With a Yellow Star and a Red Cross – A Doctor in the Lodz Ghetto
- "The Overture," p. 9.
- "Finale Giocoso," p. 245.
- Forward, p. XV.
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With a Yellow Star and a Red Cross – A Doctor in the Lodz Ghetto
With a Yellow Star and a Red Cross: A Doctor in the Lodz Ghetto
Arnold Mostowicz - Forward by Antony Polonsky
Translation from Polish by Henia and Nochem Reinhartz
The Library of Holocaust Testimonies
Vallentine Mitchell 2005, Pp 243
Arnold Mostowicz was born in Lodz in 1914. He was only son of a middle-class Jewish family. Lodz, which had the second largest Jewish population in Poland, was known as the "Polish Manchester", being the largest textile producing city in Poland. At the age of 19, unable to study medicine in Poland because of restrictions on accepting Jewish students, Mostowicz was sent to medical school in Rouen. His parents couldn't afford to send him to study Paris. His father was in the textile industry, but also pursued his literary and theatrical interests and wrote for the local Yiddish press. He fled to Warsaw at the beginning of the war and became a successful actor in the Yiddish theater in the ghetto. In 1942 he was deported to Treblinka where he died.
Upon completing his studies Mostowicz returned to Poland in July 1939, and when, in September, all young men were called to defend Poland against the Nazi invasion, he packed up two shirts, a jar of home-made jam and a volume of poems and walked to Warsaw to join the war as an ordinary Pole.
During the siege of Warsaw, Mostowicz worked as a physician in the Child Jesu Hospital where he treated victims of the German air raids. When Warsaw capitulated, Mostowicz returned to Lodz.
In 1940, the 200,000 Jews of Lodz, were forced into the ghetto, located in Baluty – a slum, and the poorest part of Lodz. The ghetto was sealed in May 1940. Later Jews from Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia and Luxembourg were also sent to the Lodz Ghetto. Mostowicz worked as a doctor in the ghetto, until it was liquidated. He was then sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and several other camps until liberation.
Most of his family, including his parents, perished at Treblinka and at other camps.
Returning to Poland, Mostowicz ran a hospital for a short while, but did not continue in his profession as a doctor, and he became a journalist and wrote numerous books, including this book, which he wrote in Polish 1989 some fifty years after his liberation.
Arnold Mostowicz was married and had a son.
Mostowitz touches on many subjects concerning his position as a doctor in the Lodz Ghetto. The book which is beautifully translated from the original Polish, is written in the third person. Perhaps it was too painful for Mostowitz to write in the first person. Seemingly he is writing about someone else's experiences as if it wasn't he who had lived through this harrowing time.
He touches on the antagonism between Lodz Jews and the German and Czech Jews who had been deported to the Lodz ghetto. An account of Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat of the Lodz ghetto, is touched upon, in "Once there was a King".
There is a long chapter on the three leaders of the Lodz underworld between the two world wars, what subsequently happened to them. Mostowicz ponders on the various kinds of justice and morality. The chapter is aptly and perhaps cynically called "The True End of the Lodz Dintoyre", "dintoyre" meaning decisions made by a court based on Jewish law. The author questions the morality of his own actions, called upon as he was to make decisions that affected the fate of others. This theme is followed throughout the book.
The opening chapter drops the reader straight into the chaos of the resettlement of the Jews into the Lodz Ghetto. The chapter is entitled "The Overture", which already prepares us for what is to follow. The author writes:
"Not to forget. With tens of millions of people on this continent he had entered the state of war. If he could, he would have gladly inserted a filmstrip into his memory to register events, images and facts that came to form the everyday reality of the last months. …….
You have eyes – look carefully. You have ears – listen attentively. Remember everything because there may come a day when you yourself will not be certain whether this has been the truth or perhaps a nightmare."
Through vivid descriptions of occurrences in the Ghetto, Mostowitz describes how he, in his position as a doctor, tries to help those people unable to keep up with the evacuation. The atmosphere is palpable – chaos, shooting, misery. Those who are too slow or cannot carry their luggage are shot a random, at the whim of the police surrounding the column of people. He takes up a position in the rear, behind the last dawdlers, and tries to help them. He touches on dark figures going into apartments vacated by their Jewish inhabitants, scavenging whatever has been left behind. Jewish books of learning begin to appear in the snow and are scattered by two green men in uniform and the cart containing books is upturned. The view of the scattered contents of the cart is amusing to the Germans. A black joke from the male nurse accompanying Mostowitz "Want a bet, doctor, that the scavengers in the back won't touch those books?"1
Remembering that a few months earlier he had experienced the German bombings in Warsaw as an anonymous Pole, he now reflects that he is now experiencing a new war, against the Jews, as an anonymous Jew in Lodz.
