When we think of the Holocaust we usually think of the millions of Jews who were murdered. We don’t usually think of those who survived. Their circumstances were often no less tragic. The physical and mental costs of survival were staggering. Most Jews were not able to return to normality after the war. Everything they knew and remembered had been destroyed. They could not return to their towns, houses or apartments because they were either ruined or no longer existed. A large number of Jews had lost entire families and with them the will to live. Many were not able to return to work due to complete physical exhaustion, war wounds or what we would today call PTSD — Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Jewish organizations, both Polish and International, quite quickly realized that Polish Jews needed assistance. Not temporary aid aimed at particular people but systematic and organized assistance. An organization needed to be established that was rooted in the legal system and had the support of the authorities. This was something the new Polish authorities also wanted, for political reasons.
On the 12th of November 1944 the Polish Committee of National Liberation (PCNL) established the Provisional Central Committee of Polish Jews at the request of the Office for the Assistance of the Jewish Population. In 1945 the Committee was moved to Warsaw and transformed into the Central Committee of Polish Jews (CCPJ). It was intended to serve as political representation for the Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.
Initially Jewish committees were established independently, in the cities or regions where a need for them arose and where here were people ready to take on this responsibility. The statute of the CCPJ was created in 1944 and stated that the primary tasks of the Committee were:
1. Providing social services to the Jewish population and establishing the institutions necessary to provide it.
2. Rebuilding the economy of the Jewish population.
3. Encouraging the productivity of the Jewish population by providing training courses and vocational schools, establishing and supporting work and production cooperatives, directing young people towards industry.
4. Providing care to children, particularly orphans, through the establishing of nurseries, kindergartens and orphanages.
5. Organizing health care services for the Jewish population.
6. Providing legal assistance.
7. Providing care for the repatriated population.
8. Assisting Jews with emigration.
9. Providing for the religious needs of the Jewish population in Poland.
10. Supporting Jewish culture through the establishing of educational, scientific and cultural institutions, publishing Jewish press, establishing and supporting Jewish publishing houses and establishing a Jewish theatre etc.
These aims were to be realized through state and local government funding, donations from Polish and international social institutions and membership dues. However, from 1946 onwards the majority of the CCPJ’s funds came from international sources, primarily from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).
In time, due to reorganization, the Warsaw headquarters took charge of the provincial and regional committees, which in turn controlled the local ones. Until June of 1946 9 provincial committees (Białystok, Katowice, Cracow, Lublin, Łódź, Przemyśl, Szczecin, Warsaw, Wrocław) and 7 regional committees (Bydgoszcz, Częstochowa, Gdańsk, Olsztyn, Poznań, Tarnów, Włocławek) were active.
As part of fulfilling the statutory goals, in 1945 the following Departments were formed: Social Services, Child Care, “Productivization”, Culture and Propaganda, Information, Legal Assistance and Intervention. Each had its own specific tasks, however their activities were often interconnected.
The largest and best financed was the Social Services Department (over 50% of the CCPJ’s budget). Its tasks included establishing orphanages, nursing homes and centers for invalids. It was also responsible for public kitchens which provided meals for those who could not afford them — the poorest and the unemployed. The Committee also cared for repatriates and Jews returning form camps, trying to provide them with medicine, clothing and food, find them housing and, later on, employment. Half-orphans and Polish caretakers of Jewish children received financial assistance.
The Department of Child Care was initially part of the Social Services Department, however on the 2nd of February 1945 it became a separate, independent department. Its main task was the search for missing Jewish children and the registration of those who were located. They also investigated social and family conditions. Additionally, it was responsible for establishing placements for orphans and organizing educational activities. In 1945 it had 5000 children under its care, including around 1600 in 9 different orphanages. In 1946, with the return of the repatriates from the USSR, the number of their charges rose.
In 1946, thanks to the situation on post-war Poland becoming relatively stable and to the generous international (primarily American) assistance, the School Department of the CCPJ, responsible for the education of Jewish children, was established. The curriculum of the schools created by the Department was similar to that of other state funded schools but also included Yiddish language and literature, Hebrew, and Jewish History. According to the CCPJ’s policy the schools did not teach religion, however Saturdays were free (n state funded schools Saturdays were school days). After 1949 most classes were taught in Yiddish, with the exception of Polish History and Geography.
Between 1946 and 1947 the Child Care Department and School Department of the CCPJ were combined into one — the Child Care and Education Department.
An important facet of the Committees activities was the professional mobilization of Jews — “productivization”. Due to the economic changes connected to the war, and the new ideology according to which a laborer was more valuable than a merchant, factory owner or craftsman, Jews were mainly encouraged to look for industrial employment. Around 800 Jews found jobs in the mining industry in Lower Silesia.
Another of the CCPJ’s tasks was the attempt to create a record of the Jewish population. This included conducting censuses in Poland, assistance in contacting families in Poland and abroad, and organizing papers for those who lost theirs in the war.
The Health Department was another quickly developing part of the CCPJ. It was responsible for clinics, sanatoriums for those suffering from consumption and exhaustion. It also assisted those who could not function in post-war conditions due to the trauma they suffered during the war, for example by running a neuropsychiatry clinic for children. The Society for Protection of Health was part of the Health Department.
As the CCPJ developed and the situation in Poland improved, the Committees abilities and the significance of the tasks connected to cultural activity grew. Initially (1945) only 1,8% of the budget went to cultural and religious goals, with time it grew to 16%. On one hand the Culture and Propaganda Department provided support for the Jewish artists who survived the Holocaust, on the other hand it tried to salvage whatever remained of pre-war Jewish art. The associations connected to the CCPJ established and ran libraries, cultural centers and artistic groups. The CCPJ published press as well, including the first Jewish magazine in the People’s Republic of Poland Dos Naje Lebn (New Life in Yiddish), and the youths’ monthly Our Voice.
The CCPJ’s attitude towards religion was and important issue. On one hand the Committee was a purely secular organization, on the other hand, however, according to the statute, it was meant to fulfill the religious needs of the Jewish population. This was a source of conflict with the Jewish community who were opposed to the idea of a secular institution organizing their religious life. Another significant conflict between the CCPJ and other Jewish institutions (primarily the Zionists) concerned the issue of emigration. The CCPJ was strongly in favor of Jews remaining in Poland and assisting in the rebuilding of the country. Other Jewish organizations and groups were usually in favor of emigration.
Between 1948 and 1949 an increasing number of important positions in the CCPJ’s were taken over by the representatives of the communist fraction of the Polish Workers’ Party (later Polish United Workers’ Party). In 1949 the state began to slowly take over the CCPJ. Some of its departments were dissolved, others absorbed by government institutions (e.g. schools). On the 29th of October 1950 the CCPJ was merged with the Jewish Cultural Society to create the Socio-Cultural Association of Jews in Poland. That was the end of its role in building the Jewish community in Poland.