Fishele Lehrer and his Secular School
from the memoirs of Jacob M. Rothbart

The Bund Kindergarden
Teachers (from right) Sonia Czemelinski-Nowogrodska, Channa Zelemenski

Until Fishele opened his secular school in Gombin, all the Jewish children's knowledge was strictly in a religious form. From early life, starting at three or four years, a child received his education from the melamed (teacher) who ran the cheder (religious school). Occasionally the melamed also taught the children a little reading and writing, but that was not obligatory. The main thing was teaching religion in all its aspects - the Bible, the Prophets, holidays, customs and other religious subjects.

Fishele, on the other hand, taught only the secular subjects - reading, writing and even several foreign languages such as Polish, German and Russian.

The progress of his pupils varied depending on the ability of the individual students. At the same time, the religious school was not ignored by this new school of secular subjects. There was an understanding between the parents and the religious melamed that several times a week, at certain hours, the pupils were to be released to go and learn the secular subjects.

The world Fishel is a very well-known Jewish name, but the word Fishele indicates a certain sentiment bestowed by Fishele's class of younger children.

The small town of Gombin had a population of about 5,000, about two-thirds Jews and the rest Poles, with a small number of Germans and Russian police. The town was laid out in such a way that through the heart of it ran a creek called the Buch (German for creek). This creek served all kinds of purposes for the population of Gombin. The widest part of it was between 25 to 30 feet, and ran by the Jewish settlement. At the top of one 200-foot bank sat the synagogue and the Beit Midrash (House of Learning). At one time, at another point on the creek's bank, the Jewish slaughterhouse was built so blood could run down the creek to be carried 6 miles to Poland's largest river, the Vistula. A fabric dyer who needed a lot of cleaner water dammed off a section of the creek for himself, and from there the water continued in a steady flow, coming down from wells or hills miles and miles east of the city.

In the summertime, Jewish girls helping their mothers came down to the creek to wash their clothes. Jewish youngsters, mainly boys, had their first experience of running rowboats in the creek. Where did they get their rowboats? They got a hold of wide boards and sticks to steer them with, and had the most enjoyable time riding on them. They kept their so-called rowboats and "oars" hidden in high grass growing from melted snow which turned that innocent creek into a large river with high water - hiding the bank, but fortunately, as far as I remember, never affecting the houses built nearby.

But ordinarily, the creek was innocent without dangers. In the winter it was the life of the youngsters again. They had the finest ice-skating "rink" but skates were usually their own shoes and some thought-up way of pieces of wood with wire underneath. Not all of the children had these additions, however; not all could build these contraptions.

Fishele Lehrer had his school in a yard right above the hill across from the synagogue, and whenever his pupils had a chance to run down and do some skating, they did.

One day while I and the rest of the boys were at Fishele's school, he was called away to some important place and asked his students to please have patience. "I'll return as soon as possible and we'll continue with our learning," he said. As soon as Fishele left the door, the whole class, in the below-zero weather, got their little coats and ran down the hill to skate.

They were so enthused by the skating that even when Fishele's helper came down and said that the teacher was back and that they should come back to school, none of us paid attention.

Then Mrs. Fishele, with the helper, came back down and warned us, "Remember, the teacher will not stand for this." But still there was a lot of hesitation until we finally decided to go back to school.

Usually Fishele was a very mild person and not of robust build. But this time when his school came back, he got so aggravated that his eyes stuck out and he took down his kantscik, a whip with several leather strings which always hung on the wall and seldom was used.

The mild Fishele was plainly mad. He upturned a chair and pulled each of the young children up to the chair, laying them down on the chair and beating their behinds. Those children were yelling as though the world came to an end; everybody was crying.

When it came to my turn, they called out my name. I do not know what came over me, but I got a feeling of fun - I did not wait until anyone yelled at me or pulled me up. I walked up to the chair myself, unbuttoned my knee pants and let them down and lay on the chair. When I did that, Fishele, his wife, his helper and the other children began shouting out with such language they could hardly hold themselves down. And what can I tell you? My behind was saved from the beating - and everyone laughed so much there was no room left for beating anybody!


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