Youth Movement Education in WWII

    Stephanie Berger

The years between 1939 and 1941 were a difficult time for the Jewish people. The Nazi party was in power and Germany had begun to take control of surrounding countries. The defeat of Poland in September of 1939 was especially worrisome for the Jews.  The first task of the Germans against the Jews was to concentrate all of the Jews into self-contained environments so that they would not be a part of the new Aryan society, or contaminate it in any way. In Warsaw, the largest city in Poland, the ghetto was closed on Saturday, November 16, 1940.[1] The order to establish a ghetto in Lodz, the second largest city in Poland, was issued on February 8, 1940 and the ghetto was closed on May 1, 1940.[2] Before the German occupation, Vilna had been the “Jerusalem of Lithuania,” but the subsequent formation of the ghetto on September 6, 1940 changed everything.[3] The ghettoization cut the Jews off from every aspect of life as they had known it – schools, hospitals, community centers, workplaces, and shops. Yet the Jews maintained as much normalcy as they could during this time period especially considering their circumstances. One area that remained important, and even may be viewed as gaining more importance in light of the situation of the time, is the education of the youth.  Zionist youth movements developed quickly, and contributed greatly to the educational movement.

The education provided by the Zionist youth movements in the ghettos took on many forms, from the organization of underground schools, gatherings to teach the ideals of the movement, training seminars for movement leaders, newspapers and more. But there are those who would question if the activities of the Zionist youth groups were really a form of education when they were done so informally and clandestinely. I argue that the Zionist youth groups of Warsaw, Lodz, and Vilna played a crucial role in the general education of the community.

            On September 1, 1939, German troops entered the border town of Gleiwitz, beginning the Nazi invasion of Poland. Within days, Poland was in German hands.[4] In Warsaw, only the Jewish primary and vocational schools were allowed to remain open initially. All Jewish secondary schools were closed immediately. Within two months, all formal Jewish schools were ordered closed. The Judenrat, the Jewish governing group appointed by German authorities to run the ghetto, appealed this decision to the Germans, but the appeal was rejected.[5] Left with thousands of children without anything thing to do, the youth movements quickly organized to combat this problem. Tzivia Lubetkin, a leader of the Dror movement, reports in her diary that many of the youth group leaders of the Dror movement had actually been in Lvov, outside of the danger zone, since shortly after the war broke out and they remained there until late in December 1939.[6] Although they themselves were safe, the leaders of the movement felt nervous that their young charges were in danger. Therefore, the decision was made to return to the occupied zones and Tzivia Lubetkin returned to Warsaw.[7] “Our primary concern was to preserve a semblance of human dignity and Jewish pride in the darkness of the degradation all around us. We sought a course of action which would allow us to preserve our pioneering spirit and pass it on to the youth” she recounts.[8]

The Dror movement organized the first underground seminar in the ghetto and training seminars for new leaders were quick to follow.[9] One of the major accomplishments of the Dror movement was the establishment of an underground elementary school as well as a high school. The formation of schools and education systems was imperative for the Dror movement because they “saw the younger generation living in idleness, growing up ignorant and boorish. This was precisely the German’s aim. Therefore, we felt it our duty to do something about it…so we established our underground schools.”[10] A Jewish education council and Jewish school committee[11] did exist in Warsaw, however it is uncertain what the functions of these organizations were and if they accomplished anything.[12] In all of the Zionist youth movements, the leaders became the teachers and school or lessons were no longer only about general academic subjects, but also about the mission of the movement to which the leader belonged. Much of the education provided by the Zionist youth groups was informal in nature, through games and social gatherings.[13] There was a greater agenda beyond just providing knowledge to the students, that of providing a sense of community and collectivism in order to achieve the higher goal of becoming pioneers in Israel. In addition, the Zionist youth movements published written material including a number of newspapers and guidebooks for the leaders.[14]

The Lodz ghetto was tightly controlled by the Judenrat, who supported the education of the youth, changing this aspect of the role of Zionist movements[15] In Lodz, Hashomer Hatzair “was the symbol of barren community,” with much less youth group activity than that of Warsaw or Vilna.[16] All youth group activities were held in Maryshin, a camp within the Lodz ghetto. Although “youth under the age of sixteen were not allowed to live on Maryshin, or belong to the youth groups…Zionist organizations sent their younger members to attend specific events in Maryshin, and afterward sent them home to the ghetto.”[17] The youth movements continued their agricultural education programs by establishing kibbutzim, socialist agriculture communities, in Maryshin.[18] Formal schools in Lodz continued to operate even in the ghetto under the auspices of Mordechai Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat.[19] Since formal Jewish schools remained open in the Lodz ghetto, the Zionist youth groups did not have a need to play a central role in the education system. Therefore, there is little known about the educational activities of the Lodz Zionist youth movements beyond the general activities of educating the younger generation about socialism, Israel, Zionism, and community values.

