Six years after the publication of Dr. Myron Winick’s historical novel, The Final Stamp, a work that describes the critical scientific work carried out in early 1942 by Jewish physicians working in Warsaw’s two Ghetto hospitals, a new work on the role of one of Poland’s most distinguished Jewish physicians in Nazi-occupied Warsaw has appeared.
Dr. Edward Reicher’s memoir, Country of Ash: A Jewish Doctor in Poland, 1939 – 1945, now translated from French into English by Magda Bogin, recounts the story of how Edward Reicher, a distinguished prewar dermatologist and venereal disease specialist escaped the Lodz and Warsaw Ghettos with his wife and young daughter.
While on the surface Reicher’s memoirs describe the many disguises and hiding places he and his family used in order to avoid the Gestapo and Polish Blue Police, the deeper message of this work concerns the almost universal “moral failure” that permeated the non-Jewish Polish population. With the exception of an Austrian SS doctor whom Reicher knew from his student days at the University of Vienna in 1928 and a middle-aged Polish prostitute who gave the Reichers temporary shelter, most of the Poles whom Reicher encountered during the Occupation provided him with neither food, shelter, nor money. Unlike today’s efforts by the Polish government and many Jewish groups to recognize “righteous Poles” Reicher’s bitter portrayal comes closer to what American Jews have believed about the Poles for the past six decades.
One important episode that Reicher recounts (perhaps out of guilt) is his decision early in the Occupation to treat the SS leader Hermann Hofle for venereal disease. Hofle would later play a critical role in the implementation of Operation Reinhard, the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews of Warsaw at Treblinka. After the war, Hofle was captured and tried as a war criminal in 1961, with Reicher providing critical eyewitness testimony.
Carl J. Rheins was the executive director emeritus of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Modern European History from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and taught courses on the Holocaust at several major universities.