“What is it to you?”
That was the question the woman was asking me, while we stood on the rooftop of a Brooklyn apartment building enjoying a cookout and celebrating the release of my first book. She had just been introduced to me as someone important in the Holocaust community (I won’t say how) and her response to the fact that I had just co-authored a book with a Holocaust survivor left me stunned.
It had never occurred to me that the Holocaust was something that was private or unshared by the rest of the world. In fact, one of the reasons Rena—the women I wrote Rena’s Promise about—wanted to tell her story was so she didn’t have to bear it alone anymore. She hoped that by telling her story the pain of her experience would lessen, and it did. It is through sharing our stories and through empathetic listeners that pain and horror is validated and in that way the pain and horror can shift from being solely a personal burden. That is the purpose of Holocaust Remembrance Days and Weeks—it is a chance for us to touch history and honor its place in our lives. It is a chance for us to remind ourselves of the importance of preserving our humanity.
Yom Hashoah is about the martyrs and the heroes of the Holocaust. This is important because there are many tiny heroic acts that have never been recognized, as well as well publicized ones—the Polish woman who snuck two potatoes and two hard boiled eggs to a prisoner on the Death March is remembered alongside the King of Denmark who rescued 7,200 of his Jewish citizens. If we take anything away from these heroic acts it is the reminder that to act with humanity takes moral courage. For those in war torn countries courage is required on a daily basis, but those of us living in less violent societies also have opportunities to challenge ourselves and our humanity, and we do that by seeing our commonality and our connection to other people, despite their cultural heritage, religious belief, gender or sexual preference. Rena, who survived over three years in the camps, was always the first person to defend the downtrodden because she knew how important the tiniest act of kindness in effect acknowledges another’s humanity. The potato the Polish woman snuck to Rena and her sister, gave them the courage to continue not only because it gave them physical nourishment but because it gave them spiritual sustenance.
“What is it to me?” I repeated the question and smiled at the woman standing in front of me. “I am a woman. I am a human being.”
The following is a brief remembrance of Rena’s three years in Auschwitz-Birkenau, sparked by a trip the author made recently to retrace Rena’s journey on the first transports to Auschwitz in March of 1942. For a complete timeline of Rena’s experiences, along with other educational resources, please visit http://www.renaspromise.com/.
March 24, 1942
Bratislava to Poprad: We pass into the mountains, skirting pine forested hillsides and lumber yards. A ruined castle perches on the side of a rocky crevasse. Towns and villages of gold, periwinkle blue, cream and rust colored terra cotta houses with steep red roofs sit on the flat plains. The fields are the color of worn out soil—bisque and pale green. Nothing is blooming yet. The air is cool, the sun bright and hard. We pass a horse and cart making its way along the roadside. Sometimes this landscape could be 1942. But it is not…
It is March 24, 2014 and 72 years ago on this day, my little Rena—Rifka Kornreichova—was turning herself in to go to a Nazi work camp. She was going to give up everything she owned—her warm coat, her mother’s wedding ring, her fiancé—to help her family out and go to the work camp. No one knew what Auschwitz was in 1942. For the young women being asked to go to work camp by the authorities, there was no question in their minds that they were doing the right thing: “we would help our families by going…we wanted to help our families.”
On the night of March 24, 1942, 999 Young Jewish Women were either on their way to Poprad Slovakia already on the First Mass Transport to be registered in Auschwitz or they were spending their last night as home with their families. In the morning they would kiss and hug the Mamas and Papas, sisters and brothers and cousins good-bye and get into a cattle car, thinking they were heading to work camp in order to help their parents. They would travel for 24-hours to Poland and disembark to a place even the Nazis called hell on earth. But first they had to get there.
April 2, 1942
Rena, woman #1716 in Auschwitz, had been in camp for one week today. In those first seven days, she has lost her dignity through shaving, starvation, being tattooed and referred to as a number instead of by her name. She has been beaten by her Room Elder, she has found her sister Danka on the second transport, and she has witnessed Russian POWs being executed outside the boarded up block windows of Block 10.
August 7, 1942:
A start is made to move female prisoners out of the main camp to Birkenau. After morning roll call, the women are lined up in work columns and taken to Camp B-1a in Birkenau. From #1716, Rena Kornreich Gelissen:
Wait! We’ve turned. We are moving away from Auschwitz.
Voices murmur through our ranks. We march. This is a change to our routine. The unknown is dangerous. Eyes vigilant, senses alert, we march away from Auschwitz, away from the walls and watchtowers. The sun sets. There are fences and more barbed wire towering before us. We march under a different gate with the same sign, ARBEIT MACHT FREI. We are not fooled. We stand in neat rows of five. Get counted. Emma and Erika and the other kapos go to their new blocks. They have moved with us to this new camp.
We stand in the dark getting counted. We are assigned to Block Twenty, or is it Twenty-Two? It is dark when we step inside.
The floor is dirt. There are no bunk beds here; there are shelves, wood planks, three tiers high. We are supposed to sleep here? Where are the mattresses? Our beds look like horse stalls. There is a sour smell of human odor. There are rags for blankets. We stand, squeezing our bread in our hands, unable to cope, unable to move.
A girl begins to cry. Like fire in a stable her fear grabs us, and like dried straw we burn inside. Tears cannot quench these flames of disaster. We are lost. This is Birkenau.
September 4, 1943
Rena #1716 has been in Birkenau for over one year. The women were moved to Birkenau in August of 1942. Those who have survived that first year in Birkenau faced not only selections in the thousands, dangerous work details, and starvation, but they faced a Typhus epidemic that was even killing SS Officers. Originally, Rena thought of calling her book Luck and Miracles in Auschwitz because, when it really comes down to it, surviving Birkenau for over a year could not be explained in any other way. People like the kapo, Emma, the Polish lads who smuggled quinine to them, and so on, made all of the difference. But there was always that thin thread of luck that made life feel like a miracle.
May 2, 1945
Rena #1716 and her sister Danka, from the 1st and 2nd transports to Auschwitz, are liberated by the 82nd Airborne, who freed them from their last camp on May 2 1945, after 3 years in Auschwitz, the death march and 2 subsequent camps. It was on this day for the next 60 years that Rena’s husband would present her with a bouquet of red and white carnations (the color of the Polish flag) to celebrate the anniversary of her freedom. In Rena’s words:
Across the road is a men’s camp of Italian political prisoners. “Not much longer! Not much longer!” they shout as we walk by. We do not have a radio in camp; the news of the world has been cut off from us. We stare at these wild-eyed men; they do not look crazy, just desperate for freedom. “Not much longer! Not much longer!” Can they be right? How long is not much longer?
“Maybe the Italians are right and it won’t be long now,” Danka says. “Maybe we’ll be freed soon.”
“Maybe.” No one really believes it, though….
At eleven o’clock the Italians from the prison camp down the road shout outside our fences: “We’re free!”
Suddenly we are on the road. We blink, unable to believe our eyes. Soldiers dressed in dark green and olive, Russian and American soldiers are coming toward us.
“We’re free!” We hug each other, crying. “We are free!”
Heather Dune Macadam is the co-author of Rena’s Promise: A Story of Two Sisters in Auschwitz. For more on Rena’s Promise please visit http://www.renaspromise.com/ where you can find a Historic Timeline about the first women in Auschwitz, and free innovative curriculum for teaching and writing about the Holocaust.