Arthur Spier: Father of Day Schools in America
King Solomon in his book Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) describes the injustice that sometimes afflicts men of great valor and importance. "There was a little city and few men within it and there came a great king and besieged it and built great siege works against it. Now there was found in it a poor wise man and he by his wisdom saved the city, yet no man remembered that same poor man" (Kohelet 9:14). I think of one man who fits this description. Dr. Arthur Spier, who not only led a highly successful Jewish day school in Hamburg, which became the model of all day schools around the world, but who -- against all odds -- also single-handedly held back the Nazi onslaught against that school and kept it in blessed operation deep into the Hitler period. But very few people know today who Arthur Spier was, and he certainly richly deserves an exhaustive study of his life and work.
Spier was born in 1898 into an Orthodox family in a small German town, Ballenstedt, near Bad Schwalbach. His genius in the exact sciences became apparent at an early age, and so he studied mainly natural sciences and mathematics at various German universities. However, in the spirit of the great 19th century rabbi, Ezriel Hildesheimer, he also studied at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin. The combination of a natural sciences and Jewish studies scholar was not yet widely found in Germany. This wide-based education was the key to Spier's success as a Jewish leader and educator.
In World War I, as Germany's youngest air force pilot, Spier volunteered his services. I heard it said that he served under the legendary German air ace von Richthofen, a credential that during the Hitler period did not impress any of the Nazi goons he had to deal with. In fact he was shot down in World War I -- a fact that he modestly leaves out in his handwritten autobiography of which I recently obtained a copy in Germany. His plane crash resulted in a head injury, which remained visible on his forehead for the rest of his life.
Realizing his unique value to Orthodox Jewish education, the day school of the Samson Rafael Hirsch school in Frankfurt engaged him, at the early age of 24, to be its Studienassessor. In 1925 a delegation came to him from Hamburg with an invitation to become the principal in the famed, old Talmud Torah Realschule, which previously had been led by Rabbi Josef Carlebach, the great martyr of sainted memory. Spier hesitated, since at the young age of 27 he did not think he could command the respect he needed in the staid, proud community of Hamburg and in the school, which was founded in 1805. He also wondered how -- considering that the average age of the teachers was 40 -- he would be able to hold command. But Rabbi Josef Carlebach, recognizing Spier's outstanding qualifications, urged him to accept the offer. Spier turned to his parents for permission -- then accepted the exalted job. As he later wrote: "I did not then realize that I would be the last principal of the Talmud Torah Schule." (Rabbi Carlebach and practically all the teachers and students at the school still alive in 1942 would be murdered by the Nazis.)
His work was greatly facilitated by the lavish support he enjoyed from the famed banker, Max Warburg, and some 20 members of the Talmud Torah's board of directors, of which my father, Hans Lehmann, was one. Although some directors were not very observant, they all complied with the strictly Orthodox educational curriculum and program that Spier maintained. This harmonious collaboration between principal and board was an exemplary model for the later day schools that evolved out of Spier's pioneering work in Hamburg. All educational matters were left entirely in the hands of the principal, Dr. Spier.
Dr. Spier developed a unique relationship with the government officials in the semi-autonomous city of Hamburg. Through this relationship, Spier could obtain legal modifications whenever needed and some financial support from the Senate of Hamburg.
Spier arranged the school subjects evenly between sacred and secular fields. He introduced novel subjects, such as arts-and-crafts and singing. These two fields were developed through unusually talented teachers who were able to inspire the students to make their own innovative "inventions." Thus, the students of the school - especially my old friend, Walter Gotthold -- helped in the composition and writing of popular Hebrew songs, which were published under the title "Hava Nashira." This rich production of modern Hebrew songs later led to the talented and rich compositions of the recently departed Shlomo Carlebach and other popular composers of today. In the field of arts-and-crafts the students were successful in producing out of wood, metal and other materials, unique items for the Jewish home. They also developed a simple modern script, which could easily be used for "cutouts," such as to decorate the Sukah. An exhibition of the entire student body's achievements in arts-and-crafts was arranged in Hamburg in early 1932. Gym had been part of the curriculum for 100 years.
Reminiscing in 1980 about his life, Dr. Spier wrote, "The years 1926 to 1933 were the most beautiful ones in my life." In those years, which had yet to be marred by prejudice or the growing Nazism, he could associate with Jewish and non-Jewish colleagues alike.
The school authorities of Hamburg recognized the success of Spier's education program by granting the Talmud Torah a charter as a full secondary school with all upper grades granted the status of being preparatory for university. As a result of the new classification, the name was changed to Talmud Torah Oberrealschule, the only full secondary Jewish day school in Germany. This happened in 1929, the year that as a first-grader, I entered the school. My family had migrated to Hamburg from Sweden for the express purpose of offering my brothers and me the kind of Jewish education for which the Talmud Torah Realschule was famous. I will never forget my first school day on April 7, 1929. As was customary in Germany, the parents would present the school child after his first day in school with colorful, giant cardboard cones holding candies, toys, etc. Mine was, by all standards, the biggest cone in the class, and I hung it in the corner of my room for many years as a treasured trophy.
The average student at the Talmud Torah was of unusually high intellectual caliber. My brothers, who entered upper-level classes, had highly erudite and motivated friends, with whom they stayed in close contact throughout their lives. Many of those graduates who survived the Holocaust achieved a great deal in business, Jewish life and government service -- in Israel and elsewhere. Two classmates of mine ended up as Israel's ambassadors abroad.
