Updated: Nov 21, 2021
The year was 1977, my second year in New York City. I was 21 years-old , attending Manhattan School of Music, and making an extra buck playing voice lessons for a venerable old Italian voice teacher, “Ms. De Simone”, at the northeast corner of Broadway and 71st Street (“The Dorilton”). One of her students was a lovely 50-year old blonde called Nina Polan (Janina Katelbach). The first time I played for her lesson she sang an old operetta tune called “O, Mein Papa”. Halfway through, Nina broke out sobbing… She graciously apologized, explaining that her father, Tadeusz Katelbach, had died a few months before.
Nina, circa 1977
Little did I know this woman would become my “honorary mother”, best friend, confidant, and most devoted fan. I miss her madly to this day, and barely a day goes by that I don’t think of her.
Nina also became an honorary mother-in-law to my wife Adriana and honorary grandmother to my daughter Sofía, but our relationship was also very fruitful in the professional, artistic field.
Pablo & Sofía Zinger & Nina, late 90's
Soon after that initial meeting, Nina asked me to play several concerts, at the Kosciuszko Foundation, Carnegie Recital Hall (now Weill Hall), etc. Besides her talents as a director, producer and actress, Nina was also an enthusiastic and gifted singer, who brought her acting talents into the music she interpreted. Our efforts together included many a concert, but also an LP we recorded together in Brooklyn. Through our 37 years of friendship, we played numerous shows in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Washington, and in Poland, which I visited in at least 4 tours with the organization she led until her death, the Polish Theatre Institute. We visited the international festival of Polish theaters abroad in Rzeszów, as well as Kraków, Warszawa and many other cities, including my mother’s native city, Lwów (formerly Lemberg under the Austro-Hungarian Empire and presently L’viv in Ukraine).
Our repertoire included everything from Moniuszko’s lovely opera “Verbum Nobile” to “Kabaret Wielka Trojka” in a long tour of Galicja. The tours were a lovely artistic experience, an opportunity for me to familiarize with Poland and its culture and to exercise my primitive Polish language skills (Gdzie jest toaleta?, Woda mineralna gazowana, prosze.). Accidents with cast, transportation and terrible theater conditions were frequent, but Nina was a force of nature, gifted with limitless patience and determination, and an optimistic sense that if you push ahead long enough, you will make it through.
Nina with musicians circa 1950
Nina, who left Poland in 1939 when she was barely a 12-year old, escaped with her family through France, Spain and Portugal, ending up in war-torn England, where she received most of her higher education, including her years at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA), where she was a classmate of people like John Gielgud. She spoke English with a perfect “Middle of the Atlantic” accent, and acted Shakespeare and “mainstream” theatre with many a company in the USA. She was a proud, liberal “American”, but also a proud Pole, as I reminded her often. During one of our rare arguments, I reminded her that she was a “Polish patriot”, which she, for some reason, denied. She defended Poland and Poles at every occasion possible, and fought passionately against prejudices against them, including “Polish jokes”.
Southampton, circa 1980 Brooklyn, 2002
Most importantly, she represented Polish culture proudly through the Polish Theatre Institute, presenting numerous plays and shows that ranged from the Middle Ages to the late 20th. Century, music from folksongs and Xmas carols to Chopin, Paderewski, Moniuszko, Szymanowski, Niewadomski and Karłowicz, tragedies, political and historical shows, shows for children and everything in between.
Moreover, Nina had a widely ecumenical vision of casting; her shows included me, a Polish-Ukrainian-Uruguayan-Jewish-American musical director/pianist, as well as actor/singers from Puerto Rico, Japan, South Africa, USA, Russia and Uzbekistan!
Nina was generous to all around her, a true friend who helped all who needed it, when they needed it, with unbound generosity.
Nina, circa 2005
I miss her dearly, and I am glad that her beloved Polish Theatre Institute survives and continues her work into the future.
New York City, October 26, 2020