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A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps: My Mother's Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade

A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps: My Mother's Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade

by Barbara Rylko-Bauer


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Jadwiga Lenartowicz Rylko, known as Jadzia (Yah′-jah), was a young Polish Catholic physician in Łódź at the start of World War II. Suspected of resistance activities, she was arrested in January 1944. For the next fifteen months, she endured three Nazi concentration camps and a forty-two-day death march, spending part of this time working as a prisoner-doctor to Jewish slave laborers. A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps follows Jadzia from her childhood and medical training, through her wartime experiences, to her struggles to create a new life in the postwar world.

Jadzia’s daughter, anthropologist Barbara Rylko-Bauer, constructs an intimate ethnography that weaves a personal family narrative against a twentieth-century historical backdrop. As Rylko-Bauer travels back in time with her mother, we learn of the particular hardships that female concentration camp prisoners faced. The struggle continued after the war as Jadzia attempted to rebuild her life, first as a refugee doctor in Germany and later as an immigrant to the United States. Like many postwar immigrants, Jadzia had high hopes of making new connections and continuing her career. Unable to surmount personal, economic, and social obstacles to medical licensure, however, she had to settle for work as a nurse’s aide.

As a contribution to accounts of wartime experiences, Jadzia’s story stands out for its sensitivity to the complexities of the Polish memory of war. Built upon both historical research and conversations between mother and daughter, the story combines Jadzia’s voice and Rylko-Bauer’s own journey of rediscovering her family’s past. The result is a powerful narrative about struggle, survival, displacement, and memory, augmenting our understanding of a horrific period in human history and the struggle of Polish immigrants in its aftermath.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806151915
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Barbara Rylko-Bauer holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology and is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University. She has published several books, and her articles have appeared in American Ethnologist, American Anthropologist, and Medical Anthropology Quarterly.

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A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps

My Mother's Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade

By Barbara Rylko-Bauer


Copyright © 2014 Barbara Rylko-Bauer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4585-3


Telling My Mother's Story

WHEN THE GESTAPO CAME FOR MY MOTHER on that freezing January night, she was a thirty-three-year-old physician working in Lódz, the city in central Poland where she had been born on October 1, 1910. Her parents had christened her Jadwiga Helena Lenartowicz, although family and friends always called her Jadzia (pronounced Yah'-jah).

Following her arrest, she successively became a concentration camp prisoner, a slave doctor in the vast economy of forced labor that fueled the Nazi war machine, a survivor of a forty-two-day death march, a refugee, a displaced person, a wife and mother, an immigrant, and, finally, a citizen of a new country, the United States. In the course of this journey, she encountered cruelty, violence, and indifference, as well as generosity, courage, and compassion. She discovered hidden strength within herself that, along with large doses of good luck, enabled her to persevere. My mother never again saw the apartment from which the Gestapo took her, or any of her belongings. Twenty-three years would pass before she was able to return to her native city, walk its streets, and visit with family and friends who had survived the war.

The United States became her new home, one that offered freedom and security but also denied her the opportunity to continue practicing as a physician. Medicine was a defining theme in my mother's life. She took great pride in her profession and believed that her skills and medical practice had repeatedly saved her life during the war years. The loss of her profession was something she regretted to the day she died at the age of one hundred.

For many years I knew only bits and pieces of my mother's story. My parents and their friends, most of whom also were postwar immigrants to the United States, preferred not to dwell on the years immediately surrounding World War II. They tended to talk about Polish life before the war, about whatever current political crisis was brewing in Communist-ruled Poland, and about what the local Polish-American community could do to influence those events.

With the passage of time, I became more aware of how different my background was from that of most of my friends and classmates. Born in Germany, I was a naturalized citizen. I grew up in an ethnic enclave that was part of the larger Polish-American community of Detroit, I was fluent in Polish, and none of my extended family lived in the United States; they were all in Europe. When friends asked how this had happened, I would tell them about my father, Wladyslaw Rylko, who had been a colonel in the Polish army and spent most of World War II in a German prisoner-of-war camp. He met and married my mother after the war, when they were refugees living in Germany. And I would tell them about my mother, who had been imprisoned in three different German concentration camps. "But you're Catholic, not Jewish, right?" they would ask. "So why would your mom be in a concentration camp?" People still ask me this question today.

