This was supposed to be a simple story about a local man’s trip to Bialystok.
Of course, it couldn’t be too simple — it was about the commemoration of the uprising in the Bialystok ghetto in 1943, and there is too much death and history and connection in there to ignore. But surely it can make a little surface-level piece, right?
So you walk into Michael Nevins’ apartment. That’s retired cardiologist and internist Michael Nevins, now of Piermont, in Rockland County, but for many decades of River Vale, whose middle child, Rabbi Daniel Nevins, is the head of school at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange.
You walk in, and you’re immediately struck by the wealth of metaphors you can use to describe him.
It’s not unusual to see something in someone’s home that you can use to introduce that person to readers. It makes sense. Most people try to live in a place that appeals to them, and they furnish it with things they like. Often, one detail or another sticks out.
This time, though, there were two impossible-to-ignore elements.
Dr. Nevins’ apartment is on Piermont Pier, a small arm of road and housing that sticks out into the Hudson. His huge windows face north; you see the Mario Cuomo Bridge, the starkly modern replacement for the Tappan Zee, two miles in the distance. He’s on a low floor, so the water below seems so close that the occasional fish is visible. You see Rockland to the west, Westchester to the east. It’s expansive. It’s open to possibilities, both close-up and far away. It’s compelling.
It’s also full of history. This is where tens of thousands of American troops from across the country came from Camp Shanks, the debarkation camp just a few miles away, and boarded the ferries that took them to New York Harbor and then across the Atlantic to Europe. People still come to commemorate those soldiers, Dr. Nevins said.
On this hot, muggy late-summer day, the colors out his window are oddly cool; steel blue, steel gray, some murky green.
The other unignorable metaphor is bright hot red and orange and pink and purple and a Pantone wheel of just about every red-adjacent color ever made, and then yellows and greens and blues radiating out from it. It’s a huge painting, irregularly shaped and framed, by an eccentric British painter, Anthony Green, who oddly enough spent two years in Leonia. It’s called “Auntie Yvonne’s Parlor,” and Auntie Yvonne sits in the middle of it, prim and self-contained and beige-ish in the middle of the riot of colors and shapes that surround her, different rugs with different bright hues in illogical patterns. She’s neither threatened nor overwhelmed by any of it. It’s marvelous.
It’s not as if Dr. Nevins is prim or any shade of beige, but the more you talk to him, the more you realize that he’s surrounded by a wealth of interests and talents and experiences that connect less to each other than to him.
He’s already laid out the refreshments for his next appointment, his weekly New Yorker discussion group. That one’s in person. Two days ago, he’d had his weekly Zoom schmooze meeting with prominent Jews from around the world. He has a pile of books he’s written on a table.
Oh, and he sings. In a chorus. “We have a small chorus, about 30 people,” he said.
He talks about how and why he went to Bialystok, and how he became the sort of person to be invited there.
Michael Nevins’ story begins where most Jersey Jewish stories of his generation did, at Newark Beth Israel Hospital in 1936 — and his mother was related to Philip Roth, so the mythology was all laid out and ready. But although he was born at the Beth, he did not grow up in Newark. His mother, Belle Cohen Nevins, did, “but she couldn’t wait to cross the river and get out of there,” Dr. Nevins said. Belle was a teacher, one of the few Jews in her school; an often-told family story is that she once found herself faced with eating pork at a school function, choked down a few bites, suffered terrible stomach pains that she was sure were the retributive wrath of an angry God, and was told by her doctor that it was not pork but pregnancy. So although the family started in New Jersey, Belle, her husband, Sam Nevins, and their two sons — David, who like his younger brother is a doctor, and Michael — decamped to the Bronx as soon as they could. That’s where the boys grew up.
The family lived a very assimilated life, Dr. Nevins said. He went to Fieldston Country Day School in Riverdale, close to home, and then to Dartmouth. He was comfortable at that supremely WASPy school, but he felt a bit of a Jewish pull. “We were rushing fraternities at the beginning of my sophomore year,” he said. “I was going to go to one of the goyish fraternities, but one of my friends said, ‘Let’s go to one of the Jewish ones first.’ I arrived a little reluctantly, but then I saw that everyone there was like me, premed or prelaw like me, rooting for the Yankees. And I felt at home.”
Next came medical school at Tufts. He was set up on a date with a beautiful young woman, who dressed elegantly for a first date with him that somehow happened at a dog race, a sport about which neither of them knew anything. Complications ensued. But so did love, and a few months later the couple was married.
