“How Was School Today?”
The pictures of students you will see in this chapter show them posing with their siblings or classmates or gathered around a table with their teachers and books. Some students are smiling. Some are serious.
Zuzana Sermer (second row, fourth from the left, sitting beside the teacher) in her Grade 4 class picture. Humenné, Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia), 1934. Azrieli Foundation, courtesy of Zuzana Sermer.
These are the youth who attended school before the Holocaust changed their lives. They went to public schools, private schools and Jewish schools. They lived in a world that no longer exists, but they experienced school much like any other student. They were excited for their first day. They were bored in math class. Their parents had hopes and expectations. And, as they walked in the door at the end of the day, they were asked, “How was school today?”
Let’s see how they responded….
A Sweet First Day
“I had been a happy youngster marching into school with my Zuckertüte, a cone-shaped container filled with chocolates and sweets. This was a German custom to help a youngster experience the first day in school with sweetness and thereby lessen the shock of the transition into an organized existence.”
Excited About School
“I go to school on rue Saint-Bernard, right beside Sainte-Marguerite church. I never get there late, although I’m the smallest…. We draw, we colour, we count on our fingers and, sometimes, if we’re good, she [our teacher] gives us pictures. If we’re extra good, she gives us treats. Was she ever surprised when she found out I already knew the alphabet! And that I could recite the whole thing! She’s teaching us to read and write.”
A Love of Learning
A Book for a Village Boy
“My favourite book outside the cheder was a children’s book in Hebrew with wonderful colourful illustrations. It was called Reyshis daas (First knowledge), and my father gave it to me when he returned from one of his trips, sometime before 1939, when we were still part of Poland. It was the only children’s book I had and showed a world I had never seen in real life, one in which children wore smart shoes and lived in big cities.”
Expectations of Elders
“[W]hen my father came home from work, he would often ask me what I had studied that day. He was so studious — he practically knew the whole Old Testament and Talmud by heart — and would test me on what I had learned at school. I didn’t enjoy that because it felt like homework. If that wasn’t bad enough, my grandfather sometimes asked me too. If I didn’t know, the experience would be very unpleasant. I didn’t like studying much and I especially didn’t like being interrogated by my father and grandfather.”
Did you know that?
Historically, and in keeping with girls worldwide, Jewish girls have had less access to education than boys, and many were taught at home. But from the mid-1800s, in many parts of Europe, young people were required to go to school, and it became more common for Jewish girls to go to both public schools and private Jewish schools.
Playtime in Kindergarten
“At school, I loved the toys that were kept in the glass cabinet. There were lots of dolls, building blocks and horses, which were really only canes with plastic horses heads that had big eyes and teeth. Every boy got one, and the boys would form a circle and gallop around and around, the canes between their legs as they pretended to ride…. I would have liked to play not only with the dolls and blocks but also with the wooden horses. Still, I was happy at playtime, because at home I had no toys at all.”
Math vs. Reading
“We had the same dialogue every day:
‘How was school?’ he would ask.
‘Everything was just fine, Daddy. When the teacher gives a mathematical problem to solve, I write out the questions and my classmate does the counting…. I can’t remember all the numbers.’
‘I know that you remember a lot of songs and poems by heart.’
‘I know, but it is because they rhyme. You see, I remember six times six is thirty-six. And five times five is twenty-five. All the rest is very difficult.’
‘You can learn if you want,’ he would always reply without a smile.”
In a small town in Poland, a father wraps his young son in a prayer shawl and walks him down a dirt road to religious school for the first time. There, the child licks honey from Hebrew letters that have been written on a board. Through this traditional ceremony, children connect sweetness with learning.
This scene has unfolded throughout Jewish history, showing education as a priority in Jewish culture. Explore how the love of learning was passed down from generation to generation.