Members of the OZE (OSE) Committee with their wives. The photo was taken between 1915 and 1917. Standing: Yakov Eiger (3rd from right), Naum Botvinnik (2nd from left), Semen Frumkin (4th from left). Sitting: Grigory Goldberg (3rd, in profile), Abram Bramson (center, in uniform). (Michael Beizer, Evrei Leningrada: Natsional’naia zhizn’ i sovetizatsiia, 1917–1939 (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1999), p. 141.)

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Organization devoted to the promotion of health, hygiene, and childcare among Jews. Founded on 7 August 1912 in Saint Petersburg as the Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jewish Population, OZE (Obshchestvo okhraneniia zdorov’ia evreiskogo naseleniia; later, Obschestvo zdravookhraneniia evreev; OZE), is now based in Paris and is known as OSE (Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants) World Union. Its first chair was the physician and rear admiral Semyon A. Kaufmann. Among the committee's early members were prominent Saint Petersburg physicians, including Naum R. Botvinnik, Abram M. Bramson, Moisei M. Gran, Grigori I. Dembo, and Iakov B. Eiger. Other members were attorney Grigori A. Goldberg and transportation engineer Stanislav E. Weisblat.

Women in a nursing course sponsored by OZE, Kaunas, 1930s. The graph (right) is titled (in Yiddish): “The progression of productivity in the course of a workday.” Written on the blackboard: “Meningi [meningococcus].” (YIVO)

The founders of OZE identified ideologically with the Narodnik (“going to the people”) ideals of the Russian zemstvo (local self-administration) medical service, which advocated accessible, free medical care for all. These zemstvo services, however, were not provided in the western provinces of Russia, where most Jews lived. Moreover, OZE's founders believed that Jews possessed unique demographic, biological, and psychological traits after having lived in cities for centuries, where they had developed religious traditions and endured persecution, social isolation, and restrictions in professional activities.

OZE sought to create its own network to provide medical and sanitation services, as well as to offer preventive medical care. Its mission was to compensate for social and legal discrimination against Jews, to address health conditions and hereditary illnesses that specifically affected Jews, and to give proper consideration to religious and ethnic traditions. In advocating their approach, the founders of OZE were in agreement with Jewish liberals, autonomists, and Zionists, but differed from followers of the Bund, who believed that medical care should be provided without regard to ethnicity. OZE saw its historical mission as to promote the comprehensive physical rehabilitation of the Jewish nation. To achieve this, OZE undertook large-scale research on the “social biology of the Jews” and their current psycho-physical condition.

We are working for a healthy generation. Come join us and take part and help." Yiddish poster. Artwork by S. Nichamkin. Printed by Paul Schöpf, Berlin, 1926, with the aid of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and distributed in Eastern Europe by OZE. (YIVO)

Special attention was devoted to children. OZE organized summer camps for youths from low-income families, provided maternity and early childhood consultation, set up outpatient clinics and observation centers, and distributed free medication to the needy and milk to their children through a network of stations called “A Drop of Milk.” A special committee supervised physical education at Jewish schools and set up outdoor playgrounds.

Through popular-science lectures and brochures in Yiddish, information on hygiene and sanitation was circulated, along with advice on preventing childhood illnesses, skin ailments, and infectious diseases. By the end of 1913, as many as eight OZE branches were registered within the Pale of Settlement.

When World War I broke out, OZE was forced to suspend much of its long-term mission and directed its efforts to providing emergency medical relief to Jewish refugees and displaced persons. Its doctors, nurses, and nutritionists formed “flying squads” that were dispatched to territories adjacent to the front lines, and organized medical and sanitation relief measures on site, saving thousands of people from starvation and epidemics. From the outbreak of the war until August 1917, OZE opened 90 polyclinics, 19 hospitals, 28 canteens and nutrition centers for children, 10 “Drop of Milk” stations, 125 kindergartens benefiting 12,000 children, 13 summer camps hosting 2,500 children, 40 playgrounds for some 15,000 children, 2 sanatoria, and 2 hostels for tuberculosis patients in Crimea. It published popular brochures in Yiddish and issued a journal (Izvestiia OZE, 1917–1920). Some 700 individuals staffed 45 OZE branches providing services in 102 cities. The operating budget of the society reached 2 million rubles in 1917. The funds were provided by EKOPO (Evreiskii Komitet Pomoshchi Zhertvam Voiny; Jewish Committee for the Relief of War Victims), by donations from the Jewish population, by governments and local administration, and by the JDC.

