As an avid reader and student of history, I have always been drawn to the study of World War II. This was such a clamatic time in human history. For the first time (and last, hopefully), man’s ability to wage war at an industrial level on a global scale created a massive catastrophe that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions of people. Yet, interwoven throughout this incredible saga, are the stories of common, everyday people who survived.
One of these stories is found in Rena’s Promise.
I came across this book via Amazon.com’s recommendation and purchased it. Rena’s Promise is the story of two sisters told by Rena Kornreich Gelissen.
In 1942, Rena found herself on the first transport of Jews to Auschwitz. Her number was 1716. (The Germans placed a number one in front of all prisoner numbers. Hence, Rena was in truth the 716th person registered at Auschwitz.) When you consider that more than 1.3 million people would die at Auschwitz over the next three-year period, this is an amazing realization. When Rena sat down with author Heather Dune Macadam in the early 1990s, she was the last survivor of that first transport of Jews to Auschwitz.
What unfolds is Rena’s story of survival over a three-and-a-half year period of time in hell. Honestly, it is beyond the ability of the human mind to comprehend the evil experienced by this young woman. (Rena was 19 when she entered Auschwitz.) The single driving desire that kept her alive, was a promise to herself to bring her sister, Danka, home.
The days in Auschwitz-Birkenau are marked throughout the book by the words “Four A.M. Raucsh, rausch,” which was the time the prisoners were jolted awake from their dreamless sleep and hurried out the door for the morning count.
As the number of prisoners swelled into the thousands and then tens of thousands, the counting process would take hours. The prisoners were forced to stand at attention through all kinds of weather, from the heat of summer to the bitter cold of winter.
Words are not effecient enough in this short review to describe the horrendous cruelty these women experienced at the hands of their SS masters. Clearly, as Rena notes throughout the book, the Jews were not viewed as human beings. The SS could and did squash the head of a young Jewish woman just as easily as they would step on a roach that happened across their path.
Death was everywhere.
The smell of burning flesh spewing from the cremetoriums was constant. Life and death was often determined by nothing more than the point of a thumb from an SS master as he selected those who would live another day and those who would go to their death in the gas.
The greatest fear that gripped these young women of Auschwitz (most women over the age of 40 were simply sent to the gas upon arrival, while the younger were sent to hard labor) was the fear that they would not be completely dead after gassing, but live long enough to be thrown into the flames alive.
Rena was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. As an Orthodox Jew, God was a constant presence in her life. Everything her family did was flavored by their understanding of God and how the Torah & Talmud commanded them to live in His presence. Yet, after living in Auschwitz-Birkenau even a short time, her faith in God began to waver. How could the God she worshipped permit so much evil on such an extroidinary scale?
This is not an uncommon question, and it is not answered in this book.
There is one poingent story that Rena relates, in which her faith in God died in Auschwitz:
We stand at roll call waiting to be counted. They walk up and down the rows counting, hitting, shouting. Danka shifts on her feet, so I quickly cast my glance sideways. She’s fine, just sore and hungry as I am. My fingers reach out and touch her hand, reassuringly. Her fingers touch mine. This is our check-in. Every morning, if it’s possible, we send this silent message to each other— I’m okay.
We are in the front row today. This is unusual; normally we try to be in the back or the middle, hidden and anonymous. It’s harder to watch or be prepared when we’re among the first to receive whatever they have in mind.
In the distance I can see a column coming toward us. I have never seen anyone on this road before. My mind is churning as it wonders who is arriving in hell today. Their feet try to march but they’re not doing a very good job of it. There is a whisper through our ranks: “They’ve emptied a Jewish orphanage.”
The SS have their rifles up on their shoulders. “March!” Their orders snap through the stale morning air. My heart stops. My eyes focus on the column. Hundreds of pairs of tiny children’s feet file past me and my sister and every woman in camp. Some of their little faces are buried in their toys, choking the stuffing out of these inanimate objects of comfort. The younger ones hold the older children’s hands. Their eyes stare at us big as saucers, lost as lambs. There is a tearful gasp somewhere deep inside our row. Is it a mother reminded of her own dear baby?
Their innocent faces look around in wonderment at the fences, the buildings, the grownups. Do they think we are insane, as I did when I first arrived? Are they wondering why so many grownups looking like their mamas and papas do nothing to protect them? Are they afraid? My mouth drops open. I cannot bear to look at this. I cannot turn away. They can’t be serious. Why would anyone want to kill babies? How long will it take them to suffocate? Will they cry out in fear with no one to comfort them?
The SS march them toward the gas chamber. Clutching dolls and stuffed animals close to their hearts, they shuffle past in rows of five guarded by SS men with their dogs and rifles. What do they think these children are going to do–escape? Revolt? But it is a rule, always to the gas chamber the SS are posted every fifth row on each side of the column, and they always follow rules. They don’t want anyone around; they don’t want the truth getting out. We know the truth. It has taken a long time for it to sink in, but there is no mistaking it anymore–the evidence is in the smoke filled air and the empty compound after a selection. Still, they want no one disturbing their plans. The Germans have a saying, “Order is order.”
They stick to their rules like glue.
I am standing there just like a ghost. Their little angelic faces, the white knuckles of their tiny hands haunt me. I fight back my tears, my rage. My heart screams, Stop! Stop this madness! They are babies! Clenching my jaw, I shut my eyes.
God? I rarely say God anymore, but seeing their faces reflected in my heart I must try to pray one last time: God, you are my God and I believe in you. Won’t you strike just one of these monsters down? Smite just one SS for these children, your children. You, whom I obey and believe in so much with all my heart? I have never held so much as a penny in my hand on the Sabbath and since I was old enough to fast I have always fasted on Yom Kippur. Don’t allow this to happen. Give us a sign that you have not forsaken these children, the children of Israel. Never mind my suffering. It does not matter the time I have been in this place. Never mind all the things I’ve heard about people being burned and gassed, all the things I’ve seen for myself, not wanting to believe any of it is true. Never mind about me. What about these sweet children? For them, show them you are our God and kill just one of these Nazis.
My hands are fists of fury tight against my thighs. My eyes squeeze shut, holding a vision of lightning striking the guards in their neat and orderly tracks. Not one adult can move to save these toddlers, only divine intervention can supersede now: Please, God …
They fade in the distance, nearing the gas chambers. My heart screams for them to stop. Someone passes by me, then halts. Her feet crunch against the gravel road as she steps back to look at our stricken faces. Her hot breath hits my cheek. I open my eyes warily into the cool cruelty of Hasse’s stare. Her clean boots, her polished and shiny skin, stand before us in full Aryan superiority.
She has seen our agony; she has read my mind.
I know from the moment I hear her voice that religion will never be the same. I will still pray, I will try to believe and have faith, but it will never be as pure and sincere as it once was. Her lips pull back into a grimace which I am sure is meant to be a smile. Her words are harsh and staccato, like machine-gun fire; they shoot us down.
“Where is your God now?”
Life drains out of me.
There is no answer.
Rena’s Promise is the story of incredible human perseverance in the midst of unprecedented evil. I highly recommend it to any student of World War II who wants to better understand the life of a prisoner under the heavy hand of the Germans in World War II. It is the story of hope, but it leaves unanswered the question of where is God in the midst of such incredible human evil?
There is an answer to this question, but it is beyond the scope of this review.