For teachers adapting to pandemic, inspiration from teachers and students during Holocaust

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This week is Teacher Appreciation Week. All over the country, and indeed, much of the world, teachers are adapting to online education.  Teachers, students, and parents struggle with technology, disparities and lack of access to high speed internet and staying engaged in remote learning, even while they and their students and students’ families grapple with the social, medical, and financial challenges of the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite this uncertainty, teachers have risen to the challenge and are continuing to educate and support their students.

Throughout history, educators have had to struggle with and adapt to times and situations when teaching was difficult, if not impossible.  When the Germans occupied the western half of Poland in September, 1939, one of the first things they did was prohibit any form of organized education in the Jewish community. Jewish students of all ages were suddenly left without the framework and direction that had been provided by both secular and religious schools.  Confined in ghettos, struggling to survive in the face of starvation, cold, disease, and forced labor, among other things, Jews nevertheless found ways to continue to educate their youth.  

In the Warsaw ghetto, youth movements that had been active in Poland prior to the outbreak of the war took on a large role in the development of underground education. Soon after the Germans had banned  Jews from receiving an education, public organizations and private individuals had moved quickly to establish small study groups for older students. These study groups were limited in the number of young people they could reach, however. Aware that the ghetto lacked the resources to tackle the problem fully, Jewish youth groups both participated in and developed new broad-based educational programs that would reach many more young people.  

Youth group members volunteered in many of the “children’s corners” that had been set up in the ghetto. One youth group even organized special underground seminars in which they trained their members for this type of work.  Once trained, members worked as nursery school teachers for younger children and counselors and educators for older youth. They taught children Hebrew, Yiddish and Jewish history, and took them outside for exercise whenever possible.

One of the most outstanding achievements was the establishment of an underground gymnasium (secondary school) by the Dror youth movement. The school was opened in August, 1940. The school was originally established just for youth movement members, but it quickly expanded. Eventually, the school had some 120 students and thirteen teachers. It covered the grades from the fourth year of primary school through the second year of high school. Lower grades studied for 18-20 hours a week, upper grades from 32-34 hours. The school offered a full humanities program, as well as French, English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Bible studies, singing, and art.

Working conditions for both students and teachers were difficult. There were no permanent classrooms, books, or learning materials. Small groups of students moved from apartment to apartment in search of a safe space to study. Often they worked in small, one room apartments with entire families crowded in. Both students and teachers suffered from hunger, cold, and poverty. Nonetheless, they continued to study. Students who were able to attend in turn passed on what they had learned to those who were unable to be there. 

“The educational and intellectual development of Jewish youth, members believed, was a crucial form of defense for the entire community. They feared that a decline in this area among young Jews would be catastrophic for the Jewish people as a whole. ‘The nation will not recover from its fall if our youth are flawed and degenerate,’ wrote one youth, ‘and only we, the children aged 13-18, will be the ones to lead the Jewish masses to a different future, a better future.’ The integrity of Jewish youth, leaders felt, must be preserved for the future, when they would be faced with the task of rebuilding their shattered people.”  Erica Nadelhaft, “Resistance through Education: Polish Zionist Youth Movements in Warsaw, 1939-1941,” in POLIN: Studies in Polish Jewry, Vol. 9, (London, 1996), 229.

Education and intellectual activity were seen as a means to withstand the degradation of life under Nazi rule. For young Jews, education became a form of resistance to the Nazis and to the demoralization of life in the ghetto. They believed that in order to safeguard both the physical and the spiritual existence of Jewish youth they must continue to be intellectually active. Jewish youth realized that the Nazis’ attack on education was a deliberate attempt to destroy the Jewish people from within, and they acted decisively to prevent that. 

An article published by a Jewish youth movement newspaper in September, 1940, sums it up:

“They [the Nazis] have forbidden us schools, literature, and libraries. Why? They have forbidden us private education – and for what reason? Perhaps because of suspicion and fear of what could grow out of our thinking, our thoughts….Must not Jewish youth begin to resist with thinking, with ideas? We must think….We must not lose hope and belief….We must study! We must form opinions and precisely analyze historical events….Thought has always been the most dangerous weapon and greatest enemy of oppression. Thought – that is the slogan which will serve as a beacon to Jewish youth….Thought – our slogan and our goal.”  From Plomienie, (Sept., 1940), in Yosef Kermish, ed, Itonut hamakhteret hayehudit beVarsha, i (Jerusalem, 1979), 111. The translation is mine.

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