A dialogue with Rena Bernstein
By MARK MAHONEY
Sunday, April 15, 2007 8:30 AM EDT
"A number like 6 million doesn't penetrate the mind. It's too big to grasp all
at once. The idea of the destruction of so many is beyond our ordinary
-- Jafa Wallach, author and Holocaust survivor
CORINTH -- Rena Bernstein loves the woods.
She lives near the woods, is inspired by the woods, finds comfort in the woods, paints pictures of the woods from her imagination.
For two years, during the most horrific chapter in world history, the woods kept her alive.
Kind and soft-spoken, with a light Polish accident, an adoring husband and a taste for chamomile tea, Bernstein's bright demeanor belies the horror she and her family endured during the Nazi occupation of Poland during World War II.
It was during that time that her parents were forced to live for nearly two years in a dirt hole beneath an auto workshop, ever fearful of discovery by the Nazis traipsing above so close they could hear their conversations. At the same time, when she should have been learning her letters and finger painting with her friends, 4-year-old Rena was sent to live in her own separate horror, hiding from the Nazis in the woods with strangers, who contemplated trading her life to spare their own.
One day in 1959, Rena's mother, Jafa Wallach, got up early in the morning and wrote down her experiences of those 22 months of hell. When she was done with the manuscript, she put it away in a closet, where it stayed hidden for many decades.
"They were re-experiencing, or actually really experiencing, what had happened to their families, their families were murdered," Bernstein recalled. "And during the war, they were numb in order to get through it. But afterwards, they couldn't deal with that story. After she wrote it down, she put it away."
While Rena had often heard stories of her family's ordeal from her parents, she didn't know the full extent of their torturous existence until she'd finally read her mother's manuscript.
Now several centuries from that time and thousands of miles from that place, what happened is still never far from Rena Bernstein's mind.
She's dedicated her later years to educating young people about the Holocaust, tapping into their passion, hoping to ensure something like this can never happen again. And she's taken her mother's manuscript and turned it into a moving book, "Bitter Freedom," which she shares with school children throughout the area.
"We are the last witnesses, the children of the Holocaust." she says.
This story, she says, is too important to allow it to die untold. So she passes it along to as many people as she can.
And occasionally, when she's not speaking to students or visiting her mother (now 96 years old and living in Brooklyn), or doing interviews or sharing a cup of tea with her husband, she retreats to her studio behind her Corinth home, and she paints.
Mostly, she paints the woods.
Beautiful and haunting and life-giving.
Last Monday, The Post-Star sat down with Mrs. Bernstein and talked to her about her story, and her mission.
Q. You had lived through part of this. But before you read your mother's manuscript, had you ever heard the story before?
A. Yes, my parents were not the kind of parents who kept secrets like that from their children, as many survivors did, (keeping) the story of what happened to them a secret. And I think that is very bad because a child begins to imagine and can see there was something going on, there were some kind of horrible experiences, but they don't know what. My parents were very open. They always talked about it. I knew their story, but I didn't talk about mine to them. In fact, I don't think I've ever talked about it.
Q. Did you learn details about her experience that you didn't know before from reading the manuscript?
A. Yes, I did. You know, I didn't know how really how horrible that confinement was in that cellar, that grave that they had dug under the floorboards in that cellar. how horrible and crowded and airless and the bugs and the lack of water. Unable to wash or change clothes. I didn't really know the details of the horror of their confinement until I read the manuscript.
Q. What were your feelings when your mother recounted these stories to you?
A. After people experience such horrors, they are, in a sense, emotionally unable to deal with everyday life. And family life was very difficult after the war. Right immediately after the war, we were on the road, we were trying to get into Palestine. And the conditions were horrible anyway, and we didn't have a sense of family life. there was no family life then. We were just trying to get from one place to the other. But when we came to this country and actually got a place to live and tried to have a normal life, it was extremely difficult.
