WUOMFM

New book recounts the resilience of a Polish prison doctor in Nazi camps

Apr 13, 2015

Book cover courtesy of Barbara Rylko-Bauer.

Dr. Jadwiga Lenartowicz Rylko was a Nazi prisoner for 15 months. She endured a women's prison, three concentration camps, four slave labor camps and a death march.

She and her fellow prisoners were liberated by the U.S. 87th Infantry Division 70 years ago this week.

After the war, she came to Michigan with her husband and daughter, seeking a new life.

She found that new life, but her Polish medical credentials had been lost in the war and she was never able to practice medicine in America. Instead, she worked as a nurse's aide at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

But Lenartowicz Rylko lived a long life, dying at age 100 in 2010.

Her powerful story is told in a new book, A Polish Doctor in the Nazi Camps, by her daughter Barbara Rylko-Bauer who is an anthropologist who teaches at Michigan State University. It is one of Michigan Notable Books for 2015.

Lenartowicz Rylko was first arrested for secretly listening to radio broadcasts, an activity that was strictly forbidden by the Nazis.

She was sent to multiple prison camps before being assigned to work as a prison doctor.

Barbara and her mother in 2003.
Credit Mary Taber

"The whole notion of having hospitals and infirmaries in concentration camps is kind of a paradox and it's something that has fascinated me," Rylko-Bauer says, "their brutal ideology clashed with their economic need for slave labor."

Rylko-Bauer says her mother described having "fortune with misfortune."

Before she was to be transferred to another prison Lenartowicz Rylko got ill, risking death if she was moved. A guard who happened to be a Pole of German descent and whose sister’s children Lenartowicz Rylko had treated before the war, snuck in charcoal tablets and vermouth to help her condition.

Rylko-Bauer believes her mother’s strength and resilience came from her ability to truly hold onto who she was as a person.

When the war was over and Lenartowicz Rylko was able to immigrate, she attempted to regain her medical license in the United States. But problems ensued, and she eventually settled for working as a nurse at Henry Ford Hospital.

Barbara Rylko-Bauer (right) with Cynthia Canty.
Credit Mercedes Mejia

The doctors knew her story, and Rylko-Bauer says they would often ask for her when they had the most difficult patients because she would always know what to do.

As an anthropologist and daugher, Rylko-Bauer struggled to determine how to incorporate these identities when writing. Eventually, she settled on a more personal tone.

"I really wanted to share it with a broad audience, and I knew if I wrote it like an academic book I would lose people after page five, so I chose to write it as a daughter, but the way I approach the subject matter itself was as an anthropologist," she says.