By Wanda Póltawska. Introduced and translated from the Polish by Mary Craig. New York. Hippocrene Books. 1987. 191 pages.
This memoir describes the fate of a young Polish Catholic woman taken to the Nazi concentration camp in Ravensbrück where medical experiments were conducted upon her body. The author/survivor, who subsequently became a psychiatrist, brings that consciousness to her account. In a way, there are two stories here: the first consists of the events and the second defines and resolves the emotional course of the ordeal.
The horror of what was done to human beings in that camp bears no repetition by those who did not experience it. Onlookers, like this reviewer, are challenged to grasp how anyone who sustained the assaults upon mind and body could live to continue life as a functioning and productive human being. Wanda Póltawska attributes her physical and emotional survival to the fact that she never lost her interior freedom. How she came to be a person who had interior freedom is partly beyond the scope of the memoir; but we do find out how she demonstrated her indomitable spirit.
National pride, group solidarity, commitment to the welfare of another, the realization that for Christians all life is a preparation for death, all these wove the psychic shield which kept Poltawska intact.
A large portion of her psychic assurance appears to have stemmed from her identity as a Polish woman. In an encounter with the camp doctor she describes how "without warning - she lanced the swelling. The pain was agonizing, but I neither gasped nor flinched, just stood there gritting my teeth. Only then did she look at me carefully and asked - or rather stated: 'A Polish girl, naturally!'" National identity implied a standard of courageous honor which withstood every ordeal. "We were hungry too, and like them we were no more than skin and bone, but no Polish woman ever attacked another for food. Not, at least, until the Auschwitz transports arrived." Another source of strength stemmed from being a member of the "guinea-pigs," a group privileged by suffering. "Little by little we had come to believe that we were rather special. The more closely fate drove us together, the deeper yawned the gulf that separated us from everyone else. Deep down we resented the fact that we weren't just ordinary, run-of-the-mill prisoners who would almost certainly get out of this place alive. But behind the bitterness lurked a fierce, almost joyful resolve: that as long as we stayed alive we would at least make our presence felt! Our arrogance became legendary."
From the very beginning Póltawska refused to give power to the perpetrators: "I had the feeling throughout that I was in control of the questioning, not the Germans." She also committed herself to protect Krysia. "Quickly I dragged Krysia around to the far side of the heap, out of the range of fleas... And as the years went by, there were many other things from which I managed to shield her." Once in the camp "right from the start we set about organizing some kind of cultural life for ourselves. It was difficult and dangerous, but it was the only way we could hope to triumph over the prison stripes."
National pride, group solidarity, commitment to the welfare of another, the realization that for Christians all life is a preparation for death, all these wove the psychic shield which kept Poltawska intact. After liberation, of course, came the process of integrating the survived horror into "normal" life. In 1986, at the International Right to Life Congress glancing through a book "I saw a photograph which I recognized: a leg, Jadzia Dzido's leg, to be precise. Jadzia Dzido, who had in fact died a month earlier, had been a fellow prisoner in Ravensbrück and, like me, had been experimented on. There was no face, but I knew the leg was hers." This book should be read but it represents an ordeal. I do not know why I agreed to review it since I know how much difficulty I have in hearing the details of suffering,. At some point, I resolved to write a letter of apology and return the book, but as I started to do so I noticed that I had marked the book and a sense of propriety stopped me. So, I finished reading it and wrote the review.
Bogna Lorence-Kot is Professor of History at the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland, California.