Reading as the Shaping Force of Life: Debora Vogel’s Contributions to Education

Anna Maja Misiak

Translation by Matthew Johnson


The writer and edu­ca­tor Deb­o­ra Vogel con­tend­ed with ques­tions raised by avant-garde art in the 1920s and 1930s and, through­out her writ­ings, repeat­ed the fol­low­ing ques­tion as a leit­mo­tiv: What does life” mean and which forms does it assume? This arti­cle con­sid­ers how Vogel engaged with these ques­tions about form in var­i­ous essays and in her edu­ca­tion­al work at the Jew­ish orphan­age at Zborows­ka 8 in Lwów. In this regard, the arti­cle tracks how Vogel intro­duced edu­ca­tion­al reforms and sup­port­ed the chil­dren in her care not only in self-admin­is­tra­tion but also in the pub­li­ca­tion of their own jour­nal. The two extant issues of Jednod­niówka — dis­cussed in detail for the first time in this arti­cle — pro­vide insight into the read­ing evenings that were held reg­u­lar­ly at Zborows­ka 8 in the late 1920s, as well as indi­rect insight into Vogel’s approach to edu­ca­tion. Vogel gave direct expres­sion to her ped­a­gog­i­cal views in sev­er­al essays pub­lished in the Lwów month­ly Przegląd Społeczny. In these essays, she argued that chil­dren should be tak­en seri­ous­ly in order to devel­op into intel­li­gent, crit­i­cal adults. She advo­cat­ed for chil­dren to be exposed to com­plex works and illus­trat­ed books that reflect­ed con­tem­po­rary trans­for­ma­tions in the per­cep­tion of real­i­ty. Vogel sub­stan­ti­at­ed her the­ses with analy­ses of out­stand­ing children’s books by Fran­cisz­ka and Ste­fan The­mer­son. Using a series of albums pro­duced by the Parisian pub­lish­ing house Flam­mar­i­on, Vogel fur­ther demon­strat­ed how books can encour­age chil­dren to engage in acts of assem­blage and artis­tic collaboration. 

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Born on January 4, 1900, in the Galician shtetl of Bursztyn, Debora Vogel became an integral part of the Yiddish literary landscape with two volumes of poetry, Tog-figurn: lider (1930) and Manekinen: lider (1934), the prose montage Akatsyes blien (1935), and various theoretical essays about poetics. She described herself as an “abstractionist” who could not tear herself away from “life.” 1 1 See the Yiddish-language letter from Debora Vogel to Aaron Glanz-Leyeles on April 12, 1938, in the A. Glanz-Leyeles Collection RG 556, Box 4, Folder 5, YIVO Archives, New York; a German translation is included in Debora Vogel, Die Geometrie des Verzichts. Gedichte, Montagen, Essays, Briefe, trans./ed. Anna Maja Misiak (Wuppertal: Arco Verlag, 2016), 548. In Lwów, she served as a perceptive critic and patron of young Galician artists, and she became acquainted with the avant-garde movement through the group Artes. In the Yiddish cultural journal Tsushtayer, which she co-edited, she published artist portraits and reproductions of paintings by Emil Kunke, Frederic Taubes, Maksymilian Feuerring, Fryderyk Kleinmann, Aleksander Riemer, Henryk Streng, Otto Hahn, and Bruno Schulz. Vogel translated from Yiddish and, in the Polish press, interpreted poems by Anna Margolin, Kadya Molodovsky, Aaron Glanz-Leyeles, Nahum Baruch Minkoff, and Jacob Glatstein. She thus fashioned herself as an “ambassador” of Jewish modernism in Poland. 2 2 See the Yiddish-language letters to Aaron Glanz-Leyeles on April 12, 1938, and on May 23, 1939, in the YIVO Archives; and in Vogel, Geometrie, 546 and 564. See also Vogel’s letter to Ezekiel Brownstone on June 12, 1933, in the Ezekiel A.M. Brownstone Collection, RG 344, Box 5, YIVO Archives, New York; and in Vogel, Geometrie, 500f. In her own work, Vogel pursued the principle of formation (Prinzip des Gestaltenden), which resonated with the efforts of Martin Buber in the German-speaking world. 3 3 In the interweaving of the form-giving idea with material that cannot always be formed, Buber saw the culture-shaping potential that was reflected, in particular, in the “essence” (according to the author himself) of Judaism. For his reflections on the principle of formation (Prinzip des Gestaltenden) and its antithesis in what is reluctant and shapeless, see Martin Buber, “Das Gestaltende: nach einer Ansprache (1912),” Der Jude: eine Monatsschrift 1, no. 2 (May 1916): 68-72. She sought to renew Jewish tradition by creating new forms and by attributing new meanings to what had been handed down, and she concentrated much of her attention on Yiddish. This approach arose from her deep conviction about the consubstantiality of form and content. 4 4 Vogel discussed the thesis of the essential equality of content and form in her important essay on Chagall’s painting: “Teme un form in der kunst fun Chagall. pruv fun estetisher kritik: I. molerishe virklekhkayt, II. analiz fun der teme (sof),” in Tsushtayer 1 (1929): 237-251, and 2 (1930): 19–23. For Vogel, as for many Jewish intellectuals from Eastern and Central Europe, the choice of Yiddish was also an embrace of one of the identities available to her; it signified an affirmation of the cultural heritage of Judaism. 5 5 On the complex entanglement of identity formations in the Jewish milieu in Eastern Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, see Eugenia Prokop-Janiec, Międzywojenna literatura polsko-żydowska jako zjawisko kulturowe i artystyczne (Kraków: Universitas, 1992), 58-63; Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, Odcienie tożsamości. Literatura żydowska jako zjawisko wielojęzyczne (Lublin: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej, 2004), 13-20; Hans Henning Hahn, “Zur Problematik jüdischer Identität in Ostmitteleuropa. Eine Einführung,” in Jüdische Autoren Ostmitteleuropas im 20. Jahrhundert (2nd edition), ed. Hans Henning Hahn and Jens Stüben (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang Verlag, 2002), 11–18, here 16.

