It’s one of the few rainy days we’ve had this winter when I meet Rena Quint in her home on Graetz Street in Jerusalem. Rena waves me into her building from a porch brimming with foliage and color. She is beautifully made up with a perfectly coiffured blond sheitel. And she is bubbly. Bubbly with light, enthusiasm, and a zest for life.
I try to imagine Rena as a child slave laborer in a glass factory or lying under a tree waiting for death in Bergen-Belsen, but the image of a feisty, little American swinging on the monkey bars wins. Because Rena isn’t just a survivor; she’s a thriver.
“In Israel, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, the sirens sound and for one minute the cars stop and people stop rushing,” says Rena. “We stand still to remember and it amazes me that so many people remember.”
Her voice is matter of fact, even though remembrance carries her back to years filled with hellish agony. “But after the minute, life carries on, marching to the same tempo that beat before the siren. There are many people who lost their entire families in the war. The Klausenberger Rebbe lost his wife and eleven children and many other family members in the Holocaust, yet he went on to found Sanz Medical Center–Laniado Hospital in 1976. You don’t forget and you don’t forgive. But you go on.”
Rena pauses because she senses my question. “How? How do you go on? You have to,” she says with a simplicity that hides more than it reveals. And I am left wondering how this groomed lady with coral-pink nails found the inner iron core to blossom from the ashes.
* * * * *
In the countries under German occupation, 93 percent of Jewish children were murdered. Fredzia Lichtenstien (aka Rena Quint), born on December 18, 1935 in Piotrkow, Poland, was one of the few survivors. Since Rena lived through the Holocaust from age three and a half to age nine and a half, for many years she had no clear evidence of her birth date.
“I had taken the birth date of Fannie, the dead girl whose name and passport I used to enter America,” Rena explains. “She was born February 15, 1936, so when I found my birth certificate in 1989, I gained a few months.”
I look at a copy of her birth certificate. Indisputable facts backed by documentation are important to Rena because they are the scaffolding on which her memories rest. Throughout our interview, Rena refers me to solid facts: her parents’ pre-nuptial agreement, her father’s application for a new identity card, her own temperature chart tracked down in the hospital in Sweden where she was nursed after being liberated from Bergen-Belsen.
Rena doesn’t remember her mother, and her mind’s eye picture of her father was very different from the photo she saw when his application was discovered. Not surprisingly, this lack of solid memories is terribly painful for her.
“I do remember the fear, the terrible smell of the soup in the camps. So why can’t I remember Shabbat? My mother? The way she kissed me?” she asks rhetorically. She continues, “I don’t remember, but my mother must have been very good to me. And I like to imagine I am living the values my mother instilled in me. My home is open…so open that my grandson was comfortable enough to bring ten friends to my house to make a barbeque.”
Incredible as it may seem, Rena felt an element of shame at not being able to remember. In fact, research shows that trauma victims are caught between the compulsion to complete the process of knowing and the inability or fear of doing so.
“Maybe my forgetfulness is a survival strategy to prevent those nightmares of deep traumas…” says Rena in her memoir, Daughter of Many Mothers, co-authored with Barbara Sofer. By the time I meet Rena, however, just after she has launched her book, she tells me with confidence what she was told by a psychologist she met with when working on her book: “What I remember is enough.”
Not surprisingly, with so many gaps in her past, the parts she has managed to fill in are precious. On a trip to Poland in 2015, she saw the house where her mother was born, where her parents lived, the shops they owned, and the house in which she and her two brothers were born. And she also saw the bullet holes the Nazis blasted into the aron kodesh in the shul in Piotrkow. Telling me about the bullet holes takes Rena back to her childhood.
After a battle with the Polish Army, Piotrkow was occupied by the Wehrmacht on September 5, 1939. The ghetto (the very first of all ghettos) was created 38 days later. Rena was three and a half. The influx of refugees expelled from other places, including Lodz, Belchatow, Kalisz, Gniezno, and Plock caused the ghetto population to more than double by 1942. Many Jews, including Rena’s father, worked as forced laborers in the Hortensja glassworks factory.
In October 1942, the Nazis began to liquidate the ghetto. Two thousand Jews were herded into the square near the synagogue.
“I was there with my mother and two brothers, David and Yossi,” says Rena. “I have no proof, but I imagine I was holding on to my mother’s hand. And then I let go of my mother’s hand to run to a man; maybe he was my uncle.”
Letting go saved Rena’s life. Over the next four days, the Jews in the square, including Rena’s mother and brothers, were sent to Treblinka.
“The man took me to my father in the glass factory. I was six and a half, but my father cut my hair and I became Froim, a ten-year-old boy,” she says. For the next two years, Rena slaved in the factory as a water carrier. With the Russians advancing, the Germans decided in November 1944 to move their labor force to a safer place.
“My father knew we would be taken to a shower in the new camp and that the Germans would discover I wasn’t a boy, so he gave me over to a woman from Piotrkow,” says Rena. “I think she was a teacher.” The teacher became Rena’s second mother.
The next critical five months are missing from Rena’s memory. Possibly she passed through Ravensbuck on her way to Bergen-Belsen. At some point, the teacher disappeared. Presumably, other women Rena cannot recall helped take care of her.
