Renia: A Holocaust Memoir

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My grandfather and me walking in Kalisz. I am five or six years old. The coat I'm wearing was made to measure for me.

My grandfather and me walking in Kalisz. I am five or six years old. The coat I'm wearing was made to measure for me.

Occasionally, Osser Kahn, my grandfather on my mother’s side — the only grandparent I knew — came to visit us. He was a wonderful man. I loved him so much that I was always under his feet; but he didn’t seem to mind. We would go to the park together and he’d push me on the swings under the huge chestnut trees. Or I’d sit on his knee and help him roll cigarettes, stuffing tobacco into the empty paper tubes. Occasionally, he helped my father with the business. He’d take lace and pink tissue and make sample packages to send to customers. I used to watch in fascination as he tied the packages with a special knot. My grandfather called me Ruchele.

At one point, I must have been four or five, I got very sick with scarlet fever. Because scarlet fever was contagious, they sent my sister to stay with my Aunt Sonia, who was then living down the street. During my illness, my parents would take me to our front window so I could wave to Gitta, who stood outside the house, waving back. I must have been very bored as welI as very lonely during that time. I remember one doctor who used to come and give me shots; he would draw menschelach, little people, in iodine on my bottom to distract me. But I had a bad reaction to the shots and was so sick the doctors didn’t think I would make it. When I became unconscious, they had a conference and decided to wrap me in a sheet and put me in a cold tub. That woke me up. I recovered but had a lot of complications: a heart murmur; ear infections. For many years I had a kidney problem and had to be on a special diet.

Just behind our large backyard was a place where gravestones were carved. My friends and I would watch the carvers when we were playing in the yard. There were always other children playing at our house. Once — I must have been five or six — I was playing store in the bathroom with a friend. I had a toy scale and customers could buy carrots and potatoes and other things in our pretend store. It was my turn to buy something but my friend said, “Sorry, the store is closed.” I sat on the edge of the bathtub and fell backwards into tub, hitting my head on the drain. I had a nasty cut in my head. They took me to the hospital and had to shave that part of my head so they could sew the wound.

Sometime after I turned six, we moved to Bydgoszcz, a much larger centre, about 100 kilometres north of Kalisz. My father’s only sibling, his sister Sala, lived there with her family. She was married to a man named Leon Rzeszewski and they had two children, Halina (Hela) and Jacob (Kuba). They had a factory that made paint brushes and ran a large business that sold paint supplies.

It must have been 1932 when we moved because Bydgoszcz was where I started school at age six; it was the height of the Depression and my father, like so many others, had run into financial difficulties and lost his business. He needed money and had to borrow some from his sister but she gave him a hard time. He had to give her collateral — a big box of expensive china and other things. Occasionally we’d visit Aunt Sala and her family. But we felt distant from her; the truth is she wasn’t a very nice person.

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