Dr Celina Choynacka

How to cite: Przychodzki, M. Dr Celina Choynacka. Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, T., trans. Medical Review – Auschwitz. September 24, 2020. Originally published in Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim. 1978: 205–208.

Author

Michał Przychodzki, MD, 1914–1999, orthopaedist and historian of medicine, KL Posen survivor.

She was 32 when she returned home from Ravensbrück. She had spent two years behind the barbed wire of two concentration camps. She had been arrested in Poznań on 2 March 1943, in connection with the Mosina Affair,1 and when she was again free said she had been arrested “for belonging to a political organisation.” During her investigation the Gestapo accused her of sending “poisons” to Mosina. The Gestapo applied their tried and tested method: first they accused their victims of a specific offence, and then they tried to get them to confess. They did not hesitate to use violence against Dr Choynacka. They beat her up, but failed to get any information from her. So they tried to prove the charge against her by using a “witness”—another Polish prisoner, whom they had imprisoned and tortured in the notorious Fort VII in Poznań,2 familiar to readers of Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim from its articles by K. Frąckowski,3 H. Tycner,4 and J. Witkowski5 on Dr Franciszek Witaszek’s6 group in the Greater Polish resistance movement. The Gestapo brought this maltreated prisoner in from Fort VII on several occasions to confirm that he had received “the medications” from Dr Choynacka, but she stood her ground, because she really did not know him at all.

The Gestapo officer who was interrogating Celina must have developed a certain amount of respect for this attractive young woman who spoke fluent German and had a lot of personal charm, because he allowed her to question the “witness,” who could neither describe Dr Choynacka’s surgery, nor the place where the alleged offence was supposed to have occurred. It must have sowed the seed of doubt in the mind of the Gestapo man. Celina was full of compassionate understanding for her false accuser when she related her story shortly after the War; he had been reduced to a wreck and could only be pitied. He used to brought in from Fort VII almost every day to attend interrogations in Dom Żołnierza (Soldiers’ House), which the Gestapo used as their HQ. Usually he would be escorted by two fellow-prisoners who had to support him. When he was in his cell in the dungeon, he would lie down on his stomach, as he could neither sit because of the open wounds on his buttocks, nor stand because he was too weak to keep up on his feet.

That marked the end of the investigation against Dr Choynacka, and the beginning of her confinement in the concentration camp, a time of waiting…7

But before I tell the story of this excellent woman doctor, I’ll say a few words about the Mosina Affair (die Sache Moschin). A few months ago I managed to come across a photocopy of an original German document describing the beginning of the Mosina events. It was written on 1 February 1943 by Hermann Beukenbusch, chief of the German gendarmerie (military police) station in Mosina. It was an official report to [headquarters in] Śrem that the Mosina unit had discovered and arrested a Polish illegal sabotage group in the town. The report is too long to reproduce in full,8 but the main point was that the Mosina unit had sniffed out the trail of the saboteurs thanks to the services of an informer. On 28 December 1942 they found a huge cache of medications, chemicals, and poisonous substances in the attic and under the floorboards in the house of Kazimierz Kałan, aged 17. Kałan was arrested and tortured, and soon afterwards sent to the Gestapo in Poznań, where he died. He is alleged to have said that he got these materials from a man from Poznań he had never met before. The stranger told him to keep that deposit safe. Between 2 and 4 March 1943 thirteen doctors, mostly from Poznań, were arrested in connection with the Mosina Affair. They were interrogated and several of them were accused of sending poisons to Mosina. Such allegations were made even with respect to a woman doctor…


Dr Celina Choynacka. Source: Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1978.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Celina’s parents, Stanisław Choynacki and Maria Sander married in Berlin. Stanisław was an engineer and a member of the Union of Polish People in Germany (Bund der Polen in Deutschland e.V.). Maria was German. They had two daughters; Celina was born on 27 December 1912, and Kazimiera, the younger daughter, three years later. Stanisław wanted his children to be brought up in the Polish way. Celina attended a German primary school in Berlin, but at home she learned Polish. When the family moved to Poznań in 1924, she had no trouble with admission to a Polish grammar school. She was a gifted child and did well at school. She had a sanguine temperament, was cheerful and popular with her schoolmates. In May 1932 she passed the school-leaving examination, finished school, and enrolled at the Faculty of Medicine of Poznań University, although the family’s economic situation was not very good. So she had to give up a lot of things during her time at university. She worked hard at her studies, but could not enjoy the amusements usual for her age.

