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Medallion with Moses and the S'hma prayer found by a young Jewish woman on a camp transport

Object | Accession Number: 2009.359.3

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    Medallion with Moses and the S'hma prayer found by a young Jewish woman on a camp transport


    Brief Narrative
    Religious medallion with an image of Moses with the Ten Commandments found by Nina Kaleska on a concentration camp transport around 1944. It also has the beginning lines in Hebrew of the S’hma prayer, a foundational prayer of Judaism, recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4. In 1941, when she was 12, Nina was forced into the Jewish ghetto in Grodno, Poland, with her parents and older sister, Sala, who was 17. The girls evaded several evacuation transports from the ghetto, but on January 20, 1943, Nina and Sala were deported to Auschwitz. Her sister fell ill and died within a few months. Nina was in the camp for 2 years. Some time in 1944, she was moved to Ravensbrück and then to Retzow-am-Rechlin. Nina was liberated by the Russian Army on May 5, 1945, during a death march from Retzow. She settled in Prague for about a year until she immigrated to London in 1946. She joined her only known relative, an aunt, in the United States in 1950.
    found:  1943-1945
    found: concentration camp transport; Germany
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Nina Kaleska
    reverse, blue enamel paint : Hebrew text [Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.] ... [Praised be God, whose glorious sovereignty is forever.]
    Subject: Nina Kaleska
    Nina Kaleska (Nelly Kalecka) was born on April 11, 1929, in Grodno, Poland, to Zelig Chaim and Rachiel Kalecka. Her older sister Sala was born in 1924. Her father was forester and they had a comfortable home life. The family was religiously observant and Nina attended both Hebrew and Polish public schools. She and her sister also received music, dance, and drama lessons.

    In September 1939, after the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, the eastern part of the country, where Grodno was located, was occupied by the Soviet Union. The Russian authorities sought out children with special talents and they began to oversee both sisters’ careers. Nina performed as soloist with major choirs and choreographed ballets; her sister was a competitive gymnast and musical performer. Both sisters had blond hair and blue eyes and were not often recognized as Jews, but were very aware of the strong antisemitism in Poland.

    In June 1941, Nina and Sala were returning from a national school competition in Bialystok, when bombs began falling near the train as Germany attacked the Soviet Union. German forces occupied the town and Nina and her family were forced into a Jewish ghetto. Around November 1942, there was a large scale round-up and ghetto residents were loaded onto trucks. The sisters were separated from their parents and evaded this and subsequent transports by hiding in attics and closets. They worked in a tobacco factory and shared a cot in the home of a friend who had been deported.

    They were found during a January 20, 1943 raid and loaded onto crowded train cars. There was no food or water and people died around them during the journey. When they arrived at Auschwitz concentration camp, Sala noticed that nearly all of the 2500 passengers were being sent to one side; she told her sister to join the small group on the other side. Nina thinks that she was spared because she had on a long coat of her mother’s that covered her face and hid the fact that she was only thirteen. Nina was one of only a few children in the camp. They were forced to undress and their heads were shaved. Nina was tattooed on her left arm with the number, 31386, with a triangle below, indicating that she was Jewish. Her sister was number 31387. She was assigned to a work detail carrying heavy stones all day long. When they returned to camp, a guard named Tauber made the prisoners jump over a five foot ditch; those who did not make it, several every day, were not seen again. They were whipped if they put their hands in their pockets to try to warm them. Sala became ill and died in Nina’s arms on April 10, 1943. An older Christian woman, Martha, who witnessed this scene, came up to Nina and said that she would take care of her. Martha, a nurse, about thirty-five year olds, had been in Auschwitz for three months. She nursed Nina through several illnesses over the next two years, obtaining injections and even smuggling her into the Christian block for better medical treatment. At this time, Nina was so ill that the doctor listed her for removal, but Martha was able to get her name off the list. After her recovery, the female guard in charge of Lager C, Irma Grese, made Nina her messenger girl, which got her extra food rations. There were daily roll calls where the inmates had to stand in the cold for hours; if they fell, the guards would stomp on them or order their dogs to attack. Outside the barracks every morning were tall piles of emaciated dead bodies.

    On January 18, 1945, Nina was sent by train to Ravensbrück. She met Martha there, who shared her food with her. There was no work there but also no food and death from starvation was common. After about a month, Nina was taken by truck to Retzlof-am-Rechlin (Retzow). She was assigned prisoner number 106487. Discipline was getting looser and there seemed to be growing confusion about what to do with the prisoners. Nina was befriended by a young camp guard, Lucien, a student from Luxembourg. He wished to help her escape, but he was sent to the Eastern front. There were frequent air raids and great fear in the camp that they “would be taken to the woods and shot. There was no question the war was ending and with it, probably, our lives.” The camp was suddenly evacuated one night; the inmates began a seemingly endless march to an unknown destination. On May 5, 1945, they were liberated by the Russian Army somewhere in Germany.

    In her first conversation with a Russian soldier after liberation, he expressed regret that there were still Jews left after all that. That remark was a terrible awakening for Nina and she resolved to always devote time to being alert that what happened then can happen again. She stayed for four weeks in Breslau in eastern Germany, where she met a Belgian ex-prisoner-of-war who was returning to Brussels. He asked Nina if she had any relatives and she gave him the name and address of her aunt, Anna Kleban, in New York. He wrote to her from Brussels, telling her that Nina, alone of her family, had survived.

    The officials in Breslau wanted to put Nina in an orphan’s home, but she convinced them that she was eighteen. In June 1945, Nina left for Prague where she hoped to find Martha. Unsure what to do her first day, she met Vaclav Ruziczka, who found her a job and a place to live. With the help of the American Joint Distribution Committee, she was sent to London in March 1946 to wait for her US visa. She worked for the Jewish Monthly, writing an article called A Day in Auschwitz, published in August 1947. And she had her tattoo removed.

    Physical Details

    Jewish Art and Symbolism
    Religious medals
    Object Type
    Jewish medals (lcsh)
    Physical Description
    Oval, gold colored, metal medallion with a painted image of a white bearded man in layered purple, yellow, and green robes inlaid into the metal with 6 round metal edge insets. The man, Moses, holds 2 gray tablets, the 10 Commandments, represented by inscribed numbers 1 through 10: 1-5 on the right and 6-10 on the left. The reverse has white enamel paint with Hebrew text in blue ink and a scroll design at the bottom. At the top is a metal loop with a suspension ring.
    overall: Height: 1.375 inches (3.493 cm) | Width: 0.750 inches (1.905 cm)
    overall : metal, enamel paint, ink

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    No restrictions on access
    Conditions on Use
    No restrictions on use

    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    The medallion was donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2009 by Nina Kaleska.
    Record last modified:
    2023-09-01 09:01:35
    This page:

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