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Memories of a Polish Jewish Education

On the eve of World War II, Poland was home to approximately 3.3 million Jews. Abraham Brumberg, raised in Warsaw in a secular socialist milieu, remembers the vitality of the city's Yiddish culture, and the patriotism he and his friends felt toward Poland.


I was brought up in a secular Yiddish-speaking environment and went to a school where the language of instruction was Yiddish. Yiddish was the language I heard on the streets, at home, in school, in the theater, and it was the language spoken by most of my friends. I read works by European authors in Yiddish translation-- Dickens, Kipling, Selma Lagerlof, Knut Hamsun, Jack London and others. The Call of the Wild was the favorite of generations of Jewish schoolchildren, as was the more horrific The Sea Wolf. A friend of mine . . . . had all the works of Jules Verne in Yiddish prominently displayed on his bookshelf. I read them, one by one. . . .

I also devoured books by Polish authors. . . . we were expected to be good Yiddishists but also loyal Poles. Reading late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century novels bolstered our patriotism. . . .

In pre-war Poland, a poor and fairly backward country where a great many people believed that Jews had killed Christ and used gentile children's blood for baking matzo on Passover, lived thousands of Jewish youngsters fervently dedicated to the liberating truths of socialism, internationalism and solidarity with the Polish "masses." We were deeply respectful of the country's history and culture, and passionate about its unspoilt countryside. Our ideology combined the belief that Jews had the right to remain in Poland with the belief that we also had the right to build our lives and institutions in our own language, Yiddish. It was an odd melange, this creed, yet it worked.