Author Dr. Maria Ciesielska and editor Luc Albinski share their thoughts on their book The Doctors of the Warsaw Ghetto.
From Dr. Maria Ciesielska:
Many years ago, I saw the first questionnaires filled in by Jewish doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto. The questionnaires included photos of their faces. For the first time, I saw their faces and couldn’t forget. Same as me, quite young but mature. They wrote that they had wives, husbands, and children. Just like me. They wrote that they earned little, but that they were still interested in medicine. Some mentioned the titles of scientific papers. I was already working in research then, too. There were so many similarities, but where was I supposed to look for these doctors? Where had they gone? Of course, I subconsciously knew what had happened but still couldn’t believe it. Today I know that over 90% of them were murdered. The Doctors of the Warsaw Ghetto book is a cemetery, maybe the only place where some names are commemorated. I don’t know if you can say Kaddish over a book. If it is possible, please do.
From Luc Albinski:
The phone rang one evening in Johannesburg in 2016; when I answered, the excited voice of my mother — an eighty-one-year-old Holocaust survivor — greeted me. “I have just been contacted by a researcher who is writing a book about the doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto,” She exclaimed. “She wants to meet with us to hear our story.” It was at that moment that a relationship formed between my family and Dr. Maria Ciesielska.
Soon afterwards my mom sent me Maria’s article which had recently been published by the Eleonora Reicher Institute of the Medical University of Warsaw. Its title was arresting: “To care for children on their way and beyond — history of female doctors from the Warsaw Ghetto who stood with their patients until the very end.” My eyes darted to the abstract where I found the name of my grandmother, Dr. Halina Szenicer-Rotstein. My heart missed a beat. Thanks to Maria’s painstaking research I was about to read for the first time an account of my grandmother’s life and of her tragic sacrifice. I skipped to the two paragraphs on Halina and was soon overcome with emotion, tearing up as I read the second paragraph:
As recalled by Dr. Adolf Polisiuk, Dr. Rotstein received the so-called number of life and could attempt to rescue herself. Instead, however, she “(…) voluntarily entered the wagon with her patients considering it her duty to do so.”
Dr. Makower described her actions in the following way: “How calm was this woman, perhaps just a little younger than me (a mother of four whose husband was God knows where in the USSR), in the middle of unparalleled uproar and the general anxiety in the hospital! When it became clear that the heads would leave the hospital (…) Dr. Rotstein did not hesitate and took everything under her control. (…) The children walked by themselves, with only some of them being carried away in arms. Adult patients were usually transported on stretchers. This was horrible, incomparably more horrible than a procession of healthy people walking towards their demise.”
Dr. Ciesielska’s 2017 Polish-language book, The Doctors of the Warsaw Ghetto was a godsend. It provided us with fascinating detail about my grandmother, Dr. Halina Rotstein. We learnt about Halina’s work in the first aid shed on the Umschlagplatz, the departure area at the railway station before Jews were led to extermination camps. We learnt how every time the cattle wagons departed, Halinaand Nurse Fryd would collect twenty to thirty babies abandoned by their terrified parents on the railway platform. We learnt about Halina’s last-ditch attempts to keep the Stawki Street hospital going; how she carried out operations to treat victims of gun-shot wounds, how she protected the hospital’s meager inventories by posting a guard to ensure the food was not stolen. Most importantly, we learnt how she remained at her post after many of her colleagues escaped from the Warsaw Ghettoand was deported on September 12th, 1942, to Treblinka with her patients. Rather than seeking to save herself, she gave away her ‘life ticket’ knowing that her four children had by then been smuggled out of the Ghetto.
To cite Paul Auster, “the truth of the story lies in the details” and in the hundreds of pages of meticulous research that Dr. Ciesielska, a praciting family physician, conducted in her spare time; this book succeeds in conveying the truth about the extraordinary courage and resilience of the men and women constituting the Warsaw Ghetto’s medical corps who faced daily horrors of murder and deprivation with, in many cases, an almost superhuman resolve. They formed part of a group of more than 830 doctors in the Ghetto who ran the Judenrat’s Medical Council, the Ghetto’s three hospitals, eighteen pharmacies, medical laboratories, and emergency healthcare services. They staffed charitable organizations such as TOZ (Towarzystwo Ochrony Zdrowia Ludności Żydowskiej, or Society for Safeguarding the Health of the Jewish Population) but also in a few cases provided medical services to the Jewish Police. They organized a successful underground medical university and nursing school. Amid the agony of the Ghetto, Dr. Ciesielska explains how this remarkable cohort of dedicated doctors found the wherewithal to conduct medical research on hunger, disease, and typhus for the benefit of future generations.
Dr. Ciesielska’s book has been important for dozens of families who survived the Shoah and who are attempting, many decades later, to understand — imperfectly — the tragedy experienced by their grandparents and great grandparents. To illustrate this point, Dr. Ciesielska told me of an unforgettable encounter with one second generation survivor who experienced a tremendous sense of closure when he learnt, through reading her book, about the awful fate of his grandfather, hitherto unknown, one of the few doctors in the Ghetto to have starved to death.
Dr. Ciesielska lists seventy-four Catholic doctors who risked their lives and those of their families and often even their professional peers, to help Jews escape the Ghetto and hide on the Aryan side. Some of these Catholic doctors belonged to Żegota, an underground resistance organization which was tasked with assisting Jews. Amongst these were Dr Trojanowski and Dr Radlińska, who helped to save Halina’s four children, one of which is my mother, Wanda. Without them, I would not be here today writing these words.
Dr. Maria Ciesielska has reached across the wall of forgetting to bring alive for future generations the sacrifice and incredible empathic spirit that animated the doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto. May they never be forgotten.
Dr. Maria Ciesielska is a specialist in Family Medicine and a university lecturer with a doctorate in medical history. A keen personal interest in learning more about the fate of her Jewish peers in Warsaw during the Holocaust motivated Maria to publish an award-winning book on this topic in 2017 after years of research.
Luc Albinski is a second-generation holocaust survivor whose mother escaped the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942 and was hidden in an orphanage outside Warsaw for the remainder of the war. She married a Catholic and Luc was brought up as a Catholic, only learning about his Jewish origins in his early twenties. Since then, he has spent much time researching the fate of his Polish-Jewish grandmother, Halina Rotstein, a doctor in the Warsaw Ghetto, who decided to accompany her patients to the Treblinka death camp. Human rights and development issues have been key issues of interest for Luc who spent time in Bosnia during and after the war and has, since 2006, led an investment company, Vantage Capital, focused on investing in mid-sized businesses in a dozen countries in Africa as well as on promoting the use of renewable energy in South Africa. More recently, Vantage Capital has started an education business focused on Central Europe including, until recently, Ukraine. Luc lives in Johannesburg and is an active member of the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre.