The Soviet School System during Nazi Occupation (1941-1944)

E F Krinko. Russian Education & Society. Volume 58, Issue 2, 2016.

Know, killer without conscience,
You are the thief who robbed the house,
And according to the old adage,
You are not the host.
~ Alexander Tvardovsky, 1943

World War II was one of the most difficult and tragic periods in the history of Soviet education. The Nazi occupation was a particularly trying ordeal. Even before the war the leaders of Germany, considering the USSR simply as a source of various resources, advocated for the elimination of the Soviet education system. On 28 May 1940, SS Reichsführer and chief of the German Police Heinrich Himmler noted that “there should be no secondary schools for the non-German population of the eastern provinces. Four grades of elementary school should be sufficient for them. The public school should teach only: simple arithmetic, at most up to 500, the ability to sign one’s name, and the admonition that the divine commandment is to obey the Germans” [p. 116]. Hitler and many other representatives of the top leadership of the Third Reich held a similar opinion.

The beginning of the Great Patriotic War coincided with the summer holiday period for Soviet schoolchildren. Most of those who ended up in the occupied territory of the RSFSR did not go to school in 1941. In the Baltic states in the autumn of 1941 students started their studies at Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian schools, and by the end of the year Russian schools were established in Latvia and Estonia. In Belarus, starting on 1 October 1941, primary schools were opened, and seven-year “people’s” schools for the compulsory education of children between the ages of seven and 14 were opened in a number of places, as well as secondary and vocational schools in some cases.

In the spring of 1942 the German command issued a decision that all children between the ages of eight and 12 must attend four years of primary school starting on 1 October, the beginning of the new school year, throughout the occupied Soviet territory. Parents were responsible for ensuring that their children attended school, and for absences they could be punished by a fine of 100 rubles in most areas of the RSFSR, up to 500 rubles in Lokotsky okrug, and up to 1,000 rubles in Belarus. In addition, parents’ bread ration cards were often revoked. Only Jewish children were forbidden to attend school.

Emigrants who returned sought to assert control over education in many places. Members of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) were particularly active in Ukraine, which angered the occupation authorities. By autumn 1942, 57 schools were open in Kiev, in which 13,850 children were enrolled. But on 24 October Reichskommissar E. Koch demanded the closure of all schools in Ukraine except for public schools with four grades, “and only then if they have the teaching staff and teaching aids at their disposal.” As a result, at this time practically all schools in Kiev ceased to function [pp. 338, 340]. Koch’s tough stance elicited the criticism of even the Minister of Affairs for the Eastern Occupied Areas A. Rosenberg, who deemed it necessary to conduct an appropriate educational policy in the national regions of the USSR in order to entice the population to cooperate. The correspondence between the Reich Minister and Reich Commissar would have filled volumes if Hitler had not intervened to support Koch.

The exact number of schools that operated in the occupied territory of the USSR is unknown, but in some regions data indicate that there were many fewer schools than in the prewar period. A significant number of school buildings were damaged by bombing and artillery shelling. Other former schools were repurposed to house German military units. So-called “open-air schools” where classes were held outside were created in some places due to a lack of buildings. But such schools supposed no summer holidays due to the need to take advantage of the seasonal weather conditions.

While before the war there were 49 schools in Minsk, during the 1941-42 school year there were only 12, which matriculated 6,000 children. Before the war there were 31 schools in Taganrog: six primary schools, seven 7-year schools, and 18 secondary schools with 23,963 students and 878 teachers. Since the beginning of the occupation all schools had been closed, and their buildings had been repurposed for housing units of the Wehrmacht. On 1 April 1942, with the approval of the local commandant, the first eight primary schools were opened, where 1,875 children were enrolled and 91 teachers taught [l. 66]. Toward the end of the year another four schools were opened in the city.

In rural areas, the educational situation was worse than in the cities. While there were over 100 schools in the Porkhov district of Leningrad (modern-day Pskov) oblast before the war, in 1941-42 there were one secondary and 20 primary schools [l. 51]. The Budennovsk district of Ordzhonikidze (modern-day Stavropol) krai opened 24 schools, which enrolled 1,495 schoolchildren with an average of 62 students per school, the equivalent of two fully completed classes. Before the war, there were 1,648 schools in Stavropol, 1,100 primary schools, 352 middle schools, and 196 secondary schools with a total of about 280,000 students [p. 27]. During the five-month period of the occupation 220 schools were opened there, less than 13.4 percent of the previous number [p. 240].