In the Vilna ghetto, as in Lodz, schooling continued. The library remained open and operational, providing an outlet of education for the entire ghetto. Leaders from the Zionist youth movements taught alongside those who were teachers by profession, and clandestine schools were opened. These schools did not teach the traditional curriculum, but instead taught the students what it means to be a Jew.[20] A regular school system was established in the ghetto[21], although it is unclear if it was allowed to operate in the open or not. Yitzhak Arad, in his article on the underground Zionist youth movements in Vilna, expresses his view that

The youth movements in Vilna did not furnish an alternative leadership in the ghetto, nor could they have functioned as one…the youth movements in Vilna gave themselves over to the notion of waging an armed struggle for Jewish honor in partisan units fighting in the forests; and it was they who formed the core of those who subsequently were so exemplary in working for illegal immigration to Eretz Yisrael, and who contributed crucially to the establishment of the State of Israel.[22]

He therefore indicates that there was a continuation of youth group activity and education within the ghetto. The education must have continued in order for people to unite to rebel because there must be a common ideology and goal to work towards. If the Zionist youth movements had not continued, then there would have been no outlet through which the leaders could influence others of their views and to create a resistance. The members of the resistance, however, were a small minority of the ghetto population. Much of the work of the Vilna youth groups was due to Hashomer Hatzair leader, Abba Kovner. Hashomer Hatzair held a large presence in the ghetto. Kovner was a very vocal individual who had a large influence on the youth movement activity.

The knowledge provided by the Zionist youth movements in all of the ghettos did not generally take on the form of a regular school as one would think of it today. The activities did, however, provide an education for all participants. The topics of the gatherings stimulated the students intellectually and gave them sustenance. The groups served to further their ideals of creating Zionist or socialist communities both with a strong connection to Palestine and the goal of living in the land. The ability to influence youngsters to strongly believe in the credos of the youth groups was the top priority of the youth movements’ agendas and is consistent with the general idea of what education is. The Zionist youth movements differed from formal education in that their education went beyond the call of duty. They viewed education not as something that only happened in the classroom, but they believed that education was something to live by. The youth were encouraged to read at home and to continue to study when it was difficult to hold classes and other large gathers. The education also provided moral sustenance in a time of great despair and gave the youth a reason to continue to live.

The educational role of the Zionist youth groups was especially important because the youth were a particular target of the Nazis. Heinrich Himmler, Hitler’s second in command, “stated that it was the Reich’s moral duty to kill every Jewish child and infant.”[23] Activities and group homes for children were encouraged in many ghettos because they would facilitate transport to the death camps. It is known that most children were sent strait to the gas chambers upon arrival in the camps.[24] The education provided by the youth groups therefore formed a purposeful resistance to the Nazi agenda because it served as a continuation of life for the people. The youth movements were aided by their messengers who traveled between the different ghettos under the guise of Polish or German identities. The youth movements were often the first group of people, outside of the confidants of the Germans, to know that all of the people removed from the ghetto were taken to death camps. When people denied the evils that were happening, the youth groups were also usually the only group to believe that all of the people had really been killed.

In the later years of the war, following the ghetto period, from 1942 until 1945, the previously silent resistance of Zionist youth group education took on an entirely different mission. The youth movements became the driving force behind the armed resistance movements. At this time, many ghetto residents had already been exterminated or deported to the death camps. The Nazi army was constantly changing the borders of the ghetto to include a smaller area, as there were fewer and fewer people. Knowing that the end was near for them as well, many of the remaining residents of the ghetto who were members of the youth movements joined forces to create an armed resistance. Abba Kovner’s statement in his proclamation to the partisans of Hashomer Hatzair, “let us not give ourselves like sheep to the slaughter,” resonated throughout all of Poland.[25] The youth movements turned their ideologies into political parties and joined forces to resist. In Warsaw, a number of people who would play key roles in the uprising were already living outside the ghetto and returned in order to fight. Both Warsaw and Vilna had an armed resistance, however the Lodz ghetto did not.[26] Can it be that there is a direct correlation between Zionist youth group activity and resistance? An answer to this question requires further study.

