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The Holocaust – We Must Remember – Rachel Hager "When They Came to Take My Father"

THE HOLOCAUST: WE MUST REMEMBER 

30-Hour Series of Interviews broadcast on the Roger Fredinburg Radio Program
1-7-1998 Seventh Program in Series
Guests: Heather Macadam and Rena Kornreich Gelissen
RENA’S PROMISE: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz
ISBN-10: 0807070718 and ISBN-13: 978-0807070710
Rena
In this show, Roger Fredinburg interviews Heather Macadam and Rena Kornreich Gellissen about the book: Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz. This is a very moving story about survival from an Auschwitz survivor.
Roger:    Good evening, everyone! Thank you very much for continuing to tune into our continuing saga here. We’ve got several more weeks of The Holocaust series upcoming and we’re getting into a phase of talking with a number of survivors. This is a most difficult task for a talk show host and for the people being interviewed.
Our guest this evening has quite a story to tell, indeed. Not that all survivors don’t; but, this is a rather interesting and intriguing story this evening. I want to read the prologue to the book to start out and then I’ll introduce our guest.
“I touched the scar on the left forearm just below the elbow. I had the tattoo surgically removed.   There were so many people who didn’t know and so many questions: “What do those numbers mean?” “Is that your address?” “Is that your phone number?”
What was I supposed to say?   “That was my name for three years and forty-one days?”
One day a kind doctor offered to remove it for me. “This is not charity,” he assured me. “It’s the least I can do as an American Jew. You were there, I was not.”
So I chose to have the questions excised from my arm; but, not my mind –that can never be erased. This piece of skin the doctor surgically removed rests in a jar of formaldehyde which has turned the flesh to an eerie green. The tattoo has probably faded by now, I haven’t checked. I need no reminders. I know who I am. I know what I was.
I was on the first Jewish transport to Auschwitz. I was number 1716.”
With that, I’d like to welcome Rena Kornreich Gelissen to the program. Rena, welcome to the show!
Rena G: Thank you.
Roger: It’s a pleasure to have you here.
Rena G:  I’m happy to be here. I’m just sorry my voice is a little bit hoarse.
Roger:  We’ll put up with it! Ha, ha, ha!     I also want to introduce Heather Dune Macadam who is the author of the book. Heather, you wrote the book for Rena, is that right?
Heather M:   Yes. I worked with Rena for about nine months, interviewing her. The confusion tends to come from the choice I made to tell her story in first person, present tense. It’s confusing for some people reading it because they feel she wrote the book. I call it “method writing”. We became extremely close and I listened to her with my heart and with my soul and my mind. There were moments when she definitely came through my fingers as I was writing her story. Anybody who speaks several languages knows their spoken word is always different than the written word. Rena speaks fluently in about four or five languages; but, writing in English was much more difficult that speaking in English for her. So, she used me as her instrument.
Roger:   That’s wonderful! Rena, the book is titled, “Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz”. What I would like you to do is talk a little bit about your childhood, where you grew up and your family, please.
Rena G:   I come from an Orthodox Jewish family in a little town in Poland called Tylicz. We had a small farm. There were two older sisters before us; one was already in the United States – she left when I was a baby, the other one was in Poland living near us. The youngest one was my sister, Danka, two years younger than I was. We sort of grew up as just two sisters because the other ones were a lot older.   My oldest sister was sixteen years older and the other sister was fourteen years older than I was.
So, I was together with Danka at home when the war started, September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s army marched into my hometown, Tylicz. My hometown was only about 2-1/2 miles from the Czechoslovakian border. Because of the annexation, Hitler’s army was already in Czechoslovakia. They came in the middle of the night and attacked Poland and the suffering started.
Roger:   Now, how old were you when this happened?
Rena G:  When the Germans marched in I was nineteen and my sister, Danka, was seventeen. We escaped to Czechoslovakia, both of us. My mother heard rumors they were taking Jewish girls to the military compound and raping them and she said she didn’t want to risk this happening to her daughters. I didn’t want to leave them alone because they were elderly people and they were helpless. I was young and strong and I wanted to stay with them; but, Mama’s wishes had to be fulfilled because she said, “If you don’t go, then I will go away and you will never see me again.”
So we had no choice.
A guide came with a sled in December and brought us both to Czechoslovakia. I don’t know how much you want me to tell about Czechoslovakia?
Roger: Just tell your story, Rena.
Rena G: I was staying with a family in Bratislava and my sister was staying with another family in Bratislava. She was nanny to a little boy with a Jewish family. I was with another Jewish family who took me in because they knew what was going on in Poland and they thought what was going in Czechoslovakia was a lot better because of the annexation, Hitler’s army, the Nazis treated the Jews in Czechoslovakia a lot better. That’s what Mama thought; it was going to be better that we escape. We had relatives there in a small town; but, we went to a big city because it was easier to hide us, being foreigners. The first time we escaped to Czechoslovakia I stayed six months and learned the Czechoslovakian language, so I knew already Slovakian, and my sister, Danka, too. We both escaped one time.
This was our second escape. She was in the big city there and I was, too. The people who I stayed with, the Jewish family, heard some rumors they were going to pick up young Jewish girls and bring them to a work camp for forced labor. They decided to contact a family in a small town in Czechoslovakia, the town is called Hummene. They decided there was a family who may take me in there. Maybe in a small town it may be easier to hide, or something like this.
Ironically, when I came to the small town about a year later, by that time it was 1941, it was the first town the Nazi SS decided to take to Auschwitz. There they took 999 young women from Czechoslovakia and I was one of them. They were picking up Jewish girls from their homes if they were between 17-19 and 21-22 years. That’s where it started. I gave myself up because I was with a young family – I was mostly a nanny to their little five-year old daughter. They were very nice and kind to me. Then they took (unintelligible) from Hitler’s army, from the Nazis. If anybody had a foreigner, it was martial law from now on. There were big signs everywhere in the building. Martial law means if you’re hiding a foreigner, then the person that you are hiding will be killed on the spot, there will be no arresting, no punishment or anything, you’re just going to be dead! And any family keeping a foreigner is just going to be killed!
By that time I was 21 years old and I certainly understood what it meant — a young family with a five-year old girl that I loved very much—and she loved me, too.   They didn’t want me to go, to give myself up. We foreigners were supposed to give ourselves up to a military compound. They didn’t want me to go. When they left to go shopping with their little girl, I sneaked out after I quickly wrote a letter to my little sister. I had a fiance there since my first trip and I wrote him a letter telling him I had to go because there was no choice.
