“Protecting Birds. Take care of the birds in winter: give them food, protect them from frost and snow.” Yiddish panel from an exhibition mounted by students from the TSYSHO school of the Medem Sanatorium, Warsaw, 1933. (YIVO)

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Di Tsentrale Yidishe Shul-Organizatsye (Central Yiddish School Organization), commonly known by its acronym, TSYSHO or CYSHO, was established in Warsaw in June 1921. Led primarily by members of the Bund and Left Po‘ale Tsiyon, its founders sought to create a network of secular Yiddish schools under socialist auspices. Headed by the Bundist Beynish Mikhalevitsh, the first chairman of the organization, TSYSHO was administered by a central office in Warsaw and a central education committee in Vilna. The latter was largely autonomous and less politicized than the institutions in central Poland. The administration prepared curriculum outlines, chose or published textbooks, and compiled vocabulary lists to meet the needs generated by subjects being taught for the first time in Yiddish. The curriculum consisted of Yiddish language and literature, Jewish history and culture, the sciences, math, music, physical education, arts and crafts, and, for some, Hebrew. In addition, Polish language, literature, and history were taught in the Polish language.

Participants at a TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization) conference on orthography, Riga, Latvia, 25-26 May 1928. (Seated at center, behind vase of flowers) Max Weinreich. Photograph by Ed. Krautz. (YIVO)

The theoretical and organizational initiative behind the development of the secular Yiddish school can be traced back to the pre–World War I period. In 1907, the first nationwide conference of Jewish teachers involved in modern secular schools demanded that Yiddish become the language of instruction in Jewish schools. In 1908, at the historic Czernowitz Conference, some 70 participants, across ideological and party lines, issued a resolution demanding equal rights for the Yiddish language, its recognition as a national Jewish language, and the creation of modern Yiddish schools. Malke Frumkin (known as Ester; 1880–1943), the leading Bundist theoretician on education in the pre–World War I period, developed her theories on “national education” as an essential part of the party’s program of national cultural autonomy. In 1910, Frumkin published her full-length study, Tsu der frage vegen der yudisher folks-shul (On the Question of the Yiddish Folk School), which systematically explored the pedagogical theories and socialist basis behind the demand for the Yiddish folk school. By World War I, the Bund placed the secular Yiddish school at the heart of the party’s program.

At its peak in the late 1920s, TSYSHO maintained 219 institutions with 24,000 students spread across 100 locations. These included 46 kindergartens, 114 elementary schools, 6 high schools, 52 evening schools, and a pedagogical institute in Vilna. The Vilna Realgymnazye, the crown jewel of Yiddish secular education in Poland, was the first high school in which Yiddish was the language of instruction. The Vilna Teachers’ Seminary—the second main institution of higher learning, which boasted such instructors as Max Weinreich—played a major role in the secular Yiddish school system both as a training institute and as a center for the dissemination of new Jewish pedagogical ideas. The 124 graduates of the Vilna Teachers’ Seminary, which operated from 1921 to 1931, became the core members of the secular Yiddish school faculty.

“The Role Played by Jews in the Growth of Białystok and Its Industry.” Exhibition at a school belonging to TSYSHO (Central Yiddish School Organization). Among the posters are (left) a map showing exports shipped internationally from Białystok and (to its right) a drawing stating (in Yiddish and Polish) “The Białystok textile workers are united!” (YIVO)

With the onset of the Depression, the steady diminishing of aid from abroad, and the absence of governmental subsidies, TSYSHO went into decline. In the 1934–1935 academic year, the number of students decreased to 15,486, dispersed among 11 kindergartens, 86 elementary schools, 2 high schools, and 70 night schools. At the time, TSYSHO accounted for 9.15 percent of the 180,681 school-age pupils attending Jewish schools.