While this literary work has been the subject of much recent scholarship and new translations, there has been considerably less attention to Debora Vogel’s daily life, which revolved around her work with children in the Jewish orphanage at Zborowska 8 in Lwów 6 6 See Mirosław Łapot, Z dziejów opieki nad żydowskim dzieckiem sierocym we Lwowie (1772-1939) (Gliwice: GWSP, 2011), 116f. Much information about everyday life in the orphanage can be found in the letters from the Vogel family to Marcus Ehrenpreis. In her letter on August 11, 1927, Debora Vogel described how she and her mother had taken over the duties of her father. The German-language originals are in Rabbi Marcus Ehrenpreis E1:3-E1:28, Archives of the Jewish Community Stockholm [hereafter: Ehrenpreis Archives, Stockholm]. and with young people in the Lwów Hebrew Seminar. 7 7 Debora Vogel took her teaching exams in autumn 1928 and passed them on November 29, 1928. See the letters from Leonia Vogel to Marcus Ehrenpreis on October 31, 1928, and on November 29, 1928, in the Ehrenpreis Archives, Stockholm. At the Hebrew Seminar, Debora Vogel taught psychology and literature and prepared students for the final exam. Together with Emil Kunke, the painting and drawing teacher, she organized and led visits to exhibitions and museums for the students. See Mirosław Łapot, Szkolnictwo żydowskie we Lwowie (1772-1939) (Częstochowa: Wyd. St. Podobińskiego, 2016), 319 f., 338-342. See also Debora Vogel’s letter to Marcus Ehrenpreis on October 17, 1932, in the Ehrenpreis Archives, Stockholm, and to Jakob Rottman (in Hebrew) on December 16, 1935, in the Schwadron Collection, Archives of the Jewish National & University Library in Jerusalem. The author’s father, Anzelm Vogel (1874-1927), was an official in the Jewish community and directed the orphanage after its reopening in June 1919. Her mother, Leonia Vogel (1874-1942), had been a teacher and director of a trade school for young women in Bursztyn before moving to Lwów, where she managed administrative tasks in the orphanage. The Vogel family lived in the same building as the orphans. As early as 1921, Debora Vogel was listed in the annual report as one of two teachers responsible for the education of the orphans. In 1927, after the death of Anzelm Vogel, both women took over his duties, including the administration of the education program, overseen by Debora, and the household, overseen by Leonia. From mid-1927 to mid-1932, Debora Vogel served as the director of the orphanage and challenged her students with complex questions and reading tasks designed to enable them to develop their own thoughts and autonomous forms of life. 8 8 In her letter to Marcus Ehrenpreis on October 17, 1932, cited above, Vogel complained about recurring financial difficulties and about exorbitant final bills in the orphanage. She mentioned the imminent possibility that she would give up the work in the institution. During this time, she had moved out of the orphanage building. The move took place in the first half of 1932, after her marriage to Schulim Barenblüth on October 11, 1931. Her mother later moved into a new apartment at Leśna 18.

There are clear parallels between Vogel’s educational and literary work, as will be demonstrated in what follows. In Lwów, as a writer and art theorist, Vogel engaged intensively with the antinomy that characterized avant-garde art in the 1920s and 1930s: by transgressing existing boundaries, non-representational painting introduced a new approach to life, but it also questioned life itself as a construct. In her poems, montages, and essays, Vogel repeated the following question as a leitmotiv: What does “life” mean and which forms does it assume? 9 9 In her letter to Melech Ravitsch on December 1, 1936, Vogel explained that she did not use the phrase “what is life…” as a beautiful phrase, but rather as a serious reflection on the confusions and idleness of life. The Yiddish-language original can be found in Melech Ravitsch ARC 4° 1540, the Archives of the Jewish National & University Library in Jerusalem; the German translation can be found in Vogel, Geometrie, 526. This question—and the related issue of a suitable education—was further elaborated in her career as an educator. Based on her professional work, she published several articles in the Polish monthly Przegląd Społeczny, in which she repeatedly addressed the question of content and form with reference to their pedagogical dimensions. Przegląd Społeczny appeared between November 1927 and August 1939 in Lwów and was, alongside the Yiddish monthly Undzer kind, the most important mouthpiece for CENTOS, the Association of Centers for the Care of Jewish Orphans in Poland. Przegląd Społeczny published the work of several representatives of the intellectual elite. Due to the advocacy work of these social and cultural activists, the care of orphans in Poland was well organized despite ongoing financial difficulties, and it was oriented around the most recent international approaches to education. 10 10 See Mirosław Łapot, „Zagadnienia teorii opiekuńczo-wychowawczej na łamach ‚Przeglądu Społecznego’ (1927–1939),” Pedagogika 18 (2009): 227-240. Łapot analyzes in depth the organization of orphan care in Galicia in the interwar period in his study cited in footnote 6, op. cit., 81-218. See also Łapot, “Studium Pracy Społecznej we Lwowie (1935-1939). Higher School of Social Work in Lviv (1935-1939),” in Pedagogika Społeczna 17, no. 2 (2018): 83-101.

In her essays about education theory, Debora Vogel demonstrated her profound knowledge of psychoanalytic discourse and of individual and differential psychology. 11 11 Vogel wrote two essays, among others, about Alfred Adler’s individual psychology: “Poczucie małowarościowości i kwestja posiadania,” in Przegląd Społeczny. Miesięcznik poświęcony zagadnieniom pracy społecznej i opieki nad dzieckiem [hereafter: PS] 3, no. 3 (1929): 94-101; and “Choroba nerwowa i psychiczna w świetle teorji Adlera,” in PS 3, no. 9 (1929): 332-340. Vogel considered these texts to be very important; they were recognized and appreciated in the research. See E.[stera] Markinówna, Psychologia indywidualna Adlera i jej znaczenie pedagogiczne (Warsaw: Nasza Księgarnia, 1935). For Vogel, it was crucial that a person’s education include an engagement with diverse worldviews. She described these worldviews as, in a sense, “tangible” and as potentially instructive in one’s life. 12 12 Debora Vogel, “Kilka uwag o stylu i wychowaniu zbiorowisk dzieci,” in PS 2, no. 5 (1928): 26-30. She considered the educational process in its social context and described it as the shaping of the shapeless (das Formen des Formlosen). In this view, the young person should be torn out of their “uniforming” within the shapeless mass of coeval individuals, though without forcing them to ascribe to a tradition. Vogel even welcomed moments of rebellion or refusal, for she considered tradition to be a material substance that could either be refused or further developed—a substance that anchors people concretely in life. 13 13 Ibid., 28. She believed that a person’s character was determined in specific ways from the beginning and then developed gradually over time, and that new purposes in life could be discovered by means of various intellectual and aesthetic stimuli and materials, especially literature and art. 14 14 Ibid., 26-27. Vogel emphasized that, in every person, “unlimited possibilities” lie dormant—possibilities that should be unleashed and strengthened through ongoing dialogue and exchange with other people, especially with teachers, who function as role models. She believed that education is about encounter, about the taking and giving of experiences, views, opinions, and approaches to life. 15 15 See Debora Vogelówna, “O kształtowaniu nastawienia życiowego,” in PS 2, no. 3 (1928): 12-15, here 13. In her remarks, Vogel explicitly refers to the theory of Fischl Schneerson (1887-1958) and to his major work, composed in Yiddish as an alternative to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis, Der veg tsum mentsh. di yesoydes fun mentsh-visnshaft un di lere fun nervezishkayt (Vilne: Farlag fun B. Kletskin, 1927).