I went to the military compound and gave myself up thinking I’m going to a working camp. They kept us there the whole night—quite a few other people like me, foreigners. The next morning we were escorted by two SS men to the train. No, first they took me back to the family I stayed with and told me I could pack as much stuff as I wanted to take with me. So, I did. I packed my suitcase, I didn’t have so much; but, I did have some belongings to take with me. They took me to the train station. I didn’t see a train, all I could see was cattle cars. All the young girls and we discovered we were the ones to go in the cattle cars. That was the first beginning of being taken to Auschwitz.
I arrived at Auschwitz six days later. It was March 26, 1941.
1389.4 Holocaust B
Roger:   Describe your first day at Auschwitz to me, if you could, please? What was the routine?
Rena G:  From the beginning when we arrived?
Roger: Yes.
Heather M: If I may interject here, it was 1942.
Rena G:   Sorry, sorry, I’m a little bit nervous!
Heather M: That’s okay! It does get confusing.
Rena G: She knows the dates very well.
Heather M: She has an amazing memory!
Roger: Yes, the first day, Rena.
Rena G:  We arrived there first on the cattle cars there was standing room only because there are no seats in a cattle car. So we stood the whole time, six days, no food, no drink–nothing at all! We had our suitcases with us; but we couldn’t even sit on our suitcases because there was no room, that’s how packed it was—between 80-100 people in one cattle car.
On the way there somebody asked, “Is somebody here from Poland?” At first I was very absent-minded and miserable seeing what was going on in that cattle car. It didn’t register right away, I didn’t hear it. Then I said, “I am Polish.” The man said, “We are going to take you off and see where you are going to.” We didn’t know which country were in. “Could you read the station names, maybe?” So I saw the signs were in the Polish language-I was reading the Polish name for Auschwitz.
When we arrived there in Auschwitz, the doors opened up and we had to jump down about five feet with the suitcase in our hands. After spending six days standing, our knees almost broke when we did that!   We were standing there with the suitcases and we were told to put the suitcases in one pile by six SS men standing there in beautiful shiny boots with rifles and guns. We were supposed to line up. There were some elderly people there with us, too. The young people, all of us young girls, the 999 they took from Hummene were supposed to line up in rows of five.
I studied the German language when I went to Hebrew school and I thought I could speak German. I walked up to one of the officers and said, “How are we going to find our suitcases if we have to throw them in that pile?”   He told me, “Shut up and get in line!” So, I had a pretty good idea when I looked at them, I said, “Oh boy! This is not going to be a work camp!” It’s horrible to say that the people that you’re taking for work — not giving them food the whole time, nothing to drink — if you’re want somebody to work, you feed them if they have to work, even if it’s forced labor. Anyway, I put the suitcase down and then they marched us into camp.
Over the gate in the camp next to us was the mens’ camp. They made a temporary station, a wall separating the men’s camp (from the women’s side ?). They had buildings called blocks, numbered from 1 to 24, with 12 on one side of the wall with the electrical high-power wire and the rest on the other side. We marched in there and we had to stand in rows of eighteen. One row was going into the first building, block 2, and we had to go in from the back. I wasn’t in that first row. Other girls were going in there and then coming out the front door to line up again to stand up for roll call.
When we were standing there, some of the girls went in. Then we saw people coming out. We thought that these people looked crazy; they had shaved heads and junky uniforms, just a piece of wood on the foot with leather straps that was supposed to be a shoe. It was March and it was snowing and raining a little bit at the same time.   Then I heard one of those girls shouting to her sister, “They took away everything from us! It’s me, it’s me!”she said to her sister.
We got terrified! We thought at first it looked like mentally retarded people! I said, “Why would take mentally retarded people to a concentration camp?”   They were our girls; but, that’s what they looked like, with shaved heads, wood strapped on for shoes, wearing uniforms with no buttons on it, they were holding onto the pants and the jacket at the same time!
They took away our jewelry, too. I had earrings. One of the girls was shouting, “Get rid of it, just shove it into the mud or something, don’t give it to them.” So, I took off my watch, I forgot I was wearing earrings; but, I took off my watch and shoved it into the dirt.”
When we went in they registered us. When they asked me where I was from, I said, “Poland.” So they put down “Polish” and they understood that I was Gentile so they gave me a Red Triangle because the Yellow Star was for the Jewish people and they thought I was Polish. I was the only Polish girl there on the transport because it had come from Czechoslovakia, not Poland. So they put down just the nationality.
They told us to take off our clothes and fold them neatly in bundles and to tie the shoes together if they had shoelaces. Then they started processing us; shaving our heads and all bodily hair and dumping us in disinfecting wash tubs, old-fashioned wooden ones. After this we were supposed to march in another room where there were piles and piles of uniforms. We had no idea what kind of uniforms they were because we didn’t see the insignia on them anymore, some of them were without buttons. We were supposed to be putting on these uniforms. We were all naked, no underwear, nothing at all, just the uniform on the naked body – and a piece of wood with a leather strap for the feet! We started with each other; some of us were taller, some short, and the pants were too long, so it was really chaos! We were terrified, and still without food and without drinking! Then they marched us outside for roll call.
After this they, with the group that I was in, put us in Block 5. When they came into the room on the 2nd floor – there were two floors in the building— they came into the room and locked the door on the outside. We were still without food or anything. Then we saw straw lying on the floor, a whole pile of straw. Some of the girls were exhausted and laid down. Then we discovered it was full of bedbugs. Everybody was covered with the bedbugs, faces covered with bedbugs! This was our first introduction to Auschwitz!
We pounded on the door, “Let us out! What did we do?” We were naive. We didn’t have any idea that we (unintelligible).   I already had experience with them in my hometown, when they came in they made us do slave labor already, scrubbing their floors and polishing their boots and doing their laundry; but, I didn’t experience anything like this, being shaved and things. I was wearing my own clothes in my hometown.
In the morning we went on roll call. On the third day they put in another building, Block 10. All the brick buildings were called Blocks and were moved to Block 10 because new transports were coming in every single day. We didn’t go out to work, we just went for roll call in the morning. After roll call we each got a little piece of bread, like 3” x 3”, and a bowl of so-called tea which was a kind of black water they called tea.
In Block 10 the bare straw was not there. There was burlap for cover, stuffed with straw and we were sleeping there on those beds every one of them in three tiers— bunk beds.
Roger: When did you get the tattoo, 1716?
Rena G:   The 2nd day when we came for roll call, we didn’t march out to work yet, so we didn’t know what we were waiting for. We just marched out for roll call. The SS came in and counted us–back into the building–then we had to march again to the mens’ camp. There in the mens’ camp the men were sitting there with needles for tattooing and on the left arm they put the tattoo. Then a couple of days later they gave us material to sew our number on the sleeve of the uniform. 1716 was the number I had to sew on the dress.