In December 1937 she completed her course of study and graduated on 27 May 1938. Until the outbreak of the War, Dr Choynacka worked in Poznań Internal Diseases Hospital, which was run by the Polish social insurance company Ubezpieczalnia Społeczna. On the day the War broke out (1 September 1939) she started a new job as a general practitioner working for the social insurance company in the Dębiec district of Poznań, and worked in this capacity until the day when she was arrested. From the very outset her patients liked and respected her. Not only did she administer physical treatment to her patients, but she also kept their spirits up. The War had broken out and Poland was under German occupation. As Wanda Kiedrzyńska writes, Celina joined the underground resistance movement and was involved in the undercover provision of medications to various places. She treated her professional work as a doctor as her life’s vocation and worked very hard, doing all she could to help Polish people, who were exhausted by an excessive workload and harassed by the Germans. On 12 December 1940 she experienced a heavy blow, the first in her life, and a very harsh one. Her father died quite suddenly, and his death practically coincided with their eviction from their apartment in the Wilda district of Poznań.

Celina’s mother felt Polish, even though she had never mastered the language enough to speak it fluently, and ever since the outbreak of the War had always said she was on the Polish side. She never took advantage of the privileges her German ethnicity gave her.

Dr Celina Choynacka was arrested on the night of 2 March 1943, in a very dangerous situation, because in the apartment in which Celina, her mother and younger sister were staying there was a Catholic priest who was on the Gestapo’s wanted list. He had been hiding there for several months. Thanks to Celina’s exceptional calmness and presence of mind, nothing leaked out, and they were all left safe and sound, except for her.

I’ve already said why Dr Choynacka was arrested and how she was interrogated by the Gestapo. During the interrogations it transpired that her mother was German, but not even the chance to get her daughter out of jail made the mother, who knew very well what Celina thought, put her name on the German nationality list.9 Celina’s mother was arrested when she tried to smuggle a parcel into the prison for her daughter, at the time when preparations were going on to transport the prisoners in Fort VII to Auschwitz. Her mother was held for about 6 weeks in the Gestapo’s notorious camp at Żabikowo,10 Neither mother nor daughter could have foreseen it was their last meeting.

The prisoners might well have found the end of the exhausting interrogations a relief, as they waited to be transported to the concentration camp. They might have had a vague glimmer of hope that things would be better in the camp. At the time none of us had any idea of what a concentration camp run by Nazi German psychopaths was like.

At this time I used to see Dr Choynacka in Fort VII. I was working in the Arbeitskommando delivering bread to the prisoners. She must have been the Älteste (senior prisoner) of her cell, No. 18, since one of her duties was to receive the delivery of the bread rations, which were handed over through the square aperture in the door. She would stand on something to reach the aperture, and then her good, smiling and cheerful face would appear in the aperture like in a picture frame.

During the time the prisoners of Fort VII were waiting to be transported to the concentration camp there was an outbreak of scarlet fever in the women’s cells. Celina volunteered to look after the infected women, who were temporarily isolated off from the rest of the prisoners. She was locked up in the same cell with them to care for them and carry heavy buckets to dispose of their excrement, until eventually she caught the disease herself. Even though she was running a temperature, she continued to look after the sick prisoners. This was the time when her heart trouble started.

Finally the time for the transportation came. She was taken to Auschwitz in October 1943, and registered in the camp as No. 63647. She was held in Auschwitz from 1 October 1943 until mid-August 1944. In Auschwitz she contracted typhus, despite being inoculated with the Weigl vaccine supplied by Dr Janina Węgierska. She caught erysipelas twice, and her left thighbone broke almost spontaneously and would not heal for five months due to her inanition. At this time she was under a constant threat of “being sent up the chimney”11 and was only saved thanks to the devoted and self-sacrificing care of her fellow-prisoners, especially the women doctors. For a time she worked in her profession, as a doctor in the hard conditions of the concentration camp.

On 15 August 1944 she was transferred to Ravensbrück, where she was registered as No. 55966 and worked as the physician on Block 11, which was for working women. She risked her own life to save seriously sick inmates from being selected “for the chimney,” and was lucky to carry out such ventures successfully. She obtained “illegal” medications. She was precise and meticulous in her work, which she carried out with a deep sense of responsibility. Her patients trusted her, and found her a source of comfort. With the approach of the front in the last days of April 1945, some of the inmates of Ravensbrück were evacuated by the Swedish Red Cross, but Dr Choynacka stayed in the camp until 28 April, leaving on foot with the last evacuated group.