Geographically, the TSYSHO schools were concentrated in the eastern provinces where linguistic acculturation was weakest, as well as in central Poland. In the 1926–1927 academic year, 68.5 percent of TSYSHO schools operated in eastern Poland while 28.5 percent were located in Warsaw and other central provinces. By 1934–1935, the proportion of schools in the east rose to 75.5 percent, with the Vilna and Białystok regions predominating. In addition to its leading role in TSYSHO, the Bund maintained a convalescent home for children in Międzeszyn (near Warsaw) known as the Medem Sanatorium, after the venerated Bundist Vladimir Medem. The sanatorium’s school employed the TSYSHO curriculum and was highly respected in Poland and abroad.

TSYSHO schools aimed to provide graduates with a thorough knowledge of the Yiddish language—its structure and grammar—as well as a mastery of Yiddish literature, particularly the works of Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Sholem Aleichem, and Y. L. Peretz. The attitude of the TSYSHO institutions and faculty to the role of Hebrew in the overall curriculum was a matter of acrimonious debate in the early 1920s. A 1925 nationwide school conference made the study of Hebrew optional, recommending its introduction in the third or fourth grade “for schools that have a mainly positive attitude to the study of Hebrew.” Where Hebrew tended to be mandatory, such as in TSYSHO schools in the Vilna and other eastern provinces, pupils studied the Hebrew Bible in the original (taught as literature), as well as modern secular Hebrew writers, particularly Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik and Sha’ul Tchernichowsky. The proportion of Jewish to general history also differed according to region and school.

From Tsemaḥ Szabad in Vilna to Abraham Cahan in New York, 12 December 1933. A letter of introduction for Khayim Pupko, a folklorist and esteemed educator, who is being sent to the United States to raise money for the Yiddish-language schools in Vilna, which are in dire financial straits. The dedicated teachers can only be paid a salary that "hardly pays for dry bread." The "tragedy of the German Jews" is playing a not insignificant role in convincing more and more Jews of the importance of Yiddish schools; he hopes Cahan will provide Pupko with as much assistance as possible. Yiddish. Polish letterhead: Dr. Cemach Szabad, Wilno, Styczniowa 8. RG 1139, Abraham Cahan Papers, F133. (YIVO)

A distinctive feature of the TSYSHO school network was its educational journals and publications devoted to the application of the latest educational theories to the secular Yiddish school. In the pages of TSYSHO’s journals, Di naye shul (The New School; Warsaw, 1920–1930), Shul un lebn (School and Life; Warsaw, 1921–1927), Shul-vegn (School Ways; Warsaw, 1934–1939), and Shul fraynd (School Friend; Vilna, 1936–1939), the organization’s leaders, such as Mikhalevitsh, Shloyme Gilinski, Yankev Pat, Shloyme Mendelson, Khayim Shloyme Kazdan, and Yoysef Leshtshinski, discussed education theories and the connections between education and politics, greatly influencing the content of secular Jewish education. In independent Poland, TSYSHO organized three nationwide school conferences, three teachers’ conferences, and a conference for TSYSHO history teachers. In addition, TSYSHO published a variety of Yiddish textbooks. Examples include Program fun yidish-limed in der zibn-klasiker folks-shul (Yiddish Curriculum for the Elementary School; 1925), Program fun geshikhte-limed (History Curriculum; 1926), and Program fun natur-limed (Natural History Curriculum; 1926).

With the start of World War II and the German–Soviet partitions of Poland, about 150 TSYSHO leaders fled to Vilna, now ceded to independent Lithuania. Such figures as Kazdan and Gilinski succeeded in continuing publications and schools. The combination of the German occupation of Poland and Soviet annexation of Lithuania in the spring of 1940, however, brought about the formal end to the TSYSHO school system, although many of its teachers were involved in underground educational networks in the ghettos.

Suggested Reading

“Dos yidishe shulvezn: Poyln,” in Algemeyne entsiklopedye: Yidn, vol. 3, cols. 392–400 (New York, 1942); Miriam Eisenstein, Jewish Schools in Poland, 1919–1939 (New York, 1950); Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, Di geshikhte fun yidishn shulvezn in umophengikn Poyln (Mexico City, 1947); Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, Lerer-yizker-bukh: Di umgekumene lerer fun Tsisho-shuln in Poyln (New York, 1954).