The story of Dr Alina Brewda, who survived the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz and other concentration camps is shocking, nightmarish, and still inspiring. It’s very well told in the book I shall fear no evil: The story of Dr. Alina Brewda” by RJ Minney.
Alina was born in Warsaw in 1905 (she was ten years younger than RJ), and specialized as gynaecologist and obstetrician. She was determined and independent, and overcame much discrimination both against woman and against Jews to qualify and find a job. She succeeded through for her skill, dedication and care for patients. The book is full of human details, such as both parents having their dental surgeries in the house and the surprise when her father, a socialist, rang the bell for the servant from his study instead of calling her more politely, when they rushed up they found him dead from a heart attack.
Her matter-of-fact voice tells how she and her mother were moved into the Warsaw ghetto, where her mother soon died and Alina continued practising in a hospital there. Its a human story, in the midst of tens of thousands of tragedies. Somehow she evades being taken to the concentration camps several times but chillingly describes the increased suffering and desperation as more Jews were forced into the ghetto, the boundaries were compressed, and there were fewer options for survival or even sleeping space. The book also describes the spirit of resistance, as even in those terrible circumstances, Jews found ways to organize, smuggle in guns and fight back.
Alina was caught in 1943 and taken to Majdanek where she was allowed to work as surgeon. Through huge efforts she obtained a few medical materials and saved lives, including fighting a typhus epidemic. She helped as many as she could, reporting deaths late so the meagre food rations would not be cut for a night or two, performing abortions so pregnant women would be saved from the gas chamber.
She was transferred to Auschwitz where her work to save lives and alleviate suffering continued, despite the terrible and disheartening conditions. Her strength is shown through her matter-of-fact quotes and the tone of the book, which reflects her factual account. A couple of times she reached the antechamber of the gas rooms, but was sent back since there were not enough Jews for the Nazis to turn the gas on, she also survived heart attacks and disease and went back to work. Her focus on helping others and getting on with her calling as physician – as well as much luck and her strong constitution – helped keep her alive. In turn she was a beacon of hope for many.
Alina moved to London and continued working as a gynaecologist and obstetrician and died in 1988, according to this history of Jewish medical resistance in the Holocaust.
The book switches to a vivid tone for a few pages when it recounts the 1964 London libel trial (see Wikipedia for references) when Dr Wladislaw Dering OBE sued writer Leon Uris. Alina and Dr Adelaide Hautval was among the witnesses assembled by publisher William Kimber, Uris and their team. Many of the witnesses still had their prisoner number visible and tattooed on their arm, matching the handwritten entries in the log by Dr Dering, and some wept in court when giving evidence of forced sterilizations and other experiments and how that had affected their lives since. The jury awarded Dr Dering a halfpenny in damages, the smallest coin in the realm.
The words of Dr Hautval are also quoted in the book, and stick strongly in my memory as for many others: “Here, we are all under sentence of death. Let us behave like human beings as long as we are alive.”