“What would you take if you had 10 minutes to pack up your life,” asked 80-year-old Rena Quint a few hours ahead of Israel’s annual Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Surrounded by well-worn volumes of ancient Jewish texts at Jerusalem’s Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, Quint’s question sounded like a trigger for one of the large study hall’s daily theoretical discussions.
But during the horrors of the Holocaust, Quint’s question was never hypothetical.
“Photos,” “jewelry,” “cash,” “passports,” called out the students at Quint’s encouragement.
Quint’s mother and brothers were murdered in Treblinka. Her father, first sent for slave labor, was later torn from Quint and killed. When the British liberated Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, Quint was on the brink of death, lying in a pile of corpses.
“I don’t know how much any of these things would have done for you,” Quint said Wednesday. “But instead of the pictures, maybe you want to take a baby, an old grandmother?”
With bright pink fingernail polish to match her smartphone case, and wearing a festive flowered jacket, this vibrant octogenarian is today a grandmother of 22 and great-grandmother of 19. From orphaned child she is now the matriarch of an unlikely empire.
During her hour-long interactive testimony at Pardes, Quint charted the many lifetimes’ worth of evil she encountered before reaching the United States at age 10. But she also emphasized she has since lived a very good life.
“I feel really very lucky to be alive and be able to come here and speak about it,” she said as preface to her testimony. She is especially grateful, she said, for the six women she called mother between ages three-and-a-half-years old to nine-and-a-half years.
‘I don’t think I could have done it if God hadn’t sent someone to take care of me’
“Every time I lost somebody, somebody came along and took care of me. The fact that somebody was there, it was a very important thing. I don’t think I could have done it if God hadn’t sent someone to take care of me,” she said.
In a tale told from the perspective of a child, Quint’s Holocaust history is full of gaping holes of memory and unanswerable questions. To survive, her name and even her gender were malleable.
‘Beaten, like animals to the slaughter’
A month after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the first Jewish ghetto was created in Quint’s birthplace, Piotrkow. Life became increasingly difficult for Quint and her family as Piotrkow’s Jews and those of the surrounding areas were shut in the ghetto in close unsanitary quarters. But her personal nightmare intensified in October 1942, the night her family was given 10 minutes to leave their apartment and assemble in the main square.
She remembers the chaos of running down her building’s stairwell and being herded “being beaten, like animals to the slaughter,” into the town synagogue. Piotrkow Chief Rabbi Moshe Chaim Lau, the father of former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and grandfather of current Israeli Chief Rabbi David Lau, was deported to Treblinka on October 21, 1942 and murdered with his son Shmuel.
In 1989, Quint finally visited her birthplace for the first time since her deportation to Bergen-Belsen. She entered the synagogue where she, her mother and two brothers had been corralled. It now serves as a library, but bullet holes are still visible next to the curtained-off Aron Kodesh, where the Torah scrolls were once kept.
“Can you imagine how many people might have gotten in the way of those bullet holes,” Quint asked the students, telling them of the others who couldn’t fit in the synagogue. They were forced to dig trenches in the forest, where they were shot and buried in the mass graves.
With a calm facade, Quint spoke to the students with natural eloquence. But after her presentation, she told The Times of Israel that the first time she told her story publicly — at her son’s 8th grade class at the Flatbush Yeshiva in New York — she cried after every sentence.
Today she is encouraged by her grandchildren to continue telling her story. In this mixed audience of adults and some schoolchildren, she describes the Nazis’ savagery, but also smiles and makes jokes. And by asking questions, she makes the theoretical personal.
‘I don’t know if my mother pushed me, if God pushed me… I don’t know how it happened, but I ran out of that door’
“What do you think a little girl does when frightened? She holds on to her mother, just as I am sure my mother was holding on to me,” said Quint. But behind a door in the back of the synagogue, she saw a man, “I think he could have been my uncle,” who beckoned to her and said, “Run!”
“I don’t know if my mother pushed me, if God pushed me… I don’t know how it happened, but I ran out of that door,” said Quint. It was the last time she saw her mother and brothers, who were taken to Treblinka and murdered.
“I can’t imagine my mother’s last hours: Was she worried about the two boys, or worried about her baby daughter?” said Quint. “I don’t remember what my real mother looked like. I don’t remember her kiss.”