On the march she felt that her strength was failing her, and since she knew that if she stopped and dropped down she would be shot in the spot, she and a friend risked an escape. She drew strength from a deep desire to see and help her mother, who she knew was seriously ill. For a week she hid in a forest which was under heavy gunfire from the oncoming front; then she continued on foot with a great deal of effort, and finally reached a place called Krzyż, where she managed to board a train for Poznań. She reached the city on 17 May 1945, alas, only to learn that her mother had died on 7 January 1945.

Notwithstanding her exhaustion and the impairment her health sustained in the concentration camps, Dr Choynacka returned to work already on 1 June 1945. She was appointed a general practitioner for the Wilda district of Poznań, and continued in this job for almost four years. She must have been responsible not only for dispensing medical treatment, but also for setting up and organising her workplace, as in her sister Kazimiera’s letter of 16 December 1945 to her family we come across the following poignant passage: “My elder (sister Celina), the one with a number tattooed on her shoulder, doesn’t know how to accommodate that dear little heart of hers, which is exhausted by its wartime experiences, to her enormous workload of professional duties and the problems of establishing a surgery, starting from plastering up the holes in the walls and ceilings, and finishing with fixing door knobs and installing all the appliances which cultural people can’t do without.”

At this time Celina’s thoughts concentrated on how to make up for the time she had lost due to the War. Beside her appointment in the medical profession, in which she was conscientious, hard-working, popular with her patients and devoted to them, she took up a job in the Chair of the History and Philosophy of Medicine on the Medical Faculty of Poznań University, which she started on 1 September 1947 and held until 31 August 1948. She wanted to study for a PhD degree.

On 1 May 1949 she started work as an occupational physician with the Cegielski engineering factory. The demand for physicians was so vast that in addition on 16 January 1950 she took a job as a rheumatologist in the rheumatology outpatients’ advisory centre run by the social insurance company. At this time she completed her doctoral dissertation on the Czech anatomist and physiologist Jan Evangelista Purkyně and his views on Polish science and literature. Her tutor was Prof. Adam Wrzosek, MD. On 28 June 1951 she was awarded a PhD in Medicine. She now wanted to specialise in rheumatology and continue her career. However, she was working too hard and not looking after her heath or attending to her other problems, which she just hid behind a smile. Not even her closest relatives realised what an effort it took her to contend with diverse physical ailments and disorders.

On 1 June 1951 she changed her job in the Cegielski plant, from occupational physician to rheumatologist, and exactly a year later took up an appointment as a rheumatology specialist in the Cegielski outpatients’ clinic. She continued working until 28 February 1954 in outpatients’ section of the Voivodeship Advisory Centre for Rheumatology in Poznań.

She also continued her scholarly interests and took part in the national conventions of rheumatologists in Sopot (1952) and Katowice (1954). At the Sopot convention she delivered a paper on rheumatoid arthritis and its effects on employment and sick leave, which was later published in the scientific journal Polskie Archiwum Medycyny Wewnętrznej12 now published in English as Polish Archives of Internal Medicine (1952: 1a, 376-403). She also attended scientific meetings held in centres for occupational medicine (Lublin, 1953; and Inowrocław, 1954).

In 1954 she gave up all her professional work except for her appointment as a rheumatologist at Cegielski’s. I think it must have been due to her deteriorating state of health. In 1955 she was awarded the distinction Za Wzorową Pracę w Służbie Zdrowia (For Exemplary Work in the Health Service). By this time she was so overworked that she went down with a serious heart condition which lasted for several months. She spent about a fortnight in hospital. On being discharged she felt well, but stayed at home to convalesce. On 28 September 1955 she dozed off over a book while resting in her room in a flat she shared with a few other people and died of a heart attack in her sleep. She was just 42.

Her death was a severe and unexpected blow for her family, friends, and patients at Cegielski’s, who used call her “our doctor.” Her funeral was attended by crowds of Cegielski employees who wanted to pay their respects and show their appreciation for her. She was laid to rest in the Górczyński cemetery in Poznań.

Dr Celina Choynacka was a noble, hard-working, and conscientious person, fully dedicated to her patients. She was kind-hearted and always had a smile for them. She was compassionate through and through. Her everyday philanthropy was concealed behind a veil of extraordinary modesty. Her vocation in life was to be of service to her patients. She was a wonderful person, and those who met her, even if it was just once, were under the charm of her personality.