“The act of mothering provides our strength and preserves our humanity, so possibly we helped each other to survive,” says Rena in her memoir. On April 15, 1945, close to death, Rena was liberated by the British.
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In Sweden, in Bjarred, in Hassleholm, and later in Tinsgryd, Rena began to recuperate. She also learned that four members of her extended family had survived –and that 144 had died. When a loving Swedish couple was ready to adopt Rena, she was willing to become their daughter. In her lounge is the wooden folk figurine the man carved for Rena.
“I could have gone with my new Swedish mother and become a good Christian. I could also have come to Israel and probably settled into Israeli life. But Hashem sent malachim, angels, to help me,” Rena says.
One of the angels was Anna Philipstahl. When Anna’s daughter Fannie died, Anna suggested that Rena take Fannie’s visa to America and her place in her heart as her daughter. With her new mother, Rena made her way to America in 1946. But the longed-for stability didn’t happen. A few months after their arrival, Anna, unable to beat the repercussions of deprivation and disease, died. Rena learned of her death only at her funeral.
Since Anna’s relatives weren’t able to take Rena into their care, they arranged for Rena to visit Leah and Jacob Globe, who had no children of their own, with the hope it would lead to adoption. Finally Rena had a home and Leah Globe become her mother.
“I never called her ‘mother,’ ” Rena says. Her voice holds a mixture of pain and wonderment, as if she still cannot understand what held her back. “I loved her and I referred to her as my mother when I spoke to others, but it was hard for me to call her ‘mother.’ ”
Enrolled in a Conservative school, for the first time in her life Rena wondered what it meant to be Jewish. It was something she never thought about throughout the Holocaust: “There were those inside the barbed wire and those on the outside,” she says. With the help of the Globes, Rena learned to look to the future. By the time she reached seventeen, she was a typical American teenager and received her American citizenship.
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Despite the misgivings of Rena’s friends who thought that Emanuel Quint, a rabbi and a lawyer, was too religious and too serious for Rena, the two were married in March 1959.
“The Globes taught me how to love and my husband too was a very good teacher,” says Rena. She points to the kitchen door, covered with notes Rabbi Quint wrote to her daily, for Shabbos and for Yom Tov. Sometimes the notes explained the day’s davening or contained a few words on the parshah. Rena shows me a set of books Rabbi Quint’s students re-bound in his honor. Each book is inscribed with a verse that contains the word rena, which means rejoicing.
We open one book and read: The voice of rejoicing and salvation is in the tents of the righteous (Tehillim 118:15). And I realize we haven’t opened up to this by chance, because Rena’s essence is about rejoicing and salvation.
Marriage to a rabbi meant that Rena (and the Globes too) moved on to a higher level of mitzvah observance and also became more Zionistic. Their children continue to uphold the values of their parents, and three of the Quints’ four children live in Kanrei Shomron. “The bar mitzvah of my grandson, Carmi Chwat, was celebrated during the Intifada, in Chevron, at Ma’arat HaMachpelah,” says Rena. “We thought no one would come; in the end, we had to order five buses to bring in the guests.”
Rabbi Quint comes into the room for a few minutes and when I tell him I am enjoying his wife’s company, he isn’t surprised. “Rena is everything in my life. She is my life,” he says.
Fun loving and confident, Rena doesn’t suffer from any of the syndromes that often plague Holocaust survivors. “So well-adjusted was Rena that her husband at first wondered if the search for her past was necessary. After all, she had never spoken to her children about it.
However, with the emotional support of a stable family around her, Rena had indeed become confident enough to begin to search for her identity. When her cousin Yitzchak, whom she had met in Sweden, contacted Rena, she decided she wanted to meet him. And then, for the first time, Rena spoke about the Holocaust to her son’s eighth grade class.
The students, unsure of how to react, laughed at the horrific scenes in the documentary “Night and Fog.” Rena didn’t know what to say. She also knew she was missing a lot of information. And so the search began in earnest.
In 1981, Rena attended a Purim party where she met other survivors from Piotrkow. In the summer, she attended the World Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors in Jerusalem. During one of the breaks at the meeting, at a hotel boutique, Rena watched a survivor wavering over the purchase of a dress. “The green one? The red one? Years ago, this lady was dressed in rags and now she couldn’t decide which dress suited her better,” Rena says. “I was so happy that this was her dilemma.”
Piece by piece, document by document, Rena received confirmation that what she remembered was true. She was finally able to patch together a past. And with that knowledge came the obligation to share with the world what had happened.
* * * * *
Speaking engagements are now very much a part of Rena’s life. A phone call during our interview indicates she can be booked up months at a time. And with the publication of her memoir, those engagements are bound to increase. In addition, the Quints have hosted groups from the Schusterman Foundation, National Geographic, China – and on Friday nights they regularly host up to thirty guests from varied backgrounds.
Through all the talks and meetings, one message comes through clearly. “There is no forgiving and no forgetting, but you can’t live with anger,” Rena says. “I am tremendously grateful to Hashem for saving me and for giving me so much. I don’t have anger against God either. I look at it in a different way: I was saved when so many others weren’t.”
The dedication at the front of her memoir says it all: From one survivor to a clan — Thank you, God.