History books, documentary movies, and museum exhibits amply document that from 1933 to 1945 the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler made Jews their primary target of persecution and, ultimately, extermination through the systematic, state-sponsored program that we have come to know as the Final Solution. Hitler's aim was to kill all the Jews of Europe, and he nearly succeeded, annihilating whole Jewish communities and murdering approximately six million Jews.

But the Nazis despised other groups as well. They saw Roma and Sinti (peoples popularly but inaccurately referred to as Gypsies), along with homosexuals, people with mental and physical disabilities, and people of Slavic descent, as racially inferior and thus expendable, to be imprisoned, worked to death, or killed outright. The Nazis envisioned the Poles, in particular, as a potential slave population in the projected thousand-year reign of the Third Reich.

And everywhere, the Nazis either executed or deported to a labor or concentration camp anyone, of any nationality or religion, who dared to criticize, oppose, or resist the regime. That was why the Gestapo arrested my mother. She had broken the law forbidding Poles to own or listen to a radio, so she was an enemy of the state who might be working for the resistance in other ways, too.

During the twelve years in which they held power, the Nazis built a massive system of more than forty thousand prisons, ghettos, killing centers, brothels, and numerous types of camps where they detained, persecuted, exploited, and murdered millions of people considered enemies of Germany. In the fifteen months between the day of her arrest and the day she regained her freedom, my mother moved through eight incarceration sites—a prison, three concentration camps, and four slave labor camps. Once in the Nazi camp system, she became, like many other inmates, a small, disposable piece in the economy of forced labor that built Germany's infrastructure and produced its war materiel.

* * *

It took me years to get around to asking my mother questions about her past, even though friends and colleagues repeatedly urged me to record her story. I talked about starting such a project but procrastinated while concentrating on my own marriage, motherhood, and my career as an anthropologist. I ignored the imperative of time—my mother was strong, vibrant, and healthy, and I assumed she would be around for many more years. Then one day in 2000, while attending a conference, I got together with a former professor of mine for a glass of wine. When he discovered that I still had not begun talking to my mother, who by then was eighty-nine, he looked me in the eye and said bluntly, "At this rate, your mother will die before you even get started." Within a few weeks I sat down with her for our first interview.

My mother, however, was ambivalent about the project and questioned its relevance. "My life has not been all that interesting or special," she said. Perhaps this was a reflection of the conscious decision she and my father made upon immigrating to the United States in 1950—to put the past behind them and look only to the future.

"Anyway," she continued, "this is old history. So much has already been written about all this." She was right that a great deal has been said and written about World War II and the Holocaust, in published memoirs, testimonies, interviews, scholarly books and articles, films, even in graphic novels. But for events of such enormity, how much is enough? Can too much ever be written about them if we are to learn from the past?

"Besides," I said, "your story—the story of a young, female, Polish Catholic physician forced to work as a prisoner-doctor in Jewish women's slave labor camps—would add new details, new angles, to the existing literature, however large it is." For example, her experiences offer a glimpse into the role played by medicine in the labor camps, where the Nazis wanted inmates kept just barely healthy enough to work but where the imprisoned doctors and nurses could sometimes use their skills to resist brutality and offer hope.

"This is why it's important to document your experiences," I urged my mother. I tried to convince her that each person's account contributes a unique perspective and helps to enrich and personalize what we know about that terrible time. Her wartime story, I said, offered an unusual opportunity to describe the Polish Christian experience of World War II without ignoring the targeted persecution of Polish Jews, thus linking (in the words of the Polish poet Antoni Slonimski) "two peoples fed from the same suffering."

All too often, in both historical studies and memoirs of World War II, the experiences of Polish gentiles and Polish Jews are presented as separate and very different events. Some Christian Poles believe that their suffering during the German occupation has been overshadowed by the attention paid to the Jewish Holocaust. Jews, meanwhile, understandably feel betrayed by what happened to them in Nazi-occupied Poland, a country where Jews had lived since the late twelfth century. Many Jews see Christian Poles primarily through the lens of collaboration—as informers, opportunists, facilitators, or, at best, bystanders in the Nazis' brutality against the Jews. Many also assume, erroneously, that the Nazis situated some of their concentration camps and all their killing centers (Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Majdanek) on Polish territory because they could count on Polish support.

In reality, as the Polish-born Jewish writer Eva Hoffman observes, Poland was "the site of two catastrophes. One was the Nazi war of conquest against the Polish nation and the policy of widespread murder and eventual enslavement of the Poles. The other was the campaign of extermination directed against all Jews of Europe, but executed mostly on Polish territory." My mother's story links those two catastrophes in a remarkable way while respecting without diminishing either tragedy.