In Przegląd Społeczny, Vogel further argued that children, from the beginning, should read quality books. 16 16 D. Vogelówna, “Lektura w okresie dojrzewania,” in PS 2, nr. 6 (1928): 26-28. She condemned the “lightweight” works that were conceived specifically for children or adolescents and “adapted” to their level—a practice that she considered to be poison for the soul. According to Vogel, difficult reading material conveys a more complex picture of life, and young people should begin their education with such a serious image of life. Adolescents should read works that not only arouse their interest with pertinent content, but that also utilize an artistic design with simple and clean geometric lines, which reflect the major trends of the time. Only books of this kind could satisfy the young person’s basic need for poetry and vividness, as well as nourish their imagination. In this regard, Vogel adopted a perspective that was also articulated by the pedagogue Heinrich Wolgast: the highest value of poetry is in itself; it cannot, and must not, be misused for tendentious purposes (also understood as morality or knowledge). 17 17 Heinrich Wolgast (1860-1920) was a German reform pedagogue. As an elementary school teacher and rector, he worked at various schools in Hamburg and was an active member of the “Association of Elementary School Teachers in Hamburg” (“Verein hamburgischer Volksschullehrer”), as well as the co-founder of the “United German Exam Boards for Children’s Writing” (“Vereinigte Deutsche Prüfungsausschüsse für Jugendschriften”). From 1896 to 1912, he led the magazine Jugendschriften-Warte, which published lists of recommended books for children and young adults. In his own writings, he advocated for the artistic education of young people through aesthetically sophisticated literature. His book Das Elend unserer Jugendliteratur, published in 1896, sparked a lively debate about “trashy literature” (“Schundliteratur”). See Hans-Heino Ewers, “Die Aktualität Heinrich Wolgasts. Vortrag zum 100jährigen Jubiläum der Arbeitsgemeinschaft Jugendliteratur und Medien,” Beiträge Jugendliteratur und Medien, no. 4 (1993): 210-217; and Ewers, “Eine folgenreiche, aber fragwürdige Verurteilung aller ‚spezifischen Jugendliteratur‘. Anmerkungen zu Heinrich Wolgasts Schrift ‚Das Elend unserer Jugendliteratur‘ von 1896,” in Theorien der Jugendlektüre. Beiträge zur Kinder- und Jugendliteraturkritik seit Heinrich Wolgast, eds. Bernd Dolle-Weinkauff and Hans-Heino Ewers (Weinheim/München: Juventa Verlag, 1996), 9-25. Young people, therefore, should be given books that are pleasurable to read. Aesthetic enjoyment does not only cultivate good taste, but also character. 18 18 See Heinrich Wolgast, Das Elend unserer Jugendliteratur. Ein Beitrag zur künstlerischen Erziehung der Jugend (Worms: Verlag Ernst Wunderlich, 1921), 22f. and 62. According to Wolgast, children should be encouraged to read collections of modern poetry because young readers are also entitled “to the language of adults,” who serve as role models for them. 19 19 See “Literarisch wertvolle Lektüre für die Jugend,” in Wolgast, op. cit., 224-258. Wolgast polemicized against the pedagogue Berthold Otto, who advocated for children’s right to their spoken language and to their age group’s vernacular. See ibid., 283f. Likewise, Vogel believed that any book the reader can understand is “appropriate.” She considered thorpe somewhat artificial prescriptions around reading to be unnecessary. For her, reading was never “harmful;” when certain content was provided “too early” and could not be understood, the interest of the reader simply subsided, leaving little or no trace of what had been read. 20 20 In her remarks, Vogel did not ignore the contemporary debate about “trashy literature” (“Schundliteratur”). Przegląd Społeczny reported regularly on the international state of affairs and was also a forum for debate about the protection of youth and about the promotion of reading.

Living Literature and Art: Documents of the “Community” at Zborowska 8 in Lwów

By the end of the 1920s, around fifty girls and boys between the ages of six and fifteen lived in the Jewish orphanage at Zborowska 8. 21 21 Reports by CENTOS (Association of Centers for the Care of Jewish Orphans in Poland) mention the following: 50 children in 1928, 47 children (14 boys and 33 girls) in 1929. See PS 2, no. 8 (1928): 11; and PS 3, no. 5 (1929): 181. Lwów social activists considered the institution to be an “authentic home full of warmth and happiness.” 22 22 “Protokół zjazdu wychowawców, odbytego we Lwowie w dniach 1 i 2 lipca br.,” PS 2, no. 7 (1928): 28-39, here 29. In managing the home after her father’s death, Debora Vogel ensured that the institution did not become an overprotected “greenhouse,” but rather a “place where every child could find their way to themselves.” 23 23 Ibid., 34. In addition to caring for the physical health of the children, she suggested that the orphanage also provide them with differentiated and sufficient “food for the soul.” The question thus arose as to whether and to what extent higher standards and requirements could be set for each child in view of their social situation and career prospects. Vogel believed that every orphan should be treated equitably and individually with regard to their personal development. 24 24 See Vogel’s contribution to the discussion at the meeting, ibid., 34; on the first day of the meeting, Vogel gave a lecture about the possibilities of individualization and the potential for individualization in puberty, which was then printed in PS. In the lecture, she discussed in detail the theories of Wilhelm Peters and William Stern (in addition to the theses of Richard Müller-Freienfels, Eduard Spranger, and Alfred Adler). See D. Vogelówna, “Zagadnienie indywidualności i możliwości indywidualizacji w okresie dojrzewania,” in PS 2, no. 7 (1928): 9-20. Vogel participated in the lecture series on pedagogical questions until the late 1930s. In reports about the series, she was praised for her subtle pedagogical profundity and for her wide-ranging knowledge. See the announcement “Cykl wykładów na temat problemów wychowawczych w Ż.U.L [Jüdische Volksuniversität],” Chwila, morning edition, no. 6731 (16 December 1937): 10; and the lecture announcement “O los dziecka,” Chwila, morning edition, no. 7172 (11 March 1939): 13, and no. 7176 (15 March 1939): 10; as well as the report “Z sali odczytowej: Dziecko opuszczone,” Chwila, evening edition, no. 1416 (31 March 1939): 8.

