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Final Draft; Thesis Topic: Rena's Promise

Rena’s Promise

By Rena Gelissen and Co-written by Heather Dune Macadam

An Analysis of the “Auschwitz Chapter”


Through imagery and characterization, Gelissen’s and Macadam’s Rena's Promise: “Auschwitz” captures one Jewish woman’s fight to retain her identity despite the dehumanization of concentration camps. The story tells of the capture and imprisonment of Rena Kornreich (Gelissen by marriage) and her sister Danka who were among the scores of other Jewish prisoners in 1942. They endured deplorable living conditions as well as cruel and inhumane treatment during their subjugation. Rena’s indomitable will to survive, protect her sister and see themselves to freedom is captured by Heather Dune Macadam who interviews Rena and who enters her own narrative into the telling of the story.

 Despite her predicament, Rena exhibits a strong will to survive and protect her sister until they are able to return home. A feat made possible by her inner strength and compassion. They arrive in Auschwitz and are faced with a seemingly inextricable situation but after Rena takes it all in she turns to her sister and tries to comfort her. She speaks about the task ahead and how they will face it together. Rena tries to make light of the situation and reassures her sister that they will be free someday. She says, “…listen good to what I tell you. We’re farmer’s daughters. We’re going to work, but that is what we do already. The work here will be nothing for us. And this is my dream, Danka- I am going to bring you home” (page 73, lines 18-21). Though the labor is hard and they struggle to stay alive, the reality hits Rena that the Germans will go to great lengths to demoralize their prisoners.

 Rena, her sister and the rest of the prisoners try to endure their hard and exhaustive strife even through thick soft mud that is almost impossible to haul their weighty loads through. The Jews are forced to work on Saturday which is their Sabbath. This tactic by the Germans serves to further demoralize the prisoners and challenge their faiths. They are forced to work through their Jewish Sabbath and act against their Hebrew law. They are forced into carrying heavy loads back and forth and made to endure bleeding hands and feet that were hurt during their long and difficult, mundane task. They sleep on lice-infected makeshift beds, wear woolen clothing that irritates their skin and is much too big to fit. The blood stains on the clothes are the only vestiges of the previous owners. They sit up and try picking off and killing the lice from their skin like monkeys and chimps would in the jungle as if they themselves have regressed to a lesser primate. Caged in Auschwitz like the caged animals in a zoo.

 The strategic actions by the Germans were more than enough to make their unfortunate slaves loose all confidence and hope. The work was meant to break them, to remove their spirited nature, to destroy them. Rena often describes the passing memories of her past and of the friendships and loves she had made, the nurturing hand of her mother. She tries desperately to repress these memories in an attempt to not show any emotion, to harden her heart and be strong for herself and for Danka. She remains strong and doesn’t show any sign that her captors have broken her. In one instance, and one which illustrates how close she was to her breaking point during her and her sister’s entrapment, she laments about how exhausted she is trying to stay awake she speaks of trying to keep a watchful eye over her sister, always being vigilant and alert. In another instance she finds herself among the dead and wonders if she is dead also. She begins to entertain morbid thoughts but stops herself, finding the will to stop entertaining such thoughts that she feels would only lead to insanity. She thinks to herself, “They are several bodies piled next to us…They look so alive…If they don’t look dead, I speculate, could we all be dead? One can’t think like this without going insane. I stop pondering any thoughts which might lead to insanity”(pg 84, lines 18-23). Throughout the chapter Rena paints such vivid accounts of her subjugation that one might think these events happened within the last few years rather than decades.

 The imagery created by Rena as she recalls the conditions in which they had to live gives us an insight as to how unfortunate they were for which we immediately put ourselves into her place and empathize with her. Rena says,

“The floor is dirt. There are no bunk beds here; there are shelves, wood planks, three tiers high. Our beds look like horse stalls. There is a sour smell of human odor. There are rags for blankets. We stand, squeezing our bread in our hands, unable to cope, unable to move” (pg 95, line 17-24).

Even though the struggle was daily she still retained her identity. She was neat, tidy and clean. These idiosyncrasies are revealed throughout and can be seen as she places her pants under the bed. She spits and rubs onto the pants before placing them so that as they slept during the night the pants would have a neat crease down the front. She even goes so far as to spit on the wooded planks they have as shoes and remove as much dirt as she can. Through all this Rena endures as well as the suffering that follows which foretells a rather determined spirit.

 Unequivocally the theme of Rena’s Promise is one of survival and to a slightly lesser degree, love. If not for Rena’s love for her sister and family and the sense of loyalty she felt then it would be unclear as to what then would she have had to draw strength from to survive such a tragic event. The co-author goes on to speak about Rena’s strength of character and her love as to the reason why she’s sharing her story with the world. Rena resorted to her kind nature and it was repaid to her by those she was kind to. These techniques bear great relevance to the story and overall theme of survival. Through said techniques the story has a greater impact upon us as the imagery describes quite frankly the ordeal they went through. Rena’s character gives us insight as to her ability to survive said ordeal for which they did indeed survive to be later set free at the end of World War II in 1945.

 1117 Words

Work Cited

Gelissen, Rena. Heather Macadam. Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz. Boston: Beacon

Press, 1996. Ix-19.



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