Meet Bella Rozencweig Hirsch, Mother & Nurse

I am fortunate to work closely with Ora. Though she is one of the busiest people I have ever known, we do find time to sit down and connect on the various projects going on at any given moment. On many of these occasions, Ora shares stories of her life, her family and her experiences – everything is always connected!

In a recent conversation about people who have influenced our lives, we began talking about Ora’s mother, Bella Hirsch, and the specific role she played in Ora becoming a doctor. Bella was a nurse who spent most of her career caring for soldiers and those impacted by the devastating realities of war.

So, when Ora and I were talking about her May newsletter to faculty and staff, it seemed quite fitting to share Bella’s story as a tribute to nurses, who were celebrated this month during National Nurses Week May 6-12, and in honor of Mother’s Day on May 13. With Ora’s blessing, I contacted Bella to find out more about her story. Below is what I learned about this amazing nurse, mother and woman, as well as a note from Ora. I hope you enjoy the exchange as much as I did.

~Allison Krieger, EVPMA Communications

BH: I was born Bella Rozencweig in 1929 in Zlataust, Russia, an ancient city in the Ural Mountains on the border of Siberia.  In the Czarist years, the city was renowned for its production of very splendid special swords. After the revolution, the city continued to be engaged in light industry.  We never moved from Zlataust. My family lived in a fertile valley surrounded by magnificent wooded mountains. Though the winters were cold and harsh, the summers were glorious.  It was wonderful to grow up in an environment surrounded by luscious nature.  On the way home from school, we children would pick the wild flowers and bring home mixed bouquets. Even today I consider myself fortunate to have been one with nature.

In 1941 Russia was invaded by Nazi Germany, marking the beginning of World War II for Russia.  Our city was converted from production of light industry to heavy industry, manufacturing tanks and artillery equipment, which were shipped directly to the front.  The trains which carried the equipment returned with wounded soldiers who were housed in public institutions converted into hospitals.  Though many schools were transformed into hospitals, the school I attended functioned normally.  Since most of the men were mobilized, the city, its institutions and industry were run by women.  For example, my mother worked in a steel mill.  Conditions of life were very difficult.  Even though the fighting never reached the Ural Mountains, we lived on a war footing.  We had terrible food shortages. Starvation in our city was second only to Leningrad.

BH: I became a nurse for a simple reason.  Before the war, Zlataust was a comparatively small mountain city.  There were only two institutions of higher learning—programs for nursing and for education.  Those who wanted a different course of study had to apply to universities outside the city.  During the war, no one was permitted to leave the city, even to further educational objectives.  Because even as a child I loved science, for me the profession of nursing was a logical choice.  Also, during the war government policy encouraged youth to enter the health professions because there was a desperate shortage of nurses.  The government ordered the acceleration of training programs, so that nurses could be graduated and encouraged to enlist at a very early age.

BH: Considering the war conditions, we received excellent training in every medical subject.  We even had to study Latin, in order to understand the etymology of diseases and medications.  The study was intensive, involving long hours of lectures, lab work, pathology and practical work with patients.  We learned to diagnose diseases and to recommend medications and treatments for curing them.

BH: I was 17 years old when I began to work full time as a nurse.

During our studies in school, we were expected to care for patients.  My first patient was a man suffering from syphilis.  Even though I desperately wanted to be helpful, I remember that I felt threatened by the contagious nature of the disease.  In those days, treatment of venereal disease was primitive.  Nurses worked without gloves. Only doctors were given gloves and even then only when performing operations.

Another patient of mine was a woman with a stomach ulcer.  For treatment, she received warm paraffin placed where the ulcer was supposedly located. Unfortunately, treatments were limited by lack of medications.  Don’t forget — it was before the age of penicillin.  And materials were in short supply.  For example, used bandages were washed, dried, rolled and then put into an autoclave for sterilization.  Similarly, syringes and needles were used over and over again after being sterilized in an autoclave.

BH: After we left Russia in 1946, we first moved to Poland.  There, I worked with an obstetrician delivering babies in a hospital.  Our degree in nursing included a degree in midwifery. We then moved to Germany to Bergen Belsen, which during the war had been a concentration camp, but, at that time, was converted into a camp for Displaced Persons. There I worked in a small hospital administered by German doctors and nurses.  In addition to my regular nursing duties, I worked with toddlers of mothers who, because of their concentration camp experiences, were unable to handle their own children.

Bella in her army uniform

In 1948, I left for Israel.  I joined the Israeli army.  In Israel, as in Russia, there was a terrible shortage of nurses.  For a short period I was sent to the front lines, and then was transferred to a field hospital.  When the field hospital was eliminated during the armistice period, I was transferred to a military hospital where I worked with wounded soldiers discharged from the army.

