Coun­try of Ash: A Jew­ish Doc­tor in Poland, 1939 – 1945

Edward Reich­er; Mag­da Bogin, trans.
  • Review
By – August 30, 2013

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.

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