- January 5, 2013
The School Massacre in Vilnius
A story that happened on May 6, 1925 in Joachim Lelewel’s Gymnasium in Vilnius remains unspoken today. Meanwhile, it was probably the only mass murder ever committed in a Polish school. The outcome was tragic – 5 deaths and 9 wounded people.
In 6th of May, 1925, at 11.05 am, the Gymnasium in Vilnius was administering the final exam. One of the students, despite having been reminded for several times, would not stop talking to his friend, and when the headmaster, Biegański, took his sheet away, he drew a revolver and shot a few bullets. Once he was out of ammunition, he took a grenade from the pocket of his uniform, which blew in his hand.
The name of the student who committed this crime was Stanisław Ławrynowicz. As a result of his deed, there was killed Adam Zagórski, a student who defended the headmaster with his own body. The grenade, which massacred the assailant, killed also two other persons: Tadeusz Domański, a student (reported by some newspapers to have jumped to the grenade before it blew out), and Czesław Jankowski, a teacher that died eight hours later in the hospital. According to Kurier Poznański, the wounded ones were headmaster Domański, and the students: Bończa-Osmołowski, Studziński, Borysewicz, Toczyłowski, Symanowicz, Wojtkiewicz, Nawrocki i Gliński.
But it was not the end yet. Once the grenade killed Ławrynowicz, his friend, Janusz Obrąbalski also drew a revolver to kill the exam commission. When no bullet reached the target, he left the room and tried to detonate a grenade in the hall. The trigger, however, would not work, and Drąbalski committed suicide by shooting in his head.
Only a part of the Polish press reported about the tragedy. At the beginning, some of the newspapers did not devote a word to the affair, others published brief notes of the event, Ilustrowany Kurier from Cracow wrote about the shooting as late as three days afterwards. “Robotnik”, which was a newspaper controlled by the socialist party called PPS, was interested in great politics, provocations of the Police aimed at the party and high prices. Only after a few days later did it join the debate over the issue. Of course, those publications which traditionally followed sensations described the shooting with every detail.
One day after the tragedy, the whole Vilnius was covered with signs of mourning. Gradually, new revelations related to the shooting were surfacing, whereas the newspapers showed a growing interest in the affair. The journalists began to scrutinize the issue in search of answers to emerging questions. They offered dozens of possible reasons, trying to answer the fundamental question: Why?
Both assailants came from well-off families. In the city, they were know as rich dandies, who often organized breathtaking races in a car, visited the cafés, and took part in excesses. Obrąbalski as well as Ławrynowicz did not show an outsanding interest in learning. They both repeated a class; were members of the organization called “Strzelec” [shooter], which they used to obtain weapon. Their being involved in the organization seemed unusually worrying. Many newspapers highlighted their political connections and contacts with the followers of Józef Piłsudski. The Polish public opinion realized that this affair could not have remained a single event in the future. Young people with access to weapon were not unusual in the contemporary Poland.
The investigators established that the attempt was thoroughly planned. The examination of the boys’ houses done by the Police of Vilnius showed how close there was an even greater tragedy. In one of the rooms, they found a 2-kg bomb (according to some sources, it was 1-kg), and a big number of grenades. There was also discovered a farewell letter written by Obrąbalski, in which he asked to take care of his girlfriend.
In the intellectual circles of Poland, the debate was soon begun. They tried to distinguish the motives of the murders. The socialist “Robotnik” saw the reason in the final exam itself, but also in the neighbourhood with the Soviet Union. In the 10th May edition, Wincenty Trojanowski, a professor of the Free Polish University, expressed his indignation:
“That terrible crime committed by the lads, as far as it may prove the destructive influence of Bolsheviks, not less does it reflect that the high school system in Poland is utterly inappropriate. […] What is the new final exam, then? It is the last year of learning in a high school, which takes part in the atmosphere of constant nervousness, torment and fear of passing the final exam, regardless of one’s intellectual potential and being prepared, which has the special and tragic power that allows it to state whether he or she will have access to the university, or to make it easier or harder to follow one’s carrier for every student finishing high school. Is it really so difficult, indeed, and does its requirements actually exceed the curriculum obtained from the government and followed by the schools? The exam would not be so tough a task if it did not be conducted in such an atmosphere as described above, and if the material required was realised during the classes completely. But the curriculum is too extensive, overloaded, and changed by experiment. The typical student obtains in school such a great amount of knowledge that it can be presented to him only superficially; he is not able to process and assimilate it; as they say, he only crams the information to forget everything afterwards. […]
In the remaining part of the text, the author highlights the ineffectiveness of schools in the task of forming intellectually mature individuals. According to Trojanowski, schools taught only ready-made definitions, which resulted in letting out a whole bunch of “dummies” able only to work as clerks in the administration. They were “mentally undeveloped”, without the abilities needed in a scientific career.
Trojanowski also presented his solutions to the problem of final exams. Towards the end of the article he wrote:
“The terrible and bloody final exam in Vilnius teaches us that the exam after the secondary school should be cancelled; that the schools should be thoroughly reformed; that in order to make the intellectual level of the elites higher, the access to universities should be based on additional entrance exams, not on the final exams.”
Not everyone agreed with Trojanowski. Many ideas were presented and various reasons of the tragedy proposed. Some publicists pointed that it was not the nature of the exam that caused it, but rather the traditional XIX-century approach towards the relation between a student and the teacher, which prevailed in the eastern borderlands. They even claimed that if the school had been like home for their students, the tragedy could have been avoided.
The newspaper “Słowo” from Vilnius saw the reason of the massacre in the recent war that supposedly made the youth more apathetic. One of the journalists wrote:
“Young souls. Brains splashing from the crashed heads, entrails leaving the bellies cut with bayonets, bloodshed, inhumane cries and screams from the battlefields, which stopped to make any impression on people, caused it – namely, accustomed them.”
The source of the whole event was, according to “Słowo”, triple. Firstly, the war experiences. Secondly, schools which do not foster, but only teach (more generally, it was claimed that the youth were not brought up neither at home, nor in schools), and third – the immatureness of Ławrynowicz and Obrąbalski. Similarly to “Robotnik”, the newspaper proposed to reform the school system, but not to such great lengths as to delete the final exam.
“Słowo”, although it condemned the deed, tried to understand the reasons of the assailants. Unlike others, it remembered the problematic personality of the headmaster, and the rigorous system of teaching that he had introduced. The newspapers form Vilnius also underlined that although the murders were not so easy to bring up, they were good boys. It also remembered a fact which had been avoided by other media, specifically that Ławrynowicz was a chair of the charity organization called Pomoc Bratnia. On May 8, “Słowo” published a letter in which the students of Biegański protested against attacks on him. They claimed that the headmaster was strict, but fair, and that they did not feel any repressions.
The tragedy was also commented by the foreign press, such as „The New York Times”, „Neue Freie Presse”, „Die Neue Zeitung”, and even „Argus” from Australia. They were plenty of fake information, though. For example, in Germany it was reported that the murders established a communist organization and that the murder was performed by three people.
The whole affair was far more controversial than it might seem. The massacre in Lelevel’s Gymnasium was the first such event in Europe. Admittedly, school shootings had occurred before, but usually they resulted in two or three victims. An exception was the massacre in Bremen in 1919, where a laid-off teacher killed five students.
The shooting in Vilnius was the first and at the same time last such event in the Polish land. Unlike in most other countries (let alone the USA, where school shootings may be called even “notorious”), it did not repeat in Poland. And let it remain.
Tłumaczenie Emil Iracki w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Emil Iracki the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.