Another chapter, "A Report on the Gypsies" touches on a separate gypsy camp that was established next to the Jewish section of the ghetto and separated by barbed wire. Mostowitz is forced to go at the behest of the Kriminalpolitzei (Criminal Police), because his superiors are too scared to go. On entering the camp with SS Oberscharfuhrer Jansen, the author confirms the epidemic of typhus in the camp. Though used to overcrowding in the ghetto, what he sees in the gypsy camp is far worse, and shocking. Many gypsies were buried in the Jewish cemetery close by, until they were eventually shot or gassed in trucks. The Nazis were afraid that the epidemic would spread to the Aryan part of Lodz. Jansen must have caught typhus from his dog, as not long after the visit to the camp with Mostowitz he died despite instructions to the Rabbis of the ghetto to pray for his recovery. Whether or not this was carried out is not known. Shortly afterwards, the Gypsy camp was closed down and its poor inhabitants killed.
"Just two more, doctor," the policeman touched the visor of his cap lightly with two fingers, in the nonchalant salute clearly reserved for someone outside the prison authorities." So opens Chapter 6, "The Second Last" which touches on the dilemma of having to choose who should live and who should die. The Germans had ordered that every person due to be deported had to be examined and declared fit. After 15 hours of examination, the doctor is physically and emotionally exhausted. Knowing the Germans capable of deception, he doesn't really know if he is saving them or condemning them by his decision. Should he declare them fit or not? Recently those capable of working in the workshops had remained in the ghetto.
Albert Cohen, aged 48, enters the prison cell which has been converted into a doctor's office. He is from Prague. He is a garbage man, but once upon a time, he held the position of assistant professor at the Prague University. He is a doctor of philosophy. He asks the doctor to give him an honest answer: "are we being sent to work or to death?" The doctor offers to let him stay in the ghetto, but Albert wishes to decide the time of his own death, by being deported, and also does not wish to be "saved" at the expense of another. Both Albert and the doctor know that whatever the decision, it is unlikely that anyone would escape an untimely death.
After the Lodz Ghetto is liquidated, Mostowitz was sent to Auschwitz and later to several labor camps. In Chapter 10, "The Interrogation," he describes how he catches a brief glimpse of his wife in the women's camp before being loaded onto a train taking him to Jelenia Gora. She is alive and healthy and this gives him an "unexpected flash of joy." Shortly after arrival at the camp, he and three other Doctors are interrogated individually by four SS men and asked if it was true that in Auschwitz, gas chambers were operating and that in them Jews were being killed with Zyklon B. Each doctor confirms that yes, this was true. This does not prevent a guard from beating up the author or Jews being killed for no reason; at the other end of the scale, a football game is organized between the Jewish prisoners and their guards, who can on the one hand be humane, but then on the other, brutal.
Seemingly out of context, because it is about an event that happened many years after the end of the war, is another interesting chapter called "The Most Important Conversation of his Life." It tells us about a letter he receives some 40 years after the end of the war, from a friend, whose brother Jerzy studied medicine in Rouen with Mostowicz. The three medical students were close friends In 1939 when Mostowicz returned to Poland, Jerzy and his sister remained in France. Jerzy became a communist. Jerzy's sister had heard rumors that Mostowicz met her brother in Auschwitz and she asks him for details. This moving chapter is Mostowicz's answer to her letter. His explanation for not writing to tell her what had happened to her brother was on the one hand assuming she already knew, and on the other if she didn't know all the details, he wished to spare her further pain. Forty years later, Mostowicz remembers every detail of his time together with his good friend Jerzy, and Jerzy's sister finally learns the truth about her brothers' death.
Mostowitz fittingly ends his book by describing the liberation of the camp on 9th May, 1945 by the Russians. One of the young Russian soldiers is barely able to believe the misery and filth he encounters when entering the camp, which actually only consists of a two story red brick building.
"The floor was covered with a layer of urine of perhaps a few centimeters. Wooden clogs and pieces of dissolved feces were swimming in it. Near the plank-beds, and also between them and the door, lay the naked remains of dead prisoners. Those still alive looked at the group that stood at the door with dull expressionless eyes. They opened the windows of the hall. But the spring did not cross the opening from the outside. It seemed that it did not have the courage to penetrate into the building. Frightened by what it saw inside, having resigned from visiting the hall of the condemned, it swiftly shuffled someplace else to announce through the windows of other houses that it was taking over the command of the tired world." 2
Shortly before he died, Mostowicz said in an interview
"What am I today? More a Jew or more a Pole? I don't know. I feel myself a patriot and, as George Bernard Shaw used to say, a true patriot is one who is dissatisfied with his homeland."3
This double perspective of a Jew and a Pole is one of the important aspects that make this book so interesting. Though there are many autobiographical and family details included in the book, this account is more a first-hand and personal testimony to the events that took place in the Lodz Ghetto and as a memorial to the tragedy that happened there 70 years ago. It is a must to read.
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