Monday, October 17, 2016

A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps - Barbara Rylko-Bauer

Summary: Jadwiga Lenartowicz Rylko, known as Jadzia (Yah′-jah), was a young Polish Catholic physician in Lódz 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. (Summary and image from  I was provided a copy in exchange for an honest review.) 

Review: The German invasion of Poland was so swift and so complete that the world scarcely had time to react.  Brutal policies, the seizure and reallocation of property and position, and the mandates imposed by the Nazi regime left little for True Poles.  Jadwiga Lenartowicz is no stranger to adversity, being one of the first female physicians in Poland.  She finds herself drawn to the Resistance, albeit in the smallest of roles.  While that compulsion to help her fellow Poles makes her who she is, it also landed her in a concentration camp. 

Barbara Rylko-Bauer is the daughter of this amazing woman. She’s compiled her mother’s story through interviews, research, family letters, and news stories around the times she covers.  The depth to which she explains her mother’s decisions and actions is amazing - it made me wonder how anyone else could have made any other decision.  

This is a rarer take on the World War II biographies, and one that is vastly undertold.  I loved reading about Lenartowicz’s education and training as a physician.  Her storytelling ability made the scenery come alive, not only in pre-war Poland, but through the camp and on that ghastly death march she was subjected to.  The resilience she displayed after the liberation of the camp, assisting as a physician in the refugee camps and meeting her husband were astounding.

My heart broke reading how difficult life was for postwar immigrants in America.  That’s an aspect of our history that is too often glossed over, or outright swept under the rug.  Rylko-Bauer’s forthright portrayal and depiction of the situations her parents faced was refreshing—and sad.

Rylko-Bauer chronicles not only her mother’s journey through medical school, the War, internment, rescue, and settling in America as a new mother and wife, but interweaves her own journey of research and discovery through the narrative.  While I’m typically a purist when it comes to biographies, I appreciated how much of Rylko-Bauer’s strength came from her mother’s journey. 

Rating: Four stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  Some recounting of executions.

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