Nelli’s Journey: From the Depth
of Evil to Reconciliation and Beyond
I was born in Grodno, Poland.
Grodno is located in the Northeast part of Poland. Until 1941 my childhood (even with two years 1939-1941 under the Soviet occupation) was happy and carefree. That changed in 1941 when the Germans invaded the eastern part of Europe.
Between September 1941 and May 1945 I spent forty-five months in ghettoes and concentration camps, two years of which were in Auschwitz. Although I was the youngest, I am the sole survivor of my immediate and extended family. I could never understand the reasons for my unlikely survival. How does one argue with fate?
After gaining freedom in May 1945 somewhere deep in what was left of the Third Reich, I found myself through strange circumstance and confluence on my way to Prague and lived there for nine months. The first three months I lived at a Catholic Charity House looked after by nuns. In March 1946 I was brought to London, sponsored by the American Joint Distribution Committee where I lived for four years before coming to America in June 1950.
How does one go beyond survival and turn difficult and potentially devastating experiences into opportunities for personal growth and other triumphs? With very broad strokes, I will mention that I started my musical studies in London, first in piano and then in voice. I continued my studies upon my arrival in New York. I was married in 1954 and was fortunate to become the mother of two sons. The marriage ended in divorce. I made my professional debut with the City Symphony of New York, sang with the Philadelphia Opera Company and the Washington Opera Company. I was the winner of the prestigious Concert Artists Guild and presented a recital in New York’s Town Hall.
I remarried and moved to Philadelphia in 1965. Much has happened in Philadelphia and I devote a great deal in my “Philadelphia Chapter”. Soon after I moved to Philadelphia I was asked to join the voice faculty of The Settlement Music School. I was the only member of the faculty without the benefit of formal degrees, musical or academic. In addition, I taught students from the University of Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges as well as private students. I gave numerous voice recitals, including a concert at the historic Walnut Street Theatre to a standing room only audience to very favorable reviews.
In 1973 I was invited to participate in the first academic scholar’s symposium on the Holocaust at Dropsie University. My presentation was to be a purely subjective paper and I was reluctant to accept the invitation. It was the first time I had openly spoken about my past. It was difficult to set normal life aside and revert to that time in history. The symposium consisted of highly regarded participants, including Cardinals, Bishops, Presidents and professors from a number of universities among others. I was the only participant with a fifth grade level schooling…The contents of the symposium were published by Dropsie University. My talk received national attention.
The Motivation Program of the Philadelphia School system asked me to speak to a number of schools and particularly to Afro-American students and I found it to be an extraordinary experience. In 1974 the Ministry of Villanova University, a highly regarded Catholic University invited me to speak from the pulpit during a Sunday High Eucharistic Mass to over 950 congregants, students, faculty and lay people. I was the only Jewish woman and the only woman to have held that distinction.
In 1978 I was invited by Cornell University to be the weekend “scholar in residence”. My talk at the oldest interdenominational chapel in the academia, Sage Chapel, was broadcast over the entire Syracuse-Ithaca area. I have the tape. In the afternoon and evening I interacted with students and it was a little discerning to give a “lecture” to the faculty with a fifth grade schooling asking them whether they include the subject of ethics and morality in their curriculum. A lively discussion followed.
In 1981, with both my sons in college, and after years of self-education, I decided to pursue my dream of a formal college education. I applied to the University of Pennsylvania and admitted as a freshman after successfully passing the special (and difficult) high school equivalency test through the Philadelphia School District. I studied for six intensive weeks on my own and took the five required tests in a matter of ten days. I was admitted to the University of Pennsylvania and graduated with an associate degree in sociology Cum Laude and a year later I continued my studies at Temple University in Rhetoric and Communication and was awarded my Master’s degree from the College of Arts and Sciences in 1988. What it essentially amounted to was that within a period of eight years, I completed my junior and senior high school, associate degree from Penn and a Masters from Temple University. I couldn’t do it today!
Upon graduation I decided to give up teaching and change careers. For the past fourteen years I have been working for a large Union based Health and Welfare Fund as Director of the Educational Benefit Program. When the President of the Union, who brought the unique and successfully negotiated program for his members, (the only one of its kind in the country) asked me to develop and administer the program and I was delighted to accept. I was told by a number of people that at age sixty people are often asked to retire. I was just starting a whole new career. I have never looked at age as a factor or obstacle to achieve a set goal. In 1994 my education program was the recipient of the International Foundation of Employee Benefits Plans Excellence Award. I was recently informed by the Foundation that it was and still is the only such program in the country.
Over the years I kept writing. My personal and extensive academic papers center on many diversified subjects. For years I have been urged to write a memoir, or better put, recollections of a rather unusual life. A subjective story I have written a number of years ago found its way to the producers of the Family channel in 1990 and they optioned the story twice with possibility of making it into a full length film or a television special. The artistic department loved it and business people couldn’t find funding. They asked me for publishing rights that I have not given them.
Finally, except for the necessary descriptions as part of my background, I do not dwell on the Holocaust. Essentially, the book channels on surviving and adapting after the war. It deals with trials and tribulations of a young naïve adolescent, loneliness, challenges, achievements, commitments, many accomplishments, love, betrayal, coping alone, courage of one’s convictions and perseverance and eternal hope.
My writing is often sprinkled with humor, optimism and a positive attitude and talking about the ability to accept life without too much complaining while encouraging others to do the same. The writing projects personal growth and inner healing while speaking strictly from subjective and personal experiences. The memoir has a strong emotional component written in an easy popular non-academic style that would lend itself to the broad readership.
Copyright © 2005 Judy Cohen, all rights