Children at the Medem Sanatorium clustered around the Folks-tsaytung, the newspaper of the Bund, Międzeszyn, Poland, 1930s. (YIVO)

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Medem Sanatorium

Educational and clinical facility for children and young adults at risk for tuberculosis. This sanatorium, which functioned in Międzeszyn near Warsaw between 1926 and 1942, was named after Bundist leader Vladimir Medem (1879–1923), and was the best-known establishment of the Bund and of TSYSHO (the Central Yiddish School Organization) in Poland. Until World War II, it was recognized internationally for its reformist pedagogical approach and its left laicist orientation.

The roots of the Medem Sanatorium are traced to earlier TSYSHO summer colonies, where counselors often noted the poor health of children from urban working-class families. To address this problem, Medem solicited donations from the United States. TSYSHO purchased a villa in a recreational region outside Warsaw, added a new wing, and fitted the building in accordance with the most modern medical and educational standards. The executive committee, made up entirely of Bund adherents and led by Yekusiel (Noyekh) Portnoy, appointed the experienced teacher Shloyme Gilinski (1888–1961) as director. Under Gilinski’s leadership, approximately 10,000 children were treated at the Medem Sanatorium between 1926 and 1939.

Children on sleds at the Medem Sanatorium, Miedzeszyn, Poland, 1930s. (YIVO)

The clinic was funded by donations from Jewish unions in Poland and American Jewish workers’ organizations. Until 1935, public money (from municipal authorities and health insurers) also covered some of the costs. Children generally stayed for two to six months, and the waiting list for admission was long. Some children remained for more than a year, and quite a few returned for further treatment. The sanatorium accommodated an average of 140 children during the winter and about 350 in summer.

Pedagogical guidelines at the Medem Sanatorium were in keeping with educational reforms of the time. The central focus was on improving the physical and mental health of the children and creating an atmosphere of mutual trust. Personal responsibility, a collective spirit, a work ethic, and self-discipline were taught in ways tailored to children. Nature and fresh air played an important role. Gardening, tending to animals, and natural history lessons were part of the daily routine; the patients were both observers and active participants. Games, creativity, and artistic talents were fostered in a variety of ways.

“Protecting Birds. Take care of the birds in winter: give them food, protect them from frost and snow.” Yiddish panel from an exhibition mounted by students from the TSYSHO school of the Medem Sanatorium, Warsaw, 1933. (YIVO)

Yiddish was the predominant language of communication and it regularly found new forms of expression in children’s stage plays such as Di lalkes (The Dolls) and Der shpaykhler (The Storehouse), as well as in songs and neologisms. At the same time, self-government institutions such as a children’s council and various committees and authorities taught principles of autonomy and group responsibility. It was a decidedly secular institution; ethical concepts stressing humanity, brotherhood, and solidarity were stressed instead of religious practice. All this required highly motivated and committed teachers, trained in modern child psychology and educational theory. The facility recorded detailed observations of the children, preserved in a carefully maintained card file that also included information about each child’s familial background.

The Medem Sanatorium soon gained wide renown and was visited by representatives of educational organizations. The film Mir kumen on (We Are on Our Way; U.S. title, Children Must Laugh), shot at the sanatorium in 1935, gives a vivid impression of the children’s daily life. Director Aleksander Ford, with the collaboration of the Polish socialist and educator Wanda Wasilewska and the Bundist Jakob (Yankev) Pat, produced a film that was a mixture of documentary and narrative. In it, the children reenact the story of three new arrivals and their rapid integration into the sanatorium community, while at the same time the film explains the clinic’s educational guidelines. Initially banned in Poland and screened only abroad (in 1937 in Paris, for instance), the film was finally shown in 1938 in Vilna. [For a song from the film, see media related to this article.]

The Medem Sanatorium was inextricably linked to the Bund. As a socialist children’s republic, it aimed to present a foretaste of leftists’ ideas for the future and, as such, provided an important source of hope. At the same time, the children carried a specifically Bund-oriented sense of yidishkayt (Jewishness) back to their families and other groups outside the sanatorium, contributing to a leftist and secular Jewish concept of identity. Its prominence, however, also left the Medem Sanatorium vulnerable. In 1931, a group of Jewish Communists staged an attack upon the clinic, evoking strong reactions among Polish socialists and the international socialist workers’ movement.

After the Germans invaded Poland, the Medem Sanatorium was first shut down and then looted in September 1939. The Bund’s underground organization decided to reopen the clinic a few months later. Despite rapid deterioration in the facility’s conditions, the teachers nonetheless remained true to the educational concepts of the TSYSHO and continued to admit children; for example, 130 pupils arrived from a Polish-language Jewish orphanage. Until the children and remaining staff were deported on 22 August 1942, the facility was run by Anna Broide-Heler, Manie Zigelboym (wife of Artur Zigelboym), Sonie Nowogrodska (wife of Emanuel Nowogrodski), and Roze Aykhner, who accompanied the children to Treblinka.

Suggested Reading

Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, Di geshikhte fun yidishn shulvezn in umophengikn Poyln (Mexico City, 1947); Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, Lerer-yizker-bukh: Di umgekumene lerer fun Tsisho-shuln in Poyln (New York, 1954); Hayyim Solomon Kazdan, ed., Medem-Sanatorye-bukh (Tel Aviv, 1971).



Translated from German by Rebecca Stuart