HELENA KHATSKELS (July 25, 1882-January 26, 1973)
She was born in Kovno, Lithuania, where she graduated from high school and went on to study history in the Bestuzhev Women’s Courses in St. Petersburg. After completing these courses, she lived abroad for a time, took an active part in the Jewish labor movement, returned to Russia and worked illegally (using the name Rokhl) for the Bund, was a member of the Bundist committee in Kovno (1904), contributed to the illegal transport of literature from abroad, and worked for the Bund in Vilna, Odessa, and other cities in the Pale of Settlement. She was arrested by the Tsarist authorities. After the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, she completely dedicated herself to educational activities. She worked as a teacher of history in Sofia Gurevich’s high school and in the Russian Jewish public schools of Vilna. She developed a considerable area of activity in the realm of public education under the German occupation during WWI (1916-1918), and she was one of the most important builders of the Jewish school system, from which later developed the modern Jewish secular school curriculum in Lithuania, Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. A gifted speaker, she gave lectures in the “pedagogical course of the Vilna Yiddishist faculty” at the evening classes for adults, in children’s auditoriums, as well as at public cultural undertakings. For a time she administered the women’s school of the “Society for Child Welfare in Vilna.” Over the years 1918-1920, she lived in Moscow, where she studied methods for use in what was termed at the time the “Labor School.” She then returned to Kovno, where until 1940 she played a leading role in the Jewish school and cultural movement in Lithuania, was a teacher in a Yiddish middle school in Kovno and other Yiddish schools in Lithuania, and at the same time was one of the principal leaders in the leftwing-oriented “Kultur-lige” (Culture League), as well as in the Jewish Communist movement in Kovno. When the Kultur-lige closed (1925), she was arrested for a time and after being freed, she founded (with Dr. Shmuel Levin) a secret order to support a secular Jewish school curriculum via the “Society to Support the Physical and Mental Well-being of the Jewish Child,” which was the legal name of a segment of the activities of the Jewish Communists in Lithuania. Over the course of many years, she traveled around the world and, in addition to Western Europe, also visited Israel (1929) and Romania (1934). When the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940, Khatskels left for Moscow—in connection with efforts to renew the Yiddish school curriculum in Lithuania—but after the German attack on Russia, she was unable to return and was thus evacuated to Central Asia, where she lived until the end of 1944. At the start of 1945, she returned to Kovno and was the renovator, builder, and teacher in the only Jewish public school that existed in the Jewish children’s home (in 1948 it was dissolved by the Soviets). In connection with her fifty years of work in pedagogy, in 1947 she was honored by the Soviet regime with the title “meritorious teacher” and with the “Order of Lenin.”
Her pedagogical activities were directly linked to her literary work which concentrated on the new Yiddish school. Her first publication was Program fun naturvisnshaft mit metodishe onvayzungen, program fun geografye mit metodishe onvayzungen (Natural science curriculum with methodological instructions, geography curriculum with methodological instructions) (Vilna: 1918), 64 pp.