Dr. Nevin’s wife was Phyllis Brower of Teaneck, the daughter of Rose and Irving Brower; her father was an early president of Congregation Beth Sholom there. Michael and Phyllis stayed happily married from 1961 until she died in 2005.
After his residency in cardiology at Mount Sinai, Dr. Nevins spent two years in the Air Force. He was stationed in Roswell, New Mexico, a perfect place for someone with an interest in weird Americana. Next, after finishing his training in internal medicine, the family moved to Bergen County, living first in Montvale and then in River Vale. Phyllis and Michael Nevins had three children — Ted, Danny, and Andrea Sherman. (All three Nevins children and their spouses still live close to their father — Ted in Tenafly, Danny in Manhattan, and Andrea in Piermont.) Dr. Nevins practiced medicine in Woodcliff Lake until he retired in 2012.
He’s written 15 books. “They’re mostly medical histories,” he said; they’re also deeply local, rooted in New Jersey, and include a great deal of local history.
“I’m basically self-taught as a historian,” he said. “I’d come across something in my clinical practice that interested me, and my nature is to dig deeply into it. I love telling stories. I love writing stories. So I usually start with some interesting case that presented a problem, and I’d delve into the background.
“When I finish an essay or a book, I immediately lose interest in it. The fun is in doing the research and the writing.”
So that’s the medical part. There’s also the Jewish part.
Ever since he married Phyllis, Michael Nevins had become increasingly interested in Jewishness. His wife and his middle child, Danny, became increasingly observant. Phyllis, who was an artist, went on to specialize in calligraphy and in creating ketubot, Jewish marriage contracts. And Danny Nevins went to the Frisch Academy for high school. After college — Harvard — he went to the Jewish Theological Seminary, becoming first a pulpit rabbi, then the dean of the rabbinical school at JTS, and finally moving to where he is now, at Golda Och.
Meanwhile, Dr. Nevins watched “Roots,” the 1977 television miniseries, based on the book by Alex Haley, that looked at a young enslaved African man and his descendants as fully human beings with stories that demanded being heard and experiences that had to be acknowledged. It gave Dr. Nevins the desire to unearth his own history.
He began to work on genealogy.
It was the early 1980s — not so long ago, really, in terms of real life, but prehistory for the internet. It was far harder to research family history then. Still, Dr. Nevins managed to put together enough information for a Yizkor book, “Dabrowa: Portrait of a Jewish Shtetl,” which he self-published in 1982.
His grandparents came from a shtetl in what is now Poland, about halfway between Bialystok and Grodno, called Dabrowa, that was about 75 percent Jewish. The town’s name translates to Oak Forest. The Nevinses had moved to River Vale by then; they’d bought a house in a development called Oak Forest. That struck Dr. Nevins as unignorably full circle.
But once his work on the Yizkor book was done, it was done. He was done. “I figured the mitzvah was finished,” he said.
More than a decade later, in 1995, two sisters who’d escaped from Dabrowa raised money for a stone wall to protect the Jewish cemetery there. They held a ceremony to dedicate that wall, and Michael and Phyllis Nevins were there. It was their first trip to Dabrowa. They were moved by it, but they never planned to go back.
Another 15 or so years later, in 2015, after Ms. Nevins had died, Dr. Nevins heard from Dorota Budzinska, a teacher in Dabrowa. She’d discovered the Yizkor book online through JewishGen, the nonprofit dedicated to finding, maintaining, curating, and offering Jewish genealogical information that’s now affiliated with the Museum of Jewish Heritage in downtown Manhattan.
“She invited me to come to Dabrowa,” he said. “She was trying to educate her students about the lost Jewish community.” She’s not Jewish, but she wanted the memory of the once-thriving Jewish community in her town to stay alive.
“So the next year, I brought my son Ted and my grandson Sam to go to Dabrowa a second time. Mark Podwal” — that’s the artist whose work, often on Jewish themes, is both widely seen and greatly admired — “came too. His mother was also from that shtetl.”
Dr. Podwal — he’s not only an artist but also a physician — created “Kaddish for Dubrowa,” a book with 18 paintings made for it. The two men went back to Dubrowa in 2018, when the book was dedicated and a mural featuring one of Dr. Podwal’s artworks was unveiled.
Those trips “led to my meeting all sorts of interesting Poles, who, contrary to our stereotype that they’re all antisemites, are wonderful, very bright, remarkable people, with fascinating stories,” Dr. Nevins said.
“And one thing led to another. After I came home, I continued to communicate with some of them, and one of them, a teacher, invited me to come to a conference.