***

I have used the following sources to write this biographical note:

  1. Dr Choynacka’s concentration camp survivor’s questionnaire, which she filled in and signed in March 1946 (this document is in my collection).
  2. Dr Choynacka’s CV, compiled by her sister Kazimiera in November 1958 (this document is in my collection).
  3. The original of the Medical Practitioner’s Certificate, No. 775/38, issued to Ms Celina Stanisława Choynacka on 27 May 1938.
  4. A copy of the abstract of her doctoral dissertation, published in the scholarly journal Sprawozdania Polskiej Akademii Umiejętności, Vol. LII (1951), p. 250-253.
  5. Dr Choynacka’s CV, compiled by the Dean’s Office of the Medical Faculty of the Poznań Medical Academy on 6 May 1964 (documents 3-5 are owned by Mr Władysław Chojnacki of Warsaw).
  6. Written accounts (some fairly extensive), by Alina Sobczakowa of Lublin, Janina Dżażdzyńska and Helena Hejnat of Poznań, and Władysław Chojnacki of Warsaw.
  7. Publications: Kiedrzyńska, Wanda. 1965. “Dr. Celina Choynacka.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 167-168.
  8. Nowakowska, Maria. 1961. “Szpital kobiecy w obozie Oświęcim-Brzezinka.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 61-64.
  9. Przychodzki, Michał. 1977. “Lekarze poznańscy w czasie okupacji na tle ludobójczej polityki hitlerowskiej.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 158-172.
  10. My memoirs from my time at University, my confinement in Fort VII, and from the post-war period.

***

Translated from original article: Przychodzki, M., “Dr Celina Choynacka.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim, 1978.

Notes
  1. Die Sache Moschin, 1943. In Nazi-occupied Greater (Western) Poland, the Germans arrested hundreds of Poles from Poznań and a small place called Mosina on trumped-up charges of poisoning German officials. “Hundreds were tortured in the cellar of the Gestapo building, and at least 60 were executed. That was the price Mosina had to pay for the local police chief’s obsession with Polish poisoners.” Source: https://kulturaupodstaw.pl/mosinskie-polowanie-na-czarownice-piotr-bojarski.
  2. A 19th-c. Prussian fort, which the Germans used during World War 2 as a prison and concentration camp (KL Posen).
  3. Frąckowski, Kazimierz. 1970. “Pomorze w cieniu swastyki;” “Fort VII w Toruniu.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 75-80 and 80-85.
  4. Tycner, Henryk. 1967. “Grupa doktora Franciszka Witaszka w wielkopolskim ruchu oporu.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 131-147.
  5. Witkowski, Józef. 1969. “Dalsze informacje o Polenjugendverwahrlager w Łodzi. Witaszkowcy.” Przegląd Lekarski – Oświęcim: 97-108.
  6. Dr Franciszek Witaszek (1908-1943)—Greater Polish physician, involved during the War in a resistance group called Związek Odwetu (Revenge Unit). The Germans caught him on 25 April 1942 and beheaded him on 8 January 1943. See references in comments above.
  7. “Waiting”—probably expecting to be executed.
  8. An image of the report is reproduced in an article entitled “Wielkopolanie w obozie karno-śledczym w Żabikowie,” available online at under the link.
  9. The German authorities in occupied Poland registered persons with a German ethnic background on the Volksliste, which was divided into several categories. Persons of pure German descent who refused to register as Germans were considered guilty of “denial of German blood” and punished.
  10. The German camp at Żabikowo (Polizeigefängnis der Sicherheitspolizei und Arbeitserziehungslager Posen-Lenzingen) operated in 1943-1945 as a remand prison. See https://www.zabikowo.eu/images/edukacja/Wielkopolanie_w_obozie_karnosledczym_w_zabikowie/Wielkopolanie-SCENARIUSZE.pdf.
  11. “Being sent up the chimney”—a phrase in the prisoners’ jargon, meaning to be killed and incinerated in the concentration camp’s crematorium.
  12. This journal is now published in English as the Polish Archives of Internal Medicine.

Notes by Teresa Bałuk-Ulewiczowa, Head Translator for the Medical Review Auschwitz project.

      

A publication funded in 2020–2021 within the DIALOG Program of the Ministry of Science and Higher Education in Poland.

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