Emotional Journey of a Holocaust Survivor

Sociolinguistics Series: Part 58

Language is a powerful tool.

Irene Yi

Yes, we are back, and the subject is still heavy. Welcome to this land. We are here talking to a Holocaust survivor. Her name is Rena Quint, and she says that she is a daughter of many mothers.

Of course, she would have liked to be the daughter of just her biological mother, but the Holocaust did not allow that to happen. Instead, she found companionship and love in the arms of many more "mothers" who would look after her during the Holocaust. In her book that details her experience, she writes on the dedication page, "To my Parents, the ones who gave birth to me and the ones who raised me."

Rena was born in Poland, to the name Fredzia. She lived in a Polish home with a mezuzah on her door. A mezuzah is a small roll of paper--usually with verses from the Torah written on it--stuck to the door; it is the sign of a Jewish home. She lives a normal childhood until about eight or nine years old, and then her family is torn apart.

She remembers being in a church-like building with her mom, hiding from the people who will take her away. At the last minute, her mom pushes her through a door, and that is the last time she ever sees her mom. Rena is safe for now. She finds her father, who is working in a factory. He disguises her into an older boy and gives her work to do in order to hide her identity and keep her safe for a little while longer.

Finally, when the Nazis catch up with Rena's dad and takes both of them away, Rena realizes that she will be discovered--the fact that she is a girl--if they take her any further, since the first step in a camp is to strip naked, get a number, and lose all other identity. Her father realizes this as well and finds a kind-looking woman.

He asks her to look after Rena; he asks Rena if she wants this woman to be her mom for now. The hand-off is made, and Rena now finds calls this woman her mother for the sake of her own sanity and safety. They are taken to a concentration camp. They are there for God knows how long. They suffer through unimaginable horrors. Mean guard dogs scare Rena and bite her knee. She is scared of dogs after this.

One day, Rena wakes up in a pile of dead bodies; she thinks she is dead as well. She can't imagine being anything but dead, with all the smell of death around her. She hears a soldier throwing up. This is weird. German soldiers don't throw up; they have learned to get used to it, and being disgusted by dead Jews has long been trained to leave the German soldier psyche.

Instead, she sees a British soldier. Liberation has arrived. However, Rena needs urgent medical attention, as she is malnourished to, essentially, the point of death. They have to be careful to not overfeed her right away, though. Many other starving Jews actually died after liberation because once they were fed food, their bodies shut down as a result of not knowing how to react; they had been starved for so, so long.

Rena has lost her concentration camp mother; she thinks her mother probably died in the camp, but she does not know. She does not really know anything that is going on around her. She is placed in another camp, but this time it's a temporary refugee and rehabilitation camp.

She meets a Christian family who wants to adopt her; she hears that this family will give her love, gifts, and food, so she wants to be with them. However, the Jews around her tell her that she shouldn't go with them because they are Christian and she is Jewish.

She is a Jew. She doesn't even know what Jewish means; she doesn't know what being a Jew means to her. She only vaguely remembers her parents being "Jewish," but she wasn't old enough to understand her faith or identity before being taken away.

She saw the death of her people all around her, and she saw her family ripped apart--and she didn't even understand why the rest of the world seemed to hate her. She doesn't go with the Christian family.

Instead, she finds another Jewish woman whose young daughter just died; this woman asks Rena to be her replacement daughter because she has a ticket to America for her dead daughter. Rena agrees.

They go to America, and this becomes Rena's new mom. Rena is promised that she will have a new life: an education, a house, a full belly, a home, a family. Shortly after they get to America, though, this woman--this new mother--dies.

At the funeral, she sees everyone crying over one dead body. She is amazed. How are they crying over ONE dead body?! In the Holocaust, nobody cried, and there were six million dead bodies. Were Americans that sensitive, to cry over just one person who died? Where were the Americans when six million Jews died, just across the ocean?

Rena doesn't show any emotion at the funeral, but later teaches herself how to show her emotions. She has to reprogram her brain from both numbness and pain to something akin to human emotion.

After a while, she was told that there was a family in New York who wanted a child. She could live with them for a "trial run," if she wanted. If she was good, they would keep her. Rena didn't want to imagine what the other outcomes could be.

She arrived in New York, and she found out the family had a dog. She pretended to not be scared of it, fearing that if she let negative emotions show, the family wouldn't want her anymore. It turns out that the dog was very nice, and the family loved her. They raised her, giving her the name of "Rena" and anything else she wanted or needed.

Now, Rena is a great-grandmother to many beautiful children, and she actually had a wedding to get to the day after we talked to her. She teared up when she told us that her husband of 60 some years had just passed away. When telling us of the horrors she faced, she never wavered in her resilient voice. The voice only broke when she mentioned her late husband.

She told us that no matter how bad things get, she always had to have hope. In today's conflict, she sees that hate, violence, and fear is not the answer. Even after going through all those trying times, she still has hope and love for the world and everyone around her--including her Palestinian and Arab neighbors. I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty beautiful.

After our emotional journey at Yad Vashem and in the room talking to Rena, we headed to Shalem College, Israel's first liberal arts college. I will talk about our adventures there in the next section!

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This article has not been reviewed by Odyssey HQ and solely reflects the ideas and opinions of the creator.
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