The weather is all wrong. Luminous, balmy, fresh. Such adjectives don’t fit Jewish memories of Poland, not Rena Quint’s accounts nor the many testimonies of survivors in the Yad Vashem library.
Survivors remember the cold, the raw agony of what felt like infinite dark winter. My own trips to Poland have all been in winter as well, the frozen ground of cemeteries and icy slush of concentration camps. On a spring day, it’s harder to remember the horrors of the Holocaust.
On this particular Sunday, 10,000 runners are pounding the streets in a half-marathon that takes them through historic and modern Warsaw. Young Poles are in T-shirts and racer shorts. The national flower, the red poppy, is blooming. Warsaw feels like any other European city, experiencing economic growth and the age of the smartphone.
Because of the marathon, instead of pulling up in front of our hotel, the taxi driver from the airport has let us off at Pilsudski Square, Warsaw’s largest outdoor gathering place, making it necessary to cross through the runners. In World War II, this Warsaw landmark was called Adolf Hitler Square, honoring the Führer who vanquished the Polish army in 18 days.
There’s no break in the stream of runners, so Rena begins makes her way across Krolewska Boulevard, a small suitcase and cane gripped in her hands. I watch her, looking as always for clues to her remarkable resilience and optimism. She has come from Jerusalem as the official “witness,” to join a group of Hadassah women on a Shoah study mission to Poland.
I’ve come, too, because I’m writing Rena’s story, a memoir with the working title Mother’s Day, like the American holiday that was celebrated last weekend.
When we landed and emerged to the surprise of sunshine, I asked Rena how she felt landing in Poland, the land of her birth. “I feel like a tour guide, visiting someone else’s life,” she said. “It’s hard to believe that the story we are about to revisit is about me, and not someone else.”
But of course the Fredja Lichtensztajn born in Piotrkow, Poland, and the Rena Quint who grew up in Brooklyn and today lives in Jerusalem, are the same. Those who meet her always wonder if this erudite, outgoing great-grandmother with New York English and a sharp sense of humor could possibly be the child who lost her entire family, worked as a child slave laborer, and was pulled from amid the decaying bodies of Bergen-Belsen.
When she first began her quest for her history, the professional historians were astounded that she could have survived on her own. Even more remarkable than her physical vitality in her 70s is her exuberance and warmth. Groups of German journalists, Swedish clergy and Chinese businesspersons gather in her parlor to meet her and hear her story, and ask to bring back friends to hear her once again.
Walking carefully among the speeding runners, Rena reaches the sidewalk on the other side of the avenue.
On the flight from Israel, a young woman was sitting in Rena’s assigned seat by the window. Instead of telling her politely that this was her preselected seat, Rena urged her to stay put, and sat down in the aisle seat. “I don’t care,” she shrugged. “I’m fine.” This mix of steadfastness – the Rena who crossed the street of runners – and this flexibility, and knowing when each is called for, is part of the wisdom she has acquired in surviving her treacherous life journey.
Piotrkow is about a two-hour bus ride away. On the journey, she shares her story, how she survived, how she reached America only to be orphaned once again, and about her husband and large family.
We reach a quiet, small city. A daycare teacher is leading a line of blond toddlers on an outing. Jacek Bednajac, the Polish researcher who has been eking out the documentation of Rena’s early memories from city archives, is already waiting to meet our bus.
We eat lunch near a stream in the former Jewish neighborhood.
I’m startled by graffiti of Stars of David marking the door of a football fan club. “That’s the way fans of the competitors insult the other team,” Jacek explains, “It doesn’t mean anything. There are no Jews here anymore.”
Rena’s first memories in Piotrkow: “‘Hang on, Fredzi. Bumps ahead,’ Joseph, my older brother, cautions me.
He and my brother David help maneuver the sled through the winding streets towards the bakery. It’s Friday morning, and we have to deliver our mother’s pot of cholent to the neighborhood bakery. The sled swerves and I tighten my arms around the black metal pot, wrapped in its brown blanket. I breathe in the aroma of fried onions and potatoes, and brace for the sled hitting on a frozen tree root. I’m good at navigating bumps.”
By the time she was four, gone was the Piotrkow of happy sled rides, the city known for the oratory of is famous Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, its Jewish printing industry, the universal education for girls and boys. It had become Nazi Germany’s first ghetto. The Jews numbered 12,000 in a city of 55,000, and most of them lived in the same section of town, making it easy for the Germans to enclose them and learn from them how to control a local population.
We tour the city through Rena’s past.
There is where Rena’s mother lived when she first came to Piotrkow, and Jacek points to reddish buildings. And the day-care center – that’s where Rena’s father’s family lived. And – he points to a cluster of stores – that’s the former open marketplace where her father had a clothing stall. And this very building where there’s a corner shop, that’s where Rena’s mother ran her paint shop, busy in spring.
“My mother, Sarah, gave me life twice. First she gave birth to me, at home. The second time, she let go of my hand and let me flee from certain death in the hope I would survive. I can still feel her fingers loosening on mine as she let me go, more painful than the birth pangs the first time.”
Rena remembers fleeing the once glorious Piotrkow Central Synagogue on Jerusalem Street that was turned into a prison for Jews. From here, her mother and beloved brothers were sent to their death, murdered either in Treblinka or the nearby Rakow Forest. Today, the rebuilt synagogue is a library. The librarian barely looks up as we squeeze behind bookshelves for Rena to show us the last remaining fresco: a bullet-pocked wall with the Ten Commandments. “Thou shalt not kill.”
When Rena escaped, her father cut her hair and dressed her as a boy. She worked alongside him in the slave labor crew of Hortensia Glass Factory, until he too was taken away. Then she was alone. Eight years old. Maybe nine.
A woman stepped forward to become her temporary mother. And when she too disappeared, another good woman took her place. So it was in a world where each person would have been justified to turn away from the needs of a child she didn’t know. One risked her life to steal the coat that covered them in the frozen nights.
We hurry through the streets of Piotrkow. Only when we reach her childhood haunts, near Trybunalski Place, does Rena falter. Her eyes well up with tears. Her childhood home, an apartment on a pretty street with an ice-cream kiosk outside, is being turned into a trendy apartment complex, as modern Warsaw enjoys an economic upswing.
And then she is back, the Rena we know, always looking forward.
Last year, a South African prison warden entreated her to speak to his prisoners. If Rena could grow beyond the horrors of her childhood, then they could get past their own disadvantaged childhoods, he wanted them to realize. The prisoners sat in awestruck silence – not only due to Rena’s tale of survival, but also her ability to love and trust and believe in God after her unspeakable losses.
Our American fellow travelers are drawn to her warmth, her gratefulness for what she has, her inner joy that lacks resentment and self-pity.
We stop at the memorial at the Rakow Forest. The Jewish community of Piotrkow gathered here every Lag Ba’omer for picnics and music among the pines. Teens in Zionist youth movements led the singing and passed out bows and arrows to children like Rena.
But the woods are silent as we recite kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, which is really an affirmation of life.
Then Rena and I go home to Jerusalem.
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.