Air, Sun, Water." Yiddish poster. Artwork and/or printed by Julian Liebermann, Berlin, 1926. This poster was produced for distribution for use in one of the numerous health education campaigns sponsored by OZE (Society for the Protection of the Health of the Jews) in Eastern Europe. (YIVO)

After the October Revolution, which the OZE Central Committee denounced, state funding was discontinued and private donations fell sharply as former donors in Russia lost their property. EKOPO experienced a similar crisis. Under war communism, the central committee of OZE in Petrograd lost contact with most of the peripheral regions. Simultaneously, the unprecedented wave of pogroms in the wake of the Civil War sharply increased the number of people in need of medical assistance. During this period, virtually all OZE operations were carried out by branches financed by local administrations. Soviet authorities nationalized OZE’s educational facilities, leaving only part of the sanitation and medical establishments under its management.

In June 1920, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) reached an agreement with the Soviet government whereby a Jewish Public Committee for Assisting Pogrom Victims (Evobshchestkom, or Yidgezkom in Yiddish) would be formed to distribute welfare assistance from the United States. At the insistence of the JDC, Evobshchestkom also incorporated EKOPO, ORT, and OZE. Jewish communists, however, obstructed the work of these veteran public establishments, and, in early 1921, the three organizations had to retire from Evobshchestkom. OZE was liquidated and its institutions were transferred to the control of the corresponding state organs. During the time it operated in Russia, OZE served as many as 2 million Russian Jews.

Subsequently, several attempts were made to resurrect OZE in the Soviet Union, but none was successful. In 1922, OZE members founded the Society for the Study of Social Biology and Psycho-physics of the Jews, which in 1924 was transformed into a committee by the same name under the auspices of the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society. Scientific research by OZE members was published in three collections under the title Voprosy biologii i patologii evreev (1926–1930).

“Tuberculosis and consumption can be prevented! Helping the sick is a big mitzvah. Preventing illness is a bigger mitzvah.” Yiddish poster. Artist unknown. Published by OZE, Berlin, 1923, with support from the Fund for Relief of Jewish War Victims and Federation of Ukrainian Jews, London. The cartoons illustrate the perils of spitting, and coughing and sneezing without covering one’s mouth and nose, and tout the benefits of fresh air, cleanliness, and a balanced diet. (YIVO)

In 1921, OZE was established in Lithuania, where it worked closely with the department of health operated by the autonomous Nastional-Rat (the central Jewish council), focusing its attention on problems of hygiene. The organization had 6 branches and 14 institutions. The JDC covered three-quarters of the Lithuanian OZE's expenditures in 1922.

In 1921, the Polish branch of OZE became a national organization, Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Źidowskiej (Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Populace; TOZ). The organization, which received support from the JDC, emphasized preventive medicine, improvement of sanitary conditions, and basic nutrition. It continued to operate in several ghettos until about 1942.

In response to disturbing accounts of famine in the lower Volga regions and southern Ukraine in early 1922, emigrant OZE members formed the OZE Committee in Berlin. The Berlin OZE succeeded in obtaining recognition and securing financial support from major international Jewish organizations. Under the banner of the Red Cross Mission led by Fridtjof Nansen to bring relief to famine-stricken Russia, the Berlin OZE dispatched medical equipment and medication, and later sent medical personnel to Soviet Russia. It opened polyclinics in large cities and set up ambulance services in smaller localities. During its nine months of operation in Ukraine, OZE personnel treated 80,000 patients and administered tens of thousands of vaccinations against infectious diseases. Some 10,000 children were under constant observation. In addition, popular lectures were delivered on hygiene and sanitation, and brochures were distributed on the prevention and treatment of trachoma, favus, and other conditions.

“Exterminate flies. They spread diseases. Keep your home and yard clean. Cover your food.” Yiddish poster. Artwork by S. Nichamkin. Printed by Paul Schöpf, Berlin, 1927, with the aid of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and distributed in Eastern Europe by OZE. (YIVO)

OZE-Berlin also opened a branch in Gdańsk (Danzig), to provide medical care to thousands of East European Jewish refugees and migrants awaiting emigration overseas. In December 1922, OZE-Berlin convened a conference with representatives from Poland, Lithuania, Berlin, and London. The organization elected a central bureau composed of the Berlin OZE Committee members plus one representative from each local OZE organization.

In 1922, OZE branches were established in Kishinev, Galaţi, and Czernowitz in Romania and in several cites in Latvia. Also in 1922, a medical committee was formed in London to support OZE in the Russian Empire's East European successor states.

When the OZE Congress convened in August 1923, the World Union of OZE Societies (OZE-Union) was established to address emergency situations and to implement a program to raise the living standards of the Jewish population. Albert Einstein was elected honorary president of the OZE-Union, and Lazar Gourvitch became general secretary of its central committee. To a large extent, the union remained a Russian and East European organization by virtue of its staff, membership, and physical location of its activities.

In Soviet Russia, the OZE-Union Council operated within the framework of the JDC-OZE Medical Committee. In many cities and towns, Jewish medical and sanitation societies were created, employing OZE veterans. Private polyclinics were set up to serve so-called lishentsy—persons who, deprived of various social privileges and juridical status, received neither state-funded medical care nor welfare assistance. By the end of the 1930s, when Agro-Joint had to depart the USSR, the operations of OZE in the Soviet Union were discontinued.

