Two rows of nurses in white uniforms watch as another nurse prepares a hypodermic.

The School of Nursing at Starozakonnych Hospital in Interwar Warsaw: How Amelia Greenwald and Sabina Schindlerówna Challenged Antisemitism in the Nursing Profession

In the spring of 1923, Amelia Greenwald arrived in Warsaw, Poland, to undertake an urgent task. A nurse from the United States, she was to establish a school of nursing for young Jewish women at the Starozakonnych Hospital.[1] The project was funded by the Joint Distribution Committee, an organization founded during the Great War to provide international humanitarian relief to Jewish communities recovering from postwar devastation. Following the Great War and the Polish-Soviet War, Poland was a newly independent state struggling with hyperinflation, reconstruction, a typhus epidemic, and the continuous wave of antisemitism that had been sweeping through central and eastern Europe since the turn of the century.[2] According to Greenwald, Poland’s civilian population was physically and mentally exhausted and in desperate need of medical care.[3] However, the Polish Red Cross did not allow Jewish women to study at its institutions.[4] Such religious intolerance had lasting effects upon the medical capabilities of the hospitals within Poland. Greenwald observed, “Just imagine, if you can, -I never could do so,- a hospital caring for eleven hundred patients, without nurses!”[5]

A man writes on a piece of paper at a desk. Two rows of nurses in white uniforms take notes.
Chief physician gives an outline of the hospital system at Skola Pielegniarstv, Szpitalu Starozakonnych, Warsaw, 1923. (Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 44. Manuscript Collection 797, Louisiana Research Collection, Special Collections, Tulane University.)

The pressing need for a nursing school at Starozakonnych Hospital in 1923 cannot be overstated. The facility remained the only one that administered medical care to Warsaw’s Jewish population. In her correspondence, Greenwald discussed how antisemitism isolated and prevented the community from receiving medical care on demand. She disclosed, “Even if a Jewish person be shot or taken otherwise seriously ill in any part of the city- tho it be at the very door of a Christian Hospital, they will not take him in! He must be sent out here.”[6] Opening a top-tier nursing school on the hospital grounds ensured an increase in the nursing staff at Starozakonnych, and therefore an improvement in the medical care available to Warsaw’s Jews.

Countering a nurses’ shortage at Starozakonnych became the main goal of the hospital’s medical staff in 1921.[7] This year also witnessed the opening of the Warsaw Nursing School at Warsaw University, in partnership with the Polish Red Cross and financially supported by the American Red Cross. According to Sabina Schindlerówna, the second director of the School of Nursing at Starozakonnych, “The newly established school met only the needs of Christian society. It began to emerge the idea of creating a similar institution in which Jewish girls could be educated.”[8] It should come as no surprise that the Polish Red Cross was just as discriminatory to Jewish women as the American Red Cross was to Black women in this period, and so provided no financial support to Starozakonnych Hospital.[9] The initial funding for the School of Nursing at Starozakonnych was only possible through yearly donations from Warsaw’s Jewish community and the monetary support given by the Joint Distribution Committee in the US.[10]

Despite this religious intolerance, the Starozakonnych Hospital was an impressive scientific center. It housed eight medical pavilions specializing in surgery, maternity, general medicine, contagious diseases, skin and venereal, special senses, tuberculosis and mental health.[11] For a hospital of this size, an inadequate nursing staff increased the likelihood of overworked doctors and neglected patients. The opening of the School of Nursing at Starozakonnych on June 8, 1923 sought to fix this problem.

Along with ensuring better patient care, Greenwald’s work expanded the nursing profession to Jewish women in Warsaw, who had previously been denied training and employment based on their religion. She also helped certain women to obtain further training. When she returned to the US in 1926, Greenwald secured educational opportunities for a star pupil, Sabina Schindlerówna. Schindlerówna began her graduate education abroad at Teachers College, Columbia University, holding eight consecutive internships, and receiving further training at Yale University.[12] Following the completion of her studies, she returned to the School of Nursing at Starozakonnych and served as its second director.[13]

A doctor and nurse work on a patient's eyes as another nurse watches.
The chief physician instructs two nursing students on eye care in the Eye Pavillion Treatment Room, Warsaw, 1923. (Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 44. Manuscript Collection 797, Louisiana Research Collection, Special Collections, Tulane University.)