“I got an official invitation from the town’s mayor, and it says that the event that we were going to was called ‘Reading the Ashes.’
“That means nothing to me, but it turned out that it was a book of poetry written by Jerzy Ficowski, a Polish Catholic who survived the war, had survivor’s guilt, and wrote about it. The poems had been translated into English. I got a copy of it from JTS” — the Jewish Theological Seminary — “and I discovered that it included a poem titled ‘Letter to Marc Chagall?’
“What did that have to do with anything?” he asked rhetorically.
“I eventually found out that the poet sent Chagall a copy of a poem, and Chagall decided that he would illustrate it. I got a copy of Chagall’s etchings, and I realized that I was the only person in the country to have both the poem and the etchings, so I decided to make a video.
“If I’m going to catch up with Steven Spielberg and Ken Burns, I have to start now!” he joked.
But there is nothing at all funny about the video. It’s a wrenching combination of heartbreaking poetry and photographs that can take your broken heart and stomp on the pieces. Chagall, who’s known for his use of color, used only black ink for his illustrations.
“What a pity, Sir, you do not know Rose Gold/the saddest golden rose,” the poem begins; it’s accompanied with a photograph of a little girl with huge, tragic, haunted, haunting eyes, staring right at you.
“The video’s been shown at various places,” Dr. Nevins said, including many synagogues and JCCs. He’s also posted it on his website, michaelnevinsmd.com.
Because everything Jewish seems to connect eventually, when Dr. Nevins took a trip to London with some of his family in 2018, he had lunch with Elzbieta Smolenska, the woman who had translated both Dr. Podwal’s and his talks in Bialystok.
“She had a present for me,” he said. “It’s a diary, written during the war by David Spiro,” who had lived in the ghetto in Bialystok for the four years of its existence, and died in the uprising there on August 16, 1943.
Dr. Nevins has a copy of that diary, written in Polish and translated into a rudimentary English. It shows a life, full of the ordinary details of any life, as well as the depredations and horrors of Jewish life in a Nazi ghetto.
His work as a Jewish genealogist and historian and as a medical historian came together last year, when he was asked to consult on the video that the Genesis Prize Foundation was making to document the work of the 2022 prize winner, Dr. Albert Bourla, chairman and CEO of Pfizer, who was instrumental in the creation of the covid vaccine. Dr. Nevins and his daughter, Andrea Sherman, went to Jerusalem as the prize was presented.
Through his work, he met the wife and daughter of Samuel Pisar, “who was born in Bialystok, and was a child when the Nazis came, and he was sent to Auschwitz,” Dr. Nevins said. “His whole family was killed. He was marched naked in front of Mengele, he survived three camps, and after liberation he becomes a world-renowned international lawyer.”
All this and much more is confirmed by Mr. Pisar’s 2015 obituary in the New York Times; as the writer, Steven Erlanger, notably put it, “He was 10 when Poland was swallowed by Hitler and Stalin. He somehow survived the camps of Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau, emerging at 16, hardened and wild, his family gone to ash.”
(He went on to have his own family, which includes his stepson, Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State.)
Mr. Pisar went on to study at Harvard and the Sorbonne. Among many other extraordinary accomplishments, he wrote lyrics for Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish,” drawing from the rage and also the love that marked his life.
“Last year, I was invited to a meeting at the home of his wife and met her and his daughter, who are amazing themselves,” he said.
Through all of these connections, and because of the book he published in 2022, “Voices from the Bialystok Ghetto,” Dr. Nevins was invited to the commemoration of the 80th anniversary of the uprising in the Bialystok ghetto, last month. He invited all seven of his grandchildren; five of them were able to go, and they were accompanied by his daughter, Andrea, and his son Daniel.
They all found it a powerful visit. The stops at the death camps are painful, and the glances at the richness and breadth and depth of prewar Jewish culture are painful too, because of the enormity of the loss, but they’re also inspiring, Rabbi Danny Nevins wrote in a long blog post.
“Our family trip did both of these things, but then added a third layer — extended conversations with contemporary Poles who are preserving Jewish memory and building a better society that honors all of its cultures, past and present,” Rabbi Nevins continued. Despite some missteps, the attempt was honest, and he appreciated it; “what we witnessed was a more honest and constructive engagement with a shameful past than we seem able to perform in America when our country is asked to consider its own horrors.
“Or at least, it is a model of tikkun/repair which I am grateful to have witnessed.”
You can learn more about Dr. Nevins, his life, and his work, on his website, michaelnevinsmd.com.