The vast majority of schools in operation during the occupation were primary schools, and a smaller proportion were seven-year schools, with some given the name progymnasia and gymnasia. In Stavropol region 192 (87.3 percent) were primary schools (four grades), 13 (5.9 percent) were middle schools (seven-year schools), and 15 (6.8 percent) were gymnasia [p. 83]. In September 1942, seven-year “people’s schools” were established in Smolensk oblast. In Belarus seven progymnasia, 16 vocational schools, and six teachers’ seminaries were established during the 1942-43 school year. And in Latvia there were even more Russian gymnasia (four) than before the war (three).

Many school furnishings were looted by Wehrmacht soldiers as well as local residents. Therefore, schools experienced an acute shortage of furniture and equipment, paper and writing utensils, and fuel, making it difficult for students to study in winter. Many students were not able to attend them as they lacked shoes and clothing. Others felt that children should not go to school when their relatives were fighting in the lines. Another reason for the reluctance of students to attend classes during the occupation was the introduction of rigid discipline and corporal punishment. In addition, education soon ceased to be free: parents were required to pay 20-60 rubles for each child’s education, which not everyone could afford. Only needy citizens and straight-A students were granted reduced tuition [p. 104].

Local government administrations played a particular role in reestablishing educational institutions. Mayors issued special orders to address issues related to preparations for the school year, matriculation of children, repair of school facilities, and staffing. The city and district councils created special departments for schools (education departments) that were tasked with ensuring the security of school property, maintaining teaching staff records, and keeping order at schools. They monitored class attendance, presenting reports to the mayor each week indicating reasons why students were absent. Department staff together with police conducted raids on the city streets to pick up truant street children. The school departments also monitored teachers’ activities, and they developed and implemented training programs and plans that were submitted to the commandant for approval.

But the material resources of the local administration were negligible. In most cases they were sufficient only for the payment of teacher salaries, an average of 300-400 rubles depending on seniority and workload. Salaries in absolute monetary terms grew compared with prewar salaries, but real wages declined as a result of the crisis in the supply system and inflation. In some places teachers received additional daily rations of 150-200 grams of bread. Cash bonuses were also provided: for grading notebooks (10 rubles), for classroom leadership (30 rubles), for school principals (10-15 percent of salary), and for more than 25 years of experience (50 percent of salary). However, some district mayors deliberately misinterpreted the latter provision and did not count teaching experience obtained in Soviet schools. They explained to teachers that they had to work 25 years under the “new government.” Departments of education had to intervene to clear up the confusion [pp. 80-81].

As a result many young teachers fled and joined the ranks of the Red Army. A significant number of elderly teachers also chose to evacuate. Teachers were recruited only after their loyalty in their position was examined. There were additional requirements in some regions. For instance, in some regions of Ukraine under the influence of local nationalists it was forbidden to hire “former teachers of Russian nationality.” Only “real” Ukrainians could be taken on [p. 207]. Preference was given to people with an anti-Soviet or a prerevolutionary past, but there were not enough teachers with such a background. So after the initial “purge” was completed other teachers were hired, including even Komsomol members, Jews, and communists. All teachers were required to register with their district departments of education.

Elementary school students in the occupied territories of the RSFSR were encouraged to study Russian (up to eight hours in grades 1-2 and seven hours in grades 3-4) and German (up to three hours in grades 3-4), arithmetic (up to six hours), as well as local history, natural history, gymnastics, singing, crafts (for girls) or shop (for boys), and physical education. The hourly course load of education consisted of 18 hours per week for first-graders, 21 hours per week for second-graders, 24 hours per week for third-graders, and 26 hours per week for fourth-graders [pp. 72-73]. Physics, chemistry, natural science, geography, and drawing were covered in the upper grade levels. In grades 1-2 children in Ukrainian schools learned Ukrainian language (12 hours), arithmetic (five hours), sports and games (four hours), singing (two hours), and drawing (one hour). In grades 3-4 students studied Ukrainian (10 hours), geometry (five hours), Russian/Ukrainian history (six hours), singing (two hours), and drawing (one hour). Boys still had to take same number of hours of physical education (four hours), but for girls it decreased (to two hours) as a result of having to take up crafts (two hours) [p. 285].

