Renia: A Holocaust Memoir

Table of Contents

Bread was rationed. At the beginning of every month everyone received a sheet of coupons for the month. Every day we were each entitled to 400 grams of bread. Those working in factories connected to the war effort got 600 grams. The bread was dark and heavy. Even 600 grams was a small piece, especially when there was no other food. And those who were distributing the bread would cheat on the scales so they would have a little extra for themselves at the end of the day.

To get our ration we had to stand in line and wait for hours. Depending on what shift I was working, I would get up at four or five in the morning to stand in line. Bread wasn’t delivered to the store until nine or ten, sometimes later. Sometimes when our turn came, the store was out of bread. Sometimes we received two days’ ration at once. I didn’t like that because I was so hungry it was hard to resist the temptation to eat both rations.

This is the only photograph I have of my mother during the war. It is from some document — I’m not sure which one — and was taken in 1943.

This is the only photograph I have of my mother during the war. It is from some document -- I'm not sure which one -- and was taken in 1943.

One cold winter day — it must have been 40 below — I was standing in line. It was the beginning of a month so I was holding four whole sheets of coupons, enough for the whole month. I was hungry and cold and I fainted. Some Russian women who knew me wanted to open my hand and take out the coupons for safe keeping. They didn’t want my family to lose its ration for the month. Although I’d fainted, they couldn’t pry my hand open to get the ration cards, I was holding on to them so tightly. That’s how they carried me home, still clutching the coupons.

From being a student, having fun and being ignorant of what was going on in the world, suddenly I was a working woman. I was always thinking about the next meal, always underdressed; there were no changes of clothes. I had to walk a long distance to get to work; there was no streetcar. I was working a twelve-hour shift, six or seven days a week, depending on whether we’d met our quota. I would work days one week and nights the next. My foreman, Nehemiah Knobel — he now lives in Toronto — was good to me. Sometimes he would let me lie down for half an hour when I worked the night shift. Work on the production line was boring and I was always hungry. A girl who worked with me would sometimes give me a carrot or a piece of squash.

This photograph of my father comes from the same document. Compare it and the picture of my mother to the way they looked just five years earlier, in their 1938 passport photos.

This photograph of my father comes from the same document. Compare it and the picture of my mother to their 1938 passport photos, from just five years earlier.

Just a few days before Passover, in April, 1943, about a year and a half after we arrived in Semipalatinsk, my father came home from work one day looking terrible, lay down to have a nap and asked my mother for a little water, saying he didn’t feel well. He began foaming at the mouth — and died. He had worked right until the end. My mother was sobbing; I ran out of the house, looking for help but it was too late. We were told he died of a heart attack, but there’s no doubt he had been greatly weakened by malnutrition and worry. He was fifty; I was sixteen. We buried him in a Jewish cemetery in Semipalatinsk. We sat shiva and tried to decide what to do next. We’re all going to die, we thought.

We wrote to inform my father’s sister, Aunt Sala, who was then in the town of Yoshkar-Ola with her husband and two children. Because they had registered with the Russians to go back to German-occupied Poland, they had been sent from Rovno to Kozmodemiansk, a Russian work camp. I guess the Russians didn’t like the idea that some people might actually choose to leave Russia and join the Germans. After their release from the camp — Germany had by then attacked Russia — they went to Yoshkar-Ola. We didn’t want them to support us; we just wanted permission to travel to a part of Russia where things might be a little better. There was clearly no future for us in Semipalatinsk. You know what was keeping me going? Sunflower seeds. It was the one thing I could afford to eat and my pockets were always full of them. I was a specialist; I’d toss a handful in my mouth and crack them with my teeth.

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