Every so often one comes across a book so engrossing that, as the truism goes, one can’t put it down. Typically, such books tend to be works of fiction—popular crime thrillers, espionage novels, or summertime beach reads. It’s nice, then, to find a work of nonfiction that takes on a subject matter as grim as the Nazi concentration camps and turns it into an utterly relatable story—like that of a Catholic Polish woman who survived World War II and lived to 100 years of age. A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps: My Mother’s Memories of Imprisonment, Immigration, and a Life Remade is anthropologist Barbara Rylko-Bauer’s rendering of Jadwiga Lenartowicz Rylko’s memories of life, both before and after World War II.
Jadwiga, known as Jadzia (pronounced Yah’-jah), was born in 1910 in interwar Poland. Jadzia’s father was a medical assistant; aspiring to follow in his footsteps, she attended medical college in Poznan, Poland. After six years of medical school, Jadzia returned home to intern at the Anna Maria Hospital, and then Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Slowly but surely, the Nazis carried out their systematic annihilation of Polish society, but Jadzia drew comfort from her medical practice. Jadzia and her friends had clandestine meetings at night to listen to British radio broadcasts until the wee hours of the morning. One of these friends was soon arrested by the Nazis, and slowly the entire group was picked up, one by one. Jadzia’s turn came in the early hours of January 13, 1944. Thus began her 16 months of imprisonment in Nazi concentration and death camps. Jadzia was initially imprisoned in a women’s camp in Lodz until she and a few other prisoner doctors were rounded up and sent to the Gross-Rosen camp. This camp was, in Jadzia’s own words:
. . . a difficult, terrible camp, and the prisoners had to work in the quarries. While we were there, we saw groups of men who were like walking skeletons. They were so thin, shuffling along with their hands up, carrying heavy stones, barely marching. . . . It was a horrible sight . . . one that I’ll never forget.
After traveling to several other camps, Jadzia ends up the Nuesalz slave labor camp in southwestern Poland where her camp doctor role gave her a status that may have protected her from the most abject of brutalities that other inmates suffered. She notes: “My profession helped me a lot. It made things better for me in this labor camp. In fact, my profession saved me, for I might well not have survived if I had stayed in Ravensbruck or if I had been sent somewhere as just a regular prisoner.” In January 1945, Jadzia and the prisoners at Neusalz walked out of the camp in one of many infamous death marches towards the end of World War II. Jadzia was eventually transferred to the Mehltheuer camp, where she and others were freed by the American soldiers.
The rest of the book deals with Jadzia’s time as a refugee doctor at several DP (Displaced Persons) camps, and the brief romance leading up to her marriage with Wladyslaw Rylko, the author’s father. Jadzia and Wladyslaw immigrated to the United States and settled down in Detroit, a city with a sizable Polish immigrant population.
What follows is a fairly familiar account of an immigrant family’s struggles and aspirations. Sadly, Jadzia was never able to practice medicine as a doctor in the United States owing to medical licensure board stipulations and state regulations that made it very difficult for immigrant doctors to gain the necessary qualifications to practice. Jadzia’s struggle from the practitioner’s perspective is a grim reminder of the tangled and complex roots of the U.S. health care system.
Rylko-Bauer is a gifted storyteller. A story as potent as Jadzia’s could have been taken in a different direction, one that was more entrenched in research, history, and fact and presented in the language of arcane social science. Or such a story, in the hands of a non-academic writer, could have dwelled more on the “sensational” aspects of Jadzia’s time in the concentration camps. But what we get instead is a perfectly balanced and synchronized narrative that deftly weaves the larger narrative of World War II into Jadzia’s intimate accounts. Skilled is the writer who can erase those lines between personal history and context. In the chapter devoted to Jadzia’s time at the Ravensbruck camp, Rylko-Bauer walks us through the administrative structure of prisons and camps that typified Nazi bureaucracy. The Nazi obsession with documentation was so severe that at one point, when Jadzia was at the Trautenau camp, a Gestapo agent visited her to obtain her signature on a piece of document declaring that all her possessions, taken from her on the night of her arrest four months ago, were now Nazi property. As Rylko-Bauer explains: “All this bureaucracy and documentation gave individual people in the Nazi system, from major decision makers to minor clerks, a way to distance themselves from actions that caused great suffering and deprived innocent people from their possessions, their families, and their lives.”
A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps is a gripping and compelling work of non-fiction that strikes a perfect balance between historical research and personal narrative, an “intimate ethnography” of one woman’s remarkable journey from one of the worst recorded abysses of human experience, retold with humility, pathos and empathy by Barbara Rylko-Bauer.