Wounds of War; Night & Day

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 4, 1996 | Go to article overview

Wounds of War; Night & Day


Byline: PHILLIP KNIGHTLEY

PHILLIP KNIGHTLEY admires the spirit of Holocaust survivors Rena's Promise by Rena Kornreich Gelissen, Weidenfeld, [pounds sterling]16.99 Inherit The Truth 1939-1945, by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, Giles de la Mare, [pounds sterling]9.99, history

Holocaust survivors, as they themselves agree, are a people apart. They can surgically remove the death camp numbers tattooed on their arms but they cannot remove the scars from their minds and cannot escape the question `Why me? Why did I survive when so many millions died?' These two books - so similar in many ways, so different in others - offer us a chance to learn what it was that enabled four young Jewish girls to survive years of unimaginable horror.

Rena Kornreich (above) and her younger sister Danka were born into an orthodox Jewish family in a small village in rural Poland. Anita Lasker and her younger sister Renate were born into an assimilated German-Jewish family in Breslau. Both sets of parents were seized and vanished into the Holocaust and all four girls, still in their teens, ended up in Auschwitz, the Nazis' biggest and worst death camp.

There they were starved, beaten and humiliated. They lived with the pain of hunger, their will sapped by fear, cold and disease. Thousands of other inmates died all around them - shot, gassed, clubbed, torn to pieces by dogs, or their heads crushed under the boot of an SS officer.

All four crossed the path of the infamous Dr Mengele, busy with his experiments on the reproductive organs of women inmates. Anita played the cello for him and Rena, selected for Mengele's section, slipped her sister in as well, believing the work would be easier for her. Fortunately, the two girls were able to bluff their way out again when they realised what was really happening there.

Despite their suffering, 1945 saw the two sets of sisters, who never met in the camp, still alive. The value of their brutally honest accounts is the lesson that to survive you needed a motive beyond self-preservation. Rena and Anita were determined not to die because each had to look after her younger sister. `My one great feat in life, my fate, is to survive this thing and return triumphant with my sister to our parents' house,' writes Rena. `Mama, I brought you the baby back.'

To this end, both elder girls quickly became `camp smart'. They were young and healthy on arrival so did not face immediate gassing. Their first task was to get themselves and their sisters on the best work detail. Anita announced that she could play the cello so was sent to the camp orchestra - one of the many bizarre paradoxes of Auschwitz. Each morning and evening the orchestra played the work squads in and out of the gates and the guards would shout `heads up' so that these pathetic, starving, dying creatures would march better and present a more orderly spectacle. …

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