by Heather Dune Macadam
Co-author of Rena's Promise
Among the first 999 Jewish girls on the first transport brought into
Auschwitz on March 26, 1942, was twenty-one year old Rena Kornreich-the
seven hundred and sixteenth woman in that infamous death camp. "This
is the first registered transport sent to the camp [They begin numbering
them at 1,000]." (Czech, 148). On the other side of the wall, temporarily
built to separate the men's and women's camps in Auschwitz I, were Polish
Gentiles imprisoned for their political or religious beliefs and Russian
POW's. Birkenau, later to become the women's camp, was used to house the
Russian soldiers who were executed on an almost nightly basis in Block
Eleven (The Block of Death). According to a note one Polish prisoner smuggled
to Rena, "12,000 Russian soldiers were here when we came. 5,000 are
left.... Your clothes are their uniforms."
Rena had seen enough of war in occupied Poland, where she was from,
to know a little of what to expect from her oppressors. Yet, she was still
unable to fathom their relentless cruelty.
"How are we going to find our suitcases later?" I figure I'm
a human being, I have a right to ask. "Get in line and shut up!"
he yells in my face, pointing his gun at me. The hair on my skin bristles.
He doesn't see that I am human.
Two days after the first transport, Danka, Rena's younger sister, followed
Rena to camp where, together, they spent the next three years of their
young lives as slaves to the Third Reich.
The purpose of art, in my opinion, is to take us places where we have
never been before. And whether it is in reality or imagination that we
journey to Auschwitz the excursion is always valid. Rena's Promise is an
artistic attempt to not only provide facts but to transport our readers
into the immediate circumstances of survival and further than that, into
Mama, I brought you the baby back. I repeat it over and over in my head.
It is the refrain to the song that keeps me strong and healthy and spirited:
Mama, I brought you the baby back. My one great feat in life, my fate,
is to survive this thing and return triumphant with my sister to our parents'
house. My dream cannot be marred by German whips or chains or rules. I
will succeed because I have no other choice. Failure does not even occur
to me, We may die in the interim-death cannot be avoided here-but even
that will not dissuade me from my sole purpose in life. Nothing else matters
but these four things: be with Danka, be invisible, be alert, be numb.
Women's accounts of the Holocaust are rare, but until Rena's Promise
there has been no other book written by a survivor from the first transport
of women. And for that reason alone she is historically important. There
is very little information about the first transport of women and only
vague footnotes mentioning it in the history books. Male survivors testimonies
are far more published, than women's accounts yet the fact remains that
the first transport was not men but girls on the verge of womanhood. "...Racism's
'logic' ultimately entails genocide....Any consistent Nazi plan had to
target Jewish women specifically as women, for they were the only ones
who would finally be able to ensure the continuity of Jewish life. Indeed,
although the statistical data about the Holocaust will never be exact,
there is sound evidence that the odds for surviving the Holocaust were
worse for Jewish women than for Jewish men" (Rittner and Roth, 2).
This point is painfully obvious when one takes a look at even a few
of the daily entries from The Auschwitz Chronicle. If anyone doubts the
genocide perpetrated upon the victims of the Third Reich they need only
look at the systematic coldness recorded in the Nazi's daily records. "June
8 ...880 Jewish men, women and children...arrive in an RSHA transport
from Greece. Admitted to the camp following the selection are 220 men,
given Nos. 124325-124544, and 88 women, given Nos. 45995-46082. The other
572 deportees are killed in the gas chambers" (Czech, 415).
There is a rumor that Auschwitz is going to be used just for men again.
We are going to be moved to Birkenau. There are other rumors of a gas chamber
and a crematorium. "What is Birkenau?" We do not believe the
other rumors, they were started by the Germans to dishearten us.
From "March to mid-August 1942...about 17,000 women prisoners,
most of them Jews, arrived at Auschwitz. A large number of them (probably
5,000) perished before the transfer of women to the camp at Birkenau"
(Strezelecka, 401, 394).
...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.
