Renia: A Holocaust Memoir
Table of Contents

When we arrived in Jelenia Góra, the Jewish committee there helped us find an apartment. It was nothing to brag about, two rooms and a kitchen, but better accommodation than we’d had in years. My aunt and her family found themselves a big apartment. They had hidden gold in soap, some of it hidden in my luggage. While we had starved, they had managed to do well on the black market.

Jelenia Góra. Before the war, when it was still part of Germany, it was called Hirschberg.

Jelenia Gora. Before the war, when it was still part of Germany, it was called Hirschberg.

Jelenia Góra was a town of about 50,000 people, which had survived the war almost intact. It had been a German city called Hirschberg before and during the war. Now it was a Polish city again. My sister got a job working for the Jewish committee and I found an office job at a hydro-electric company. I ran one of the departments and had seven or eight girls working under me. Gitta and I didn’t make very much money, but at least we weren’t hungry any more. I would buy a pound of ground meat and put about four or five bread rolls in it. It would last us a whole week.

Most of the Jews in Jelenia Góra had come there since the end of the war. The German population had been transported back to Germany; Poles with German blood, the so-called Volksdeutschen, had been allowed to remain. On the whole, Jews were treated reasonably well in Jelenia Góra during this period. That’s not to say there was no anti-semitism. Where I worked, I had an anti-Semitic encounter with one of my co-workers. A girl at lunch had made a pot of coffee. I was standing in line to get some and she said, “Germans and Jews go to the end of the line.” That was one thing. Another time, she asked, mockingly, “Renia, is it true that when Jews die, they bury them sitting up?” My best friend at work was a Polish girl, Hela. “No,” replied Hela, “actually they bury them with their asses up,” “Why?” the woman wanted to know. “So people like you can kiss them,” said Hela. I was speechless. She had answered for me. Hela later married a Jew, a friend of ours, and moved to Israel.

Gitta and her first husband, Josef Birnberg.

Gitta and her first husband, Josef Birnberg.

In early 1947, Gitta married Josef Birnberg, a man who worked for the same Jewish committee she did. She was twenty-five and he was forty-eight. I don’t know much about his life before they met. He’d finished university in Vienna, where he had studied philosophy. She moved out of our little apartment to live with Josef. I’m sure he loved Gitta but he was not an easy man to live with. I could sense she was not happy and I worried about her.

For the first time, I was living on my own. I managed, but there were trade-offs. One time I remember I got my pay cheque and bought a pair of nylons I was dying to have. I wore them that night, but I tripped on the stairs and tore one of the stockings. Oh, how I cried. I hadn’t bought food that day; I’d bought the stockings instead. That pair of stockings would probably have cost me half my monthly pay. But I had to have them.

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