We’re about to sit down to Shabbat dinner at an elegant long table in a tasteful apartment in Jerusalem’s trendy German Colony. The exuberant and urbane hostess greets each of us in accent-free American English. Her husband, a distinguished rabbi and attorney, tells the guests that his only mistake in life was waiting until their second date to propose to his beautiful wife.
My own husband whispers, “Are you sure we’re at the right home? That woman couldn’t possibly be the Holocaust survivor you are writing about.”
But she is. Rena Quint, 81, doesn’t fit the stereotype of a Holocaust survivor we’ve internalized from literature and movies. Writing her story, A Daughter of Many Mothers, requires overcoming cognitive dissonance and trying to figure out how someone with such a horrific childhood could become a robust and healthy adult.
I discover that research on survivors, much of it in Israel, debunks some of the earlier theories based on small groups of survivors who sought psychological help after the war.
Rena was only three and a half when the Nazis entered her hometown of Piotrkow, a midsize city in central Poland, in September 1939. Piotrkow was the Nazi’s first ghetto, where they refined their techniques of control over its Jewish residents.
Rena’s parents, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents were murdered. She pretended to be a boy and did slave labor. She traveled in the infamous cattle cars, walked in a death march, and was found among the dead in Bergen-Belsen. As the sole survivor of her nuclear family and a child, her chances of enduring were near nil.
A million and a half Jewish children were murdered. Indeed, when as an adult she timidly began her search for her past, the first archivist in a Jewish institute in New York sent her away, assuming that no lone child could have survived all those years of suffering. But here she is, coiffed and smiling, ladling out pumpkin soup into delicate china bowls,
Her survival belies another myth, that Holocaust inmates lost their humanity in the struggle of the fittest to survive. One woman after another reached out to her to share food and warmth, often at peril to her own life. Says Rena, “When I lost one mother, another woman became my mother.” Even temporary motherhood proved stronger than the fear of death.
She got to America on the visa of a girl named Fanny, who had died after liberation. Fanny’s bereaved mother took Rena instead. And then her new mother died soon after they arrived.
When Rena and I began working on her life story we underestimated the journey ahead. We had the outline, but filling in the blanks seven decades after the end of World War II is a challenge.
Reliable sources are rare. The few fellow-survivors we meet at reunions of Piotrkow survivors, almost all older than Rena, don’t remember her or anyone from her large family.
Despite the vaunted exactitude of the Nazi bookkeeping, records are scarce. Children weren’t always listed; records were destroyed. A Polish researcher is hired to hunt for old documents in city halls. He’s invaluable.
At Yad Vashem, I listen to old testimonies in Hebrew of now deceased Piotrkow survivors, to understand something about this city with its Jewish printing presses, modern kindergartens and famed rabbinical orators; among them Rabbi Meir Shapiro, initiator of the Daf Yomi and Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau.
Everything needs to be double checked. An expert on Jewish Poland tells me it is improbable that Rena’s parents moved to a bigger apartment as their family grew, but the researcher in Piotrkow finds the deed in her mother’s name, along with a detailed prenuptial agreement. Rena’s mother owned paint shops, and evidently sold one to buy the property.
We are disappointed by false leads and dead ends. A woman turns up from Chicago and insists she knows Rena from Sweden, where Bergen-Belsen children were sent to recuperate. She has a photo from Sweden and claims that Rena “is the little orphan girl” whom a Swedish couple wanted to adopt.
It sounds promising. Indeed, a Swedish couple wanted to bring Rena home. In Rena’s living room is a wooden sculpture the father carved for her. Rena thanks her, but tells me later that she’s sure the picture isn’t of her.
I turn to Sharon Brown, superintendent of the Division of Identification and Forensic Science at the Israel Police. She deciphered astronaut Ilan Ramon’s burned crew notebook that tumbled from space onto the ground in Texas. The photo forensic lab is expert in deciphering identities, usually of criminals and terrorists. They’re willing to help.
We submit other photos and then get a call from Brown. The girl in the photo isn’t Rena. Partly we’re disappointed, but mostly we’re relieved that Rena’s memory is reliable. Indeed, almost everything she remembers dovetails with the research I do.
Rena is still troubled by her inability to recall certain details, so I suggest consulting a psychologist for the first time. We need a specialist. I call Amcha, an organization for Holocaust survivors. Dr. Elisheva Van der Hal has worked for 25 years with Holocaust survivors, particularly those who were small children when the war started. Rena shares her story.
“You do remember,” says Dr. Van der Hal. “What you remember is enough. What you have forgotten may be worse. You remember enough.”
We stitch the story together, like a patchwork quilt. There are missing patches. We have one area where her memory doesn’t seem to coincide with my research. We disagree about the tragic day Rena lost her mother and brothers. Six years old, she let go of her mother’s hand and ran away.
Rena remembers this happening on the day the Jews of her street in Piotrkow were taken by train to Treblinka. I think her family went into hiding and was apprehended later. Does it matter? Yes. We are committed to staying as true to her story as we can.
In addition to telling Rena’s personal story we have another goal. Rena is among the premier lecturers at Yad Vashem, and she knows how little people know of the Holocaust, despite the numerous movies and books on the subject. Even adults who have met Holocaust survivors have a hazy picture of “the camps.”
We need to explicate the vocabulary of catastrophe: ghettos, concentration camps and extermination camps, aktions and death marches. In 2017, a book about the Holocaust has to be understandable by those who will never meet a survivor or have the pleasure of breaking bread at the Quint table.
“I am ready to die. I find a spot near a tree and lie down. Men, women, and children, some like me, not yet dead, lie here too. A breeze stirs my hair. It brings the stench of the dead, a smell that I am used to. Dying under a tree will be nicer than in the stinking barracks.
All the fences are lined with bodies, piled higher than a man standing tall – not that men stand tall anymore.
I am nine years old. I have spent most of my childhood in a ghetto, a work camp, concentration camps and a death march. Bergen-Belsen is the worst of all. There is no water, not even in the filthy puddles of yesterday.
Suddenly the quiet is broken. I hear an unfamiliar sound and look up. People are running. Men and women who never walk faster than a shuffle are running. I want to see where they are going, but I can’t stand up.
I’m sick. People who never talk louder than a whisper are shouting. Soldiers in khaki uniforms are walking nearby. I can tell these aren’t German soldiers by the way the prisoners greet them with shouts of joy.
How strange. Some of the soldiers are throwing up. Nazi soldiers never throw up.
“Ihr seid frei – you are free,” are words on the loudspeaker. “We are the English Army. Be calm. Food and medical help are on the way.”
“Frei. Frei – We are free,” women shout around me, in Yiddish. What does “free” mean? I do not understand.
I am too sick and tired to move – I want my mother.”
A Daughter of Many Mothers, by Rena Quint with Barbara Sofer, is available in Israel at select bookstores and through Amazon. The book launch will take place on November 28 at the OU Israel Center.
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