Heather M:   A note here, they started numbering the Jewish women at 1000 because on the same day, March 26, 1942 — this footnote comes out of the “Auschwitz Chronicle” which was compiled by Danuta Czech. It is a day-by-day accounting of everything that happened at Auschwitz from 1939-1945. One of the footnotes that is in the book states that 999 German women classified as A-Social, Criminal and a few political prisoners received the numbers 1 to 999. Those women are Capos, who were over the Jewish women…
Rena G: Excuse me for interrupting. They just had the numbers on their clothes.
Heather M: Right.
Rena G: Only Jewish people were tattooed.
Heather M: Right, they were not tattooed. The capos were German prisoners who were put in charge of the Jewish prisoners.
Roger: So, you have your number, you’ve sewed it on your uniform. How large were the blocks?
Rena G: They were pretty large buildings. There was just a big room downstairs and a big room upstairs, maybe 15 ft x 20 ft with all the bunk beds in one row along the side.
Roger: How many girls in one Block?
Rena G: In one Block the first time we came in, all of us on the first transport were divided into four Blocks. One Block was for the newcomers to come in. The groups on the first transport I came with, the 999, we were in two Blocks. We were taken out of Block 5 where they put us on the first day because they needed it for the newcomers, we were staying there on the lower floor and on the second floor.
Roger:   I have to take a commercial break. If you could please hold and be patient, we’ll be right back, ladies and gentlemen, and continue after the break.
COMMERCIAL BREAK
Roger: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back! Our guests this evening are Heather Macadam who wrote the book for Rena Cornreich Gelissen. The book is “Rena’s Promise: The Story of Two Sisters in Auschwitz.”
Rena, I want to go back to those first days in Auschwitz with you. You got a tattoo. Now,you said that you were not identified, at first, as Jewish; but only as Polish.
Rena G: Yes. Later on there were no Polish girls in this camp. Later on they let me have the same number I kept when I had the Red Triangle. But, they still treated me just the same as the other Jews. because the Gentiles, the Polish people, when they came in later, they did not treat in the same way and they did not sleep in the same barracks, in the same buildings. They had separate barracks with a little bit better beds, mattresses and blankets. So, I stayed there but it didn’t change the Triangle.
Roger:  So, it was kind of a class system there in the camp? 
Rena G: Yes.
Roger:   People who were Gentiles got more food and better housing and all that?
Rena G:  Not exactly more food, maybe a little bit more food; but, better treatment and different kind of work. They did not work with us when we marched out to work. This was later when we went to another camp. In the meantime…..
… I neglected to tell you, I should have explained probably, that the title, “Rena’s Promise,” the publisher decided on this title. The reason for it is that when my Mama and Papa decided to have a guide, when he came with a sled, they got dressed and they put us into the sled and covered us with blankets because it was snowing, it was December and it was pretty cold. Mama whispered in my ear, “Take care of your little sister,” because she was two years younger. Mama always said “Take care of your little sister,” when we went out to play. I said, “Yes, Mama.”
I didn’t know that there was very little that I could do for her. I did whatever I could; but, Auschwitz wasn’t a place that I could take care of my sister or give her comfort, or protect her from beatings, or give her more food, or anything.   But, I was doing for my sister, whatever I could.
Roger: Trying to keep that promise to your mother.
Rena G: Yes! And, the publisher decided the title of the book should be “Rena’s Promise”.
Roger:  I think the publisher made a good choice. Rena, how long were you at Auschwitz before your sister came?
Rena G: Only three days. On the third day after we went for the tattoo– and it was very painful, too– I shouldn’t have gone anywhere, but, the transports were coming in and I sneaked away looking for air because I was afraid if more people were going to come there’s going to be a big crowd and I wouldn’t recognize her, especially with a shaved head and everything. I might not know who she is, so how could I get her? I wanted to keep her with me, close to me, so I sneaked away instead of going into the Block. The other ones one standing there with the shaved heads, I looked the same as they did because we wore the same uniforms.
On the same day as I had the tattoo, there she was! I recognized her. She had red hair and beautiful brown eyes! So, I recognized my sister! I grabbed her by the hand and said, “Pretend we are important her and we are going into Block 10. We’ll see what happens.” She was shaking and looked at me. At first, she didn’t recognize me. She went into Block 10 and I asked the Block Elder who was dealing out the bread — my sister came from Bratislava, for more than three days without food — I told the Block Elder she was very hungry. She said, “Okay. You help me deal out the bread today, give the portions to everybody and you get an extra portion for your sister.” So, two portions plus an extra portion. I did help with the bread dealing out to everybody and got the extra portion.
Then she started telling me how she was in Czechoslovakia with the Jewish family, how they came to the house picked her up and just took her Auschwitz. She didn’t know where she was. She was for many days on that cattle car, just as we were. They took away everything, too!
I forgot to tell you, I also had earrings in my ears and my sister had, too, Danka. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was giving to all his granddaughters when they were six years old, entering school, giving gold earrings and a little ring with a turquoise stone. When the woman took away the clothes from us and told us to fold the clothes neatly and tie the shoes, I walked away. I forgot I threw the watch outside so I stepped on it and forgot I was wearing these earrings since I was a little girl, since I was six years old. She said, “Get those earrings here or I’m going to tear them off your ears!” So, I took them off and threw them in that bowl they had for all the jewelry. My sister had to do the same thing. When she came out I asked her, “Did you have to take off the earrings yet?”
She said, “Yes, she shouted at me because I didn’t know I had to them off.”
Heather M: Danka’s number was 2779.
Rena G: Yes. I forgot to tell you, when we went for the tattoos — the German woman, the one who came from prison to be our superior, did the shaving, the disinfecting and also the registration, not of our names but just which countries we came from. The same woman was in charge of everything else, the uniforms and what we put on.
While I was in line for my uniform, I forgot to tell you, there was a table on the other side— like, I’m standing in the middle of the room and to the right is going for the uniforms, all stark naked we go and stand for the uniforms! To the left is the so-called doctor standing at a long table. Every girl had to go naked on that table! Naked! He had rubber gloves and he was examining the girls. I was naïve, I had no idea what he was doing! I found out later he was looking in all the crevices of the body for jewelry. There was screaming and crying! It was painful! Instead of going to the left to that table, I decided quickly to go with the naked girls who were already processed from the table, to go with them to the uniforms. So, I cheated them out of that experience! I cheated Hitler out of the first horrible experience, that I wasn’t examined and I didn’t suffer the pain!
When Danka came, I told her to do the same thing. But, they stopped doing it the third day. I don’t know what they were doing later; but, she said she wasn’t exposed to it at all. They didn’t make them go there.
Roger:   What was going through your mind after you settled in there for a few days? Did it begin to seem hopeless immediately or …?