In his autobiography Spier wrote, "With G-d's help and with a strong hand, I tried and I believe that I succeeded, in achieving new heights in scholastic achievements, discipline and by applying the newest scientific teaching methods." His stress on discipline was typical. It earned him the nickname "Der Olle," which means "The Old One" or "The Fear-inspiring One." I was only called to the principal's office once, but I remember every moment standing in front of the awe-inspiring principal, who, while usually smiling benevolently, could show flashes of merciless discipline. His image is so deeply engraved in my memory, that, after more than 60 years, his face stand before me as if he were still here. When I visited the Talmud Torah again two years ago for a Carlebach memorial, I passed a room that used to be the Principal's office -- and in a flash the scene of facing Dr. Spier came back to me.
The Jewish subjects played of course the principle role in the curriculum. As a result, several of the Talmud Torah students decided to travel to Lithuania after graduation to attend Lithuanian yeshivot. Thus, for the first time in Jewish history, German students with a modern background attended such famous yeshivot as the Mir and Telshe. This phenomenon can be ascribed to the successful, integrated school program initiated by Spier -- following in the footsteps of his fabled predecessor, Rabbi J. Carlebach.
My family left Hamburg on April 2, 1933, to return to my native city of Stockholm, since my father realized that Hitler would bring ever-growing disaster to the Jews. Meanwhile, the Talmud Torah faced one crisis after the other. Dr. Spier had to weather terrible problems.
He had to explain and justify the Talmud in discussions with German officials, who had before them the lies and distortions of the arch-anti-Semite Streicher and his weekly hate sheet, "Der Stürmer." When his teachers were arrested during the Kristallnacht, Spier braved the Gestapo -- "you are entering the lion's den" one astonished German official said to him when he entered the dreaded office of the secret police -- accomplishing singlehanded . The Nazi goons threw him down the staircase, which caused him injuries from which he suffered for the rest of his life.
As one Jewish school after the other was closed in Germany, the Talmud Torah remained open. Students from other Jewish schools were crowded into the Talmud Torah's cramped quarters. Dr. Spier was trusted by the Nazi authorities to the point where they gave him permission at various occasions to accompany schoolchildren to England under the famed "Kindertransport" rescue operation, always knowing that he would return to Hamburg. Returning to Nazi Germany from even temporary freedom was of course a sign of supreme sacrifice for the good of the Jewish community.
In February 1940, Spier was appointed head of all remaining Jewish schools in Germany. In fact the Nazis appointed him to an unusual task. He was instructed to organize a network of Jewish schools throughout the ghettos in Poland. The letter of instruction from the Gestapo assigning him to this job bears the swastika stamp.
By now Max Warburg, Spier's financial mentor, had emigrated to America. The Nazis now ordered Spier -- whom they trusted to return as he had done before after other foreign trips -- to travel to New York and ask banker Warburg for a few million marks for the support of Jews in Poland. Spier knew that the mission was mischievous and that if he would bring any of Warburg's money back to Germany, the Nazis would never give a penny to Jews. He also knew that this was his last chance to escape, since, in any case, his mission was completed with the closing down of the Talmud Torah Schule by the Nazis, who confiscated the beautiful school building (which still stands today). Rabbi Josef Carlebach, who had been his education and religious guide, approved of what he was now planning, while Carlebach himself decided to remain with his flock until the bitter end -- which he and his congregants were murdered by the Nazis in 1942.
Spier did travel to New York and visited Max Warburg; but, of course, the great banker, who himself had risked his life so often on behalf of German Jewry while still in Germany. October 6, 1993 -- refused of course to heed in New York, a fact that was a historic-providential blessing for American Jewry.
The great reputation that Dr. Spier enjoyed all over the world led to his being recruited to found the Manhattan Day School, after he had led for a while the Hebrew school of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue in Manhattan. He fashioned the day school after the pattern of his beloved Talmud Torah Schule of Hamburg. The MDS became the model for other day schools, making the network of hundreds of day schools throughout the United States descendants of the Spier-led Talmud Torah Schule of Hamburg. That school, in turn, was inspired by the sainted Joseph Carlebach, who, in turn, took his inspiration from Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, whose Berlin Seminary he had attended. Thus our own day schools in America are direct descendants of a chain of successful, integrated Jewish schools going back over 150 years!
Dr. Spier himself, understandably exhausted from his suffering in the Holocaust and his decades of teaching, retired from the leadership of MDS and devoted himself to writing the "Comprehensive Hebrew Calendar," which he called a "mathematical Jewish book." This very popular book, which has gone through various printings, gives you the cross references between Jewish and secular dates from 19000 to 2100, with listings of respective Jewish holidays, portions of the Torah, Haftarot, etc. The introduction by a former Talmud Torah teacher form Hamburg, Hugo Mandelbaum, gives interesting biographical notes on Dr. Spier's fruitful and dramatic life.
Dr. Spier's immense success was greatly enhanced by his deep concern and interest in every single student. My older brother still remembers how Dr. Spier, as principal, personally led him to his classroom when, as a newcomer from Sweden, he entered the Talmud Torah in 1928. At the end of my fourth year in primary school, I was given a Zeugnis (report letter) personally signed by Spier. I was so impressed that I had it framed and hung on my wall. I memorized its words, especially its ending: "Manfred hat sich fein entwickelt." ("Manfred has developed nicely.")
I cannot think of a single Jew throughout our history whose life can be matched by Dr. Spier's; born in a small village; educated in a yeshiva and a number of universities; a German patriot in World War I, who was the youngest war aviator; leader of Jewish schools; initiator of modern teaching methods; a hero, who risked his life for his fellow Jews; a founder of a historic network of day schools, which has saved generations of young Jews in America.
And yet, as Kohelet says, "Yet no man remembered that same poor man." I therefore felt that it was my urgent duty -- as a former student of his and someone deeply influenced by him -- to give him back the place in Jewish history that he so richly deserves. May his accomplishments continue to be an inspiration to all those to whom Jewish education is dear. May the memory of this great and saintly man be blessed.
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