The History of the Munkács Community Before the Holocaust
The Munkács Zionist Movement in the Interwar Period
The Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium
"From the darkness and gloom of the mountains arise shards of sparkling light that illuminate the path to a new generation, a generation for rebirth! The Hebrew language penetrates every place where a Jewish soul beats… a Hebrew Gymnasium – an institute for Judaism […] and you, graduates, let our dispersed and disintegrated nation be forever in your sight! Believe in it and in its might, let your hands that work for its benefit be strengthened…"!
Dr. Chaim Kugel, at the graduation ceremony
of the first graduates of the Gymnasium, 1932
The Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium was the crowning jewel of the Zionist educational endeavor in the town, and became an icon of Zionism in Central and Eastern Europe. For the twenty years of its existence, some 1,400 students (male and female) were educated there.
The Gymnasium opened in September 1924, under the directorship of Dr. Chaim Kugel. In 1925, the municipality gave him a site on the town's main street for the erection of the Gymnasium building. Over the years the building was expanded and renovated, with the aid of Jews across Subcarpathian Rus' as well as other organizations such as the Joint, WIZO, Bnei Brith and Tarbut.
Students from first to twelfth grade studied at the Gymnasium. From the summer of 1926, the school was awarded official recognition by the Czech authorities, and its graduates were awarded government matriculation certificates. The classes were mixed, but the boys and girls sat in separate rows and the institution ran a tight ship. The school building was magnificent, with many halls and a fully equipped exercise room. It was also used as an important cultural center for holding lectures, conferences and conventions. The institution gradually became the Zionist spiritual center for all of Subcarpathian Rus' Jewry, with the tone set by its staff. The number of students slowly climbed. In the 1938/9 school year, the Gymnasium had 390 students, male and female.
The Orthodox Jews in Munkács viewed the Gymnasium as a departure towards an evil culture. There were often scuffles between its students and those of the town's yeshivot. Rabbi Elazar Shapira was one of the most vocal critics of the Gymnasium, which he nicknamed Beit Hatfela (the House of Frivolity), and hounded its director, teachers and the parents of its students.
Zionist youth movements operated at the school, and most of the students belonged to Hashomer Hatzair. Over time, representatives of Beitar, Mizrachi and Hechalutz Hatzair also appeared at the school, and the students joined these movements as well.
"We learned Latin, English and Literature. We read Lenin and Marx, Tolstoy, Cronin and other books. We debated and discussed with passion, and we loved to show off our knowledge to the girls."
(Peretz Litman, Hana'ar MiMunkacz, [Hebrew], p. 32)
The Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium officially closed its doors on 3 November 1938 with the arrival of the Hungarians in the town, and the students were sent home. In January 1939, the institution reopened under the name "The Jewish Gymnasium", and studies were renewed in Hebrew and Hungarian. The school continued to operate until 18 April 1944, the day the Jews received the order to enter the ghetto.