Yehuda (nee Gruenfeld) Nir, a Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 84
By JOSEPH BERGERJULY 19, 2014
Dr. Yehuda Nir in the library of his Manhattan apartment in 2004. He called his porcelain figurines “the toys I never had.” Credit John Lei for The New York Times
Yehuda Nir was born on March 31, 1930, in Lvov, Poland, known today as Lviv in Ukraine, To Shmuel Gruenfeld, a rug manufacturer, and Sidia nee Hager. The family was prosperous enough to have servants. The family’s name was originally Gruenfeld, which Dr. Nir changed after the war because of its German origins. (Nir is Hebrew for plowed field.)
Dr. Yehuda Nir, a psychiatrist whose childhood was shaped by having to masquerade as a Roman Catholic in German-occupied Poland to escape Nazi persecution, an ordeal that he turned into a well-received memoir and that guided him in treating victims of trauma, died on Saturday at his home in Manhattan. He was 84.
His death was announced by his daughter, Sarah Maslin Nir.
Dr. Nir emerged from World War II with a deep sense of the injustice that had been done to his family and a mission to heal the impact of calamity in others — what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder. He did groundbreaking work in the psychological treatment of terminally ill children and also studied how the suffering of parents is transmitted to their children. Many of his patients in private practice were Holocaust survivors or the children of survivors.
His approach to treatment often had its roots in his almost daily wartime terror. As he chronicled in his 1989 memoir, “The Lost Childhood: The Complete Memoir,” he had to deny who he was in order to survive. He learned to recite Catholic prayers, genuflected every time he passed a church and even won an audition to serve as an altar boy. His father was murdered with other Jews in the first week the Germans occupied the Polish city of Lvov. More than once he suffered agonizing hunger.
At one point, while working for a German dentist, he asked a colleague what day Christmas would be that year. She inferred that he was not Catholic and threatened to expose him. Desperate, he warned he would reveal her affair with the dentist — something he thought he was inventing. It turned out that the woman was indeed having an affair, and she never revealed that he was a Jew.
“It felt great to outwit 80 million Germans who wanted to murder an 11-year-old boy,” he said in a 1990 interview. “It’s given me a tremendous feeling. I present it as a psychological victory.”
He pointedly spurned the tendency to ascribe the Holocaust to Nazis and preferred blaming Germans in general, since he felt the nation as a whole was culpable. Six million Jews were not killed, he would say; they were murdered.
Dr. Nir served as a chief of child psychiatry at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center from 1979 to 1986. His wife, Dr. Bonnie Maslin, a psychologist, said he had taken on the emotionally wrenching work of treating families facing the approaching death of a child, especially the ill children themselves. He also counseled staff members who were unsettled by such cases.
He often talked about the lingering impact of the war years, “the sadness of being deprived of a childhood” and his “acute” awareness that his father was not there to appreciate his joy at the births of his children. Later in life, when he became a serious collector of kitschy porcelain figurines, he explained to an interviewer that they were “the toys I never had.”
Yehuda Nir was born on March 31, 1930, in Lvov, Poland, known today as Lviv in Ukraine, into a rug manufacturer’s family prosperous enough to have servants. The family’s name was originally Gruenfeld, which Dr. Nir changed after the war because of its German origins. (Nir is Hebrew for plowed field.)
What was left of his comfortable life was upended in June 1941, when the Germans invaded the eastern half of Poland, which had been occupied by the Soviet Union. With their Ukrainian collaborators, the Germans began mass roundups and machine-gun executions of Jewish men. Yehuda, his mother and his older sister, Lala, were left to cope on their own (they learned of the execution of a 6-year-old cousin) and planned their escape.
They obtained forged Catholic identity papers through Lala’s boyfriend and decided to make their way to another city, where no one would recognize them as Jews — first to Krakow, then Warsaw. The family was forced into labor on a German farm but eventually freed by the advancing Russians.
The family made its way to British-mandate Palestine on false papers, where Yehuda, whose education had stopped at the fifth grade, taught himself English by practicing lines from “Macbeth.” He studied medicine at Hebrew University Hadassah Medical School and spent time at a medical school in Vienna, using money his sister received as gifts for her wedding.
Besides his daughter, Sarah, a reporter for The New York Times, and his wife, Dr. Maslin, Dr. Nir is survived by their son, David, the political director of the Daily Kos website; two sons from a first marriage, Daniel, a private investor, and Aaron, the chief executive of the Charlotte Ronson clothing line; and four grandchildren.
Although he came to the United States in 1959 for medical residencies in Philadelphia and New York, Dr. Nir remained fervently engaged with Israel. Dr. Maslin, with whom he wrote four self-help books on relationships, said that when the 1973 Yom Kippur War broke out, he postponed their wedding to travel to Israel and worked with psychologically stricken soldiers.
At a Holocaust conference, he befriended Gottfried Wagner, the great-grandson of the composer Richard Wagner, whose anti-Semitic writings had been adopted by Nazi propagandists. Mr. Wagner helped mold Dr. Nir’s memoir into an opera composed by Janice Hamer with a libretto by Mary Azrael. It includes a conversation between two psychiatrists — a son of Nazi sympathizers and one who spent his childhood as a hidden Jew.
Correction: July 19, 2014
An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the circumstances under which Yehuda Nir and his family were forced into labor during World War II. They were forced to work on a German farm, they were not sent to a labor camp.
Yehuda Nir (Grunfeld)
Place of Burial:
March 31, 1930
July 19, 2014 (84)
New York, New York County, New York, United States
Son of Shmuel Grunfeld and Sidia Grunfeld
Husband of Maslin
Ex-husband of Herman (Roos)
Father of Daniel Ludwig Nir; Aaron Bernhard Nir; i David Nir and <private> Nir
Brother of Ilana Weinreb Levron