Nina R. Iwry, translator

She escaped from Poland, worked in China during World War II and later for the State Department

  • Nina Iwry
Nina Iwry
February 15, 2011|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Nina R. Iwry, a reporter who had escaped from her native Poland with the outbreak of World War II, died Feb. 5 of heart failure at her Mount Washington home.

She was 94.

The daughter of a wealthy Jewish textile factory owner and a homemaker, Nina Rochman was born and raised in Lodz, Poland. Her parents and several siblings perished in the Holocaust.

She was a graduate of the Gymnasia and earned a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in journalism in 1937 from Warsaw University.

Mrs. Iwry was working as a reporter for the Polish government-sponsored daily newspaper in Warsaw when the German army invaded Poland in 1939.

As enemy forces approached Warsaw, Mrs. Iwry had 20 minutes to pack what she could and flee the city by train with several newspaper colleagues.

"To her surprise at the time, the first item she grabbed during those frantic moments was her Bible," said her son, J. Mark Iwry of Potomac, who wrote the epilogue for "To Wear the Dust of War: From Warsaw to Shanghai to the Promised Land," the autobiography of his late father, Samuel Iwry. It was published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St. Martin's Press.

Mrs. Iwry left the train in Kaunas, the capital of Russian-occupied Lithuania, and found work at the local newspaper. Her passport was confiscated by the Russian authorities.

"Most could never retrieve their passports, were therefore prevented from exiting the country, and were eventually murdered. When Nina tried to retrieve hers, two circumstances saved her life," her son wrote.

While living in Poland, she had been advised by a brother-in-law to have her passport bound in red rather than the traditional dark binding.

When she went to the Russian Embassy seeking the return of her passport, she stood in line with hundreds of foreigners who were being turned away by a disinterested clerk in the passport office.

When she reached the front of the line, she told the clerk they shared the same first name. Momentarily warmed by the suggestion, the clerk gave Mrs. Iwry five minutes to find her passport from among the thousands piled on tables in the room.

"To the clerk's surprise, my mother located her passport — the red binder saved her," her son wrote.

She eventually escaped from Lithuania, riding for two weeks across Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway until arriving in Vladivostok, where she boarded a steamer for Japan.

She had settled in Kobe and then booked passage on a ship departing from Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, for Australia, which because of the outbreak of hostilities did not sail.

Japanese authorities who were rounding up foreigners and placing them in internment camps informed Mrs. Iwry that she had been under surveillance for a year but found her to be "very, very honorable," her son wrote.

They offered her an alternative to incarceration — passage out of the country to Shanghai, China.

Because she was multilingual, she found work as an administrator of a small hospital in the French section of the city.

"While managing the hospital payroll, she earned the trust and devotion of her Chinese employees — at the risk of losing her job — by paying them in advance to help them mitigate the effects of rampant inflation," said her son, a senior adviser to U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner.

She met her future husband, the Jewish Agency's Far East representative in Shanghai, when she requested a transit visa to Palestine.

"He turned her down because visas were scarce and a single visa could save a whole family," her son said.

When she learned that Dr. Iwry had been interned in the city's Hongkew prison camp and been beaten unconscious by guards for his activities with the underground, she sent hospital employees to rescue him and help him regain his health.

They married in 1946 and immigrated to Baltimore in 1947, finally settling in Mount Washington more than 50 years ago.

For years, Mrs. Iwry worked as a translator for the State Department.

Her husband, who became one of the world's leading Hebrew scholars and an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, was a professor of biblical and Near Eastern studies at the Johns Hopkins University, and professor and dean at Baltimore Hebrew University. He died in 2004.

Mrs. Iwry enjoyed gardening at her Mount Washington home and Japanese flower arranging. She also liked cooking and entertaining family and friends.

"She was known for her many acts of kindness and compassion, her quiet courage, and her selfless devotion to family and friends," her son said.

Jeanette Fineman, a Baltimore friend of nearly 60 years, called her "the most unusual and wonderful person I've ever known. After all Nina went through, she emerged an optimist and a winner."

Another friend, Vivian Braun, described Mrs. Iwry's life as "reading like a thriller."

Mrs. Iwry was a member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.

Services were held Feb. 8.

In addition to her son, Mrs. Iwry is survived by a sister, Lilly Chester of Baltimore, and a grandson.

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