During World War I, politically progressive elements among Polish Jewish refugees in Russia, together with local leaders, established a number of schools in which Yiddish was the language of instruction. In 1914, Russian law, which had previously prohibited Yiddish-language schools, was changed to legalize such institutions. The number of schools increased rapidly, and textbooks and pedagogical manuals began to appear.
With the February Revolution in Russia, the Yiddishist-Socialist intelligentsia set about establishing a full-blown modern secular Yiddish educational system. In Ukraine, Yiddish schools were supported at first by the Vice-Secretariat for Jewish Affairs and, after the Ukrainian declaration of independence (January 1918), by the Ministry of Jewish Affairs. In 1919, with the decline in power and prestige of the ministry, the Kultur-lige assumed responsibility for Yiddish schools. On Soviet territory in 1918, EVKOM (the Commissariat for Jewish National Affairs) undertook the establishment of Yiddish schools. Thereafter, Jewish subdivisions of the educational departments of local governments took over this function under the supervision of the Evsektsiia (Jewish Section of the Communist Party). In 1920, a Jewish subdivision of the People’s Commissariat of Education was created with responsibility for education in Yiddish. The subdivision was led by Mikhl Levitan (1881–1937), a leader of the Evsektsiia.
In both Soviet Russia and Ukraine, the increase in the number of Yiddish schools, which were financed by the government, was a consequence largely of students moving to them from Jewish schools with instruction in Hebrew and/or Russian. In the first years, the curriculum in the Yiddish schools was determined largely by the teachers themselves. Specialized periodicals addressed problems of methodology; the most important among them were Shul un lebn (School and Life; Kiev, 1918–1920), Kultur un bildung (Culture and Education; Moscow–Saint Petersburg, 1918–1920), Af di vegn tsu der nayer shul (On the Way to the New School; Moscow, 1924–1928), and Ratnbildung (Soviet Education; Kharkov, 1928–1937).
As a consequence of the NEP (New Economic Policy), the already weak financing available to the schools from local governments became an even more acute problem for all of the ethnic schools. The Yiddish school system survived with aid from Yidgezkom (the Jewish Public Committee for the Relief of Victims of War, Pogroms, and Natural Disasters; 1920–1924), and by charging fees to parents. The Yiddish schools, however, progressively lost prestige among the Jewish population as schools for the poor. The more prosperous and ambitious parents strove to send their children to general Russian-language schools, which were better equipped and often had more qualified teachers.
The Soviet policy requiring that pupils be educated in their mother tongues was introduced in Ukraine and Belorussia in 1924. The compulsory assignment of Yiddish-speaking children to Yiddish schools did increase enrollments, but also aroused dissatisfaction among some Jewish parents whose preference for Russian-language schools was supported by some influential Soviet officials. In 1925, Pravda carried a debate about ethnic schools provoked by an article by Iurii Larin that decried the compulsory transfer of children from Russian schools to those where instruction was in minority national languages.
Nevertheless, the number of pupils in Yiddish schools increased beginning in the mid-1920s and rose even more at the end of the decade with the introduction of compulsory elementary education in the USSR. Local educational authorities made special efforts to send Yiddish-speaking pupils to Yiddish-language schools because they were much less crowded than non-Yiddish schools. In Ukraine there were 42,000 pupils in 268 Yiddish schools in 1924; by 1931 the numbers were 94,800 in 1,096 schools. In Belorussia the respective figures were 22,500 pupils in 175 schools in 1926 and 36,500 in 339 Yiddish language schools by 1933. In the Russian Soviet Republic in 1931 there were 11,000 pupils in 110 schools.
In the first years after the revolution, Yiddish schools, despite their Soviet character, provided broad-based proficiency in Yiddish culture. By the end of the 1920s, however, ideological themes had assumed an ever larger place in the teaching of Yiddish literature with emphasis on the current central slogans of the regime. Soviet legislation banned religious instruction in all schools. In 1923, Sunday replaced Saturday as the day off in Yiddish schools. As propaganda against Judaism became a central preoccupation of the Yiddish schools, Jewish parents sometimes preferred to send their children to general schools where antireligious propaganda focused on Russian Orthodoxy. Moreover, for a time in the 1920s, Jewish education was available in heders that could be attended outside school hours.
Changes in Soviet nationalities policies in the mid-1930s meant that sending pupils to ethnic schools contrary to the will of the parents was now defined as a manifestation of unacceptable nationalism. These new circumstances, together with the attractiveness of the general schools, led to a rapid general decline in enrollments in Yiddish schools. By 1937, in Ukraine, there were 46,000 pupils in 312 Yiddish schools, while in Belorussia, there were 26,000 pupils in 182 schools. In Belorussia in 1935, 60 percent of Jewish children living in shtetls attended Yiddish schools; by 1938 the proportion was 25 to 30 percent. In smaller settlements, Yiddish schools were closed for lack of enrollment.
Minority schools for ethnic groups that had their own country or having most of their populations living outside the Soviet Union (e.g., Poles, Germans, Latvians) were closed down from 1936 through 1938; some Yiddish schools, however, continued to operate in Ukraine and the Russian Republic until the outbreak of World War II. In Belorussia, all Yiddish educational institutions were liquidated in summer 1938. The Jewish population of Belorussia largely accepted the decree without protest, though some members of the Yiddish intelligentsia attempted in vain to influence the authorities to retract the decree.
Instruction in Jewish schools in territories annexed to the USSR in 1939 and 1940 was conducted in Yiddish. This was accompanied by sovietization and denationalization expressed in curricular changes, the shift of the day off from Saturday to Sunday, and antireligious propaganda. In 1940, 234 Yiddish schools operated in western Ukraine, 169 in western Belorussia, and 170 in Lithuania.
At the initiative of local Jews in Vilnius and Kaunas in 1944, four-year Yiddish elementary schools were opened with associated kindergartens and dormitories for orphans. During the antisemitic campaign of 1949, Yiddish educational institutions were liquidated in Vilnius and in 1950 in Kaunas. By 1951, the last remaining Yiddish schools in the Soviet Union—in Birobidzhan—were closed.
Mordechai Altshuler, Ha-Yevsektsyah bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot, 1918–1930 (Jerusalem, 1980), pp. 165–168, 316–329; Silvia Fuks, “Tekhanim le’umiyim be-vet ha-sefer ha-yesodi be-yidish bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot,” Beḥinot 8–9 (1979): 89–112; Zvi Halevy, Jewish Schools under Czarism and Communism: A Struggle for Cultural Identity (New York, 1976); Dov Levin, “Ha-Perek ha-aḥaron shel bate sefer ha-yehudiyim ha-mamlakhtiyim bi-Verit ha-Mo‘atsot,” in Yahadut Mizraḥ Eropah ben sho’ah li-tekumah, ed. Benjamin Pinkus, pp. 88–112 (Kiryat Sedeh Boker, Isr., 1987); Elias Schulman, A History of Jewish Education in the Soviet Union (New York, 1971).
Translated from Russian by Yisrael Cohen