BH: My most difficult task was working with severely wounded soldiers.  The soldiers with whom I worked expressed profound gratitude, respect and love for their nursing care.  For me, especially, there was no greater reward than seeing a soldier who had been severely wounded leave the hospital and resume civilian life again.

BH: I do hope that I had some influence over our children, three of whom are professors of medicine in positions of major responsibility and one who is a Rabbi in New York.  It is gratifying to see that our children all selected caring professions.  My husband and I made a special effort to inculcate in them a love of learning and a passion to be of service to other human beings.

BH: YES!  YES! I would do it all over again, especially today.  Because now I know why.  Then, I just thought it would interest me. I know today that upon graduation one’s education only begins.  To me, medical work is never routine.  Every day is new, new discoveries, new methods of treatment, new medications, new instruments.  So, one never stops learning.  With more work comes more knowledge, and with more knowledge comes more gratification.

* * *

I want to thank my mother for sharing herself and her story, and Allison for helping me learn things about my mother that I didn’t know.

Nurses are the face of our institution and the heart of the patient care experience. We wouldn’t be a premier health system without their skills, dedication and passion for helping others. Across our vast Health System, nurses are making a difference every single day.

Thank you to the mothers, nurses, healers and caregivers who spend each day putting other people’s needs far above their own.


30 thoughts on “Meet Bella Rozencweig Hirsch, Mother & Nurse

  1. It’s amazing, how often she moved from one country to another! Also, how young she was when she made choice for her career. I think, having more options for career also confuses young mind than having fewer options. I liked this story.

  2. Chrissy Crossman on said:

    All I can say is…WOW! What an amazing story. A mother to be proud of. I am sure you couldn’t ask for a better influence!

  3. Ellen on said:

    I appreciated the flow of the questions and your mother’s open and pure responses. While reading I was transistioned to the place of the interview and it was like I was in the room. I could see the way your mom’s smile and eyes light up as she revisted the memories that the questions brought to mind. I could see the children picking flowers and her caring spirit assisting the needy. Thank you all so much for taking the time to share. In our day to day journey We can sometimes forget that this is the reason we chose the professions we did and why we chose to fulfill them here at the “U”. I thank your mom and all nurses around the globe!.

  4. Carol on said:

    Thank you, Ora, for once again inspiring me, and Bella for sharing your fascinating story! Your children are certainly blessed to have you as a mother – and we at U of M are blessed to have your daughter as a leader! And thank you Allison, for putting this together for all of us to share!

  5. lori pimlott on said:

    I was so inspired by her story. I can see why you are so proud and wanted to tell her story. She was so courageous and strong. Thank you for letting us read about your remarkable mother.

  6. Trish on said:

    Once again I am so uplifted by reading one of your inspiring columns! Although I am very busy and do not seem to have time to read all of our emails, I always take time to stop for a moment and read anything from you. You are truly amazing and inspiring and now I am more aware of why. Thanks so much for sharing.

  7. Anonymous on said:

    Nice. I would encourage Bella to do an oral history for her family, a real gift.
    Even in the US in the late 50s the “choices” for women were education and nursing. Now that I think about it, they were good CHOICES.

  8. Katie on said:

    As always Ora you really pull it off! Your a woman of great courage one who does not fear involving herself, her family and her loves. I feel like the institution as a whole has gained significantly because a person of your stature cares so openly. It means so much. God Bless you your mother and family.

  9. Kyle on said:

    What a wonderful and touching piece! Thanks to Bella and Ora for opening themselves up so much; it truly helps others, like me, to see things in my own life too.

  10. Jill Sturm on said:

    What a lovely tribute to moms, nurses, Bella and Ora. Thanks for sharing and affecting our perspective. Jill

  11. Cheryl Bord on said:

    What a refreshing administrator you are, Ora. I continue to be amazed and grateful for your caring and thoughtful behaviors. Thank you, and your mother, for sharing this with us.

  12. Anonymous on said:

    Bella has provided many gifts to many people throughout her career and continues to do so for all of us. Blessings to you, Ora and your family.

  13. Lynn S. on said:

    Your mother was beautiful, both inside and out. What a lovely story. The world needs more Bella Hirschs. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Julie Hanley on said:

    Thank you for this wonderful piece. It made my Mother’s Day and my Nurses Week. I am grateful to your mother for enabling us to have such an inspiring leader.

  15. Karen on said:

    Beautiful story about a beautiful person. I have to wonder if she helped deliver my husband’s aunt and uncle who were born in one of the displaced person’s camps in Germany. Small world. What an inspiring person. Thanks for sharing.

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