In Lwów, the educational measures of the pedagogue Janusz Korczak 25 25 Janusz Korczak (1878-1942) was a doctor, author of children’s books, and visionary educator, who campaigned for children’s rights. In the orphanage that he ran in Warsaw, he broke new ground when he structured life according to the rules of a community, in which children convened in a parliament, passed judgments in a court, carried out various duties, and reflected on their everyday life in their own weekly newspaper. See R. Godel-Gaßner and S. Krehl, eds., Kinder sind auch (nur) Menschen. Janusz Korczak und seine Pädagogik der Achtung. Eine Einführung (Jena: Edition Paideai, 2011). Korczak founded and edited the children’s supplement for the Warsaw daily paper Nasz Przegląd for four years, before handing over the task to Igor Newerly. Mały Przegląd was published every Friday between October 1926 and September 1939, in an edition of 50,000 copies, and only contained texts written by children. were widely discussed and implemented in specific institutions. 26 26 See the report about Korczak’s orphanage “Nasz Dom,” in PS 2, no. 10 (1928): 24-29; and M. Sobel, “Nowa próba samorządu dziecięcego w Zakładach zamkniętych,” PS 6, no. 10 (1932): 247-251. Debora Vogel was inspired by Korczak’s idea that character formation results from dialogue with teachers and from young people’s self-governance. She therefore supported the children at Zborowska 8 in founding their own “community.” They edited together two issues of their own Jednodniówka, a periodical which offered insight into the everyday life of their community, especially their discussion and reading evenings, which always took place on Friday. 27 27 I. Mischel, ed., Jednodniówka: wydana przez „Gminę” Domu sierót we Lwowie przy ul. Zborowskiej 8: rok szkolny 1927/28 (Lwów: „Drugotype” [n.d.]); Sucher Laszczower, ed., Jednodniówka: wydana przez „Gminę” Domu sierót we Lwowie przy ul. Zborowskiej 8: rok szkolny 1928/29 (Lwów: 1929) [400 copies]. See also E. Dombek, H. Machnik, eds., Bibliografia Polska 1901-1939. Tom Jednodniówki (Warszawa: Biblioteka Narodowa 2013), 87, nos. 1047 and 1048. Under Vogel’s guidance, the children not only wrote their own age-appropriate literary texts, but also reflected on their impressions and responses to reading. They practiced critical thinking, self-control, and self-correction, as reflected in the discussion reports they prepared, which formed the core of the first issue of Jednodniówka and an important part of the second. 28 28 “Część druga: Sprawozdania z pogadanek zredagowane przez I. Mischla, Z. Kahane i R. Winkler,” Jednodniówka 1927/28, 17-30a; and “Wyjątki ze sprawozdań z pogadanek,” Jednodniówka 1929/30, 5-10.

During these reading evenings, the children discussed the relationship between students and teachers on the basis of Edmondo De Amicis’ Cuore [The Heart] (1886; Polish 1887, as Serce), and they compared ideal conceptions of the world with reality as they knew it. Vogel’s choice of books was determined by the awakened needs of the children. During one of the evenings, for example, a child’s question prompted a discussion about the possibilities of life after death. On the following evening, in response, Vogel presented the philosophy of Gustav Theodor Fechner and read aloud from his Das Büchlein vom Leben nach dem Tode (1836). Subsequently, the young debaters took part in an exercise about changing perspective when they answered the question, “How might I imagine the (inner) life of plants?” While discussing their essays a week later, the group considered the three types of driving force in life: feeling (in plants), instinct (in animals), and intellect (in humans). They later read Jack London’s novel The Call of the Wild (1903; Polish 1924, as Zew krwi), which prompted them again to change their perspective and, depending on their age group, to write about life and about the psychological experience of an animal. This was part of a literary competition in which no first prize was awarded due to the insufficient quality of the texts.

Thanks to the stories of Jack London, Vogel’s students were brought closer to the reality of other peoples and culture. In this context, as well, the problem of work and its value was discussed, albeit indirectly. The children considered the reasons that so-called primitive peoples decorated everyday objects. They concluded that different living conditions shape the development of different capacities, ways of thinking, and concepts of beauty.

Vogel’s school of critical and deep thinking was comparative, future-oriented, and, at the same time, rooted in the reality of the present. She read and discussed works of world literature with the children in parallel with Polish books that were related in terms of form and content. For example, she and the children compared Martha Ostenso’s novel Wild Geese (1925; Polish 1927, as Krzyk dzikich gęsi) with Władysław Rejmont’s tetralogy Chłopi [The Peasants] (1902-1908), prompting the group to discuss the similarities and differences between everyday life in Poland and in America. In the process, the group further explored the question of the meaning of work in human life. What is the value of human labor? What are the characteristics of physical and intellectual activity? How does one define the products of both creative processes and how do they relate to one another? To what extent does the nature of raw materials determine the things they produce? How does one recognize one’s own inner calling? In these discussions, which lasted for several weeks, the children elucidated the concept of “nothing” and contemplated the meaning of idealism, the enjoyment of work, and the obstacles that must be overcome in order to create work that is important. Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) and Maxim Gorki (1868-1936) served as examples. In this context, they also read Andrew Carnegie’s The Empire of Business (1902; Polish 1904, as Państwo interesu), which rooted their conversations in the contemporary economic situation and instructed the children in the nature of trusts, nepotism, and in the conditions for success within modern state structures. 29 29 Thinking about the fate of a person as a “product of circumstances and social conditions” and about intellectual labor and its products was essential to Debora Vogel’s work. She dealt with the topics in depth in two essays: “Romans djalektyki,” PS 9, no. 10 (1935): 243-247; and “Kilka uwag o współczesnej inteligencji,” PS 10, no. 6 (1936): 114-121. A German translation of both texts can be found in Vogel, Geometrie, 438-453.