The German authorities issued “Regulations for Teachers,” which prescribed specific requirements for knowledge in various subjects as well as for how these subjects should be taught. After a four-year curriculum of German-language study students should be able to “communicate in German in everyday life.” The Russian-language course consisted of mastery of reading skills. Students were urged to study grammar “only insofar as required to achieve this goal.” During the natural history course it was recommended that students study “predominantly those animals, plants, and natural phenomena that children usually come in contact with.” The course of arithmetic included operations with numbers: the numbers one to 10 for first-graders, from 10 to 100 for second-graders, from 100 to 1000 for third-graders, and from 1,000 to infinity for fourth-graders. At singing lessons children were allowed to sing only Russian folk and church songs; they were forbidden to sing songs with “political content” [p. 73]. History lessons had a Germanophile and anti-Semitic coloring, though in most cases the subject was generally excluded from the curriculum [pp. 79-80].

For students in Ukrainian schools knowledge of the German language was considered optional, but in the RSFSR, much more time than before was devoted to this subject. At the same time, in order to reduce the use of Russian, occupation authorities intended to withdraw the language from curricular programs of not only existing schools in other Soviet republics, but also those in the autonomous republics, especially where there was a concentration of other nationalities, such as in the North Caucasus.

Religious studies were revived across the entire occupied territory. However, there was no uniform approach to this issue. In some schools, the Law of the Lord became compulsory for all pupils, whereas at others attendance in religious classes depended on the willingness of parents, and at still others religious instruction was grouped with other extracurricular activities. A fourth set of schools scheduled religious instruction in the curriculum, but did not budget funds for it. The collaborationist press emphasized: “Children are excitedly asking for prayers to be read before lessons… and after school they recite prayers while standing and with great feeling. The children’s mood contains no feeling of dissonance between the school and the religious family.” At the same time, in some places it was hard to find people who could teach this subject. This problem was compounded by contradictions between the various denominations. As a result, some in the occupying administration concluded: “It would be better to entrust the teaching of religion not to a spiritual person, but rather to teachers” [p. 285].

A return to the prerevolutionary educational tradition found expression in the processions of Christmas trees and other events. During the 1942-43 academic year students were given the following holidays: 24 December to 9 January—winter vacation, 19 January—Epiphany, 15 February—Candlemas, 7 April—Annunciation, 20 April—the Führer’s birthday, 22-27 April—Easter, 1 May—national holiday, 3 June—Ascension, 12-15 June—Pentecost. The academic year began on 4 October and ended on 31 July. On holidays pupils were encouraged to attend church with their teachers, take walks, and have discussions [pp. 561-62].

The lack of available textbooks and other teaching materials was a major problem for schooling in the occupied areas. Initially, the occupation authorities decided to cancel the use of all Soviet textbooks, but later they realized that this interfered with their ability to maintain control over the school. The head of the security police and Sicherheitsdienst des Reichsführers SS (SD) in Kiev reported in May 1942 that “the lack of prescribed educational materials has forced us to allow teachers to freely arrange their curricula. This allows them to take an undesirable approach to student education as well as to employ other methods of exerting influence over students” [p. 207].

Baltic schools were allowed to return to textbooks that had been in previous use in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania before their entrance into the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. Gradually, new textbooks were published in Latvian, Estonian, and Lithuanian to replace prewar textbooks, especially for use in primary schools. Schools in the northwestern region of the RSFSR that were geographically close to the Baltic countries also used Russian-language textbooks published in Riga in the 1930s. These textbooks were often based on prerevolutionary editions.

From 1942 to 1944 new textbooks were published in Riga, Tallinn, Tartu, Odessa, Yalta, and Prague, intended mainly for primary schools in the occupied territories. A total of 37 such textbooks and teaching materials are known. Russian historiography has usually noted that they were filled with Nazi propaganda. While many of them do contain such material (including portraits and stories of the Führer, young Nazis, and the lives of children in Germany), much more attention was paid to Russian culture. Thus, reading materials used in the first grade included the Russian fairy tales Medved’ i devochka [The Bear and the Girl], Repka [The Giant Turnip], and the Tsarevna-liagushka [The Frog Princess]. Second- through fourth-graders read the poetry and prose of Alexander Pushkin, Ivan Bunin, Ivan Turgenev, Vasily Zhukovsky, Konstantin Ushinsky, Korney Chukovsky, Afanasy Fet, and other Russian writers. Readings from the works of contemporary authors included Anna Akhmatova, Korney Chukovsky, and Vitaly Bianchi. The texts were accompanied by the illustrations of famous Russian artists, including Ivan Shishkin, Viktor Vasnetsov, Vasily Perov, and Valentin Serov. Noting that “every nation loves its country,” textbook authors provided information on Russian history, including biographies of Dmitry Mendeleev, Mikhail Lomonosov, Ivan Repin, and other famous Russian citizens, omitting the Soviet period.