Greenwald and Schindlerówna corresponded as the school continued to prosper in the late 1920s. Just when it appeared that newly independent Poland had secured economic stability, the stock market crash in 1929 ushered in the Great Depression. The financial crisis had disastrous effects on the JDC’s ability to contribute funds necessary for the nursing school’s continued operation. Schindlerówna kept Greenwald informed on necessary budget cuts; the school separated from Starozakonnych Hospital and had to reduce its number of students.[14] According to Schindlerówna, the economic crisis also decreased the demand for graduate nurses at Starozakonnych and in other Jewish hospitals throughout Poland.[15] In 1932, twenty-five graduates of the School of Nursing at Starozakonnych were unemployed.[16] Anxiety surrounding financial security abounded in Europe, as the Great Depression led to the Nazi Party’s ascension in Germany and Adolf Hitler’s 1933 appointment as chancellor. Six years later on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded western Poland. Shortly thereafter, the Soviet Union invaded eastern Poland on September 17, 1939.

The pioneering educational work completed by nurses Amelia Greenwald and Sabina Schindlerówna challenged ethnic and religious barriers that the nursing field constructed in Poland in the interwar years. The Jewish nurses who emerged from the halls of the School of Nursing at Starozakonnych altered who took the Nightingale Pledge in Poland. Despite Greenwald’s efforts to provide an exemplary nursing education to Polish Jewish women, the School of Nursing at Starozakonnych Hospital only lasted for so long. It was relocated into the Warsaw Ghetto, where it operated until the SS began mass deportations in 1942. Warsaw’s vibrant scientific center of Polish Jewish nurses was lost. What remains of their history only shows a fragment of the medical work they accomplished.

Notes

    1. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Manuscript Collection 797, Louisiana Research Collection, Tulane University Special Collections, New Orleans, Tulane University. Box 1, Folder 34. First Report of Amelia Greenwald R.N., Superintendent Nurses Training School in Warsaw to the Committee on Medical Affairs of the Joint Distribution Committee, New York City. Letter No. 1, April 20, 1923. p. 1. The Starozakonnych Hospital was also known as the Jewish Hospital of Warsaw. It was the only hospital in Warsaw which provided medical care to the city’s Jewish population.
    2. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 34. First Report of Amelia Greenwald R.N., Superintendent Nurses Training School in Warsaw to the Committee on Medical Affairs of the Joint Distribution Committee, New York City.
    3. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 2, Folder 6. Press Release: United Jewish Campaign. “How the Jewish Nurses Training School in Warsaw was Established.” Amelia Greenwald Interview. p. 2.
    4. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 38. Document 6: The Inauguration of the School for nurses at the Jewish Hospital. Translated from the Polish by Ms. Greenwald’s Stenographer.
    5. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 12: Correspondence 1923. Document 23: Amelia Greenwald to Mrs. Sporborg. May 14, 1923. p. 9.
    6. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Correspondence 1923. Amelia Greenwald to Mrs. Sporborg. May 14, 1923. p. 6–7.
    7. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 2, Folder 6. Brochure: School of Nursing at Starozakonnych Hospital in Warsaw, 1923-1928, by Sabina Schindlerówna. All Polish translations are by the author. p. 10.
    8. Ibid., p. 12.
    9. See Dock, Pickett, Noyes, Clement, Fox & Meter. History of American Red Cross Nursing. (Macmillan Co., 1922), p. 405–8 for the treatment of women of color upon acceptance into the US Red Cross as nurses during the 1918 Spanish Flu Pandemic.
    10. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 33. School of Nursing, Warsaw, Status of the Society. p. 1–2.
    11. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 13. Correspondence 1923. Document 15: Amelia Greenwald to Hilga Nelson. November 12, 1923. p. 7.
    12. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 21. Correspondence 1929. Document 2: Memorandum of meeting held at the office of Mr. Bernard Flexner, June 6, 1929 to discuss with Miss Amelia Greenwald future plans in connection with the training of the two nurses from the Nurses Training School in Warsaw now in U.S. p. 1–4.
    13. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 2, Folder 6. Brochure: School of Nursing at Starozakonnych Hospital in Warsaw, 1923-1928, by Sabina Schindlerówna. Title Page. All Polish translations are by the author.
    14. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 24. Correspondence 1932. Letter: Sabina Schindlerówna, Warsaw, Dworska 17, to Amelia Greenwald, July 21, 1932. p. 1–2.
    15. Ibid., p. 1–2.
    16. Amelia Greenwald Papers, Box 1, Folder 24. Correspondence 1932. Copy of letter: Mary Elizabeth Tennant, 20 Rue de la Baume, Paris 8e, to Dr. Dublin, 1932. p. 1.

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