Rena G: Yes, it did! I looked at them and I decided, these are not human beings, these are monsters! They were already pretty bad; they almost shot my father to death while I was still at home, doing all the work for them and the way they treated us! I decided that they’re the enemy; they are the bad people and we are the good people! I’m going to make sure we survive! If I can’t save my sister, I don’t need to live; but, I have to keep the promise to my Mama so I’ll see to it that we stay alive! I tried very hard, both of us tried very hard to stay alive.
One night, we were only there for four days, I heard some shots outside. Danka was already asleep, she was exhausted. We still didn’t go out for detail, for working. We still were in Block 10 and there were windows on the second floor. Through the windows on the second floor we could see over the wall, the wall was shorter than our windows, we could see the Polish men (we found out later that they were Polish) on the other side, from their windows looking out. When Danka came I stood by one of the windows there, opened up, I heard shots at night and I was intrigued by it. I was wondering, did those shots mean that every night or every morning, they were going to shoot us, a couple of us at a time?
The man shouted from the window on the other side, “Anybody from Poland?”   I said, “Yes, I am, my sister and I.” because the rest were all Slovakian Jewish girls. They asked, “What can I do for you?”   I said, “Well, she’s very hungry, with so many days on the train.” We didn’t get much bread here either.   I said, “I have something very important to ask you. I hear shots every night and I’d like to know what it is?   Does that mean they’re shooting so many of us every night, so many of us?”
He said, “No. I’m going to write you a note. Listen, you have one toilet in that building there.   When you get a note from me with the bread I’m going to send for your sister, when you get the note, it will explain to you what the uniforms you are wearing, what the shooting means. You’ll have to flush it down the toilet or if you can’t get rid of the note any other way, just eat it, swallow it.”
Roger:    Rena, I’ve got to take a break here. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about the book, “Rena’s Promise: The Story of Sisters in Auschwitz”.   We’ll be right back.
COMMERCIAL BREAK
Roger:   Welcome back! We’ve got Rena Gelissen and Heather Macadam on with us tonight. Rena, you were talking about the note. Did you get this note? 
Rena G: Yes, I got the note! He told me to destroy it and I gave the bread to my sister because she was very hungry. The note I read. The note explained to me what the shootings were about. There were 12, 000 Russian prisoners of war. The straw I saw in Block 5, the Russian prisoners used to sleep there and that’s why it was full of bedbugs and lice. It said we probably now had it in the uniforms, too. That was true! He said the of the 12, 000 there were about 500 left. Everyday they shoot more of them! The uniforms you are wearing are from the dead Russian prisoners! 
Roger:  Could you see out and around Auschwitz much? Could you see what was going on in the surrounding areas? 
Rena G:   I didn’t see anything but the buildings across from us, the mens’ buildings. When they came back from work in the evening, I saw them from the windows where we looked out. They told me that every day there were shots. When I heard the shots later on, I looked out the window. They bolted up the windows from this side. It was between Block 11 and Block 10. We were in Block 10, the building was Block 10. Block 11 was the Block of Death. It’s still called the Block of Death. 
When I looked out the window, I sneaked out after Danka fell asleep because I didn’t want to scare her, I sneaked out to the window. Between the boards at the top I could see against the wall of Block 11, a soldier standing –in the same uniform I was wearing— with hands up against the wall and under my window I didn’t see anybody; but, I heard the shot and the soldier fell down. I heard the shot and another one fell down,…l and on, and on, it went for the rest…. 
Heather M:  I’d like to add to that. Anybody who visits Auschwitz today, there is a memorial in that spot where Rena witnessed the Russian POWs being murdered. It is right between Block 10, where she was imprisoned when she first came to Auschwitz through August 1942, and Block 11 which is called the Block of Death. There is actually a courtyard between those two blocks and there is a memorial in that area where she witnessed the POWs being executed. 
Roger:  Rena, how long were you in Auschwitz? 
Rena G:   Altogether, when the Russians were coming close in 1945 the Nazis took us as hostages on a Death March.   They were fleeing and they took us on a Death March. The whole thing together; first Auschwitz One which I’m telling you now. Later on they changed I and put us in the fall to Birkenau, where the crematoriums and gas chambers were. Then they took us on the Death March, then they took us to Ravensbruck in Germany, then another camp, Neustadt-Glewe in Germany. On May 2, 1945—by that time it was three years and forty-one days, we were liberated by the 82nd Airborne of the American army. They’re stationed right here in North Carolina where I live. 
Roger:   What kind of work did you do all those years? 
Rena G: Oh, my God! It was digging for planting, somebody else was planting. We were digging the ground and turning it over. Then it was sifting sand, like you do for buildings. They were building more buildings because there were more Jews coming in and some of the younger they were keeping in these buildings. Then we were going out to sift that sand and put it in lorries. I don’t know if you know what a lorry is. 
Heather M:   A wagon. 
Rena G: Yes. Usually they’re put on railroad tracks; but, they made us…four on one side, four on the other side… load us the lorries with sifted sand and bring them to the buildings where the Polish men were building the buildings. They were there as political prisoners and for religious reasons. There were priests ….
Roger:  How big were the gas chambers? 
Rena G: Well, I wasn’t in them, thank God! It was a big building. One time my friend that came from my hometown was assigned where they were sorting the clothes from the gas chamber. Jewish people were supposed–the young kids and the elderly, everyone over 32 or 33 years and under 17 or 18 were all going to the gas chambers.   Their clothes were put in another building where my friend from my hometown was working. They were helping fold and ship them to Germany, all the clothes. 
While I was there that one day, I tried to get into another detail, not working outside. I thought it was kind of hard-working outside and she was under a roof and sometimes she could find some chocolate in the pockets of the Jewish people who were brought into the camp, and sometimes pieces of bread. She suggested that we come in. So Danka and I went in. While I was there I found a coat of my uncle in Czechoslovakia. His name was Yacov and he was a tailor. My aunt had a black persian coat. One of the things I was folding was my aunt’s coat. 
Roger: Oh, boy!   Ladies, we’ve run out of time for this hour. I want to thank you very, very much, Rena. You’ve given us some insight on what it was like that first day. 
Rena G:   I want to thank you because I want people to know because I promised myself in camp, two things; that I’m going to take care of my sister and when I come out alive I’m going to tell the story and world is never going to have a war anymore. But, that didn’t come out exactly, did it? 
Roger: Well, keep working at it! You’ve got a lot of insight and a lot of wisdom. Maybe someone will listen to you! How do people get the book, Heather? 
Heather M: We are being published by Beacon Press in America. It’s available in local bookstores. 
Roger:   Thank you ladies, for sharing your wonderful story.
(Transcription is from MP3 file converted from original cassette with minimal editing by Chey Simonton.
Errors, if any, may be due to unintelligible sections of original 1997 audio technology. Unknown/unintelligible words are spelled phonetically.)
 
 

The Holocaust – We Must Remember – Rachel Hager “When They Came to Take My Father”

THE HOLOCAUST: WE MUST REMEMBER 

30-Hour Series of Interviews broadcast on the Roger Fredinburg Radio Program

1-7-1998 Seventh Program in Series

Guests: Heather Macadam and Rena Kornreich Gelissen

RENA’S PROMISE: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz

ISBN-10: 0807070718 and ISBN-13: 978-0807070710

Rena

In this show, Roger Fredinburg interviews Heather Macadam and Rena Kornreich Gellissen about the book: Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz. This is a very moving story about survival from an Auschwitz survivor.

Roger:    Good evening, everyone! Thank you very much for continuing to tune into our continuing saga here. We’ve got several more weeks of The Holocaust series upcoming and we’re getting into a phase of talking with a number of survivors. This is a most difficult task for a talk show host and for the people being interviewed.

Our guest this evening has quite a story to tell, indeed. Not that all survivors don’t; but, this is a rather interesting and intriguing story this evening. I want to read the prologue to the book to start out and then I’ll introduce our guest.

“I touched the scar on the left forearm just below the elbow. I had the tattoo surgically removed.   There were so many people who didn’t know and so many questions: “What do those numbers mean?” “Is that your address?” “Is that your phone number?”

What was I supposed to say?   “That was my name for three years and forty-one days?”

One day a kind doctor offered to remove it for me. “This is not charity,” he assured me. “It’s the least I can do as an American Jew. You were there, I was not.”

So I chose to have the questions excised from my arm; but, not my mind –that can never be erased. This piece of skin the doctor surgically removed rests in a jar of formaldehyde which has turned the flesh to an eerie green. The tattoo has probably faded by now, I haven’t checked. I need no reminders. I know who I am. I know what I was.

I was on the first Jewish transport to Auschwitz. I was number 1716.”

With that, I’d like to welcome Rena Kornreich Gelissen to the program. Rena, welcome to the show!

Rena G: Thank you.

Roger: It’s a pleasure to have you here.

Rena G:  I’m happy to be here. I’m just sorry my voice is a little bit hoarse.

Roger:  We’ll put up with it! Ha, ha, ha!     I also want to introduce Heather Dune Macadam who is the author of the book. Heather, you wrote the book for Rena, is that right?

Heather M:   Yes. I worked with Rena for about nine months, interviewing her. The confusion tends to come from the choice I made to tell her story in first person, present tense. It’s confusing for some people reading it because they feel she wrote the book. I call it “method writing”. We became extremely close and I listened to her with my heart and with my soul and my mind. There were moments when she definitely came through my fingers as I was writing her story. Anybody who speaks several languages knows their spoken word is always different than the written word. Rena speaks fluently in about four or five languages; but, writing in English was much more difficult that speaking in English for her. So, she used me as her instrument.

Roger:   That’s wonderful! Rena, the book is titled, “Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz”. What I would like you to do is talk a little bit about your childhood, where you grew up and your family, please.

Rena G:   I come from an Orthodox Jewish family in a little town in Poland called Tylicz. We had a small farm. There were two older sisters before us; one was already in the United States – she left when I was a baby, the other one was in Poland living near us. The youngest one was my sister, Danka, two years younger than I was. We sort of grew up as just two sisters because the other ones were a lot older.   My oldest sister was sixteen years older and the other sister was fourteen years older than I was.

So, I was together with Danka at home when the war started, September 1, 1939, when Hitler’s army marched into my hometown, Tylicz. My hometown was only about 2-1/2 miles from the Czechoslovakian border. Because of the annexation, Hitler’s army was already in Czechoslovakia. They came in the middle of the night and attacked Poland and the suffering started.

Roger:   Now, how old were you when this happened?

Rena G:  When the Germans marched in I was nineteen and my sister, Danka, was seventeen. We escaped to Czechoslovakia, both of us. My mother heard rumors they were taking Jewish girls to the military compound and raping them and she said she didn’t want to risk this happening to her daughters. I didn’t want to leave them alone because they were elderly people and they were helpless. I was young and strong and I wanted to stay with them; but, Mama’s wishes had to be fulfilled because she said, “If you don’t go, then I will go away and you will never see me again.”

So we had no choice.

A guide came with a sled in December and brought us both to Czechoslovakia. I don’t know how much you want me to tell about Czechoslovakia?

Roger: Just tell your story, Rena.

Rena G: I was staying with a family in Bratislava and my sister was staying with another family in Bratislava. She was nanny to a little boy with a Jewish family. I was with another Jewish family who took me in because they knew what was going on in Poland and they thought what was going in Czechoslovakia was a lot better because of the annexation, Hitler’s army, the Nazis treated the Jews in Czechoslovakia a lot better. That’s what Mama thought; it was going to be better that we escape. We had relatives there in a small town; but, we went to a big city because it was easier to hide us, being foreigners. The first time we escaped to Czechoslovakia I stayed six months and learned the Czechoslovakian language, so I knew already Slovakian, and my sister, Danka, too. We both escaped one time.

This was our second escape. She was in the big city there and I was, too. The people who I stayed with, the Jewish family, heard some rumors they were going to pick up young Jewish girls and bring them to a work camp for forced labor. They decided to contact a family in a small town in Czechoslovakia, the town is called Hummene. They decided there was a family who may take me in there. Maybe in a small town it may be easier to hide, or something like this.

Ironically, when I came to the small town about a year later, by that time it was 1941, it was the first town the Nazi SS decided to take to Auschwitz. There they took 999 young women from Czechoslovakia and I was one of them. They were picking up Jewish girls from their homes if they were between 17-19 and 21-22 years. That’s where it started. I gave myself up because I was with a young family – I was mostly a nanny to their little five-year old daughter. They were very nice and kind to me. Then they took (unintelligible) from Hitler’s army, from the Nazis. If anybody had a foreigner, it was martial law from now on. There were big signs everywhere in the building. Martial law means if you’re hiding a foreigner, then the person that you are hiding will be killed on the spot, there will be no arresting, no punishment or anything, you’re just going to be dead! And any family keeping a foreigner is just going to be killed!

By that time I was 21 years old and I certainly understood what it meant — a young family with a five-year old girl that I loved very much—and she loved me, too.   They didn’t want me to go, to give myself up. We foreigners were supposed to give ourselves up to a military compound. They didn’t want me to go. When they left to go shopping with their little girl, I sneaked out after I quickly wrote a letter to my little sister. I had a fiance there since my first trip and I wrote him a letter telling him I had to go because there was no choice.

