And here’s my last Epinions repost for today. I wrote this as/is review in May 2010.
It’s ironic that I finished reading Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz (1995) last night. Last night, it was May 2, 2010. May 2, 1945 was the day that Rena Kornreich Gelissen and her younger sister, Danka Kornreich Brandel, escaped the nightmare of the German labor camps. Rena and her sister had survived the Holocaust against all odds. Their bittersweet story is related, with help from ghost writer Heather Dune MacAdam. Having finished this book on the 65th anniversary of the sisters’ liberation from Auschwitz and Birkenau, I can state with no hesitation that this is not a story I will soon forget.
A brief outline
Rena and Danka Kornreich grew up in Tylicz, Poland. Their parents, Sara and Chaim Kornreich, had four daughters. Rena and Danka were the two youngest. When Danka was a few months old, she got the croup, which made her cough relentlessly. When the coughing suddenly stopped, Sara thought her baby had died and covered her with a sheet. But a few minutes later, it became clear that Danka was still living. Sara asked Rena, who was just two years older, to promise that she’d always look after the little one.
Born in 1920, Rena was a young woman when the SS invaded Poland and the surrounding countries. She ended up escaping to Slovakia, but later turned herself in to German authorities as a means of protecting the people who were hiding her. Rena was engaged to be married at the time; it was just two weeks before her wedding.
Rena was on the very first transport of Jewish women to Auschwitz. She arrived on March 26, 1942. Upon arrival, she was tatooed with the number 1716. Three days later, her younger sister Danka arrived. Remembering her promise to her mother, Rena vowed to look after Danka. Over the three years time Rena and Danka spent in Auschwitz and Birkenau, they escaped death and forced medical experimentation several times. They survived, in part, because they formed a bond with each other, were very cunning, and cooperated with other prisoners. Of course, I think they were also very lucky, particularly when they were selected for forced medical experimentation by Dr. Josef Mengele.
While the two sisters were in Auschwitz, they were forced to write letters that made the camp sound like it wasn’t such a bad place. Of course, if any relatives volunteered to go to the camp, they soon found out what they were in for. Rena and Danka came up with a way to include a warning so that others might be spared their fate.
When the sisters were liberated, they went to Holland, where they met and married their husbands. In the 1950s, both sisters emigrated to America, where their eldest sister Gertrude had been living since 1921. They never knew what became of their parents or their other sister, Zosia. It’s because of Gertrude that Rena’s Promise has any photographs from the girls’ childhood.
This book includes a postcript that explains what Rena and Danka knew of the people they knew while they were in Auschwitz. From what I could gather, the vast majority did not have an ending as happy as theirs was.
This book is the incredibly moving and often inspiring story of two sisters who were determined to survive against all odds. Heather Dune MacAdam did a marvelous job writing Rena’s story as if it came straight from her, translating the heartbreak and terror Rena and Danka experienced as well as the few lighthearted moments that made their experiences bearable.
In this book, I read of the supreme hunger and exhaustion the two sisters endured together, as well as the terror they experience every time there was a “selection” of prisoners who were to go to the gas chambers. I read of how Rena and Danka felt when they were forced to witness executions of their fellow prisoners who dared to attempt escape. I got a mere inkling of the incredible brutality the sisters and other prisoners suffered at the hands of the Nazis who forced them to work and live in deplorable conditions. Rena even describes what it was like for her to have her period while she was a prisoner. As I read this account, I was amazed at the sisters’ will to live and how Rena kept her promise to their mother.
I would definitely recommend Rena’s Promise to anyone who is interested in learning more about Auschwitz and the Holocaust, particularly from a woman’s point of view. According to Wikipedia, Rena Kornreich Gelissen died in 2006, though her sister Danka is still alive (ETA: Danka died in 2012). Rena died without her tattoo. She had it cut off after her liberation.
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