On March 26, 1942, in Poprad, Slovakia, 998 women boarded a train. They thought they were going to a work camp. They were on their way to a death camp.
One of those on the first registered Jewish transport to Auschwitz was a 17-year-old Polish girl named Rena Kornreich, who’d been working in Slovakia as a nanny. Two days after she arrived in Auschwitz (where she was the 716th female prisoner registered), her sister, Danka, did too.
For the next three years and 41 days, Rena and Danka endured a host of dehumanizing horrors: starvation, beatings, forced labour, and the constant threat of death. Yet they persevered and survived—a remarkable triumph of love and compassion over intolerance and hate. Rena’s long life ended in 2006, more than 60 years after her liberation.
Rena Kornreich (right) and her younger sister, Danka, grew up in the village of Tylicz, Poland. This shot was taken in Holland in 1945, after their liberation from Auschwitz.
To learn more about this powerful story, and to share it on Holocaust Remembrance Day, National Geographic recently spoke with Heather Dune Macadam, co-author of Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz.
Readers might wonder how Rena wound up at Auschwitz. Why did she believe that volunteering for a work camp would protect her family from the Nazis?
After she’d been smuggled into Slovakia, she turned herself in because she was an illegal alien. The family she was living with would have been in danger if they were caught hiding her.
The Slovakian government informed Jewish families that they had to give up one daughter to go to a work camp, and that the work would help support the family. Of course, everyone thought “work” meant “farm work”—working in a field and planting potatoes.
The first four transports out of Slovakia were all women. Prior to that, the camp only had POWs and political prisoners. There were some Jewish men, but they were intelligentsia or Communists; they’d all been arrested for something.
After Rena arrived the major transports started arriving. [The Nazis] were gathering young people for slave labour. Within a couple of weeks there were 4,760 women in camp, and the Final Solution was under way.
The danger and the brutality of the camp come through loud and clear. Fortunately, the other side of humanity—kindness, sisterhood, mercy—comes through as well.
Absolutely. That mercy and that sisterhood—that humanity—is key to survival. You can’t survive if you’re on your own. And I don’t think anyone did.
One of the most amazing stories [involved] the kapo Emma, who was a prostitute. One day Rena was caught committing an infraction and was beaten brutally by an SS man, who said, “Your number is up.” Which meant she was going to the gas chamber.
When everyone marched into the camp for roll call, Emma went into the SS office. When she eventually came out, she looked at Rena and said, “Disappear!” And Rena lived.
I think you can guess what Emma traded for Rena’s life. She protected this girl by giving herself. It’s amazing to me.
Rena and Danka survived in Auschwitz for more than three years. But they had a number of very close calls. Which would you say was the closest?
Probably the incident with Dr. Mengele. It shows how Rena was always hyper-alert. When people would ask her how she survived, Rena would say it was just luck—nothing but luck. But she was street smart. She understood human nature.
So Rena and Danka had been selected for work detail by Dr. Mengele. Now sometimes these work details were actually good. They could get you out of hard labor, even save your life. And of course that’s what [Rena and Danka] were hoping for.
But as they were standing there, they were given clean, pressed new uniforms—with no numbers. That was the first clue [something was wrong]. Then Rena saw an office worker scratch a name off the clipboard she was holding, pull a girl out of line, and take her behind the office. Rena realized at once, “This is a death detail.”
Rena said it best herself: ‘I do not hate. To hate is to let Hitler win.’
Danka was freaking out, saying, “We can’t do this!” But Rena said, “Listen, I’m going to take your hand, and we’re going to walk right across the camp, as if we’re obeying orders. And if they shoot us, well, we were going to be dead anyway.”
And they did it, and they made it! Nobody stopped them. They got back into their old uniforms and they made it back to roll call. They were counted, and they lived.
A few weeks later they learned that all of the women on the Mengele detail had died. It was a sterilization experiment.
How different was the camp for women than for men?
Well, if you want to get rid of a race of people, you attack women. Women are the nurturers of a race. So genocide always targets young women. Always.
A lot of women at Auschwitz were raped. But it wasn’t just a physical rape; it was a visual rape. These young women, most of them virgins, were stripped naked and shaved head to toe each month by Jewish men, while SS men looked on. It was beyond dehumanizing.
The story has a happy ending: Rena and her sister are liberated, they emigrate to the United States, Rena marries a Red Cross worker named John Geliessen, and they have four kids.
Yes, that whole epilogue is new. I’ve changed the beginning too, so it’s a little more clear. I wrote the book in first-person present tense, which is how Rena really told the story. But people are interested in me and my relationship with Rena. So that’s sort of a separate chapter. And then we get into Rena’s story.
Rena revisits Auschwitz in 1990.
One of my favourite stories was when we were doing a lecture, and there were about 800 people in the audience. And Rena, who never wants anyone to be sad, says, “I have a good life and a good husband—and handsome too!” Then she points at her husband, who was sitting in the front row, and says, “Stand up, John! Let everyone see how handsome you are.” And he stands up, and everybody gives him a standing ovation, and he bows to the audience. It was so sweet.
By Jeremy Berlin, National Geographic
Images from The Gelissen Family