We recently spoke with Sean Martin about his book For the Good of the Nation: Institutions for Jewish Children in Interwar Poland, a collection of documents on CENTOS, the Central Union of Associations for Jewish Orphan Care. CENTOS saught to provide care for the tens of thousands of Jewish children orphaned during World War I and in the subsequent years of conflict. Read on for more information from editor and translator Sean Martin.
Academic Studies Press: What first piqued your interest in Jewish and Eastern European history?
Sean Martin: As an undergraduate, I took a course in the politics of East Central Europe with Joseph Rothschild, a professor of political science and history at Columbia. And I was hooked. I was especially interested in the history of Solidarity in Poland. I then took some courses in Jewish history, and I became fascinated by questions of ethnic, national, and religious identity. I then had to decide my major, and I followed the advice to pursue something I was interested in. As it happened, Columbia offered an interdisciplinary area studies major focusing on East Central Europe. Focusing on the history of Jews in Poland allows me to combine my interests in Poland and in the Jewish community.
ASP: How was compiling the articles for this book similar or different from the work you do as a curator at the Western Reserve Historical Society?
SM: I work at Western Reserve Historical Society, a nonprofit focusing on the history of Northeast Ohio. My job is to oversee the Cleveland Jewish Archives, to collect materials related to the local Jewish community and to process them and make them available to the public. A significant part of my job involves outreach, which includes research, writing, and public speaking. My goal in compiling the articles and introducing the history of CENTOS was to provide a resource for others interested in the topic. Providing resources for others is an apt description of my job in the archives as well, whether that means processing archival collections, managing oral history and digitization projects, or preparing publications related to local Jewish history.
ASP: In researching this book, did you come across anything that surprised you?
SM: The differences in the way we provide childcare today continue to surprise me. In the 1920s it was not unusual, in Poland or the United States, for a child of the very poor or a child who had lost one parent to be sent to an institution, whether for a short time or until the late teenage years. Those working in childcare in interwar Poland also made efforts to keep a child with family members or to place the child in a family, but foster care had not yet become the dominant form of providing care for orphaned children. Poland’s Jewish social workers discussed the advantages and disadvantages of institutionalization at length in the 1920s and 1930s – at a very high level, professionally and competently and aware of the children’s needs and of their limitations as providers. The mid twentieth century change from institutionalization to foster care is a real transformation of the way in which society aids the most vulnerable. There are still some today who claim that we have not yet gotten right the balance between foster care and institutionalization.
ASP: Why and how were Jewish children and the Jewish community so disproportionately affected by World War I?
SM: The short answer is that, simply, they lived on the frontline. But they were also victims of the postwar pogroms and the violence that continued until the borders were settled in 1923. Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, referred to the destruction in the region as the third hurban, or catastrophe, following the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE and the second Temple in 70 CE. There were about 60,000 Jewish war orphans, most of whom were half-orphans. They lived among Poles and Ukrainians whose communities were also devastated by the war, and, alongside their neighbors, they faced the challenge of how to develop their community in a completely new political environment.
ASP: What was so radical about CENTOS during its time?
SM: The teachers, lawyers, social workers, and community leaders who established the organizations of CENTOS would probably not be described as radical, but, nonetheless, their work was transformative. Their successes were tangible: children were fed, clothed, educated, trained, and prepared to live independently. The aid associations and orphanages of CENTOS were institutions of the Jewish community most broadly defined. They were pioneering, innovative, and creative, establishing models of care, often in small towns with few social services of any kind. In order to receive aid from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, they could not be ideologically partisan. In addition, the institutions of CENTOS often sent their children to public schools because they lacked the funds to pay for private Jewish education. A tagline of Przegląd Społeczny (Social Review), one of the CENTOS publications, was “The Child – The Future of the Nation.” The children of CENTOS were being taught to contribute to the Jewish nation and to the Polish nation.
Sean Martin is the author of Jewish Life in Cracow, 1918-1939. He is Associate Curator for Jewish History at Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio.