Nir, Yehuda

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NIR, Yehuda

Nationality: American (originally Polish: immigrated to Palestine after World War II and later to the United States). Born: Lvov, 31 March 1930. Education: Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1951-58, M.D. 1958. Military Service: Polish Home Army during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944; Israeli Army during the War of Independence, 1948. Family: Married Bonnie Maslin in 1973; three sons and one daughter. Career: Head of child psychiatry, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center; psychologist, private practice, New York. Since 1979 associate professor of psychology, Cornell University Medical College, Ithaca, New York.



The Lost Childhood: A Memoir. 1989.


Loving Men for All the Right Reasons, with Bonnie Maslin. 1982; as Patterns of Heartbreak: How to Stop Finding Mr. Wrong, 1992; as How to Get Married One Year from Today: Advice on Romance for Men and Women, 1994.

Not Quite Paradise: Making Marriage Work, with Bonnie Maslin. 1987.


Critical Study:

"Yehuda Nir," in Sh'ma, 25 (481), 11 November 1994.

* * *

Yehuda Nir was nine years old when the Germans overran his half of Poland in 1939, signaling the start of World War II. Three weeks later the Soviets entered Lvov and annexed it to the Soviet Union. Yehuda's father's prosperous business was nationalized. The swift change of status for his family culminated two years later when Yehuda witnessed his father being marched away never to be seen again.

These events marked the beginning of a six-year ordeal where Yehuda would survive by living on the run with his mother and sister, using his wits and a finely honed instinct to avoid detection as a Jew. Posing as Catholics, with forged baptismal certificates, the trio managed to elude deportation, flee the ghetto, and eventually depart for Warsaw, where their anonymity saved them. Dyeing his hair, concealing his circumcision, and wearing a Hitler Youth uniform were only some of the ruses Nir engaged to survive. But the sheer nerve, quick wit, and chameleon-like changes left an imprint on the man who went on to live by an existentialist creed that impelled him to act whenever justice was threatened.

After the war Nir lived in Palestine, where he completed his high-school equivalency requirements. Later he went to Vienna to medical school. He also studied medicine in Jerusalem, and after his marriage he moved with his wife to Philadelphia in 1959 to complete his studies. He finished his training with a residency in child psychiatry at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and has since made his home in Manhattan.

Nir has been a practicing psychiatrist in Manhattan, where he has also taught psychiatry at Cornell University Medical College. Special areas of his practice include treating post-traumatic stress disorder and treating children. With his second wife, Bonnie Maslin, a psychologist, he has written self-help books.

Nir's smiling eyes and rapid-fire speech reveal only a fragment of the persona who is utterly action oriented. When Israel was attacked on Yom Kippur in 1973, he postponed his second wedding for three weeks, flying to Israel to serve as an army doctor working in a 24-hour clinic treating trauma survivors. When President Reagan went to a Bitburg cemetery where SS were buried, Nir flew to Germany with 30 people to protest the president's actions. Years later, when he donated 10,000 copies of his book to every high school in Holland, he was challenged by the Dutch Secretary of Education, who questioned his inclusion of Samuel Beckett's lines as an epigraph in his Holocaust memoir, The Lost Childhood: "Let me say before I go any further that I forgive nobody./I wish them all an atrocious life and then the fires and ice/of hell and in the execrable generations to come …" Nir countered by saying: "Maybe if young people take action, then they can create a world in which forgiveness is possible. My goal is to disrupt the couch potato so that young people will educate themselves and not be passive, but rather to choose action when they see injustice." Nir has made time to travel around the country speaking to young people about his Holocaust experience. Students are drawn to him because his message is authentic and intrepid.

His Holocaust memoir is so compelling that it attracted the attention of a composer and librettist, who teamed up to write an opera based on The Lost Childhood. Produced by the American Opera Projects, it was a work in progress as of 2001. Gottfried Wagner, great-grandson of the composer and a friend of Nir's, chose to direct the opera of the same title. Their friendship has been based on a spirit of openness, exemplified in Nir's correspondence with Wagner: "You say that you have been crucified on the history of Germany, and I believe you. You don't even ask for forgiveness—all you want is to engage in dialogue to understand what has happened, how it happened, and to ask whether it is possible to prevent it from happening again. You are a German who can help create a world in which we, the Jews, can contemplate forgiveness."

An avid opera fan, Nir has favored this genre because its power allows him to disappear into that sublime world of art. Given the severity of his life, it is no coincidence that this survivor has lived by the belief that avenging an evil is a righteous act, a vendetta, a word he pronounces in a perfect and resolute pitch.

—Grace Connolly Caporino

See the essay on The Lost Childhood.