Q. You didn't have any family members left, correct?
A. It was just the three of us. My father has lost everyone. He had a brother and two sisters who married and had children of their own. But my mother was very fortunate because some of the relatives were doctors and nurses, and they were always left for last because the Nazis still had use for them in some way or another. One of my mother's sisters came here before the war, just the last boat out of Italy before the war.
Q. Do you remember much about your experience?
A. Yes I do. I must say that I was very young when I was given to this man in the forest, I was only 4. But I remember the forest. I remember the things that happened there. I remember my love of the forest. The forest saved my life. It was a beautiful forest and we were in the middle of it in a little hut, without any plumbing or electricity, very, very primitive. ... I lived in the forest, and he came back only at night to sleep and sometimes I'd get a piece of bread or something, or a rabbit. He hunted, he was a forest watcher for the Nazis. So he was away for two, three weeks at a time. When he came back, usually came back with some little animals that he had killed to supplement our food supply. And I skinned them. My job was pretty horrifying you know. I'd hang them up and cut around the neck. And then I also helped kill chickens and it was very horrifying to have to do that.
But I remember the forest. I remember that I did not have a relationship with the people that I lived with. The forest watcher who came every once in the while would pat me on the head sometimes, but he didn't actually speak to me. And the woman was very superstitious, and so she would read all kinds of calamities when she opened the big Russian stove door that was our heat. And she would predict that the house would burn down, that we would break our legs, that we would, I don't know, trip and fall. Horrible things all the time. And I was afraid to sleep.
Q. In the book, you say you only slept when it rained.
A. Yes, I slept when it rained because I figured out that when it rained, if the house started to burn, that the rain would put it out. But it's just a metaphor of how terrified I was of everything up there.
The man, Janek, walked around with a gun, and a military uniform -- high boots. He looked like a Nazi. He was a very scary figure. And there was a little girl there, but she didn't play with me. The winters were really confinement, because Polish winters are, like, seven months, and the snow was above the line of the window, so it was always twilight outside. So I couldn't go out because I didn't have the clothing or the shoes. So I was alone most of the time and nobody talked to me. And it was a tiny little hut, two tiny little rooms. And I was there for months at a time, trying to go in the corners. I didn't know how I did that, but I did. It was a terribly lonely life.
Q. Did you ever communicate with your parents during the time you lived in the woods?
A. No. There was no communication at all. And I didn't know they were alive and I didn't know if I would ever see them again. And at the age of 4 or 5, two years is half a life. So I didn't expect ever to see my parents.
Q. There was a point in the story where Jozio was bringing (your parents) reports of you, but you didn't know about that?
A. No, I didn't know that, no. That was Jozio, that was the man that saved them, and saved me. Because Janek was under great pressure from his brother, his father, his family, his fiancee's family, to kill me because I was such a threat to them. Because you know, if Jews were being hidden by any Poles, the Polish family would be murdered, along with the Jews. So I was a danger, terrific risk, so his brother one day came and sat down in the little kitchen, in front of me, because they didn't understand that children absorb these things, and began to tell them how a family had just been murdered in the village because they were hiding Jews. And he said, "You must take her out in the forest and shoot her tomorrow. You're putting all of us in danger." And he said, "But what if her parents come back?" And he said, "Of course they won't. They won't ever come back."
But Jozio, our savior, was giving him the other counsel, was telling him, you know, if you do anything to her, you will be responsible. And he offered to help pay for me, whatever upkeep there was, which I don't know what there was; there wasn't any food. So they didn't, thank goodness. And I'm here. And Stefan, that was his brother, he came often into the forest to tell him, "You've got to do this, you're endangering them." They were putting great pressure on them. It's a miracle that he didn't do away with me.
Q. There were people with different levels of commitment and understanding of the situation. You have the one who was taking care of your parents in the basement, and the ones taking care of you who didn't quite get it or weren't quite as committed.
