Virginia Barton

Hellish nightmare in Poland’s wartime death camps

Catholic Herald, 3 August 1990

 

Review: I Remember Nothing More by Adina Blady Szwaiger (Collins Harvill, £14)

 

Here is an author who has walked in the valley of the shadow. In these confessional memories, Dr. Szwaiger, now aged over 70, recalls With terrible clarity her life as a young doctor in the Warsaw ghetto, and her part in the Jewish Resistance in that city. The author discovers that mere words are inadequate. The reviewer, faced with the awesome task of evaluating a book that describes events so frightful one can hardly bear to turn the pages, can only agree.

warsaw-ghetto-children2When the Germans invaded Poland in 1939, the Polish and Jewish D.r Szwaiger was about to qualify as a doctor. She was 22. From 1940 to 1943 the author worked in the Children’s Hospital in the ghetto – where conditions were so appalling that 11 ,000 died of starvation and typhus in 1941 alone.

The book is a testimony to the courage of the medical staff who, despite indescribable privations, managed to uphold standards and care for their young patients. Then the Nazis entered the hospital to clear the wards into the trucks that would take the patients to the death camps.

At this critical moment Dr. Szwaiger found that her skill was reduced to “helping her young patients peacefully out of life” with the aid of morphine.

At one time nearly half a million Jews were confined in the ghetto but by September 1942 only 60,000 were left as a result of the mass deportations to the death camps. The author’s own mother perished at Treblinka. We should remind ourselves that this was not war but genocide on a deliberate and monstrous scale.

The actions of the young doctor, whose concept of duty led her to perform actions that in ordinary times she would never contemplate, cannot be judged by those who didn’t share the hellish nightmare of that place.

With a handful of colleagues, Dr. Szwaiger escaped from the ghetto on forged papers to the “Aryan” side, from where she witnessed the ghetto’s destruction. Then began her deadly dangerous life as a courier for the Jewish Fighting Organisation: finding safe houses, distributing money to people in hiding, carrying messages.

The constant fear, the scenes of horror or deception, and the frequent acts of heroism are chiselled into the pages of the book with an immediacy that belies the passage of half a century. These “mere words” are as powerful a witness of terrible events as the English reader is likely to find.

One hopes that the doctor has found peace at last in post-war Poland where she now lives in retirement.

 

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