The Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium
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.
"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 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
On 3 November 1938, studies at the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium were formally ceased and the children sent home. Local efforts led to the resumption of classes at the school in January 1939, under the directorship of Eliyahou Rubin. Changes had to be made for the school to acquire permission to continue its operations, and it was renamed "the Jewish Gymnasium." After a struggle over the language of instruction, a compromise was found: practical subjects were to be taught in Hebrew and common subjects in Hungarian. Studies at the Gymnasium continued until the establishment of the Munkács ghetto. The final class of students took their matriculation examinations inside the ghetto in April 1944.
"Exactly twenty years of the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium came to a close, 13 graduating classes – seven during Czech rule and six during Hungarian rule. Instead of celebrating the 20th anniversary and bar mitzvah of the classes, the bitter end arrived."
Arieh Sola, Orot BeHarim, [Hebrew]
Headmasters at the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium
Chaim Kugel was born in 1897 in Minsk to parents active in the "Hovevei Zion" movement. He acquired his doctorate in Economics and Philosophy at the Czech University in Prague. He arrived in Munkács as an emissary from the Jewish-Zionist students' union in Prague, in order to lecture to the Zionist youth movements in the town.
Kugel was one of the founders and the director of the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium - the flagship of the Zionist educational enterprise across Subcarpathian Rus'. He played an active role in the Jewish life of the region, and in 1935 was chosen as a delegate to the Czech parliament in Prague, as a representative of the Jewish Party. He became prominent in the battle for Jewish rights and Zionism.
After the Hungarian invasion of Munkács, Dr. Kugel fled the town, aware that he was listed by the Hungarians as a wanted man. In 1939 he immigrated to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) and became the first mayor of Holon.
Kugel passed away in 1953, at the age of 56.
Eliyahu Rubin was born in Kurima, Slovakia, in 1897. He was a graduate of the technical high school in Prague, and a civil engineer by trade. Rubin was the deputy chair of "Mizrachi" in Munkács, an activist in the "Union of Hebrew Schools in Subcarpathian Rus'" and a teacher at the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium. After Dr. Chaim Kugel immigrated to Eretz Israel, Rubin took over as director of the Gymnasium until the end of its final school year.
Rubin survived Auschwitz and other camps. His wife Rachel also survived. After the war Rubin returned to Munkács, where he had left his only son Amos with the German Strausz family, later recognized as Righteous Among the Nations. The boy had survived. After the war, Rubin worked to reestablish the Munkács Hebrew Gymnasium and then to relocate it to Budapest. (Two years later the Gymnasium closed its doors.)
In August 1946 Eliyahu, Rachel and Amos Rubin immigrated to Eretz Israel on the "Heliopolis." In Israel, Rubin worked as a teacher and engineer, as well as in scientific writing and editing. He also served as chair of the Association of Subcarpathian Rus' Immigrants, and deputy chair of the Association of Hungarian Immigrants.
Eliyahu Rubin passed away in Israel in August 1990.