* * *

Reluctantly, my mother agreed that there might be some value in letting me record her story for others to read. On April 10, 2000, we held our first formal taping session as we sat at my dining room table, looking at old snapshots from her time in Germany just after the war. At first she felt nervous about the tape recorder, but soon she forgot it was there. Her photos all resided in old shoe boxes, in no particular order, for my mother had neither time, patience, nor inclination to create neat, themed albums. I would pick a photo, she would look at it and identify the people and setting, and then she would start reminiscing, elaborating on some event associated with the picture. Often the image would trigger a much earlier memory. I was amazed at her ability to recall classmates, street names, and stories about colleagues or relatives. In this simple, unthreatening way, we began the project of documenting my mother's life. It turned out to be a fortunate strategy, for a few years later macular degeneration robbed her of vision to the point that she could no longer see the photos clearly.

Between May and August 2000 we taped a dozen interviews, each of which I transcribed right away. We held additional taping sessions over the next few years, the last one in February 2005, when my mother was ninety-four. We had many informal, unrecorded conversations, too, which I reconstructed and wrote up as notes later the same day. We always talked in Polish, and I translated both the interviews and my notes into English. I soon realized that in translating my mother's story, I was beginning to make it my own, for translating intrinsically transforms the speaker's words as the translator makes choices about how to render words and phrases.

Our interactions usually took place at my mother's dining room table, often over a cup of Earl Grey tea and a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. Topics also came up during telephone conversations and as we drove places. My husband and I often took my mother along when we vacationed at our cabin on Lake Michigan, in the northern woods of the Upper Peninsula. She loved going there and would take long walks on the sandy beach, enjoying the crunch of zebra mussel shells under her feet, the sound of waves washing ashore, and the sight of swooping seagulls and Canada geese swimming by. She spent hours with our son, John, when he was younger, and late in the afternoon would start preparing dinner, enveloping the cabin in smells of stuffed cabbage leaves, meatballs in mushroom sauce, or Cornish hens with her special stuffing.

Some of our most intense discussions took place at the cabin. Once, I went up alone with my mother for about a week. Several times every day I asked her questions, following up on points from previous taped interviews. One afternoon she helped me construct a genealogical tree, in the process telling brief anecdotes about each family member. Another evening we looked at a map of Lódz to find places from her childhood—no easy task, for some street names had changed since the prewar era. Then late at night, once she was asleep, I would watch a segment of Claude Lanzmann's epic documentary about the Holocaust, Shoah, and worry about the deeply buried memories I was bringing back to the surface.

Indeed, there were times when the remembering and recounting clearly distressed my mother. "Enough!" she would say. "Let's not talk anymore, because then I don't sleep at nights, thinking of all this." She would remind me that the past still had the power to torment and haunt: "What happened in the camps has branded me to this day."

Overall, she had a remarkable memory for someone her age, but her narrative was largely a string of anecdotes, told repeatedly and with minimal drama, emotion, or embellishment. In the journal I kept during this time, I often remarked on the matter-of-fact way my mother spoke about frightening and even horrific events. She tended to keep her emotions in check, but I knew that later, by herself, she cried and grieved, for she would sometimes tell me. Just like her, I usually kept my emotions under control during our interviews. Then late at night, as I sat at the computer transcribing a taped conversation or writing up notes I had jotted on a scrap of paper, painful feelings would rise to the surface and the tears would flow.

I wondered whether my mother's favored anecdotes served as safe signposts for her travels into the past. She seemed to delight in sharing humorous moments from her university years and satisfying recollections of her medical work. There were also memories that clearly touched deep emotions. Focusing on familiar anecdotes might have been my mother's way of salving the wounds I was reopening as I explored her past. She rarely dwelt on the horrific, but when she did describe certain traumatic events in detail, such as her initiation into the concentration camp system and her experiences on the death march, I could hear the anger or indignation in her voice. I could see the anguish in her eyes. And I wondered whether those events and their associated emotions were seared into her memory so deeply that she could not delete them.

As my mother slowly revealed some of the painful events of her war experience, I discovered, in hindsight, another reason I had delayed so long in pursuing her story. I still recall the moment when she mentioned, during one of our interview sessions, that she had not been beaten when the Gestapo interrogated her after her arrest. I was overcome by a wave of relief. The significance of her statement sank in later that evening as I typed up my notes. I realized I had been dreading precisely such a moment. How could I listen to my mother tell me she had been tortured? Or humiliated? How could I bear to hear her describe the brutality against others that she had witnessed? I had been terrified that I might learn things that would break a daughter's heart.

