From hell to Harvard: a survivor’s memoir
Regina Kesler survived the Holocaust to become a Harvard Medical School-educated pediatrician.
In the last years of her life, as she was dying from breast cancer, Kesler tried to finish her memoirs of fleeing Poland, surviving a Russian slave labor camp, immigrating to the United States, and establishing a successful medical practice during an era when that was rare for women.
Although she died before completing the task, her husband, Dr. Michael Kesler of East Brunswick, edited her diaries and memoirs to finish the recently published book, Grit: A Pediatrician’s Odyssey From a Russian Labor Camp to Harvard.
On Oct. 31, he will speak about that book at his synagogue, the Highland Park Conservative Temple-Congregation Anshe Emeth, during seuda shlishit, the third Sabbath meal.
“I used some of what she left and added some things of my own,” said Kesler, himself a Ukrainian Holocaust survivor who met Regina Chanowicz while he was enrolled at MIT and she at Harvard. “I did it to leave my children and grandchildren with a personal understanding of th&eir roots and heritage. I also hope other young people will benefit from reading it as well.”
Regina had a practice in Paramus for 17 years before her death in 1973. However, it wasn’t until Michael retired three years ago as a chemical engineer in the petroleum industry that he could devote time to the memoir.
Michael and his sister escaped their hometown of Dubno, spending a brutal winter in Stalingrad before ending up in Uzbekistan. In the fall of 1945, they returned to Dubno to find that all 8,000 of its Jews, including their siblings and parents, had been killed, their bodies in mass graves.
His book about his own experience, Shards of War: Two Teens’ Flight to Uzbekistan, will soon be published.
In 1939, when Regina was 14, her father fled their hometown of Suwalki for Vilna after a Catholic priest, a boyhood friend, warned him the Gestapo was coming. A few weeks later the same priest brought a warning to Regina, her mother, and two younger siblings, and that night he arranged passage for them to the border. They met up with her father several weeks later in Vilna.
However, the Soviets accused the family of spying for the Germans and deported them to a slave labor camp in Siberia; her father was sent to another camp, During the 18 months she spent in the camp, said Kesler, “she nearly perished from hunger and hard labor.”
The family was abruptly freed and fled to Kurdistan in central Asia, where they spent the rest of the war and were reunited with Regina’s father. It was there, said Michael, that his late wife finished high school and began studying to become a nurse.
At the war’s end, they returned to Suwalki and found all its Jews had been murdered in Treblinka.
Regina was sent to Lodz to study medicine, but in 1946 the family joined other relatives in Sweden, where Regina worked in a factory. She came to the States in 1947 on a student visa arranged by her uncle in Virginia and enrolled at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.
However, poor English and pressure from her family to marry and settle into domestic life eventually led her to move to the Boston area, where she earned a degree from Simmons College and became a lab technician.
“She caught the attention of the Harvard physician in whose lab she worked, and he helped her to get to Harvard University to study medicine,” said Kesler, whom she married in 1952.
Kesler has been married to his second wife, Dr. Barbara Reed, associate professor of journalism at Rutgers University, for more than 20 years.