Some 860,000 Jews were killed at Treblinka and over 1.5 million children died in the Holocaust. “I’m different because I survived and 1.5 million did not,” said Quint.
‘The fear of those dogs never leaves you’
The man Quint thinks was her uncle took her to her father, who was working as a forced laborer in a glass factory.
“Girls were useless and boys under 10 not counted for anything,” said Quint.
“So I became a boy of 10; a man of 10.”
At age six-and-a-half, she cut her hair and morphed from daughter Fredja, to son Froyem.
“I worked, very hard, delivering pails of water to people working in the glass factory,” she said. It was terribly hot in the factory and to induce the forced laborers to work harder, the guards threatened them with big vicious German shepherds.
‘The doors flung open, and dead bodies were flung out onto the snow’
“If a dog bites you on your arm, it is a death sentence. If you can’t work, you’re shot. The fear of those dogs never leaves you,” she said.
In late 1944, the Germans decided to transport all the Jews out of Poland. Quint was shoved onto a cattle car with her father, and they traveled for three days without food and water. Many died along the way.
“The doors flung open, and dead bodies were flung out onto the snow. It feels like it was always snowing there. We used the snow to drink and eat, and to see who was still with us,” she said.
Her father and uncle were still with her, but her father, realizing the Jews would inevitably be stripped and searched, knew she could no longer pass as a boy. Before entrusting her to a female schoolteacher they had met along the way, he gave her several family photos he’d somehow managed to take with him.
“He promised to meet me. Fathers are supposed to keep their promises. He did not,” said Quint. She never saw her father again, and all photos were soon destroyed by soldiers.
“I went along with my new ‘mother.’ I don’t remember her name, or what she looks like,” said Quint. “As you went along, it was just blood and bodies and blood and bodies.”
‘You either adapt or you die’
As the war drew to a close, conditions in Bergen-Belsen were increasingly more crowded and desperate. With no remaining bunks, the newcomers were forced to sleep in lice and rat-infested straw. “They had plenty to eat, we had nothing,” Quint said.
‘What is there to live for when you know there’s no hope?’
“You either adapt or you die, or give up, and people didn’t give up,” she told The Times of Israel, striking a rare utterly pessimistic note. “You know tomorrow will just be worse than today. What is there to live for when you know there’s no hope?”
Even over 70 years later, Quint vividly described the lingering, unexpected eruptions that haunt her from the camp.
“The smells never leave you. The soup in Bergen-Belsen, the smell of dead bodies… if you’ve smelled a dead animal someplace, it is that, magnified. It doesn’t leave you,” she said.
Later, in the final days before the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, she was deathly ill with diphtheria and typhus. As the women took out the dead from their bunker, she was laid on a pile of corpses and those who were nearly dead.
“While lying there, knowing I was going to die, something happened that had never happened before. People who had never walked faster than a snail’s pace were running. People who had never spoken above a whisper, were shouting,” she said.
The camp had been liberated. Quint realized she was going to live.
The resilience of youth
Quint was taken by stretcher to a hospital, and with the resilience of youth, quickly recuperated in Sweden, which welcomed some 6,000 Jews. There she met her next “mother,” Anna, who was being sponsored by relatives in the US who arranged tickets and travel papers for her and her two children.
It was the death of Anna’s daughter Fanny that allowed Quint to assume her persona and immigrate to America. Through further unfortunate circumstances, Anna died, and young Quint was again in search of a mother.
‘For a while, I didn’t even know what was real’
“The people around me changed so quickly, it was like they never existed. There was no point thinking about them, because for a while, I didn’t even know what was real,” she said.
Quint was invited to spend Shabbat with a 46-year-old childless couple in Brooklyn, who became her adoptive parents. She quickly became an Orthodox Jewish all-American girl.
“I don’t know how I lost my accent, but I speak like an American. I lived an American life,” she said, until the family immigrated to Israel in 1984.
She speaks Yiddish well and not Polish, so she assumes she spoke Yiddish at home with her parents. But like many other facets of her early life, she just doesn’t know.
“I had a very good life, it just started 10 years after it should have,” she said.
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