Scholar highlights Warsaw’s women healthcare workers
Women played a vital role in Jewish medicine during the Holocaust, but their contributions are often overlooked by scholars and historians, Miriam Offer of Western Galilee College asserted in a presentation on Thursday.
Offer, a scholar-in-residence at the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, calls attention to these women’s narratives. Her presentation focused on her research of female doctors and nurses in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II.
“A Jewish underground medical network existed under the occupation,” Offer explained. Increased anti-Semitism and advances in secular Jewish education had led to a strong network of Jewish doctors in Poland between the wars, and organizations begun during this period remained in operation during the war.
Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludnosci Zydowskiej — the Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population — serviced refugees and worked to prevent epidemics, while the Czyste Hospital maintained the Jewish School of Nursing in the Warsaw Ghetto and the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital, also in the ghetto, continued its pre-war work and research.
Women were central to these operations, Offer said. She told the story of Dr. Anna Braude Heller, who had been the lead physician of Bersohn and Bauman during the interwar period and became the hospital’s director during the war. Heller had studied medicine in Switzerland and Berlin, and in the ghetto, she contributed a chapter on children to a study on “the physiology and pathology of hunger.” The research was done to professional standards, according to Offer, and the majority of the study was smuggled out.
Heller remained in the ghetto after mass deportations began in 1942 and refused to leave during the 1943 uprising.
Offer quoted the testimony of one nurse, who said, “The children were hungry and had been abandoned by the staff. The only person I saw there was Dr. Anna Braude Heller. She tried to persuade me to hide, because I was young and deserved to live. I refused. … I felt in my heart that if a person such as Anna Braude Heller … would not leave the children and is risking their life, then how could I … leave those helpless children?” The nurse’s testimony claimed that Heller died in the bunkers of the ghetto.
Offer also presented on Luba Bielicka Blum, deputy principal of the Jewish School of Nursing. The school was the first of its kind in Poland; Offer called it “the vanguard of the modern medical profession.” Bielicka relocated the school to the ghetto and maintained it as an “island of sanity,” with clean rooms, starched uniforms and an organized curriculum.
Bielicka had connections with Aryan nurses and used them to smuggle children and nurses out of the ghetto, Offer said. Bielicka eventually escaped and went on to found a Jewish orphanage and re-open the nursing school. “Despite the event of the war… she saw the re-establishment of the School of Nursing, this time for Polish nurses as the continuation of her mission,” said Offer.
In 1966, Bielicka received the Florence Nightingale Medal for her work as a nurse in the ghetto.
Bielicka Blum and Heller are only two of the many women Offer discussed. She also mentioned Dr. Sara-Zofia Syrkin Binsztejn, who managed the anti-epidemics department in the ghetto; nurse Ala Golomb Grynberg, who rescued Jewish children; Sabine Garfunkel Glocer, who worked at the Czyste Hospital; Dr. Adina Blady Szwajger, who euthanized children to save them from the Nazis; and Dr. Feigin Bronislawa, who did bacterial research in the ghetto.
In a question-and-answer session, Offer said there isn’t a lack of documentation on women in Jewish medicine: They were there, and there are records.
Rather, the problem is a lack of research and recognition. “What better place [for this research],” she asked, “than the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute?”