A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps: My Mother’s Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade
University of Oklahoma Press, $26.95 (cloth)
What do names like Ravensbruck, Gross-Rosen, Neusalz, and Flossenburgmean to those who were there? “You can’t imagine!” This is Dr. Jadwiga (known to friends and family as Jadzia), Lenartowicz Rylko’s frequent and emphatic punctuation in recounting fragments of her life to her daughter. But thanks to A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps, Barbara Rylko-Bauer’s forceful biography and memoir of her mother, we can imagine what it might be like to be the young physician, seized as a political prisoner and forced to work as a doctor in the sprawling network of concentration and labor camps and prisons that constituted, for so many and especially for Europe’s Jews, the other front line of World War II.
Jadzia, as she was known to her friends and family, was a talented young medical student and pediatrician-in-training in Łódź as the Nazi storm gathered. She, like her sisters, was seized as a political prisoner for resistance activities, deported, and shuttled from camp to camp. The camps and subcamps themselves, which varied in purpose and condition, took millions more from Russia, Poland, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Western European countries invaded or occupied by Hitler’s troops. Most of them were Jews who were murdered outright, but hunger and tuberculosis and camp epidemics like typhus also cut thousands of lives short, even as the war was drawing to a close. Sometimes the only non-Jewish Polish prisoner, Jadzia resisted their efforts at dehumanization. In the last two years of the war, Jadzia was forced to march 280 miles in six grueling winter weeks, from Neusalz to Flossenburg, as Soviet forces drew close to the camps to the east and Americans approached from the west. Such forced marches took, in the last two years of the war, an estimated 250,000 lives.
These were mostly the citizens of countries invaded or occupied by Hitler’s troops. Placed in solitary confinement in the condemned prisoners’ section of the Flossenburg camp, Jadzia was “disoriented and terrified,” but nursed a growing hope to survive; it was the end of March 1945. The prisoner on the other side of the wall, an American, asked for medical attention; he had scurvy and his teeth were falling out. There was not much a physician could do, given the lack of supplies, even if she hadn’t been hungry and sick and frightened and footsore. “I was a prisoner, just like him,” she tells her daughter. He was probably among the thirteen Allied prisoners of war hanged shortly thereafter.
The daughter coaxed—sometimes badgered—this wrenching narrative from her mother.
In the last days of internment, Jadzia and another Polish physician were spared because they were tasked with providing rudimentary medical care to the women prisoners working in an armament factory. The German camp commander, knowing the Americans would soon arrive, refused to carry out orders to destroy the camp and kill its prisoners. The nearby city was being bombed to smithereens and the prison-factory walls shook. The young women there were “crying and howling from fear.” The two physicians pleaded for calm. “Then suddenly,” Jadzia tells her daughter decades later, “there was a tremendous silence.” On April 15, 1945, a U.S. infantry division opened the gates of the camp: “The women all flew out like birds uncaged.”
Liberated, Jadzia walked out of the camp and into a region under American control. Chaos reigned across Germany for months as Allied forces divided it up. Rylko-Bauer explains the larger context concisely, but hews closely to her mother’s tale, “surviving survival” in the aftermath of the war. She reunited with her sister, who had, unlike most to enter Auschwitz, survived—and married another prisoner of war, a Polish army officer, soon to become the author’s father. She and her new husband were reluctant to return to Poland, which had come firmly under Soviet control. So the young couple was stuck in Germany along with millions of other “displaced persons” as the world outside of the theatre of war timidly took stock of the carnage. Jadzia’s unwavering hope to continue practicing pediatrics gradually subsided when, as an immigrant to Detroit, she and her husband struggled to make a new life as Americans and her professional aspirations shrank.
In the final decade of Rylko’s life, the mother and daughter, by then an anthropologist, made trips to Poland and to the camps where the mother was imprisoned. The daughter coaxed—sometimes badgered—this wrenching narrative from her mother. It often was not easy for either of them, but I am grateful for their collaboration. And readers will be grateful for the effort; the author is patient and painstaking in documentation and fluent in Polish, checking her mother’s and family’s photographs and recollections against scores of contemporary accounts and materials now archived in Poland, Israel, Germany, and the United States. There is also pathos and still-hot indignation, as Rylko-Bauer digs up documents and shares them with her mother: “This was not war,” recalls her elderly mother. “This was murder!” But there is also, the daughter reflects, a stubborn refusal to give in to bitterness and, throughout, a good deal of Jadzia’s wry humor. These traits were to endure until Dr. Jadzia Rylko died at 100; her daughter’s project unfinished but by then encouraged.
Barbara Rylko-Bauer is a biographer, daughter, and anthropologist with a point of view about collateral damage of all sorts and a knack for revealing how forces and events beyond the control or understanding of her protagonists came to affect even their most intimate thoughts and daily lives, and to shape their recollections. Rylko-Bauer draws on, but is never fettered by, an appreciation of the scholarly literature on subjects such as the absurd sadism of Nazi bureaucracy, the cynical exploitation of slave labor by German firms, the psychology and politics of memory and forgetting, and the World War II memoir.
It is all here—the hunger, the fear, the lice, the cold, the killing and the death; lives upended by Nazi terror; the map of insanity and horror of the camps; the pestilence and injuries brought to the attention of a slave doctor without the tools of her trade; burning Dresden’s luminescent glow lighting the night sky as Jadzia and other prisoners were marched, freezing and starving, toward Flossenburg. The backdrop to all the detail is, in Rylko-Bauer’s words, “the tremendous suffering of ordinary people” caught up in deadly tumult.
A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps shows us clearly that neither Rylko-Bauer nor her mother is in any way ordinary. Through their incandescent collaboration, the rough stone of memory is tumbled and polished, emerging as a fiery gem.