University of Jerusalem and later became its rector. A prolific Hebrew language poet, Leah Goldberg, studied at "Schwabe" Hebrew Gymnasium from 1920 to 1928---please see a commemorative plaque below. By the way, students of the "Schwabe" Gymnasium were sometimes called in Yiddish: "שוואבה די גרינע זשאבע" according to my Dad/"schwabe die grüne zhabe" which means: schwabe the green toad). The Schwabe Gymnasium (the picture of a new building inaugurated in 1927, below) had Revisionist Zionist orientatation; the Hebrew Tarbut Gymnasium affiliated with the Socialist Zionist party Mapai (my Dad's best friend, Dr. Semen Yakobson, at first studied at the Tarbut Gymnasium until 1940, but with the advent of Soviet rule moved to the Shalom Aleichem Gymnasium/previously known as "Commerce" Gymnasium, occupying since the Soviet era the former building of the Schwabe Gymnasium, located on the banks of the Nemunas River [7]---please see the building of the Schwabe Gymnasium, below); Hebrew "Tarbut" schools with strong secular nationalist Zionist orientation. There was also one Jewish gymnasium where students were taught in Lithuanian language. Hundreds of Jewish youth from all over country continued their education in the Lithuanian University of Kaunas (in 1930 the university was renamed to Vytautas Magnus University/Vytauto Didžiojo universitetas). Kaunas had many Jewish associations, organizations, student unions and sports unions, like Maccabi and Hapoel. The Jewish youth joined the Zionist movements like Hashomer Hatzair and Beitar---the Hebrew Real Gymnasium, where my Dad studied, was well known for its support for the Beitar movement, according to my Dad. The young Jews were trained for immigration to and life in Eretz Israel. "Kibbutz Hachshara" (Training Kibbutz) on behalf of "HeChalutz" Zionist youth movement acted in Kaunas. Many of these "Chalutzim" made "Aliyah" to Eretz Israel. The "Tarbut" association initiated public lectures in Hebrew. Throughout the interwar period a Yiddish theater operated in Kaunas. Also, the Jews of Kaunas were privileged to have had theater shows from Poland, the United States and Eretz Israel (the “Habima” theater, "Haohel" theater, etc. Ida Kaminska, for example, performed in Kaunas). A drama studio was run in Hebrew. In the interwar period, more than 100 books in Hebrew were published in Kaunas and etc. Professor Dov Levin wrote that Lithuania's Hebrew educational institutions in the interwar period "not only gave their pupils a solid education in Judaism and Hebrew culture, as well as in the sciences and the arts, but also encouraged them to be active in youth movements, sporting associations, student groups, and training groups preparing to emigrate to Palestine. In fact, Lithuania came to be known as the 'Second Eretz Israel,' in no small measure thanks to the varied and wide-ranging network of Hebrew schools, which was quite unparalled throughout the Jewish world." [8] On a visit to Kovno/Kaunas in the 1930s, the foremost Hebrew poet of modern time, Hayim Nahman Bialik said: "if Vilna is known as the Yerushalayim DeLita [Jerusalem of Lithuania], then Jewish Lithuania should be known as the Eretz-Israel deGaluta [The Land of Israel of the Exile]. (Please see the much extended version of the post in Hebrew, "The Hebrew Real Gymnasium in Kovno," in Wikipedia - D.R.) 

List of Teachers (Hebrew Real Gymnasium in Kaunas)
Last  Name
First   Name
Curriculum Subjects
Grinblatt (Goren)
Hebrew, Religion, History and Geography
Dr. Kissin (Deputy Director)
(1899-1945), perished in Dachau
Blecharovich (or Blecharovitz, Blecharavičius)
Mesenblum (Lith)
Hebrew and Jewish studies 
(1895-1942), died in the Soviet Union
the editor since 1937 of the Yiddish daily Dos Vort (The Word) in Kovno 
Hebrew and Jewish studies  
(1876-1941), murdered in the Kovno Ghetto (Slobodka) 
[1] The Hebrew Real/Reali Gymnasium building now serves as a music school (Kauno apskrities Juozo Naujalio muzikos gimnazija). Dr. Semen Yakobson drew my attention to the fact. 

[2] The second photo, by courtesy of Prof. Eli Stoupel. The third photo was found on the web: KVB, Kaunas: Datos ir Faktai. Fotogr. R. Vaitilavičienė (2009 m.). 

[4] Information provided by Prof Eliyahu Stoupel. 

[5] For further details, please see "Nauja Žydų Kultūrinė Įstaiga: Jos labdarys p. Čais," Rytas, Sept 7, 1931, p 2 via http://www.epaveldas.lt/vbspi/biRecord.do?biExemplarId=122209 

[7] Information provided by Dr Semen Yakobson. 

Description: In 1927-1940, this building housed Schwabe (Švabės) Hebrew Gymnasium
(present Karaliaus Mindaugo Ave. 11). 2009.
Photo by R. Vaitilavičienė Source: KVB, Kaunas: Datos ir Faktai. Fotogr. R. Vaitilavičienė (2009 m.) Holocaust: Most of its students were murdered during the Holocaust---please see the commemorative plaque below -- D.R.
Source: LitaLita.com

Source: http://atminimas.kvb.lt/iliustracija.php?img=iliustracijos/goldberg_lenta_d



  1. Both of my parents graduated Hebrew Gymnasium, my mother in 1940, my father in 1939. My aunts studied there too. I know that they were attending the Kaunas German Gymnasium before 1933. I would like to get more information about both schools and research any available documents, which includes names of the students and especially information about their parents...please help.

  2. It is, I suppose, the same Gymnasium where Emmanuel Lévinas completed his studies, before his departure to Strassbourg, France, in 1923. Thank you for share a so detailed information, Mr. Rachowitz! Todá rabá!

  3. My mother Sonja Muller graduated from the Hebrew Reali gymnasium in Kovno around 1939, taken to the Kovno ghetto and survived Dachau. Are there any existing student school pictures from then?