A. They weren't as committed. But Jozio was keeping track of me also and he was keeping track of my mother's younger sister, who eventually came to live with them in the hole. So towards the end, there were five people in this tiny little earthen grave. it was earth. They had dug it out themselves. It was 1.9 meters, which is less than six feet. 1.4 meters, which is like maybe 4-1/2 feet. And it was only tall enough so that when someone got on his knees, his head would just about touch the ceiling. And at one point, there were five people there. And the Nazis were above because the Gestapo headquarters was on one side and the Ukrainian militia was on the other side of this workshop. And the German police were on the third side. And the Nazis were fixing their machinery and all their machinery in the workshop. So there were always Nazis there. And there were 17 workmen, and it was a busy, busy place. And it was open from dawn to dusk, even weekends. So my parents, underneath the floorboards, could hear everything. ... So they themselves could not sneeze, could not cough, could not make a sound, all this time that they were hidden there. Only when the workshop closed at night, that's when their day began. They had a tiny little light bulb so no ray of light shone through. And then they were able to whisper to each other. Life in that hole was horrible. They could not stretch their limbs. They could not change their clothes. In two years, they could not change their clothes. They didn't wash. It was so difficult to get any water to them. There were no faucets in the house. ... They didn't come out of that hole for two years. It's unbelievable to live that way.
[Later in the interview, discussing the end of living in the basement]
The bunker at that point was almost demolished at that point because he Russians were fighting right above, right in Lesko. A bomb exploded right in the kitchen of that little house. And the bunker was affected. And there were shrapnel and bullet holes. So finally they came, they crawled out. And they had not used their legs in two years. They crawled out almost naked because their clothes had rotted from the dampness.
And they had not cut their hair or their nails. It's two years with almost no ability to care for themselves. Two years. And their muscles had atrophied. And of course, they had no vitamins all this time because what they survived on was some potatoes or once in a while he (Jozio) was able to go out in the town. ... and get a half a sack of grain. And that was about it. They were extremely weak and debilitated. And it took a long time to rehabilitate.
When they first crawled out, their eyes had not seen daylight in two years. And they were blinded by the darkness. There was so much light in the darkness, they were blinded. As my father said, it was miraculous that they were able to have sight at all and that they were not crippled after such an experience.
Q. And even after the liberation, your family still experienced discrimination.
A. They were turned away everywhere. There was tremendous anti-Semitism against them. Imagine, there were 30,000 Jews who had lived in this small area before the war. Eighty people came back. I was the only child to survive. Anti-Semitism, it flourishes in Poland. I don't understand. What they were afraid of is that the Jews would come and get their properties back. You know, they moved into all the Jewish homes. They might come and want their properties. ... I read in The New York Times ... that 1,500 survivors were murdered by the Poles after the liberation in order to protect the properties that they had stolen. But on the other hand, there were these incredible men like Jozio who saved them. ... So you see, there really were these individuals. One had to be terribly brave to do this. Terribly brave.
Q. What feeling comes over you when you tell this story now?
A. The feeling that comes over me is how my family struggled to live. I feel that this book is about the Holocaust, but it is also about love. My mother and father's love for me, which kept them alive. They didn't want to leave a child alone in this horrible world. And how they struggled to put their lives together to live, just to live. How precious life is. And then I think of today, America, and all over the world, how life is cheap. How people murder each other anonymously and harm each other, and I think how precious that life was. How they struggled in inhuman circumstances to stay alive. And I feel that this book has to remind them and to remind the world, you know, how precious life is.
Q. You returned to Poland as an adult.
A. Yes I did. (In 1993) we traveled from Krakow where I was in a hotel to Lesko, about 3-1/2 hours. And I saw that the countryside there is beautiful, is just beautiful. And I went to the edge of that forest. I didn't have the opportunity to go back because i was getting dark and we had to start back to the hotel. But it's beautiful country.