Rena and Danka survived Birkenau for over a year when selections of
20,000 women might leave camp almost empty... only to be full again the
following evening. It was Mengele himself that chose Rena and her sister
for the SS laundry, which removed them from Birkenau with the advent of
their second winter. In the SS laundry Rena and Danka were relatively safe
from the mass selections that plagued the prisoners of Birkenau but receiving
something as innocent as a note or a secret piece of sausage could still
mean death. During the summer of 1944, Rena's job was to hang the laundry
out to dry; it was during this time that she had several unique encounters
with Irma Grese, one of the most notorious villains in the Auschwitz Complex
(she was one of the only women executed for war crimes).
"You know what's going to happen when the war is over and we've
conquered the world?" [Wardress Grese asks.] "No, I don't."
My skin grows cold despite the blazing sun. "All of you Jews will
be sent to Madagascar." She doesn't use a mean tone of voice, she
just says it matter-of-factly, as if she knows that without a doubt this
is the way it will be. "You'll be slaves for the rest of your life.
You will work in factories all day long and be sterilized so you can never
have children." ...There is a roaring in my ears, a train rushing
through my head. Why don't I just die right now if I'm going to be a slave
for the rest of my life? I stumble blindly from her voice, fighting the
dryness stinging my eyes. What's the point of going on if this is all there
is? I hide my face between clean white undershirts and shorts. I want to
tear them off their lines and scream at the encroaching clouds darkening
the sky above us. I want to end it all, make the endless monotony cease...
make everything stop. I want to sleep forever and never wake up. Then I
hear myself saying, Come on Rena, you don't even know if you're going to
survive tomorrow-why worry beyond that?
There was a blizzard on the night of January 18, 1945, when Rena and
her sister left Auschwitz for the first and last time, but it was not to
mean freedom. For six days and 60 kilometers they were forced on the death
march to Wodzislaw Slaski where they were then loaded into coal cars and
taken into the interior of Germany. The rest of the war was spent digging
ditches against the allies and burying their own comrades who had starved
or been beaten to death. Then, on May 2, 1945, the Russian and American
troops met in the middle of Germany and Rena and her sister were finally
"We're free!" We hug each other, crying. "We are free!"
My heart is a stone in a river of tears.
I am always amazed by Rena. Her ability to laugh and tell jokes. She
is a gift of life and memory, and what a memory. And despite all of the
tragedy she has witnessed she maintains her spirit and good humor. That
is often the thing that amazes me most. She does not get caught in the
unanswerable question-the why's and how's-of Auschwitz; that would be suicide
or worse insanity. And perhaps that is why she can remember with such brutal
clarity. A student from Brown University asked her how she dealt with the
trauma of Auschwitz psychologically and her answer was, "I started
having babies." What better way to cope with death than to make new
A Buddhist Monk and dear friend went to Auschwitz in 1996 on a pilgrimage
in honor of Rena Gelissen. There he lit candles to her parents and delivered
a message to them from their daughter, "Dear Mama and Papa, I love
you. I'm so sorry we were parted too soon." His journey to the camps
affected him deeply and upon his return he shared this sentiment, "The
ghosts of Auschwitz demand that we live our lives to their fullest potentials.
Take every moment and squeeze the juices out of it. That is what they want,
not revenge. They want us to light candles and pray but also to dance and
celebrate life." Is that the real challenge of Auschwitz? To have
not only the courage to remember but to embrace life rather than death?
It is hard for every survivor to cope with their memories and despite
her fortitude, a year after her story was published she called, crying.
"I thought it would go away." She wept. "I thought the memories
would go away." No one can take that past away from Rena or any Holocaust
survivor, as much as they wish we could make their nightmares fade. We
can listen to them though, and share their pain. Perhaps that is the way
to lessen the burdens of the past, and in that way we let these remarkable
survivors know that they are not alone. By listening we give them hope
that their stories will continue through the generations and never die.
Rena's story of survival reveals the power of relationships between
sisters, men and women, Gentiles and Jews. It is love which gives them
the will to endure unimaginable circumstances-it is that same love and
courage that allows Rena to share her story with others. Her mission is
to share her experience along with her message-Shalom to all people.
If we can let Auschwitz teach us how to live then those six million
and more deaths will not be for naught. Auschwitz is our world's shared
human history (it is not only for Europeans to learn from, it is for all
of us to take to heart) only then can we learn that hatred is meaningless.
- Heather Dune Macadam, Co-author of Rena's Promise, A Story of Sisters
in Auschwitz, Beacon Press, USA; Orion House, UK; also in translation in
German and Japanese.