On March 26, 1942, Rena Kornreich Gelissen was logged as the 716th woman to enter the Auschwitz concentration camp. She was part of the first transport of women to the camp. Over three years later, on May 2, 1945, she was finally free again.
Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz is just what the title says. It is Rena’s story, as told to Heather Dune Macadam. Macadam, though, does little more than introduce the reader to the seventy-something year old woman whose memories are as clear as day before she simply transcribes Rena’s words. It’s Rena’s story to tell and tell it she does.
The promise made was one Rena gave to her mother, that she would always take care of her baby sister, Danka. She kept that promise, and never more than when the twenty-something girls found each other in the barracks of Auschwitz.
In three years she spent in Nazi death camps (Auschwitz, the women’s camp at Birkenau, and a brief spell in Ravensbruck after the Death March), Rena carefully controlled every aspect of her life that she’s still free to control in order not only to stay alive but to keep her sister alive … all because of a promise she made to her mother. If she found a bite sized bit of potato in the mud outside the latrine, she carried back to her sister and they each took half a bite. She traded her crusts of bread for medicine for Danka. She begged kapos and SS wardresses to let her stay with her sister.
Through it all, she kept herself just a little bit detached from the reality of what she was experiencing because she knew that to let herself fall down into the brutal hell that was her world would be to give up and give in. She knew she couldn’t do that.
Reading the book, it’s hard not to wonder if the task of having someone else to keep alive made it easier to keep herself alive. Would she have made it if Danka was not there, not necessarily always needing to be kept alive – because she was incredibly strong too, but if Rena simply had no one?
The other people Rena mentions, even friends from her hometown, who survived did so with a sister or a friend. The ones who were alone, like one of her cousins, didn’t. The promise didn’t just keep Danka alive, it kept Rena alive.
I’ve read a lot of books about the camps and about the survivors but Rena’s story is something special. It made me think and it made me question things I thought I knew about the Nazi era and about the world each of us inhabits at any given moment in time. It’s a story about Auschwitz but it says so much more.
I’d say more about the book, but I don’t want to because I think everyone should read it. Not just to try to understand how people could survive Auschwitz or the facts of the Nazi death camp – and both of those would be excellent reasons – but because it’s a story of purpose and hope and life, and choosing each one of those things.