In addition, between 1942 and 1943 a magazine for children was published in Smolensk: Shkol’nik [The Pupil] together with the pedagogical magazine Shkola i vospitanie [School and Education]. Other educational magazines were also published in the occupied territory (Belaruskaya shkola [The Belarusian school], Ukrainska shkola [The Ukrainian school]), and newspapers also published materials under the heading “School and education.”

New textbooks and teaching aids failed to be provided to the regions occupied in 1942, and the classes were taught using Soviet textbooks. Usually during the first lessons the students would paste over the images of Soviet leaders and commanders of the Red Army. One student from the time later recalled: “In early September we, the boys who were living on the streets in the foothills, were forced to go to a school that had opened in a large two-story building. During the first session a German officer who spoke fairly pure Russian bade us farewell. Then we got out our books and started to paste paper over all of the party leaders and military commanders as we were directed. Then a priest in a cassock and cross appeared, and from that day forward we began to study the Law of the Lord” [p. 104].

In general, throughout the occupied territory educational activity was closely associated with the promulgation of anti-Soviet propaganda. Large cities established the special position of representative of the Ministry of Propaganda in schools. This official was responsible for supervising the municipal department of education. The official’s objectives were: developing new curricula and programs, preparing buildings for classes, hiring teachers, and replacing Soviet textbooks with new ones [p. 544]. Schools were often opened at a festive ceremony. Thus, a school named after Chekhov [l. 36] in Taganrog was opened by the garrison commandant “in the presence of the group representative Recknagel, the mayor, the teaching staff, and the students.” Local newspapers frequently reported about the beginning of the school year and the completion of repairs to school buildings.

Before the start of the school year teams of teachers were assigned corresponding teaching objectives. The German instructions for the schools in the Caucasian Mineral Waters region were formulated concisely and clearly: “All teaching at schools should be imbued with the spirit of respect for the redeeming German army and thankfulness for the liberating Führer Hitler” [p. 82]. When a gymnasium was opened in Pyatigorsk on 15 October 1942, the city commandant ordered teachers to confront the main difficulty in their work: “The task of teachers is particularly difficult, since they need to remove all traces of Soviet mentality from the minds of children” [ibid., p. 83].

Municipal departments of education created methodical commissions of teachers to update programs and revise the content of textbooks. It was assumed that they would work “to rid all curricula and textbooks of all sorts of communist trash and to select more valuable material.” Considerable attention was paid to the appropriate training of teachers and providing them with the required teaching materials. In Smolensk, teachers were not allowed to teach classes until they attended the mandatory lectures “Construction of the German state,” “Structure of the German schools,” and “The Jewish question.” In May 1943 a large group of teachers from Smolensk and Orel oblasts were sent on a study tour to Germany under the supervision of Doctor Zigast, a member of the Smolensk propaganda department responsible for schools. During the tour teachers were able to attend classes in Jena, Erfurt, Wartburg, Salzburg, and the Racial Institute in Weimar. The teachers attended lectures on racial theory and the need to fight against world Jewry [p. 569].

However, in some areas, particularly where the occupation did not last long, the content of the educational curriculum was much less changed. According to the memoirs of a teacher from the village of Severskaya in Krasnodar region, “the Germans did not establish any curriculum, and we continued to use the same Soviet textbooks. No one came to supervise at lessons…. Therefore, we were able to conduct the classes with children in a purely Soviet style” [l. 19]. In general, school education in the occupied areas of the Soviet Union lost its uniformity due to the way in which it was affected by various factors and circumstances. Some of the most important factors included the activity of the occupation authorities and the local administration as well as the length of the occupation.

Thus, the education policy of the invaders evolved over time. The failure of the Blitzkrieg forced the German government to start addressing the issue of schooling without waiting for the end of the war. The reasons for this can be found in the note prepared at the headquarters of the main Quartermaster of Army Group North on 3 May 1943, which stated: “Since labor service starts at 14 years of age, in urban areas young people between the ages of 12 and 14 are left practically to their own devices. They sit around idly, speculate, or kill time in other ways. This situation is completely unacceptable.” In preserving schools in the occupied territories, the German High Command sought not only to prevent the development of child and adolescent crime, vagrancy, and other forms of deviant and delinquent behavior, but also to win over the population. In turn, these actions, which aimed to ensure the satisfaction of basic social needs, received some support from part of the Soviet citizenry.