The Jewish Hospital of Cluj
From Chevra Kadisha to the project of a hospital
The Chevra Kadisha is a charitable organisation usually run by religious Jewish communities. The Chevra Kadisha of Cluj has traditionally provided healthcare services to the poor members of the community. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the organisation has employed one or two doctors who would home visit the patients and bring them medication bought from donations offered to the charity. However, only two doctors and one medical practice with two beds for emergency cases were not sufficient for the entire community, because, despite common stereotypes, most of the local Jewish people had a rather modest income. There was also an increasing need for specialised healthcare, which, at that time, was only available in private medical practices and sanatoriums, and was very expensive.
In 1907, during a meeting held at the Chevra Kadisha, the chief rabbi of Cluj, Mózes Glasner, suggested that the community should found a hospital, following the example from Oradea, where there has been a Jewish hospital since 1830. This is how, in 1921, the National Association for the Jewish Hospital was created. The plan was to open a modern hospital with 500 beds, which would offer healthcare services to all Jewish people from Romania.
Because of the precarious economic situation, the fundraising was not very successful until 1926, when the project received the generous support of the couple Dávid and Karolina Sebestyén. Dávid Sebestyén came from a poor family living in Cuzdrioara (near Dej), and as a teenager he started working as a stonemason. Later, he became the owner of a stone quarry and the wealthiest construction entrepreneur in Transylvania. On the 28th of December 1926, he and his wife celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and wanted to offer a donation to the Jewish community on this occasion. Following the advice of rabbi Akiba Glasner, son of Mózes Glasner, who suggested them to make a contribution for the hospital, the Sebestyéns offered an estate with several buildings, at the time used as apartments, stores and workshops, as well as a generous amount of money for this noble cause.
The Sebestyén family. Karolina and Dávid are the two elderly people in the middle of row 3. Image source: Yad Vashem.
Progress and modernisation
Initially, the hospital functioned in the refurbished buildings donated by the Sebestyén family. Emergency medical services were available for patients belonging to any confession and any social class. For people with a low income, the treatment was administered free of charge.
The project of the hospital started to flourish as the organisation was taken over by the lawyer József Sebestyén, son of Dávid and Karolina. With great devotion and good business skills, József always found a way to convince people and local companies to support the hospital. The original buildings were renovated, and an ambulatory with 32 doctors was established. The hospital met a huge demand of healthcare services in the whole region: at that time, a third of the patients came from the surroundings of Cluj, and only 60% of them were Jewish. The new hospital continued to help those in need, offering free treatment for those who couldn’t afford the standard prices.
On the 10th of November 1929, a new hospital building was inaugurated. It was designed by the architect Emil Devecseri and built from the donations gathered by József Sebestyén. The capacity of the hospital grew to 28 beds, while the ambulatory was provided with wards for gynaecology, surgery, ophthalmology, and radiology, using the newest equipment available at the time. In 1929, the magazine “Ellenzék” published an article regarding the inauguration ceremony: it was an important event for the whole city which took place in the presence of members of the local council, high ranked army officers, rabbis, as well as members of female charities, directors of high schools and university students. The article highlights the humanitarian nature of this project, stating that the opening of the new hospital was a great reason to celebrate not only for the Jewish community, but for all the people who were ill and suffering, regardless of their social status.
Page from the newspaper ”Ellenzék”, with an article about the inauguration ceremony, 1929. Source: Arcanum Adatbázis
In 1930, the doctors of the Jewish Hospital founded the “Paul Ehrlich” Society, which organised conferences and courses for doctors, where they could improve their skills and learn about the latest results in research. The society also functioned as a labour union for the hospital employees.
The golden age of the Jewish Hospital
The Jewish Hospital of Cluj gradually became one of the most modern and well-equipped healthcare institutions of the country. Internationally acclaimed experts worked there, such as the highly qualified dermatologist dr. Ede Goldberger, the internist dr. Mór Fenichel, the surgeon dr. Marcell Haas, who taught at Wrocław University, or university professor dr. Marcell Roth. Besides helping people with a low income, the hospital reached its second goal, which was to offer Jewish doctors a place where they could practice their profession.
The hospital building in 1931. Image source: Orvostudományi Értesítő<br /> 2016, 89(2).
On the 6th September 1931, a new hospital wing was opened, accommodating the internal medicine and paediatric wards. According to the statistics presented at the opening ceremony, by then the doctors there have treated 14.000 ambulatory patients, 940 hospitalized patients, have performed 400 complex operations and have assisted the birth of 185 babies. Among the attendees of the festivity were Iuliu Hațieganu, rector of the University of Medicine, and Victor Papilian, professor at the same institution. Showing their respect to the founders of the hospital, both of them included in their speeches quotes from the sacred texts of Judaism. Secretary of State Victor Hodor, who was also present at the ceremony, expressed his admiration that the new wing was finalised despite the hardships of the Great Depression.
In his speech, the famous ophthalmologist József Hamburg compared the Jewish Hospital with healthcare institutions from the past and highlighted that this establishment encompassed all the benefits of industrial, technological and scientific improvements. As a matter of fact, the Jewish Hospital of Cluj had already had three laboratories for serological and bacteriological investigations, and the histological laboratory was under construction. The equipment of the radiology ward was revolutionary for that time, and in the meantime the capacity of the hospital grew to 85 beds. Dr. Hamburg also mentioned that each of his colleagues tended to specialise in a certain field, therefore a polyclinic hospital model such as the Jewish Hospital was necessary for a good cooperation between the different specialists. The hospital had all the departments of a modern polyclinic, except for psychiatric and infectious diseases wards.
The opening ceremony of the new hospital wing, 6th of September 1931.
Besides its excellent medical results, the hospital also flourished financially, thanks to József Sebestyén’s dedication. Each year, he would organise the Jewish Hospital Days in Transylvania, as well as charity balls and lotteries during the holiday of Hanukkah. The hospital reached the zenith of its glory in 1936, as it was as modern as any university clinic in the country, and employed the most qualified medical staff.
The downfall of the hospital and the post-war period
In the second half of the 1930s, anti-Semitism, nationalism and hate speech unfortunately gained more ground in the region. In that context, the Jewish Hospital of Cluj faced more and more obstacles. In 1938, doctors who had graduated at any other university than Romanian universities could not practice freely anymore. Their degree certificates had to be sent to Bucharest to be “accredited”. In 1940, the Chamber of Physicians was reorganised and doctors could only practice legally if they were accepted as members. However, in Cluj only 9% of the members ought to be Jewish people.
During those times, the Jewish Hospital could barely function: the doctors either had lost their licence or were taken to forced labour camps. In 1944, the deportation of Jewish people from Northern Transylvania began. By the time the front line approached the city, the hospital was left with no doctors and no patients.
In 1945, the local press gave an account of Jewish doctors returning to Cluj from concentration camps. In the same year, the Chamber of Physicians was reorganized once again, and a year later Jewish healthcare and educational institutions resumed their activity. However, the Jewish Hospital never regained its pre-war status. In 1948, it was nationalised, and, today, the building is owned by the Regional Institute for Gastroenterology and Hepatology.
The Regional Institute for Gastroenterology and Hepatology today.
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Hamburg József: A kolozsvári Zsidó Kórház megnyitására (1931). Korunk 2014/9. 81-83.
Ezrek jelenlétében, nagy ünnepség keretében avatták fel tegnap a kolozsvári Zsidókórházat. Ellenzék 1929/258. 4.