Even in the face of death, the Jewish people had hope for the future, and they continued to have this hope because they had a system of education. The systems of education during this time, either in the form of schools or youth groups, are not what we would think of today. In Warsaw, neither the schools nor the Zionist youth groups had a permanent home. Classes and meetings were held in a different location every time, often in a one-room apartment with the entire family present, but this did not deter them.[27] The little information that is available about this time period sheds light onto the values of the people during this dark and difficult time, and reiterates to us the fact that people were searching for a sense of normalcy.[28]

The small pieces of information that we do have, mostly from isolated areas and personal testimony, make it difficult to really be able to know the entire scope of the formal and informal educational systems in the ghettos of World War II. There is a lot more evidence of Zionist youth group education in the Warsaw ghetto than other ghettos, because of the diarists of the Oneg Shabbat group who meticulously recorded the happenings of ghetto and buried their diaries in milk cans. A good portion of these diaries have been found even though the authors did not survive the war. Other key figures who survived the war, including Tzivia Lubetkin, have since published autobiographies. In Lodz and Vilna, the same effort to record events in the ghetto was not made and much less information remains. Most of the written secondary literature on the topic does not touch on the educational aspects of the youth movements and focuses instead on the resistance efforts from a historical point of view. There is still much that remains to be uncovered about the Zionist youth group education from primary documents and from an educational point of view.

Whether or not the Zionist youth movements of the ghettos in Poland provided an education in the formal sense, they have served as an important model for the Zionist youth groups of today. The informal activities that the youth groups developed in order to teach their ideals have now been recognized by many educators as an important method that needs to be incorporated into formal education, especially in the world of Jewish education. While the youth movements of Poland were not global in scale, they looked towards Palestine as their inspiration. Since the establishment of the State of the Israel in May of 1948, many of the current Jewish Zionist youth movements have established their headquarters in Israel. Many of today’s most idealistic youth movements have become worldwide movements and many focus on bringing youth to Israel. In this respect, the legacy of the Zionist youth movements and their education practices has continued and will continue to flourish in the coming years.



[1] Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 1939-1943 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982), p. 61.

[2] Anna Eilenberg-Eibeshitz, Preserved Evidence: Ghetto Lodz Volume I (Haifa: H. Eibeshitz Institute for Holocaust Studies, 1998), pp. 84, 92.

[3] Yitzhak Arad, “The Struggle and Rescue Work of the Underground Zionist Youth Movements in Vilna,” Asher Cohen and Yehoyakim Cochavi, eds. Zionist Youth Movements during the Shoah (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995), pp. 213, 218.

[4] Gutman, p. 3.

[5] Jeffery Glanz, “Clandestine Schooling and Education among Jews During the Holocaust,” Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 16:1 (2000): p. 52.

[6] Tzivia Lubetkin, In the Days of Destruction and Revolt (Israel: Ghetto Fighter’s House, 1981), pp. 11, 18.

[7] Ibid., pp. 14-15.

[8] Ibid., p. 36.

[9] Ibid., pp. 58, 60.

[10] Ibid., p. 67.

[11] “The Patronage of Jewish Cultural Activities in Warsaw,” To Live with Honor and Die with Honor!... Selected Documents from the Warsaw Ghetto Underground Archives “O.S.” [“Oneg Shabbath”], Joseph Kermish, ed. (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1986), pp. 463-464.

[12] “Minutes of the Second Plenary Session of the Jewish Education Council in Warsaw,” To Live with Honor and Die with Honor, p. 464.

[13] Eli Tzur, “From Moral Rejection to Armed Resistance: The Youth Movement in the Ghetto,” Ruby Rohrlich, ed. Resisting the Holocaust (Oxford: Berg, 1998), p. 46.

[14] Erica Nadelhaft, “Resistance through Education: Polish Zionist Youth Movements in Warsaw, 1939-1941,” Polin 9 (1996): 212-231.

[15] Tzur, p. 49.

[16] Ibid., p. 49.

[17] Ibid., p. 333.

[18] Ibid., p. 49.

[19] Eilenberg-Eibeshitz, p. 209.

[20] Abba Kovner, Scrolls of Testimony, (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2001), p.12.

[21] Lisa Anne Plante, “Transformation and Resistance: Schooling Effors for Jewish Childrem and Youth in Hiding, Ghettos, and Camps,” Children and the Holocaust Symposium Presentations, (Washington, D.C.: Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, United States Holocaust Museum, 2004), p. 48.

[22] Arad, p. 225-226.

[23] James M. Glass, “German Treatment of Jewish Children during the Holocaust: A case Study on the Barriers to Resistance,” Ruby Rohrlich, Ed. Resisting the Holocaust (Oxford: Berg, 1998), p. 239.

[24] Ibid., p. 240.

[25] Abba Kovner, A Missive to Hashomer Hatzair Partisans, Yosef Rav, Israel Rudnitsky, Yaakov Besser, Amira Hagani, and M.L. Rapaport, eds. (Tel Aviv: Yoni Productions, 2002), p. XXXIV.

[26] Eilenberg-Eibeshitz, p. 327.

[27] Nadelhaft, p. 229.

[28] Glanz, p. 58.


Comments