Yiddish literature, Jewish culture, and Zionism were important topics during the Friday meetings led by Vogel. Students read, discussed, and wrote about stories by Isaac Leib Peretz (1852-1915) and Sholem Asch (1880-1957), among others. They considered social and cultural themes within local and international contexts. For example, while studying the history of the Golden Rose Synagogue in Lwów, they learned about the inter-religious dispute about the building site. In response to the Paris trial against Sholem Schwarzbard, they explored the history of anti-Jewish pogroms. 30 30 Sholem Schwarzbard (or Samuel Schwarzbart, 1886-1938) was a Yiddish poet and anarchist. On May 25, 1926, he successfully carried out a politically-motivated assassination attempt on the Ukrainian politician and Cossack leader Symon Petliura. The trial took place at the end of October 1927 resulting in Schwarzbard’s acquittal. His defense focused on the acts of violence committed by Petliura’s troops against Jews; Petliura was thus made to occupy the position of the accused and convicted after his death. The children further commemorated the tenth anniversary of the Balfour Declaration by reflecting on the vision of the Jewish state which Theodor Herzl (1860-1904) had set out in his utopian novel Altneuland (1902); 31 31 In the Balfour Declaration (November 2, 1917), Great Britain agreed to the Zionist goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. at the same time, however, they also considered alternative ideas. They discussed Ahad Ha’am, who died in 1927, and who was primarily concerned with strengthening Judaism by researching and revaluing its culture—a line of thought that continued until the foundation of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. 32 32 In the report about this evening, it was determined that, from that point on, the Lwów daily paper Chwilka should be read out loud to the children every two weeks. It is quite possible that the children heard a reminiscence about Ahad Ha’am from the children’s supplement in Chwilka. See “Achad-Haam 1856-1927,” „Chwilka“ dzieci i młodzieży 2, no. 3 (1927): 7.

While reading Andrew Carnegie and Herzl with the children, Vogel explained the concept of utopia as an outline of a fictional social system. She expanded and deepened the conceptual clarification by citing, from the field of art, the technological innovations of Leonardo da Vinci and by sparking the children’s imagination with a large-scale reading series of science-fiction works. Jules Verne’s classic Le tour du monde en quatre-vingts jours (1872; Polish 1873, W osiemdziesiąt dni dookoła świata) was the first work that they discussed in the series. This was followed by the Polish author Stefan Barszczewski, who shortened the trip around the world in his novel to under eight days with the help of airplanes and radio telegraphs. 33 33 Stefan Barszczewski, W osiem dni dookoła świata. Powieść z niedalekiej przyszłości (Warszawa: Gebethner i Wolff, 1922, 1927). In response to Kazimierz Andrzej Czyżowski’s novel about pilots, the children further grappled with the uniquely poetic and hypothetical image of aerial cities. 34 34 Kazimierz Andrzej Czyżowski, Szalony Lotnik. Powieść fantastaczna (Lwów: Książnica Atlas, 1925). While reading Stanisław Baliński’s Ogród księżyców, they imagined that they too had been transformed into a moon under the influence of a magic potion, and they recorded their observations and feelings in this state. 35 35 The story comes from the volume Stanisław Baliński, Miasto księżyców (Warszawa: Biblioteka Dzieł Wyborowych, 1925). While reading Jerzy Żuławski, the children further explored utopian colonies on the moon, 36 36 Jerzy Żuławski, Na srebrnym globie. Rękopis z księżyca (Lwów: Tow. Wyd. S. Sadowski, 1901). and, in the writing of Tadeusz Kończyński, they found refuge from a solar catastrophe in a glass-covered “Eternal City.” 37 37 Tadeusz Kończyński, Wieża ratunku (Warszawa: Orgelbard i Synowie, 1913).

With the railway stories in Stefan Grabiński’s Demon Ruchu, Vogel introduced the children to the “fantastic of the everyday” and opened up new horizons for them. 38 38 Stefan Grabowski, Demon ruchu (Kraków: Księgarnia J. Czerneckiego, 1919).
They analyzed Grabiński’s stories in detail over several evenings. The children discussed the main hero, the conductor Grot, both within and beyond the bounds of the plot. Did the author make the character lively and three-dimensional? Would the children ostracize such an ill-adjusted dreamer as a potential danger to society? Should an exuberant imagination be seen as a threat or as a contribution to everyday life? Was it worthwhile to reach beyond one’s own surroundings and learn to see the world through Grot’s eyes? Was the author consistent and convincing when he killed off his heroes? After they learned about the ideals of the pragmatic Americans, immersed in everyday life, of the “people of nature,” longing for far-away lands, of the Carnegie career men, of the intellectuals, and of the inward-looking people of the East, they set their sights on Grot as an example of a human being as the greatest mystery to himself.

Debora Vogel guided the children toward the recognition of poetry as the fantastic of the everyday, and not only in accordance with the Socratic method—by asking questions, for example, about Selma Lagerlöf’s Gösta Berling (1896, Polish 1905, Gösta Berling). She also explained to them, in a direct way, that the essence of poetry is pure feeling and not the content of thought. A lyrical text should exceed the level of intellect and stimulate new feelings through figurative language. She cited two bad poems as counter-examples and showed why they should not be published.

Despite the orphanage’s ongoing financial difficulties, Vogel occasionally organized trips to the cinema and theater for the children at Zborowska 8. The film Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927) served as an occasion for a conversation about what brings more joy: reading a book or watching a film. The children then took part in a survey in which they were asked to comment on their preferences regarding cinema and theater. They were also given an opportunity to try out screenwriting by adapting Baliński’s story “Noc Kreislera” into a film. 39 39 From the volume Miasto księżyców. See footnote 35.