I went to the military compound and gave myself up thinking I’m going to a working camp. They kept us there the whole night—quite a few other people like me, foreigners. The next morning we were escorted by two SS men to the train. No, first they took me back to the family I stayed with and told me I could pack as much stuff as I wanted to take with me. So, I did. I packed my suitcase, I didn’t have so much; but, I did have some belongings to take with me. They took me to the train station. I didn’t see a train, all I could see was cattle cars. All the young girls and we discovered we were the ones to go in the cattle cars. That was the first beginning of being taken to Auschwitz.

I arrived at Auschwitz six days later. It was March 26, 1941.

1389.4 Holocaust B

Roger:   Describe your first day at Auschwitz to me, if you could, please? What was the routine?

Rena G:  From the beginning when we arrived?

Roger: Yes.

Heather M: If I may interject here, it was 1942.

Rena G:   Sorry, sorry, I’m a little bit nervous!

Heather M: That’s okay! It does get confusing.

Rena G: She knows the dates very well.

Heather M: She has an amazing memory!

Roger: Yes, the first day, Rena.

Rena G:  We arrived there first on the cattle cars there was standing room only because there are no seats in a cattle car. So we stood the whole time, six days, no food, no drink–nothing at all! We had our suitcases with us; but we couldn’t even sit on our suitcases because there was no room, that’s how packed it was—between 80-100 people in one cattle car.

On the way there somebody asked, “Is somebody here from Poland?” At first I was very absent-minded and miserable seeing what was going on in that cattle car. It didn’t register right away, I didn’t hear it. Then I said, “I am Polish.” The man said, “We are going to take you off and see where you are going to.” We didn’t know which country were in. “Could you read the station names, maybe?” So I saw the signs were in the Polish language-I was reading the Polish name for Auschwitz.

When we arrived there in Auschwitz, the doors opened up and we had to jump down about five feet with the suitcase in our hands. After spending six days standing, our knees almost broke when we did that!   We were standing there with the suitcases and we were told to put the suitcases in one pile by six SS men standing there in beautiful shiny boots with rifles and guns. We were supposed to line up. There were some elderly people there with us, too. The young people, all of us young girls, the 999 they took from Hummene were supposed to line up in rows of five.

I studied the German language when I went to Hebrew school and I thought I could speak German. I walked up to one of the officers and said, “How are we going to find our suitcases if we have to throw them in that pile?”   He told me, “Shut up and get in line!” So, I had a pretty good idea when I looked at them, I said, “Oh boy! This is not going to be a work camp!” It’s horrible to say that the people that you’re taking for work — not giving them food the whole time, nothing to drink — if you’re want somebody to work, you feed them if they have to work, even if it’s forced labor. Anyway, I put the suitcase down and then they marched us into camp.

Over the gate in the camp next to us was the mens’ camp. They made a temporary station, a wall separating the men’s camp (from the women’s side ?). They had buildings called blocks, numbered from 1 to 24, with 12 on one side of the wall with the electrical high-power wire and the rest on the other side. We marched in there and we had to stand in rows of eighteen. One row was going into the first building, block 2, and we had to go in from the back. I wasn’t in that first row. Other girls were going in there and then coming out the front door to line up again to stand up for roll call.

When we were standing there, some of the girls went in. Then we saw people coming out. We thought that these people looked crazy; they had shaved heads and junky uniforms, just a piece of wood on the foot with leather straps that was supposed to be a shoe. It was March and it was snowing and raining a little bit at the same time.   Then I heard one of those girls shouting to her sister, “They took away everything from us! It’s me, it’s me!”she said to her sister.

We got terrified! We thought at first it looked like mentally retarded people! I said, “Why would take mentally retarded people to a concentration camp?”   They were our girls; but, that’s what they looked like, with shaved heads, wood strapped on for shoes, wearing uniforms with no buttons on it, they were holding onto the pants and the jacket at the same time!

They took away our jewelry, too. I had earrings. One of the girls was shouting, “Get rid of it, just shove it into the mud or something, don’t give it to them.” So, I took off my watch, I forgot I was wearing earrings; but, I took off my watch and shoved it into the dirt.”

When we went in they registered us. When they asked me where I was from, I said, “Poland.” So they put down “Polish” and they understood that I was Gentile so they gave me a Red Triangle because the Yellow Star was for the Jewish people and they thought I was Polish. I was the only Polish girl there on the transport because it had come from Czechoslovakia, not Poland. So they put down just the nationality.

They told us to take off our clothes and fold them neatly in bundles and to tie the shoes together if they had shoelaces. Then they started processing us; shaving our heads and all bodily hair and dumping us in disinfecting wash tubs, old-fashioned wooden ones. After this we were supposed to march in another room where there were piles and piles of uniforms. We had no idea what kind of uniforms they were because we didn’t see the insignia on them anymore, some of them were without buttons. We were supposed to be putting on these uniforms. We were all naked, no underwear, nothing at all, just the uniform on the naked body – and a piece of wood with a leather strap for the feet! We started with each other; some of us were taller, some short, and the pants were too long, so it was really chaos! We were terrified, and still without food and without drinking! Then they marched us outside for roll call.

After this they, with the group that I was in, put us in Block 5. When they came into the room on the 2nd floor – there were two floors in the building— they came into the room and locked the door on the outside. We were still without food or anything. Then we saw straw lying on the floor, a whole pile of straw. Some of the girls were exhausted and laid down. Then we discovered it was full of bedbugs. Everybody was covered with the bedbugs, faces covered with bedbugs! This was our first introduction to Auschwitz!

We pounded on the door, “Let us out! What did we do?” We were naive. We didn’t have any idea that we (unintelligible).   I already had experience with them in my hometown, when they came in they made us do slave labor already, scrubbing their floors and polishing their boots and doing their laundry; but, I didn’t experience anything like this, being shaved and things. I was wearing my own clothes in my hometown.

In the morning we went on roll call. On the third day they put in another building, Block 10. All the brick buildings were called Blocks and were moved to Block 10 because new transports were coming in every single day. We didn’t go out to work, we just went for roll call in the morning. After roll call we each got a little piece of bread, like 3” x 3”, and a bowl of so-called tea which was a kind of black water they called tea.

In Block 10 the bare straw was not there. There was burlap for cover, stuffed with straw and we were sleeping there on those beds every one of them in three tiers— bunk beds.

Roger: When did you get the tattoo, 1716?

Rena G:   The 2nd day when we came for roll call, we didn’t march out to work yet, so we didn’t know what we were waiting for. We just marched out for roll call. The SS came in and counted us–back into the building–then we had to march again to the mens’ camp. There in the mens’ camp the men were sitting there with needles for tattooing and on the left arm they put the tattoo. Then a couple of days later they gave us material to sew our number on the sleeve of the uniform. 1716 was the number I had to sew on the dress.