—with the supplements: “Musterheft fun naturvisnshaft” (Models for natural science) and Zalmen Reyzen’s “Terminologye far geografye” (Terminology for geography), republished in the journal Kultur un bildung (Culture and education) in Moscow (1918). She was regular contributor to the pedagogical journal Di naye shul (The new school) (Vilna-Warsaw) (1920-1930); Shul-bletl (School leaflet) in Kovno; and others. She edited Kinderblat (Children’s newspaper), the children’s supplement to Folksblat (People’s newspaper) in Kovno (1931-1939), and there she published a great number of children’s stories, travel narratives, and translations from non-Jewish children’s literature. In book form, she published: Di natur arum undz, a lernbukh far folksshuln (Nature around us, a textbook for public schools), with an afterword to the teachers (Berlin, 1922), 117 pp.; Di natur arum undz un mir aleyn, a lernbukh far folksshuln (Nature around us and us alone, a textbook for public schools), with illustrations (Berlin, 1922), 160 pp.; Di erd un di velt, a geografishe leyenbukh far shuln un aleynbildung (The earth and the world, a geography textbook for schools and self-education), part 1 (Berlin, 1924), 133 pp.; Shmuesn far di ershte tsvey lernyorn folksshul (Chats for the first two school years in public school) (Kovno, 1924), 12 pp.; Groyse dergraykhungen un derfindungen, populere shmuesn ṿegn fizik (major accomplishments and inventions, popular conversations on physics), part 1 (Moscow, 1927), 127 pp., with a foreword by the author and a word by Y. Zhiv (Moscow, 1927), 110 pp.; Finland (Finland) (Vilna, 1931), 40 pp.; Fun oslo biz bergen, a rayze iber norvegye (From Oslo to Bergen, a trip through Norway) (Vilna, 1931), 59 pp. Her translations include: Lucy Fitch Perkins, Di kleyne holender (The little Dutchmen [original: The Dutch Twins]) (Vilna: 1938), 37 pp.; Perkins, Mini un moni, der eskimosisher tsviling (Mini and Moni, the Eskimo twins [original: The Eskimo Twins]), with drawings by the author (Vilna, 1938), 55 pp.; Perkins, Di gevagte, kinder fun di shteyntsayt (The brave ones, children of the Stone Age [original: The Cave Twins]) (Vilna, 1939), 51 pp.; George Sand, Di fliglen fun mut (Wings of courage [original: Les ailes du courage]) (Vilna, 1939), 52 pp.; Mary Mapes Dodge, Di zilberne glitshers (The silver skates [original: Hans Brinker or the Silver Skaters]) (Vilna, 1939), 48 pp.; V. Irvin and V. Stifenson, Kek, der kleyner eskimos (Kek, the little Eskimo) (Vilna, 1939), 131 pp.; Vos mit a kleynem yingl hot pasirt (What happened to the small boy) (Vilna, 1939), 40 pp.; F. Bernet, Der kleyner land (The small country) (Vilna, 1940), 52 pp.; Hector Malot, On a heym (Without a home [original: Sans famille]) (Vilna, 1940), 151 pp.; Der nayer alef-beys (The new ABC), with Meyer Yelin (Moscow, 1948), 64 pp. Her work, “Analiz fun leyen-materyal” (Analysis of reading material), was republished in Dertsiungs-entsiklopedye (Education encyclopedia), vol. 1 (New York, 1957), pp. 295-306. She worked as a teacher in the Lithuanian public schools in Kovno. Her writings were to be published in the children’s supplement to Folksshtime (Voice of the people) in Warsaw. She died in Kovno.
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon, vol. 2; M. Anilovitsh and M. Yofe, in Shriftn fun psikhologye un pedagogik (Writings on psychology and pedagogy) 1 (Vilna: YIVO, 1933), col. 499; Y. Mark, in Zamlbukh lekoved dem tsveyhundert un fuftsikstn yoyvl fun der yidisher prese, 1686-1936 (Anthology in honor of the 250th jubilee of the Yiddish press, 1686-1936), ed. Dr. Y. Shatski (New York, 1937), p, 258; Kh. L. Poznanski, Zikhroynes fun a bundist (Memoirs of a Bundist) (Warsaw, 1938), pp. 121-24; Eynikeyt (Moscow) (March 22, 1945; September 20, 1945; November 2, 1948); Litvisher yid (New York) (January 1947); M. Yelin, in Eynikeyt (November 29, 1947); N. Y. Gotlib, in Lite (Lithuania), anthology (New York, 1951), pp. 1110-11; H. Bloshteyn, in Folksshtime (Warsaw) (December 1, 1959); Sh. L. Shneyderman, in Forverts (New York) (December 2, 1959); Y. Gar, Viderklangen, oytobyografishe fartseykhenungen (Echoes, autobiographical jottings) (Tel Aviv: Perets Publ., 1961), pp. 144-58.
Khayim Leyb Fuks