„It was a beautiful, three-storey building…” the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital in Warsaw (1872–1942)

Senior of a wealthy Warsaw family, financier and industrialist, but also a community activist and a philanthropist, Mejer Bersohn, had bequeathed in his testament from 16 May 1872 50 thousand roubles to a children’s hospital. This was the beginning of the 70-year story of the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital, which owes its interwar era revival to an extraordinary doctor and social activist, Dr Anna Braude-Hellerowa. She cared for young patients in the Warsaw Ghetto for two years, she remained with them during the „great liquidation action” and died together with children in 1943.

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The Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital in Warsaw.  /  source: Wikipedia

In 1872, the Bersohns opened their foundation, „Majer and Chaja née Szyman Bersohns’ Hospital for Jewish Children”. Another contribution of 30,000 roubles came from Majer Bersohn’s daughter Paulina and her husband Salomon Bauman. On 28 December 1872, a plot of land between Śliska and Sienna streets was purchased, but funds submitted by both families were not enough to cover the cost of construction works. The hospital was opened on June 1878. A detailed description of the main building was provided by doctor Julian Kramsztyk (son of rabbi Izaak Kramsztyk, father of painter Roman Kramsztyk): The first floor consists of a corridor and 5 vast rooms (…) In each room there are six beds for sick children as well as one larger bed for a hospital servant. (…) Four of these five rooms, connected together, are dedicated for internal diseases and surgical patients, while the fifth (…) is for children with infectious diseases (…) In the basement, a large kitchen is located, along with a linen press room, rooms for servants, the cook and the laundress, a larder, a wardrobe, coal storage room, cellars etc. The ground floor hosted a waiting room, out-patients’ room, surgical and postsurgical rooms, library, pharmacy and seminary room.

Since the beginning of the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital, the staff comprised the chief doctor, heads of departments and resident doctors – all of whom were outstanding surgeons, pediatricians and internists. The aforementioned dr Julian Kramsztyk (1851–1926) – pediatrician, and expert on physiological and pathological chemistry, was the first resident doctor. Later this position, along with an apartment in the hospital, was taken by Henryk Goldszmit. The first chief doctor was Ludwik Chwat (1831–1914) – surgeon trained in Berlin and Vienna, who introduced innovative methods of anaesthesia. He was passionate about improving surgical instruments, which brought him recognition at exhibitions in Warsaw and Vienna. Among other employees of the hospital, it is worth mentioning otolaryngologist Zygmunt Srebrny, pediatrician and patomorphologist Ludwik Wolberg, head of the infectious diseases ward – Adolf Koral, opthalmologist Dawid Natanson.

 1909 saw a renovation of the hospital – installation of washbasins with cold water, ventillation in toilets, arrangement of baths, modernisation of the surgical ward, replacement of windows. New rooms gained plumbing systems, and the entire building – electricity. Once the works were finished, a new infectious diseases ward for 115 patients was opened, and the hospital purchased a new supply of bedding, underwear and kitchen equipment. The kitchen, which had also undergone renovation, served three times more meals. But, after only five years, in 1916 the City Council cease to lease 100 beds, while funds secured on mortgage were losing value. The hospital’s situation was worsening. Cancelling subsidies by the Magistrate of Warsaw led to a closure of the hospital in 1924. Dr Anna Braude-Hellerowa opposed this decision; in her article „In support of the hospital for Jewish children”, she wrote: „(...) this is harm done to a sick Jewish child. (…) The hospital for the Jewish children must also serve as an academy for doctors and nurses, whose graduates, qualified and socially aware, will protect the health of Jewish children.

At Dr Anna Braude-Hellerowa’s initiative, the Society of the Friends of Children applied to take responsibility of the hospital in order to reopen it. The rebuilding was designed by engineer Henryk Stiefleman, author and co-author of such buildings as the Jewish Academic House and the Educational Establishment of the Jewish Community in Praga district or the Tuberculosis and Lung Disease Institute. Despite numerous appeals to the people of Warsaw and to the Jewish community, a press conference (July 1926) and publications in „Nasz Przegląd” (Janusz Korczak), support from individual donators was necessary. Rafał and Berta Szereszowski donated 20,000 for an X-Ray room. Eventually, the hospital was reopened on 9 November 1930. On that day, „Nasz Przegląd” published a detailed description of the investment. The first floor hosts the surgical ward for over 40 beds (…) The surgery rooms are equipped in a remarkable way, with state-of-the-art lighting and newest operating tables (…) The second floor is dedicated to the internal disease ward, with over 50 beds. (…) On the third floor stay children with tuberculosis. There are 27 beds there. From the southern side, the rooms are connected to vast terraces where children will spend their days in the sun, regardless of weather. The arrangement of rooms and their interior design is functional, rationally planned and adjusted to the needs of ill children. Particular rooms on each floor are separated with transparent glass walls so that doctors and nurses are able to supervise the entire ward at any time. Beds are equipped with special mobile mattresses which allow to lift the patient mechanically without transferring him onto a wheelchair. (...)

