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Rena's Promise: Birkenau Chapter

Rena’s Promise

By Rena Gelissen and Co-written by Heather Dune Macadam

An Analysis of the “Birkenau Chapter”


By Jason A.W. Quintyne

English 124; Professor Mary c. Kim


Gelissen’s and Macadam’s Rena's Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz captures one Jewish woman’s fight to retain her identity despite the dehumanization of concentration camps. After their capture and imprisonment in Auschwitz, Rena, her sister Danka and thousands more are moved to Birkenau known as Auschwitz II during August 5th to 10th, 1942. Though the setting and imagery has changed Rena and Danka endure worse living conditions and faced death daily. Through imagery and characterization the “Birkenau Chapter” captures Rena Kornreich and her sister, Danka’s continual struggle to weather the storm, as they begin to witness more unspeakable horrors.

The dismal imagery that lay ahead underscores the terrible plight that had befallen so many Jews upon their arrival. “Birkenau was swamp fenced off by electrified wire, no roads whatsoever and no paths between blocks” (Page 95). Rena and Danka faced death more often as they awoke to the cold bodies of their prison mates daily (95). The “luxuries” (104) they enjoyed in Auschwitz I were gone as their block in Auschwitz-Birkenau had a bucket for toilets and no sinks to wash by. The bunks were smaller, no longer fitting twelve but six women per shelf. The weather continues to be a damp cold even though they are no signs of seasonal change- the leaves did not change color and in truth, everything was the cold-grey dismal palette of winter weather (100-102).

            During the dewing detail that Rena organized for herself and Danka to escape the cold and work indoors, she witnessed one of the SS men pouring the gas into the gas chambers. The compound was across from where they worked folding clothes and as she gazed through the windows she became horrified at their proximity to such an act and expressed great discomfort at having to work with such atrocities so near by. So close to where many were being sent to their deaths and even some burnt alive if the gas had not finished them off, took its toll on her psyche and she immediately decided that she must get herself and her sister away from this work detail even if it meant going back in the cold (121).

            The imagery the Jews continued to face further demonstrates the continuing demoralization techniques of the Nazis. As if it wasn’t enough to imagine the screams of many dying horrific deaths, Rena witnessed one day, the arrival of an entire orphanage of Jewish youth that was emptied by the Nazis. The barbaric nature of children being marched to their deaths, clutching stuffed toys and holding each other hands in complete ignorance of what is about to happen to them, was enough to make Rena question her pious and devout faith (134-136). As Yom Kippur descended on the Jews, Rena confronts her indifference and chooses to eat through this time when usually it is a time of fasting- another instance of having to go against their faith such as working on the Sabbath mentioned during the analysis of the Auschwitz I chapter. Adding insult to injury, the Germans forced their captives to write home to their families, lying about the treatment and work that they were doing; the Jews were made to falsely convey their enjoyment and satisfaction of the work and conditions in which they toiled (104). In addition to these degrading strategies the Germans organized an entertainment package of sorts for the SS senior offices. Rena and a few others were chosen because of their natural ability to engage in somersaults, cartwheels and other gymnastic feats. They worked tirelessly under guard by one of the female wardresses to learn the routines for their performance (106).

            Even though many of these strategies served their purpose well Rena somehow managed to exhibit enough inner strength to endure sometimes even in the face of death. The Nazis made regular decisions about who among their captors were deemed fit to live and who should perish in the gas chambers and crematorium. These decisions or “selections” were so callous in nature that it emphasized their hatred for the Jews and the superiority with which then saw themselves apart from all others (110). Another challenge to her moral being came at the hands of her cousin’s wife. As a captor herself, she came down with scabies and begged Rena for help. Rena remembered of how condescending this upper-class woman was to her and Danka when they visited their cousin in Slovakia. Even though it seemed as if this woman’s nature could cause harm to Rena, she decided out of the goodness of her heart to arrange to acquire some salve to assist the woman in easing her ailment (148).

Rena awoke one night to the realization that the woman sleeping next to her had perished in her sleep. Not wanting to awaken Danka with this she decided to wait until the morning and nudged Danka to go get her tea while she stayed behind to fold the blanket. In actuality, she wanted to spare Danka the site of the dead woman and asked one of the other women to help carry the corpse off (127-126). Throughout, Rena remains strong for her sister and draws great fortitude to protect and comfort her. When she notices Danka’s deteriorating psyche, Rena tries desperately to comfort her, to remind her of why they remain alive and that no matter what, they will return home one day to the loving arms of their parents (124-125). Rena remains strong and reminds herself daily of her promise to her mother, to protect Danka and bring her home. She chants, “Nothing else matters but these four things: be with Danka, be invisible, be alert, be numb” (101)

These challenges that the Jews face imposed upon them by the Nazis, are absolute and explicit in nature. The efforts at demeaning and breaking them down physically, mentally and spiritually as well as the bleak, abysmal circumstances and surroundings the Jews face would take their toll on even the strongest minds. Even though Rena tries to remain strong it is not without considerable effort and for the love of her sister. She endures even at the cost of her faith and at the threat of deteriorating her own mental state. The imagery forces us to visualize with striking clarity the plight Rena and the rest of the Jews endured.  Through the profound characterization of Rena her high moral fiber is underscored. These techniques continue to emphasize and illustrate this most unfortunate moment in human history and the profound struggle of one woman to survive against adversity.


1091 words     


Work Cited

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

Press, 1996. 


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