Dr. Sabina Zimering's memoirs come to the stage
March 27, 2004
On March 27, 2004 at the age of 81, Dr. Sabina Zimering sat in the audience at the Great American History Theatre in Saint Paul, MN and watched the remarkable story of her own survival in Nazi Europe unfold on stage. Zimering was 16 years old when Hitler’s army invaded her native Poland. At first, she and her family were allowed to remain in their hometown of Piotrkow, a section of which the Germans had turned into a Jewish ghetto. Zimering, her parents, and her younger sister and brother were forced to share cramped quarters in a neighbor's apartment. Hunger and disease were endemic in the ghetto.
Then, in 1942, the Germans began emptying the ghettos of Jews and shipping them off to death camps. In an effort to save her daughters from Hitler's Final Solution, Zimering’s mother enlisted the help of family friends, two Polish Catholic sisters named Danka and Mala Justyna. Zimering and her sister Helka would use Danka and Mala's identity cards, pose as Catholic Poles, escape to Germany, and "hide" in the open.
The daring plan worked. For three years, until the end of the war, Zimering and her sister worked as maids in a German hotel—one frequented by Nazi officers. "A lot of luck," Zimering later reflected. "I was a teenager, and when you are a teenager, nothing is impossible." Zimering's brother Nathan also survived the war, though he saw their father die in Buchenwald, two days before liberation. Zimering later learned that her mother had died in Treblinka. "[Of] our extended family of 50 to 60 people…a total of seven were all who had survived," told Zimering.
Soon after the war's end, Zimering enrolled in the recently reopened Munich Medical School. One of the few women (and Jews) in her class, Zimering excelled in her studies. However, she found the presence of many of her classmates unnerving. "I had a hard time looking at row after row of young Germans, especially the men," she recalled. "I didn’t want to know which of them had been soldier and which had been Gestapo."
After receiving her medical degree in 1950, Zimering immigrated to America to join her brother and sister, and her future husband Rueben, whom she had met while they were both students in Munich. The two married that same year and settled in Minneapolis. Before she could practice medicine in the US, Zimering had to learn English and earn her Minnesota medical license. She remembers being pregnant with her first child and anxiously having to sit through the exam for her medical license on the baby's due date. Fortunately, the baby, the first of six children for Zimering and her husband, was a healthy daughter who arrived ten days after her due date.
Zimering passed her exam and received her license to practice medicine. For ten years, she worked part-time as a doctor for the Student Health Service at the University of Minnesota. When her children were school-aged, Zimering took a full-time job in ophthalmology with the Student Health Service. After another ten years, she moved into private practice, and found the challenge of winning the confidence of her patients (many of whom were hesitant to be treated by a woman doctor) to be extremely rewarding. Zimering even used her ability to speak Polish to connect with the many Eastern European patients in her practice.
Zimering practiced medicine for 42 years. "The early struggles of living in a new country, learning a new language, and overcoming the obstacles for women doctors are now a distant memory," she reflected after retiring in 1996. It was in that year that Zimering, urged on by her children, began to pen her memoirs. Published as Hiding in the Open in 2001, the memoir was adapted for the stage by playwright Kira Obolensky. When it premiered in March of 2004, Zimering was there to watch. The critically acclaimed play was brought back to the stage for a second time by the History Theatre in February 2010.
Sources: Graydon Royce, "War Stories," Star Tribune, March 2004; "Sabina Zimering," CommunityCelebration.org; "When Few Were Women," Minnesota Medicine, March 2002.