The History of Bălţi before the Holocaust
The Bălţi Hebrew Gymnasium
The Hebrew Gymnasium (school) opened in the town in 1918. The girls studied in the morning hours, and the boys later in the afternoon and evening, sometimes until after 9pm. In its heyday, at the end of the 1930s, more than 300 students were attending the Gymnasium.
Students in the lower grades at the Gymnasium learned Hebrew, and the older students were taught Russian, in order to allow graduates to be accepted into university. The Gymnasium was run in the spirit of the "Tarbut" Jewish educational network, and included Hebrew studies and classes on Jewish history, Russian literature, classic French literature, and German, Latin and Greek. Students also learned geography, physics, math, chemistry, cosmography, citizenship, sport and hygiene. After the annexation of Bessarabia into Romania, the study of Romanian Language and Literature was also included in the syllabus.
The Gymnasium also taught the plastic arts. The painter and sculptor Eliezer (Lazar) Dubinovsky was the art teacher at the Gymnasium, and he often helped with the painting of sets for plays on Jewish themes performed at the school.
The Gymnasium's first principal, Dubinsky, initiated music classes at the school. About a year after the school opened, a wind and percussion orchestra was established. During Jewish and Romanian national festivals, the school orchestra would march at the head of the procession through the town. When the Hebrew University opened in Jerusalem in 1926, a great celebration was held in Bălţi, in which the orchestra performed. During Chanukah and Purim balls were held, with artistic performances in Hebrew. The Gymnasium orchestra played light Jewish music, such as Hassidic melodies and songs of Eretz Israel – as long as the members of the orchestra could get hold of their scores – and even a medley of operatic songs. The revenues from the balls helped subsidize fees for underprivileged students at the Gymnasium.
In the second half of the 1930s, the Romanian government banned the teaching of subjects in Hebrew, made the exams much harder and restricted the study of Hebrew. Inspectors from the Romanian Ministry of Education even conducted surprise visits at the school to check that the students were not speaking in Hebrew, only Romanian. Leib Cuperstein, a Hebrew studies teacher, would go out to the corridors of the Gymnasium during recess and speak with the students in Hebrew, despite the anger of some of the teachers who were afraid of repercussions from the government. On Shabbatot, Cuperstein began to hold "Literature Circles" – meetings of school students in which they would read – in Hebrew – lectures prepared by the students on Hebrew creative works. He even initiated a comprehensive survey of the Jewish educational institutions across the whole of Bessarabia.
The strong hand of the Romanian authorities led to the acceleration of Zionist activities in Bălţi in general, and at the Gymnasium in particular. From the student body came most of the town's Zionist youth group leaders – Maccabi, Hashomer Hatzair, Gordonia and Beitar. There were also a few communist sympathizers, who were caught, imprisoned and tortured by the Romanian police. Many of the school's graduates continued their studies at universities, mostly in Western Europe, and then returned to Bălţi as doctors, pharmacists, engineers and lawyers. A few emigrated to Eretz Israel as halutzim.
With the invasion of the Soviet forces into Bălţi, the Hebrew Gymnasium closed down – after 23 years as the educational center of the Jews of Bălţi as well as the hub of activity for dozens of Zionist youths.