Heather M:   A note here, they started numbering the Jewish women at 1000 because on the same day, March 26, 1942 — this footnote comes out of the “Auschwitz Chronicle” which was compiled by Danuta Czech. It is a day-by-day accounting of everything that happened at Auschwitz from 1939-1945. One of the footnotes that is in the book states that 999 German women classified as A-Social, Criminal and a few political prisoners received the numbers 1 to 999. Those women are Capos, who were over the Jewish women…

Rena G: Excuse me for interrupting. They just had the numbers on their clothes.

Heather M: Right.

Rena G: Only Jewish people were tattooed.

Heather M: Right, they were not tattooed. The capos were German prisoners who were put in charge of the Jewish prisoners.

Roger: So, you have your number, you’ve sewed it on your uniform. How large were the blocks?

Rena G: They were pretty large buildings. There was just a big room downstairs and a big room upstairs, maybe 15 ft x 20 ft with all the bunk beds in one row along the side.

Roger: How many girls in one Block?

Rena G: In one Block the first time we came in, all of us on the first transport were divided into four Blocks. One Block was for the newcomers to come in. The groups on the first transport I came with, the 999, we were in two Blocks. We were taken out of Block 5 where they put us on the first day because they needed it for the newcomers, we were staying there on the lower floor and on the second floor.

Roger:   I have to take a commercial break. If you could please hold and be patient, we’ll be right back, ladies and gentlemen, and continue after the break.

COMMERCIAL BREAK

Roger: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back! Our guests this evening are Heather Macadam who wrote the book for Rena Cornreich Gelissen. The book is “Rena’s Promise: The Story of Two Sisters in Auschwitz.”

Rena, I want to go back to those first days in Auschwitz with you. You got a tattoo. Now,you said that you were not identified, at first, as Jewish; but only as Polish.

Rena G: Yes. Later on there were no Polish girls in this camp. Later on they let me have the same number I kept when I had the Red Triangle. But, they still treated me just the same as the other Jews. because the Gentiles, the Polish people, when they came in later, they did not treat in the same way and they did not sleep in the same barracks, in the same buildings. They had separate barracks with a little bit better beds, mattresses and blankets. So, I stayed there but it didn’t change the Triangle.

Roger:  So, it was kind of a class system there in the camp? 

Rena G: Yes.

Roger:   People who were Gentiles got more food and better housing and all that?

Rena G:  Not exactly more food, maybe a little bit more food; but, better treatment and different kind of work. They did not work with us when we marched out to work. This was later when we went to another camp. In the meantime…..

… I neglected to tell you, I should have explained probably, that the title, “Rena’s Promise,” the publisher decided on this title. The reason for it is that when my Mama and Papa decided to have a guide, when he came with a sled, they got dressed and they put us into the sled and covered us with blankets because it was snowing, it was December and it was pretty cold. Mama whispered in my ear, “Take care of your little sister,” because she was two years younger. Mama always said “Take care of your little sister,” when we went out to play. I said, “Yes, Mama.”

I didn’t know that there was very little that I could do for her. I did whatever I could; but, Auschwitz wasn’t a place that I could take care of my sister or give her comfort, or protect her from beatings, or give her more food, or anything.   But, I was doing for my sister, whatever I could.

Roger: Trying to keep that promise to your mother.

Rena G: Yes! And, the publisher decided the title of the book should be “Rena’s Promise”.

Roger:  I think the publisher made a good choice. Rena, how long were you at Auschwitz before your sister came?

Rena G: Only three days. On the third day after we went for the tattoo– and it was very painful, too– I shouldn’t have gone anywhere, but, the transports were coming in and I sneaked away looking for air because I was afraid if more people were going to come there’s going to be a big crowd and I wouldn’t recognize her, especially with a shaved head and everything. I might not know who she is, so how could I get her? I wanted to keep her with me, close to me, so I sneaked away instead of going into the Block. The other ones one standing there with the shaved heads, I looked the same as they did because we wore the same uniforms.

On the same day as I had the tattoo, there she was! I recognized her. She had red hair and beautiful brown eyes! So, I recognized my sister! I grabbed her by the hand and said, “Pretend we are important her and we are going into Block 10. We’ll see what happens.” She was shaking and looked at me. At first, she didn’t recognize me. She went into Block 10 and I asked the Block Elder who was dealing out the bread — my sister came from Bratislava, for more than three days without food — I told the Block Elder she was very hungry. She said, “Okay. You help me deal out the bread today, give the portions to everybody and you get an extra portion for your sister.” So, two portions plus an extra portion. I did help with the bread dealing out to everybody and got the extra portion.

Then she started telling me how she was in Czechoslovakia with the Jewish family, how they came to the house picked her up and just took her Auschwitz. She didn’t know where she was. She was for many days on that cattle car, just as we were. They took away everything, too!

I forgot to tell you, I also had earrings in my ears and my sister had, too, Danka. My grandfather, my mother’s father, was giving to all his granddaughters when they were six years old, entering school, giving gold earrings and a little ring with a turquoise stone. When the woman took away the clothes from us and told us to fold the clothes neatly and tie the shoes, I walked away. I forgot I threw the watch outside so I stepped on it and forgot I was wearing these earrings since I was a little girl, since I was six years old. She said, “Get those earrings here or I’m going to tear them off your ears!” So, I took them off and threw them in that bowl they had for all the jewelry. My sister had to do the same thing. When she came out I asked her, “Did you have to take off the earrings yet?”

She said, “Yes, she shouted at me because I didn’t know I had to them off.”

Heather M: Danka’s number was 2779.

Rena G: Yes. I forgot to tell you, when we went for the tattoos — the German woman, the one who came from prison to be our superior, did the shaving, the disinfecting and also the registration, not of our names but just which countries we came from. The same woman was in charge of everything else, the uniforms and what we put on.

While I was in line for my uniform, I forgot to tell you, there was a table on the other side— like, I’m standing in the middle of the room and to the right is going for the uniforms, all stark naked we go and stand for the uniforms! To the left is the so-called doctor standing at a long table. Every girl had to go naked on that table! Naked! He had rubber gloves and he was examining the girls. I was naïve, I had no idea what he was doing! I found out later he was looking in all the crevices of the body for jewelry. There was screaming and crying! It was painful! Instead of going to the left to that table, I decided quickly to go with the naked girls who were already processed from the table, to go with them to the uniforms. So, I cheated them out of that experience! I cheated Hitler out of the first horrible experience, that I wasn’t examined and I didn’t suffer the pain!

When Danka came, I told her to do the same thing. But, they stopped doing it the third day. I don’t know what they were doing later; but, she said she wasn’t exposed to it at all. They didn’t make them go there.

Roger:   What was going through your mind after you settled in there for a few days? Did it begin to seem hopeless immediately or …?

