Nelli’s Journey: From the Depths of Evil to Reconciliation and Beyond is how Nina Kaleska described her life in the title of her 2005 memoir and, for a woman who went from Auschwitz to the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company, it seems a fitting description.
Kaleska, a voice teacher who sang with the City Symphony of New York and the Washington Opera Society, died on Jan. 21 at the age of 88.
“Being a survivor, of course she had her demons,” Kaleska’s youngest son, Ed Harris, said. “She was married twice and divorced twice. She was not an easy person necessarily to live with, but she was an extraordinary mother to [my older brother] Ron [Harris] and me.”
Kaleska, born in Poland in 1929, was 14 years old when she was deported to Auschwitz, where she spent two years. Her parents and sister died during the Holocaust.
“It must be providence, or something that I needed to do to show that I have survived Hitler because I could have become bitter and angry, and I’m exactly the opposite,” Kaleska told 6abc during a 2005 interview.
After Russian troops liberated her in 1945, she spent time recuperating in Prague before heading to London, where she studied music — first piano, then voice.
Her aunt — her only known surviving relative — brought her to New York in 1950, where she continued pursuing music and made her professional voice debut with the City Symphony of New York.
She married in 1954 and had two sons — Ron in 1955 and Ed in 1958.
Ed Harris recalled treasured Saturday afternoons with Kaleska, simply listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts on the classical music station. He said her love of music inspired his own passion for it and led him to study classical piano.
Kaleska and her first husband divorced in 1961, and she moved to Philadelphia in 1964 to marry her second husband. In Philadelphia, she taught voice at the Settlement Music School for 12 years.
In 1981, when her sons were both adults, Kaleska decided to go back to school. With only a seventh-grade education, she obtained her GED certificate, then went on to earn an associate’s degree in sociology from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in rhetoric and communication from Temple University. Ed Harris said she would probably consider her education to be one of her greatest accomplishments.
She also was proud of her role in developing an education benefits program for members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776. For 16 years, she served as the program’s director, which won an International Foundation of Employee Benefits Excellence Award in 1994.
“Here’s a woman who had nothing more than a seventh-grade education and went and achieved all this,” Ed Harris said. “In her view, education starts within you. School is great, but education is from within. You teach yourself by reading and experiencing, and she had tremendous life experiences to draw on.”
While Ed Harris lived in the Philadelphia area, Ron Harris moved to California 38 years ago. Despite the geographic distance, Ron Harris said he spoke to his mother every week on the phone, just to let her know how he was doing and to discuss current events.
“When we were adults, she always said, ‘As long as you and [Ed] are happy, I’m happy, and everything else in my life is secondary,’” Ron Harris said.
While she was involved with Holocaust remembrance and interfaith work during her life — through the Board of the National Institute on the Holocaust, the Philadelphia Coordinating Council on the Holocaust and the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University — she did not talk about her own personal experiences in the Holocaust. She had the tattoo of her serial number surgically removed, and Ed Harris said he never even knew that his mom was a survivor until he was about 12 years old.
“My mother was an extraordinarily resilient person,” he said. “She didn’t live with anger. She always looked at life as the glass that’s half-full.”
Kaleska is survived by her two sons; a stepson, Philip Auerbach; and two grandchildren, Jeff and Laura Harris.
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