Zaleska, Katherine (1919—)

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Zaleska, Katherine (1919—)

Polish Jew who served as a courier for resistance forces during World War II. Born in 1919 in Lvov, Poland; attended the Rockefeller Nursing School, Warsaw; studied medicine at Poznan and Stettin universities in Poland; served as registrar of St. James's Hospital, London; served as ENT specialist in the general hospital, Lagos, Nigeria; married in 1959 (divorced).

In 1939, Adolf Hitler annexed Poland as the first part of his military strategy to conquer Europe in the name of Nazi Germany. The German army moved swiftly and severely against the Jewish population of that country, which included 20-year-old Katherine Zaleska and her family. During World War II, Zaleska was separated from her father and mother (her father was taken prisoner and later killed, while her mother was deported to the Gobi Desert). As well, 18 of Zaleska's family members died, including her brother.

In the face of this overwhelming loss, Zaleska determined to work as a courier with her sister

for the Polish resistance, carrying messages to Hungary through German-occupied territory. Her work was perilous, and on at least one occasion she and her sister fell into the hands of the Nazis. Although they managed to destroy the messages they had been carrying, the sisters still underwent interrogation in five different prisons before the Gestapo was convinced that they had "silly girls" on their hands rather than dangerous resistance spies.

Despite this brush with death, Zaleska renewed her resistance activities after her release. She worked as a nurse in a hospital in Cracow until it closed in 1941, after which she enrolled in nursing studies at the Rockefeller Nursing School in Warsaw. She paid for her tuition by caring for wealthy clients in nursing homes, while also acting as a courier for the Warsaw resistance movement (the Home Army), using the codename "Juka." She later recalled it as "the most fascinating and wonderful period of my life … in spite of the hunger, the bitter cold, the lack of clothing and the separation from our families. Our sense of humour and our high spirits were our only means of defense." Zaleska twice earned decorations for valor, which included helping Jews escape from the besieged Warsaw Ghetto in 1944.

The critical need for doctors at the end of the war made Zaleska's nursing skills extremely valuable, and she worked as a nursing sister to pay for medical studies at Poznan University. In her second year, she began to specialize in emergency medicine and by her third year was performing minor operations under supervision. In her fifth year, she was offered the post of assistant ENT at Stettin University, where she also completed her medical studies.

In 1956, Zaleska discovered that her mother was alive in London, a finding which happily coincided with the lifting of the ban on exit visas. Over the course of the next year, she worked three jobs in order to earn enough money to buy clothes and to pay for a six-week stay in London. Arriving in 1957, speaking very little English, she reunited with her mother and immediately applied for work at St. James's Hospital, where she was required to undergo a rigorous application procedure along with six other applicants. When the interviewer (Mr. A.B. Alexander) asked for her passport, and then began quickly dictating to his secretary, she was suddenly overcome with panic. "All the souvenirs of the Stalinist terror went through my head. I became hysterical, begging Mr. Alexander not to drag me to the police but to let me return to my mother and my home country." As it turned out, Alexander was about to offer her the job, and was arranging for a extension of her visa. Within 18 months, Zaleska was serving as registrar at the Hospital, work she found boring compared to the compelling cases she had been used to in Poland. "Also I felt somehow ashamed to earn in one week what would be two and a half months' pay in Poland," she said. "However, I was sending my money to help the relatives I had left there."

In 1959, Zaleska married a fellow Pole and moved with him to Lagos, Nigeria, where she secured work as an ENT Specialist in the General Hospital. Although she later divorced, she fell in love with her adopted country and settled permanently in Nigeria.


Griffin, Lynne, and Kelly McCann. The Book of Woman. Holbrook, MA: Bob Adams, 1992.

Macksey, Joan, and Kenneth Macksey. The Book of Women's Achievements. NY: Stein & Day, 1976.

Sonya Elaine Schryer , freelance writer, Lansing, Michigan