On some evenings, the lawyer and social activist Dr. Maks Schaff would discuss topics with the children as a guest speaker. In Przegląd Społeczny, Schaff praised Vogel’s reading evenings as pioneering work of the best kind, and he reviewed Jednodniówka in two long articles that celebrated their exemplary effect and exceptional literary character. 40 40 M.[aks] S.[chaff], “Czasopisma i wydawnictwa. ‚Jednodniówka’ wydana przez ‚Gminę’ Domu Sierót we Lwowie przy ul. Zborowskiej 8,” PS 2, no. 7 (1928): 44-47; M. S., “Jednodniówka wydana przez ‚Gminę’ Domu Sierót we Lwowie przy ul. Zborowskiej 8.,” PS 3, no. 8 (1929): 321-324. The English translation of these contributions appeared as Maks Schaff, “The Publication of the Home for Orphans in Lwów, Zborowska 8,” in For the Good of the Nation. Institutions for Jewish Children in Interwar Poland. A Documentary History, ed. S. Martin (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2017), 64-71. In Schaff’s reviews of other children’s magazines, he consistently cited Vogel’s Jednodniówka as an example for the realization of modern educational ideas. See M. S., “Gazety zakładowe,” PS 2, no. 12 (1928): 34-36; “Gazetki zakładowe,” PS 7, no. 4-5 (1933): 107-108. On Schaff’s presence in the reading circle, see reports Jednodniówka 1928/29, 19; Jednodniówka 1929/30, 6-7.

The intellectual program consistently stimulated the children’s imagination, but they quickly lost interest in the “executive administration” of their community. After only three months, they replaced the court sessions with meetings of the editorial committee on the grounds that Vogel as director better understood various behavior patterns and, therefore, could make more appropriate judgments. The house rules, which the children had helped to determine, applied in the everyday life of the community. There was an information board in the house and a “booklet for requests and complaints.” In addition to their required work, mutual supervision responsibilities were divided between the children. 41 41Jednodniówka1927/28, 26; 54-55. In 1931, however, Vogel had to explain the “failure” of their community during a meeting with the directors of various orphanages in Lwów, which she attributed to the fact that the children’s self-understanding was not yet fully developed and to their low enthusiasm for purely administrative work (e.g., running the institutional library). Vogel thus mandated obedience as an important component of the educational process. As a method, she set external constraints against the inner drives that could be managed through the children’s interests, needs, and impressions. 42 42 “Wiadomości z central sierocych. Z centrali lwowskiej. Sprawozdanie instruktoratu pedagogicznego za pierwsze półrocze 1931 r.,” PS 5, no. 7 (1931): 265-269.

Topicality and Objectivity as Basic Conditions for Contemporary Forms of Art and Life

Through her intensive reading work in the orphanage, the poet engaged with children and young adult literature. In Przegląd Społeczny, she reviewed new publications, often analyzing them with reference to everyday and current issues. She also integrated ideas and images from everyday life and current events into her own creative work. Vogel devoted two long essays to the motif of everyday life and to the legend of the present in children’s literature. In the first, she described the gray urban landscape, the rhythm of machines, and the machine-assisted control of dangerous territory as new symbols of life. She argued that these should be reworked using the imagination. In the second essay, Vogel suggested that utilitarianism, production, and pacifism—in addition to urbanism—were the “new legends of the present” in children’s literature. 43 43 Debora Vogel-Barenblüth, “Motyw codzienności w literaturze dziecięcej,” PS 7, no. 9 (1933): 235-240; and Debora Vogel-Barenblüth, “Legenda współczesności w literaturze dziecięcej,” PS 8, no. 3 (1934): 41-46. Vogel understood these legends as distillations of the tendencies of the era. 44 44 Vogel, “Legenda...,” op. cit., 41. She chose the term “legend” carefully. The literary form of the legend does not only reveal the poetic wonder of what is represented; it also has an educational function and is based on the principle of formal repetition, corresponding to the rationalized industrial reality of the 1930s and to Vogel’s own poetics as well. 45 45 See Brigit H. Lermen, Moderne Legendendichtung (Bonn: Bouvier, 1968), 17, 68, and 83; Hans-Peter Ecker, Die Legende. Kulturanthropologische Annäherung an eine literarische Gattung (Stuttgart: Metzler Verlag, 1993), 290-307. Vogel understood her literary montages as modern legends. From the mid-1930s, she also wrote poems for a cycle titled “The Legends of the 20th Century.” Her engagement with Bertolt Brecht’s modern legends can be understood in this context. See Debora Vogel, “Akatsyes blien. Naye legende,” Inzl 1, no. 1 (1935): 9; “Einige Bemerkungen zu meinem Buch Akazien blühen,” in Vogel, Geometrie, 593-596; and Vogel’s letter to Aaron Glanz-Leyeles on January 28, 1938, ibid., 543. Both essays demonstrate Vogel’s fondness for the new heroic Romanticism, situated in everyday life, and for the modern poetry of hard work and responsibility. Vogel believed that the psychologically-motivated world, as revealed through technological fantasies, 46 46 Vogel cited the following novel as an example: Kornel Makuszyński, Skrzydlaty chłopiec. Powieść lotnicza dla młodzieży (Warszawa: Wyd. Piotr Pyz i Ska, 1934). would be more inspiring to young readers than the outrageous images and adventures of the technologically overwhelming utopias of Verne or Czyżewski. According to Vogel, the latter are still ingenious literary constructions—indeed, they take the reader’s breath away—but they do not yield new sensations. 47 47 In this perspective, Vogel’s experiences in the science fiction reading circle at Zborowska 8 enter in an indirect way.