The efforts of the OZE-Union resulted in a sharp decrease in infant mortality; mange was virtually eliminated; and the spread of tuberculosis controlled. Overall, the hygiene and sanitary living conditions of the Jews in Eastern Europe improved significantly. On the eve of World War II, the total annual budgets of all OZE institutions combined exceeded $5 million (USD): 75 percent was raised locally and 25 percent donated by the JDC.

Children with their parents before their departure to a summer camp in Striape sponsored by OZE (Society for the Protection of Jewish Health), Daugavpils, 1938. (YIVO)

In 1933, with the rise of Nazi power, the OSE-Union relocated to Paris (later, from 1940 to 1945, to New York City). In early 1934, OSE-France was formed and headed by Alexandre Besredka of the Pasteur Institute as chair of the executive board. Besredka also served as chair of the central board of the OSE-Union. In Paris, OSE faced the immediate challenge of assisting the ever-increasing stream of refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe. A network of orphanages was set up. When France was occupied, OSE had to liquidate these orphanages and went underground in June 1942. Risking their own lives, OSE members placed Jewish children with foster families; hundreds were smuggled out of France to neutral Switzerland. OSE’s central committee also tried to help Jews in the occupied countries through a small branch in Geneva and via the International Red Cross. In Romania and Transnistria, for example, orphanages were set up to provide food and medical services.

Nurses from OZE (Obshchestvo Zdravo Okhraneniia Evreev [Society for the Protection of Jewish Health]) with Jewish children, Bucharest, 1944. Photograph by L. Matei. (YIVO)

Of more than 2,000 OSE workers in Europe, barely 250 survived the war. As Europe was liberated from the Nazis, representatives of the OSE-Union rushed to Eastern Europe to help Holocaust survivors. Branches of the union were recreated in Bulgaria, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. In Czechoslovakia, for instance, a sanatorium for tuberculosis patients was set up in Tatry, and tuberculosis observation and treatment centers were opened in Prague, Bratislava, and Košice. When communist regimes were installed in these countries, however, all OSE institutions were nationalized.

In the postwar years, the OSE-Union operated 91 medical facilities and provided assistance to more than 85,000 children and adults in 10 European, 9 Latin American, and 4 North African countries, and in Israel. In later years, the scope of OSE operations and its budgets gradually declined. From 1952, Albert Einstein remained its honorary president, and Boris Tschlenoff, in Switzerland, served as president.

The major issues and goals addressed by OSE today include safeguarding maternal health and that of infants and children; fighting epidemics; providing school health services; promoting hygiene, sanitation and health education; and supporting medical and biological research. The World OSE-Union is an accredited consulting member of the UN Economic and Social Committee, UNICEF, and the World Health Organization. Jean-François Guthmann has been the organization’s president since 2003.

Suggested Reading

Michael Beizer, Evrei Leningrada: Natsional’naia zhizn’ i sovetizatsiia, 1917–1939 (Moscow and Jerusalem, 1999), pp. 239–257; Nadav Davidovitch and Rakefet Zalashik, “‘Air, Sun, Water’: Ideology and Activities of OZE during the Interwar Period,” Dynamis 28 (2008): 127–149; Jacob Joshua Golub, “OSE: Pioneer of Jewish Health,” The Jewish Social Service Quarterly 14.4 (June 1938): 3–16; Lazar Gourvitch, Twenty Five Years OSE, 1912–1937 (Paris, 1937); Jacob Lestschinsky, OSE: 40 Years of Activities and Achievements (New York, 1952); Une mémoire pour le futur: L’Oeuvre de secours aux enfants; 90 ans d’histoire / A Legacy for the Future: 90 Years of the Œuvre de Secours aux Enfants (Paris, 2003); “OZE,” available at Elektronnaia evreiskaia entsiklopediia (ОЗЕ); Gari M. Pozin, Obshchestvo okhraneniia zdorovia yevreiskogo naseleniia: Dokumenty, fakty i imena (St. Petersburg, 2007); Leon Wulman, ed., In kamf farn gezunt fun yidishn folk: 50 yor “Oze” / In Fight for the Health of the Jewish People: 50 Years of OSE (New York, 1968), includes articles in Yiddish, English, French, and Russian; YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, The Society for the Protection of Jewish Health: Fighting for a Healthy New Generation, curated by Krysia Fisher (New York, 2005), exhibtion catalog.

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 210, Union Generale des Israelites de France (UGIF), Records, 1940-1944; RG 29, Vilna, Collection, 1822-1940; RG 340, Kehillat Haharedim (France), Records, 1939-1947; RG 494, American OSE Committee, Records, 1941-1955; RG 591, Kurt Richard Grossman, Papers, 1938-1945; RG 80, Mizrakh Yidisher Historisher Arkhiv (Berlin), Records, 1802-1924.