My beloved patient Nina: Lessons learned from a Holocaust survivor

Several years ago, a lovely and charming elderly woman visited me for a shoulder concern. I was impressed with her smile and natural beauty. She had struggled with bilateral shoulder pain for years and was still recovering from spinal stenosis as well as a hip replacement.

As I helped her to the exam table, I noticed an unsightly scar on her left forearm. I politely asked her the cause of the scar, hoping to discern some important part of her orthopedic history. She replied nonchalantly “oh, that, that was a tattoo I used to have. I wanted it removed so I asked a plastic surgeon to do so.”

‘Tattoo?” I replied.

“Yes,” she responded. “I was sent to Auschwitz as a young girl.”

After my jaw dropped, I regained my composure and continued my interview. I soon learned my patient, Nina Kaleska, endured both Auschwitz and Ravensbruck. Extricated from a Jewish ghetto in Grodno, Poland at 10 years old, Nina lost both parents to the Holocaust and witnessed the last breath of her younger sister while embracing her in her own arms.

The atrocities and violation of human dignity this gentle soul endured are ineffable. How could this woman, who suffered the most horrendous of circumstances, display such a cheerful disposition?

As my friendship grew with this new found hero, I gradually discovered the secrets to Nina’s inner peace:

Forgive. When I asked Nina how she could ever forgive her captors, she replied, “Dr. Janek (Polish for John), I feel better when I forgive.” As I struggle to forgive hospital administrators, lawyers and insurers over various transgressions, I regain perspective when I think of Nina. When we hold onto to hurt, we simply hurt ourselves. Forgiveness does make us feel better. Nina simply refused to afford her captors the privilege of causing her more pain.

Trust in the universe. After enduring the ravages of Auschwitz and Ravensbruck, Nina always believed her Creator would send her angels to aid her back to safety. Her faith remained unshakeable. Indeed in her autobiography, Nelli’s Journey: From the Depths of Evil to Reconciliation and Beyond (Dorrance Publishing Co.), Nina describes receiving random acts of peculiar assistance from the most unusual suspects – Nazi soldiers. On several occasions, when approaching the threshold of death, Nina would mysteriously receive protection from both German officers and infantrymen.

Press on. Facing an aging body, replete with two arthritic shoulders, a bum hip and spine, Nina continually reminds me one has to “press on’ despite the circumstances. During all her visits to my office, Nina never loses hope that perhaps some medication, exercise or looming surgery may increase the quality of her life and enhance function. Losing hope is simply not an option for Nina.

Make the most of the situation. Nina recognized the power of education, but financial concerns prompted her to live in Prague, London, New York and finally the United States. Two children came but she never relented in her dream of attaining a degree. Finally, with her two sons grown, Nina enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and graduated cum laude at 51 years old.

 A second passion for Mrs. Kaleska was singing. This was not to be a dream deferred and her perseverance resulted in opera performances in revered venues such as the Metropolitan Opera of New York.

Give back. After raising two sons, Nina immersed herself in service. She became a renowned teacher, lecturer and author. She has taught voice to students from the University of Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College. An ardent supporter of education, she became director of the educational benefit program for United Food and Commercial Workers, Local 1776 and Participating Employers Health and Welfare Fund. Recognizing the power of reconciliation and mutual respect, Nina is actively involved in dialogues that bring greater understanding between Christians and Jews and has served faithfully on the board of directors of the St. Joseph’s Institute for Jewish Catholic Relationships.

Two surgeries and several years later, I am proud to say that Nina has become a dear and trusted friend. She is indeed my hero and I relish any opportunity to speak to her.

 In the words of noted psychiatrist (and Holocaust survivor as well) Victor Frankl, “Everything can be taken from a man (woman) but one thing: the last of human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”

Nina Kaleska, in the most horrific of circumstances, chose reconciliation, hope, trust, optimism and perseverance. Next time you may feel frustrated about health care reform, delayed OR starts, computer glitches or insurance denials, consider "How would Nina handle this?"