In both essays, it was no coincidence that Vogel paid special attention to the children’s books of the artist couple Stefan Themerson and Franciszka Weinles-Themerson. 48 48 Stefan Themerson conceived of his children’s books as a struggle for the New Man, that is, for the ideal recipient of the New Art. He wanted to train the perception and attentiveness of children, and to make them aware of new, difficult, non-obvious content. See Artur Pruszyński, Dobre maniery Stefana Themersona (Gdańsk: słowo / obraz terytoria, 2004), 22-26.
These leading Polish avant-garde artists took their young readers very seriously. In artistically designed and imaginatively composed books, filled with situational jokes and absurd combinations of things, the Themersons represented reality to children as a technological and social whole. However, in their novel Jacuś w zaczarowanem mieście [Little Jack in an Enchanted City], Vogel did not yet see the authentic urban poetry that she associated with the poetry of facts or the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit). 49 49 Stefan Themerson, Franciszka Themerson [Ill.], Jacuś w zaczarowanem mieście (Warszawa: Dom Książki Polskiej, 1931). She believed that, in this novel, old moods were merely decorated or disguised in a contemporary fashion. The novel preserved a key characteristic of fairy tales: the atmosphere of fear in the face of tremendous miracles. 50 50 In her review, Vogel unfortunately disregards the typography with which Themerson wanted both to stimulate his readers and to enable them to distance themselves from what they read. The letters of different sizes dynamize and fill the onomatopoetic words with yet more sound. Franciszka Themerson allows the lines to follow the hero into the illustrations and moves them in different directions on the book’s pages. See Pruszyński, op. cit., 11. In contrast, Vogel considered the urban landscape in Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina’s Podróż po mieście to be permeated with the everyday and with contemporary issues. 51 51 Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina, Antoni Wajwód [Ill.], Podróż po mieście (Warszawa: Gebethner i Wolff, 1933). From its first line, in its listing of items, the novel immediately transmits readers into the world of stuff (brick houses, shining sheet metal) and, above all, into factories and workshops as the “most important houses in the city.” The drab and dirty factory landscape opens the children’s eyes to the gray reality of everyday life.

Vogel believed that the Themersons’ books Poczta 52 52 Stefan Themerson, Franciszka Themerson [Ill.], Poczta (Warszawa: Wydaw. Tyg. “Płomyk,” 1932). and Narodziny liter 53 53 Stefan Themerson, Franciszka Themerson [Ill.], Narodziny liter (Warszawa: 1932). approached the desired level of objectivity. In Poczta, things are the book’s real heroes: radio antennas, telephone wires, radio lamps, and batteries do not only play a role in the destinies of human beings, but are also conscious of their role. Through practices of anthropomorphization and psychologization, the child is granted direct access to the interior world of things. In turn, Vogel interpreted the Themersons’ book about the history of writing as a revelation of the poetry of facts, in which the familiar was rediscovered as something strange.

According to Vogel, in the book Nasi ojcowie pracują, the Themersons depicted a legend of work in its various manifestations as represented by different professions. 54 54 Stefan Themerson, Franciszka Themerson [Ill.], Nasi ojcowie pracują (Warszawa: Gebethner i Wolff, 1933). Vogel criticized the writers, however, for the fact that they privileged men in their textual and visual depictions of different careers. She argued that this could lead to the false division of humanity into a male sphere, which actively shapes reality, and a female sphere, which passively consumes it. At the same time, Vogel welcomed a legend of the city permeated by nature, as signified by the writers’ conceptions of glass houses and garden cities, as well as their pacifist allusions to houses in which “children from all over the world” might live. She noted a similar legend of pacifism in Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina’s book Nasi braciszkowie, in which the motif of the similarity of life—its uniformity across different continents and geographical distances—was emphasized not only in the text, but also in its illustrations. 55 55 Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina, Maria Hiszpańska-Neumann [Ill.], Nasi braciszkowie (Warszawa: Spółdz. Wyd. “Wiedza,” 1934). Vogel identified the latter as montages of physiological types, places to live, routine activities, natural phenomena, and moods.

Until the end of the 1930s, Vogel published reviews of all the Themersons’ books for children in Przegląd Społeczny. 56 56 See Debora Vogel, “Współczesna książka dla dzieci. (St. i Fr. Themerson: Pan Tom buduje dom, Wydawnictwo Mathesis Polska: Warszawa 1939),” PS 13, no. 3 (1939): 63-65. These reviews reflected both her consistent engagement with the genre of children’s books and an aesthetically consistent line, as the Themersons’ books were examples of total works of art (Gesamtkunstwerke) of the highest quality. In this regard, the illustrations by Franciszka Themerson played an important role. In her imaginative montages, projected in broad, reduced surfaces onto the text, Vogel discerned the poster style. For Vogel, the “poster mood” (Plakatstimmung) was the epitome of the modern era. She recognized this one-dimensional way of representing things, detached from all contexts of meaning, as a source of the beauty of objectivity in the (literary) work. 57 57 See Debora Vogel, “Die Montage als literarische Gattung,” in Vogel, Geometrie, 426-432, here 432. It should be emphasized that Vogel considered moods to be key components of every book, expressed both in imagined images (invoked in language) and in the images printed on the book’s pages. In her view, on an affective level, a mood could occasionally convey ideas and concepts that could not be found in the text or even contradicted the content of the text. 58 58 See Vogel, “Legenda…,” op. cit., 46.

Vogel believed that the modern legend introduces readers to the essence of things. In addition to the technological-utilitarian and urban-global aspects of life, the grayness and monotony of everyday life needed to be faced. Vogel revealed this to young readers in the poems of Kadya Molodovsky. 59 59 Kadia Mołodowska, Maaselech (Warszawa: Zjednoczenie Szkół Żydowskich, 1931). She showed how this poet was able to convey the substance of the world of things in her representation of a baking tray that had been transformed into a washing tub, in old barrels without hoops, in clothes that had been altered several times, and in shabby shoes. In Molodovsky’s poetry, the dirty courtyards and rooms full of people and junk were liberated through the imagination. They were transformed into strange enchanted palaces, camouflage coats, and wonderful adventures. Vogel further remarked that, on the level of style, Molodovsky made rich use of gold and red—colors that correspond to the color palette of fairy tales. 60 60 Vogel, “Motyw codzienności…,” op. cit., 239f.