At one point I stopped formally interviewing my mother, because I was stirring up too many painful memories. I worried that I was causing her harm by pursuing her story. Was it worth the anguish? What were the risks of dredging up past history and reopening old wounds?

Interestingly, during this fairly long period when we did no formal work, my mother voluntarily brought up vignettes from the past, even traumatic ones. She seemed to have a growing need to talk, but she wanted to do so on her own terms. I wondered whether our collaboration might be helping my once fiercely independent mother deal with her increasing reliance on me. I was now making her appointments, taking her shopping, doing her taxes, and, when she stopped driving at the age of ninety-five, accompanying her to Sunday mass. In return, she could still cook me occasional meals, bake chocolate chip cookies, and, crucially, answer my endless questions and put up with my tape-recording.

From the start, the facets of my mother's story relating to health and medicine intrigued me, partly because I am a medical anthropologist. I study the social and cultural factors that affect people in sickness and health and shape their health care delivery systems. I peppered my mother with questions about medical school, about what it was like to be a female doctor in the 1930s and 1940s, about what cases she had treated in the camps, and so on. Often, she did not have the answers I wanted and quickly became impatient.

"Stop badgering me with all these questions. It's been over sixty years since this all happened!" she exclaimed more than once. "How do you expect me to remember everything?" On one occasion, she added, "You should have started doing this years earlier. Then I could have told you so much more."

Our discussions ranged over much of the first fifty years of her life, but our primary focus was on the war years and the early postwar period. Considering my mother's advanced age and the passage of time, it was hardly surprising that gaps appeared in her recollections, despite the precision of much of her memory. For example, when I pressed her for details about the routines of daily life in the slave labor camps, she responded irritably, "I don't remember ... I just did what had to be done." She tended to recall unique events, such as the stemming of an epidemic and people's gestures of solidarity and kindness.


Excerpted from A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps by Barbara Rylko-Bauer. Copyright © 2014 Barbara Rylko-Bauer. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Prologue 3

1 Telling My Mother's Story 5

Part I A Young Doctor in Occupied Lódz

2 Becoming a Doctor 21

3 Anna Maria Hospital 43

4 Doctoring in Litzmannstadt 54

5 The Shadow of the Ghetto 75

6 Resistance and Rescue 85

7 Women's Prison on Gdanska Street 97

Part II In the Camps

8 "Treated Like an Animal" 117

9 Zugang in Ravensbrück 129

10 The Camps of Gross-Rosen 142

11 Neusalz Slave Labor Camp 157

12 Slave Doctor 177

13 Death March 192

14 Flossenbürg and the End of War 214

Part III Surviving Survival

15 Displaced Person 231

16 Refugee Doctor 252

17 Reclaiming the Past 266

18 "Beginning a New Book" 283

19 Shattered Dreams 300

20 Returns and Departures 312

21 One Hundred Years 327

Notes 341

Bibliography 367

Index 383

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Compelling. Riveting. Exquisite. Barbara Rylko-Bauer brings an anthropologist’s mind, eye, heart, and ear to the untold story of a young Polish physician ensnared as subject and accessory to the Nazi project of slave labor and mass murder. In no uncertain terms, A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps reaffirms the dignity of survival, resilience, and solidarity in the face of human suffering. The book sets a high bar for the new genre of intimate ethnography.”—Gelya Frank, author of Venus on Wheels: Two Decades of Dialogue on Disability, Biography, and Being Female in America

“Barbara Rylko-Bauer is a patient and painstaking documentarian and a superb writer with a knack for revealing how forces and events beyond the control or the ready understanding of her protagonists came to affect even their most intimate thoughts and daily lives, and to shape their recollections. Through a mother and daughter’s incandescent collaboration, the rough stone of memory is tumbled and polished, emerging as a fiery gem.”—Paul Farmer, author of Haiti after the Earthquake and To Repair the World: Paul Farmer Speaks to the Next Generation

“A necessary and important book about a time period already well described but not from this point of view. Rylko-Bauer adds a poignant and often moving annex to Holocaust literature without centering her narrative on that cataclysm. Her mother’s story, while only a sliver of it, encompasses enough horror to give meaning to the much more pervasive devastation of the Jewish community.”—Gretchen Schafft, author of From Racism to Genocide: Anthropology in the Third Reich

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