Renia: A Holocaust Memoir

Table of Contents

I
This is the only picture of myself as a baby.

This is the only picture of myself as a baby.

was born on June 20, 1926, in the town of Kalisz, in west-central Poland. Kalisz was one of the oldest Jewish communities in the country, dating from the thirteenth century. Almost half its population of approximately 60,000 at the time of my birth was Jewish. After the war, a cousin of my father’s, Henry Perle, told me about the day I was born; he described the beautiful blankets and sheets on my mother’s bed. Apparently, I was a really cute baby.

My family was quite comfortable financially. My earliest memories are of our large second-floor apartment at No. 6 Górnoslaska Street. I remember a beautiful black, wood dining room set with two credenzas whose glass cupboards were filled with crystal and china figurines. I remember my parents’ bedroom; it had a lovely dresser in it with an oval mirror you could rotate. I used to love crawling into bed with them and I remember the snow-white, starched sheets. A washwoman came once a month to wash, boil, wash, starch, hang and iron the laundry, all of which was done up in the attic. It would take her a couple of days.

My sister, Gitta, who was five-and-a-half years older, kept all her toys, toys that I eventually inherited, in a special storage area. The toys were all in perfect condition — at least until I came along. One of Gitta’s prize possessions was a big off-white rubber ball. Balls of that kind were rare in those days. I’d sit on the ball and roll around the house on it. One day while I was doing that, the ball broke; Gitta wasn’t happy. Mostly, though, she was very patient with me, very protective of her little sister. She always held my hand when we crossed the street.

My father, Szyja Zygmunt Apt, had also been born in Kalisz, on September 23, 1892. He owned and ran a lace factory; lace was an important industry in Kalisz. I remember going to visit his factory and the friendly workers who would sometimes give me candy. I can still hear the clickety-click of the machines.

Uncle Abram, Aunt Sonia and their daughter Gita in Riga.

Uncle Abram, Aunt Sonia and their daughter Gita in Riga.

My mother’s maiden name was Miriam Kahn and she was born on November 12, 1895, in Bausk, a small town in Latvia, where her family had run a delicatessen. At some point, they’d moved to Tukum and then Riga. My mother’s father — the only grandparent I knew — was Osser Kahn. Her mother’s first name was Gitta and my sister was named after her. My mother had two brothers, Abram, whom I knew, and Isaac, whom I never met; he had died young. At one point, Uncle Abram and his wife Sonia lived just a few doors away from us in Kalisz. They, too, had a daughter named Gita, with one “t.”

My parents had met in Samara in Russia, where my father was stationed during the First World War. They’d married in 1920. My mother was a very refined woman. She played the piano, having studied at the conservatory in Riga. I can remember her big brown books filled with notes and one piece in particular; it was about the sinking of the Titanic. My mother also played (and sang) Yiddish and Russian and Latvian songs; I didn’t understand them but I loved to hear them. I still like hearing songs from those days. My mother had exquisite taste. I remember some of the clothes she had made for me — the winter coat I’m wearing in the photograph with my grandfather, for example. It was a brick colour with black seal fur and a hat to match.

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