Vogel demonstrated how books were able to prompt children, in tangible ways, to create a montage of their own. She turned her attention to a series of albums aimed at children and published by the Parisian publishing house Flammarion. 61 61Les Albums du Père Castor started to appear in December 1931, and quickly became an international success due to their integrative concept and to their excellent artistic quality. See Albert Lemmes and Serge Stommels, Russian Artists and the Children’s Book 1890-1992 (Nijmegen: LS, 2009), 144-147; and Claude-Anna Parmegiani, “Le phénomène Castor,” in Passagen 1920-1960. Das Bilderbuch wird kosmopolitisch (Zürich: Schweizerisches Jugendbuch-Institut, 1993), 28-38. These albums were, in turn, compilations of colored masks intended to be put together according to a set of instructions (in the volume Je fais mes masques), 62 62 Nathalie Parain, Je fais mes masques (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1933). or of pictures and descriptions of residential buildings, folk customs, characteristic animals, and equipment from different countries, as well as means of transport (in Chacun sa maison). 63 63 Guy Deffontaine and Paul Faucher, Chacun sa maison. Jeu pour les petits (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1933). The goal of these albums was to familiarize the child reader with children in India, Africa, and the Middle East. Texts about individual illustrations were scattered throughout the book, set off in square fields designed to be cut out.

In line with contemporary art, the Flammarion albums demonstrated the principle of geometric forms—a principle that was seen as constitutive of all objects s, as well as of animal and human bodies. The approach to the legend of the present was effected, in the literal sense, through the labor of the child. In the book Je fais mes jouets avec des plantes, the child could piece together birds and people with the basic forms identified in branches and fruit, in cones, acorns, and chestnuts, and create entire fairy tales with creatures constructed in this way. 64 64Je fais mes jouets avec des plantes. Créations des enfants de l’Institut Bakulé présentées par le Père Castor;Compositions de Ruda (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1933). In the book Ronds et carrés, purely geometrical shapes prompted the children to play. 65 65 Nathalie Parain, Ronds et carrés (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1933). Its association with El Lissitzky’s masterpiece of the avant-garde Pro dva kvadrata. Suprematicheskii skaz v 6-ti postroikakh (1922) opened up a broad field in children’s book research. 66 66 See Lemmes and Stommels, Russian Artists and the Children’s Book, 357-369; and Evgeny Steiner, Stories for Little Comrades: Revolutionary Artists and the Making of Early Soviet Children’s Books, trans. Jane Ann Miller (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 25-31. The Russian avant-garde identified the children’s book as an important and portable medium: the suprematist and constructivist visual language was ideally suited to create new content in the face of the new reality and to educate the “new men” to see differently. 67 67 See the profound study by Steiner, Stories for Little Comrades. See also Peter Noever, “Die Russische Avantgarde und ihre Märchen. / The Russian Avant-Garde and its Fairy Tales,” and Ilya Kabakov, “Hat sich die Tradition der Russischen Avantgarde in Büchern fortgesetzt? / Did the Tradition of the Russian Avant-garde Continue in Books?,” in жили были / Schili-byli / Shili-byli. Russische Kinderbücher / Russian Children’s Books 1920-1940, ed. Peter Noever (Vienna: Schlebrügge, 2004), 7-8 and 11-14; and Kornelia Röder, “Das Buch als Medium der konstruktivistischen russischen Avantgarde / The Book as a Medium for the Constructivist Russian Avant-Garde,” in Von Kandinsky bis Tatlin. Konstruktivismus in Europa / From Kandinsky to Tatlin. Constructivism in Europe, ed. Kornelia von Berswordt-Wallrabe (Schwerin: Staatliches Museum Schwerin, 2006), 141-155. I am grateful to Prof. Dr. Friedrich C. Heller (Berlin/Vienna) for the bibliographical references. Soviet children’s books were exhibited in the Bonaparte gallery in Paris, which may have given Paul Faucher, Flammarion’s publisher, the idea of releasing the albums of Père Castor. 68 68 Faucher hired Russian artists as illustrators for his albums. In the first three years, the albums were illustrated by Nathalie Parain, who was trained at the Moscow Art School VChuTEMAS; born in 1897 as Natalia Georgievna Chelpanova, the artist lived in Paris after marrying a French diplomat. She worked for Gallimard and Flammarion and illustrated 38 children’s books in total. See “Nathalie Parain (1897-1958),” in Lemmes and Stommels, Russian Artists and the Children’s Book, 411-417.

Debora Vogel described herself as an abstractionist and constructivist, and she considered the undisguised and unambiguous world of abstraction as the only “authentic world of the most important emotions in life.” 69 69 See Debora Vogel, “Über die abstrakte Kunst,” in Vogel, Geometrie, 454-458, here 454. She believed that this unmasked world should be made accessible to children without intrusive and unnecessary propaganda. The poet advocated for this on the basis of a concrete example: in a Jewish textbook from the Soviet Union, she read a poem about tea. 70 70 See Vogel, “Motyw codzienności…,” op. cit., 237. In this context, Vogel likely recalled the poem by Nikolay Agnivtsev. See N. Agnivtsev, A tas tey. Idish – Rozenblum. Getseyhnt – Mutselmacher (Moskve: Farlag “Shul und bukh,” 1927).
The poem depicted the successive stages of tea production and, therefore, had a clear pedagogical aim. Vogel, however, perceived it as an authentic poem about tea, or even as a poem about production per se. In this poetically illustrated text, the poetry of objectivity was thus revealed in its purest and most desirable form. She wanted to create such poetry herself, and, in so doing, she wanted to influence her students’ still youthful worldviews. It was her heartfelt wish to see all readers, especially children, protected from the pervasive, crude, and hate-filled propaganda that had permeated poetry and the “form of life” and left them to perish.

Anna Maja Misiak. “Reading as the Shaping Force of Life: Debora Vogel’s Contributions to Education.” In geveb, October 2021: Trans. Matthew Johnson.
Anna Maja Misiak. “Reading as the Shaping Force of Life: Debora Vogel’s Contributions to Education.” Translated by Matthew Johnson. In geveb (October 2021): Accessed Jun 05, 2023.


Anna Maja Misiak

Anna Maja Misiak is the translator and editor of the first German compilation of Debora Vogel’s works (Debora Vogel. Die Geometrie des Verzichts. Gedichte, Montagen, Essays, Briefe. Wuppertal: Arco Verlag).


Matthew Johnson

Matthew Johnson is Senior Lecturer and Director of Yiddish and Ashkenazic Studies at Ohio State University.