- 'The children ceased to be children'Day-Care Centres at Refugee Shelters in the Warsaw Ghetto
The reports prepared by care-givers from the Central Association for the Care of Orphans and Abandoned Children (Związek Towarzystw Opieki nad Dziećmi i Sierotami Żydowskimi; Farband fun Tsentrales far Yesoymim Farsorgung in Poyln; Centos) in December 1941 and copied for the collection of the Ringelblum Archive, the underground archive of the Warsaw ghetto, deal with education in the most extreme circumstances: the Warsaw ghetto.1 Yet, while the institutional and clandestine schooling of the ghetto children has now been a subject of some research,2 these reports reveal the attempts to educate those who still receive little attention in the scholarship: the young inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto's refugee shelters (colloquially referred to as punkty, 'points') The reports answer the question of whether education was at all possible among the most impoverished children of the ghetto and, if so, what it looked like.
Centos was the main organization caring for Jewish children in interwar Poland, functioning from 1924 and involving in its activities in 1938 15,000 children, most of them in orphanages.3 During the war Centos continued its work. In December 1941 it was the key body co-ordinating the care of children in the Warsaw ghetto, employing about 1,000 people involved in taking care of 25,000 children in over [End Page 341] 100 establishments.4 Financed by the Judenrat, collections in the community, and above all the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, it supervised care facilities, including orphanages, day-care centres, and 'children's corners' organized by house committees. The reports reflect on a particularly difficult part of its activities: the work of the Department of Day-Care Centres which at the beginning of 1942 oversaw more than thirty day-care centres in refugee shelters catering for over 5,000 children.5
As the reports illustrate, the work in the shelters was carried out in atrocious conditions. While the day-care centres described differ in terms of the degree of poverty—from that at Nowolipki 25, which was the headquarters of Żydowska Samopomoc Społeczna (Jewish Self Help), to a notorious shelter at Stawki 9, where lack of sanitation allegedly led to 228 deaths in three weeks in January 19426—all of the shelters were constantly overcrowded with an extremely high mortality rate. Given the lack of space, centres were established in prayer rooms, theatres, and private homes, and it was rare for Centos care-givers to be able to organize a separate space to work with the children. In some shelters, rooms for day care became available only after their previous occupants had died of hunger or illness. One of the care-givers commented bitterly in her report: 'I am in "luck" as in apartment number 10 the whole family died of hunger and poverty; kind and tactful people who vacated a room for day care.'7 As a result, children's corners could not be organized in all the shelters. In many of the most impoverished shelters, regular activities were replaced by visits from 'mobile care-givers' who would visit a few times a week and deal mainly with health and well-being, rather than education.
Aside from overcrowding, any attempt at schooling was also jeopardized by other aspects of refugee children's lives. Not all children were dressed adequately to attend school, even if something was organized for them and the funds for teaching resources were somehow obtained. In poorer shelters, almost all the children were dressed in rags, which they wore day and night, often for fear of them being stolen. It was uncommon for children to have shoes.8 Many did not have any clothing and spent their days lying naked in bed. Others were simply too weak to attend classes. Taking care of children in such conditions also meant involvement with those who were sick with typhus, tuberculosis, or dysentery, whom sometimes even doctors refused to treat.9 One of the care-givers, who took a position of a [End Page 342] substitute teacher at Lubeckiego 12 to replace a colleague ill with typhus...