Rena G: Yes, it did! I looked at them and I decided, these are not human beings, these are monsters! They were already pretty bad; they almost shot my father to death while I was still at home, doing all the work for them and the way they treated us! I decided that they’re the enemy; they are the bad people and we are the good people! I’m going to make sure we survive! If I can’t save my sister, I don’t need to live; but, I have to keep the promise to my Mama so I’ll see to it that we stay alive! I tried very hard, both of us tried very hard to stay alive.

One night, we were only there for four days, I heard some shots outside. Danka was already asleep, she was exhausted. We still didn’t go out for detail, for working. We still were in Block 10 and there were windows on the second floor. Through the windows on the second floor we could see over the wall, the wall was shorter than our windows, we could see the Polish men (we found out later that they were Polish) on the other side, from their windows looking out. When Danka came I stood by one of the windows there, opened up, I heard shots at night and I was intrigued by it. I was wondering, did those shots mean that every night or every morning, they were going to shoot us, a couple of us at a time?

The man shouted from the window on the other side, “Anybody from Poland?”   I said, “Yes, I am, my sister and I.” because the rest were all Slovakian Jewish girls. They asked, “What can I do for you?”   I said, “Well, she’s very hungry, with so many days on the train.” We didn’t get much bread here either.   I said, “I have something very important to ask you. I hear shots every night and I’d like to know what it is?   Does that mean they’re shooting so many of us every night, so many of us?”

He said, “No. I’m going to write you a note. Listen, you have one toilet in that building there.   When you get a note from me with the bread I’m going to send for your sister, when you get the note, it will explain to you what the uniforms you are wearing, what the shooting means. You’ll have to flush it down the toilet or if you can’t get rid of the note any other way, just eat it, swallow it.”

Roger:    Rena, I’ve got to take a break here. Ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about the book, “Rena’s Promise: The Story of Sisters in Auschwitz”.   We’ll be right back.

COMMERCIAL BREAK

Roger:   Welcome back! We’ve got Rena Gelissen and Heather Macadam on with us tonight. Rena, you were talking about the note. Did you get this note? 

Rena G: Yes, I got the note! He told me to destroy it and I gave the bread to my sister because she was very hungry. The note I read. The note explained to me what the shootings were about. There were 12, 000 Russian prisoners of war. The straw I saw in Block 5, the Russian prisoners used to sleep there and that’s why it was full of bedbugs and lice. It said we probably now had it in the uniforms, too. That was true! He said the of the 12, 000 there were about 500 left. Everyday they shoot more of them! The uniforms you are wearing are from the dead Russian prisoners! 

Roger:  Could you see out and around Auschwitz much? Could you see what was going on in the surrounding areas? 

Rena G:   I didn’t see anything but the buildings across from us, the mens’ buildings. When they came back from work in the evening, I saw them from the windows where we looked out. They told me that every day there were shots. When I heard the shots later on, I looked out the window. They bolted up the windows from this side. It was between Block 11 and Block 10. We were in Block 10, the building was Block 10. Block 11 was the Block of Death. It’s still called the Block of Death. 

When I looked out the window, I sneaked out after Danka fell asleep because I didn’t want to scare her, I sneaked out to the window. Between the boards at the top I could see against the wall of Block 11, a soldier standing –in the same uniform I was wearing— with hands up against the wall and under my window I didn’t see anybody; but, I heard the shot and the soldier fell down. I heard the shot and another one fell down,…l and on, and on, it went for the rest…. 

Heather M:  I’d like to add to that. Anybody who visits Auschwitz today, there is a memorial in that spot where Rena witnessed the Russian POWs being murdered. It is right between Block 10, where she was imprisoned when she first came to Auschwitz through August 1942, and Block 11 which is called the Block of Death. There is actually a courtyard between those two blocks and there is a memorial in that area where she witnessed the POWs being executed. 

Roger:  Rena, how long were you in Auschwitz? 

Rena G:   Altogether, when the Russians were coming close in 1945 the Nazis took us as hostages on a Death March.   They were fleeing and they took us on a Death March. The whole thing together; first Auschwitz One which I’m telling you now. Later on they changed I and put us in the fall to Birkenau, where the crematoriums and gas chambers were. Then they took us on the Death March, then they took us to Ravensbruck in Germany, then another camp, Neustadt-Glewe in Germany. On May 2, 1945—by that time it was three years and forty-one days, we were liberated by the 82nd Airborne of the American army. They’re stationed right here in North Carolina where I live. 

Roger:   What kind of work did you do all those years? 

Rena G: Oh, my God! It was digging for planting, somebody else was planting. We were digging the ground and turning it over. Then it was sifting sand, like you do for buildings. They were building more buildings because there were more Jews coming in and some of the younger they were keeping in these buildings. Then we were going out to sift that sand and put it in lorries. I don’t know if you know what a lorry is. 

Heather M:   A wagon. 

Rena G: Yes. Usually they’re put on railroad tracks; but, they made us…four on one side, four on the other side… load us the lorries with sifted sand and bring them to the buildings where the Polish men were building the buildings. They were there as political prisoners and for religious reasons. There were priests ….

Roger:  How big were the gas chambers? 

Rena G: Well, I wasn’t in them, thank God! It was a big building. One time my friend that came from my hometown was assigned where they were sorting the clothes from the gas chamber. Jewish people were supposed–the young kids and the elderly, everyone over 32 or 33 years and under 17 or 18 were all going to the gas chambers.   Their clothes were put in another building where my friend from my hometown was working. They were helping fold and ship them to Germany, all the clothes. 

While I was there that one day, I tried to get into another detail, not working outside. I thought it was kind of hard-working outside and she was under a roof and sometimes she could find some chocolate in the pockets of the Jewish people who were brought into the camp, and sometimes pieces of bread. She suggested that we come in. So Danka and I went in. While I was there I found a coat of my uncle in Czechoslovakia. His name was Yacov and he was a tailor. My aunt had a black persian coat. One of the things I was folding was my aunt’s coat. 

Roger: Oh, boy!   Ladies, we’ve run out of time for this hour. I want to thank you very, very much, Rena. You’ve given us some insight on what it was like that first day. 

Rena G:   I want to thank you because I want people to know because I promised myself in camp, two things; that I’m going to take care of my sister and when I come out alive I’m going to tell the story and world is never going to have a war anymore. But, that didn’t come out exactly, did it? 

Roger: Well, keep working at it! You’ve got a lot of insight and a lot of wisdom. Maybe someone will listen to you! How do people get the book, Heather? 

Heather M: We are being published by Beacon Press in America. It’s available in local bookstores. 

Roger:   Thank you ladies, for sharing your wonderful story.

(Transcription is from MP3 file converted from original cassette with minimal editing by Chey Simonton.

Errors, if any, may be due to unintelligible sections of original 1997 audio technology. Unknown/unintelligible words are spelled phonetically.)