The chief doctor and head of the infant department was Doctor Anna Braude-Hellerowa, known already for her engagement in renovation and reopening of the hospital. Other wards were directed by: dr Feliks Sach – internal diseases ward, Mieczysław Gantz – tuberculosis ward, surgical ward – Saidman. For heads of hospital workshops, following people were nominated: Beniamin Kryński – X-Ray room, Teodozja Goliborska – analytical laboratory, Maurycy Płońskier – anatomo-pathological laboratory.

Another necessary step was to open the Nurses’ School – the previous staff wasn’t sufficiently educated, apart from skills gained during their work at the hospital. The council of the Society of the Friends of Children opened the School for Paediatric Nurses in 1928. Dormitory for the students was located on the ground floor of the main building. The course lasted for two years and involved, apart from general subjects, caring for children at the hospital. From the Sienna street side, the Mother and Child Care Station was opened, directed by dr Natalia Szpigelfogel-Lichtenbaumowa.

In the first days of the military mobilization, Beniamin Kryński and Aleksander Owczarek joined the army. Management of the hospital began to prepare for upcoming bombings and siege of Warsaw. The most tragic bombing of Warsaw took place between 24 and 26 September, during the Yom Kippur celebrations. At the hospital, phones, electricity, running water were cut off; gas delivery was cut off a few days before. In order to maintain the hospital’s functioning, potter Lejbowicz managed to build a kitchen from tiles found in the basement within one day. Water was sourced from a well in the hospital’s premises. Luckily, the building itself wasn’t damaged during the first days of war and the staff was able to provide help to injured people from the neighbourhood.

The Germans nominated dr Wacław Skonieczny, a doctor from Inowrocław, to the position of the hospital’s commissioner. Adina Blady-Szwajger recalls him as a slender middle-aged gentleman with an awful accent. (…) he was a Pole brought up and educated in Germany. Possibly he owed his commissioner’s position to his knowledge of language. I don’t know. Maybe he signed the volksliste? I don’t know either. But I know for sure that during his stay, the hospital history went through a honourable „Commissioner’s era” — not only did he avoid causing harm, but also tried to help. Thanks to his involvement, a few members of the hospital staff, including Henryk Kroszczor and his family (his wife dr Rachela Kroszczorowa was a gynaecologist) manages to escape to the „Aryan side”.

Between 1939 and 1940, a typhus epidemic broke out in Warsaw. The Germans ordered a quarantine for both hospitals and the area of future Warsaw Ghetto was marked with signs: „Infected area – no entry”. From the Śliska street, a blue police station was located. Nobody from the hospital staff was allowed to leave for six weeks. Thanks to good relations with policemen, whose children were treated at the hospital before, it was possible to leave in order to buy food. In February 1940, the hospital was reopened, with an additional outpatient clinic for patients with infectious diseases.

From November 1940, the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital had found itself within the Warsaw Ghetto (in the „small”, southern area). In winter, another typhus epidemic broke out. German policies on fighting typhus caused the epidemic to worsen and spread further. At the peak of the epidemic, in summer 1941, about 4,000 people died every month. The hospital at Śliska street was full, so dr Anna Braude-Hellerowa began her efforts to organize a subsidiary. From October 1941, a new subsidiary of the hospital was opened in the „Big Ghetto”, at Leszno 80, on the corner of Żelazna street. The personnel struggled with the sanitary conditions of the building, which proved to be full of bed bugs – as well as with the necessity to organize extra beds, bedding and furniture.

The proximity of the Ghetto’s gate at Leszno street and macabre pastimes of the infamous „pigeon hunter”, Frankenstein, caused many injured children to go to the hospital. One of such scenes was witnessed by Ludwik Hirszfeld: A small girl tries to squeeze through the gate, a soldier calls her and slowly takes his rifle off. The child clings to his shoe, crying for mercy. The soldier smiles at her and says: „You won’t die, but you will give up on smuggling”. He shots at both her legs. The child’s tiny legs are broken. They need to be amputated. Certainly she won’t go smuggling anymore.

Another problem which doctors in the closed district had to face was omnipresent famine. Once the statistics of mortality in the Ghetto were summarized, it became clear that every months 3–4,000 Jews were dying of hunger. The primary reason were drastically small food rations, from 400 to even 200 calories a day. Children who were treated at the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital were recovering to an extent, but usually their lives were only barely extended. After a few weeks, they were returning to the hospital, usually in a much worse condition.

The story of the Bersohn and Bauman Children’s Hospital ends with the closing of the „Small Ghetto” during the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto, which began on 22 July 1942. The staff was given 24 hours to leave the hospital; the move was arranged using accidental carriages which carried precious equipment from Śliska street to Leszno. Not everything was transferred – the X-Ray equipment and the analytical lab remained at Śliska, so did the surgical room. Patients from the infectious disease ward at Stawki street were moved to Leszno as well, because in the buildings near the Umschlagplatz, the Germans located the Jews who were to be transported to Treblinka. During the liquidation, hospital personnel were joining the columns marching towards the Umschlagplatz every day; doctors and nurses didn’t avoid transports to the death camp.

One of the doctors who survived the war, Adina Blady-Szwajger, recalls post-war walks to Śliska street: I look at the hospital gate, I look through the grill and I see that apple trees which used to bloom here are gone. This hospital doesn’t carry the name it should. But then I close my eyes. The gate at Śliska street opens, the one near which a homeless children took its clothes off – and everyone who departed walks through.

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