Then I went to the town itself, Lesko, and I went to the big synagogue. It's still intact. And it's beautiful. But it's empty. It's a big empty hall. And it's used sometimes, I guess, for a gallery. But it's just standing there. And on the wall, is a scroll of all the people who perished under the Nazis in the town, my extended family are on that scroll. Then we went up to the Jewish cemetery and that is one of the few remaining Jewish cemeteries in Poland. Because the Nazis used the tombstones to pave roads and they built playgrounds or whatever on that. Synagogues were destroyed. Even cemeteries were destroyed. But this one was standing. But it was a very sad sight. All of the marble stone was removed, but the others were still there. They were all leaning awry, and it was drizzly, dark afternoon, and all the trees and vegetation had begun to grow between the stones. And it was so eerie and haunting because these stones were written in Hebrew.
There were 2 feet of writing. There were quotes from the Bible on the stones. These beautifully carved stones. All of them leaning awry.
And it's so sad, they're neglected and awful. And then I went of course to that little house, that little workshop. And Jozio's family was still living there. His cousins and aunts were still living there. And I opened the trap door which led to the cellar.
Q. Did you go down there?
A. No I didn't. I don't know why I didn't, but I didn't. I didn't go down there. ... I don't know why I didn't.
Q. Why do you think it's important that kids hear this message?
A. I think it's important because it happened and it's now in different forms, it's happening in different parts of the world that people are being murdered because of their race or because of their color or because of their religion. They have to know that we, all of us, have these wild, untamed instincts in us and we have to be careful about the roles that we take in dealing with other nationalities and other people.
We have to be tolerant and root out prejudice. Because prejudice, it's just a road, but it leads there. That was the most horrible period in history, I believe, that nothing so cruel and brutal had ever happened. But one has to know, or one repeats it.
Q. Did we learn the lesson?
A. Certainly not adequately enough. But the reminder, the fact that there are so many Holocaust museums all over the world. That there are books like this being published. That 10th grade is mandated to teach the Holocaust. It's very important.
It's very important for young people to know that this happened. That this could happen. That we have to be very vigilant about our prejudices. And not to allow this to happen. And young people have to be taught because they're most impressionable and most idealistic. And they take these things to heart.
Q. One of the things you said in the book is that it's important to get these stories down.
A. Yes. My mother is 96, and many survivors of her generation are dying. We are the last witnesses, we hidden children. ... We are the last witnesses of an incredible chapter of history. Really incredible. Such evil. Such incredible evil. But you see such evil, or similar evil, is happening now around the world. It's happening in Darfur. It happened in Cambodia. It happened in Yugoslavia. We have to be very careful. And we have to learn this chapter thoroughly. All children have to learn.
MEMOIRS OF A HOLOCAUST VICTIM
"Bitter Freedom: Memoirs of a Holocaust Victim"
Jafa and Natan Wallach were living in Poland near the community of Lesko when the Nazis took over the country. In a manuscript written by Jafa in 1959 and hidden away for years afterward, she tells the story of how many members of their family were murdered in a Nazi concentration camp, and how they and a couple of other family members later were forced to hide from the Nazis in a tiny earthen basement for 22 months. The cellar was hidden beneath the floorboards of a workshop owned by a mechanic named Jozef Zwonarz, whom the family called "Jozio." Jozio protected the family from the Gestapo, keeping them hidden and bringing them food, water and information. He kept the secret of their whereabouts to himself, not even telling his wife, who grew jealous of his suspicious activity and almost gave them away numerous times. The Wallachs protected their 4-year-old daughter, Rena, by sending her off to live in the woods with a Polish family whose patriarch, Janek, worked as a forest watcher for the Nazis. Janek's family was fearful the Nazis would discover that they were harboring a Jewish girl and would execute them if they found out. So Rena, who was unaware of her parents being alive in the basement a short distance away, lived in constant fear that she would be sacrificed to save her caretaker family.
"Bitter Freedom" details the family's struggles before, during and after the war.
Rena, who now lives part time in Corinth with her husband Vlad, helped her mother edit her manuscript and get it published, and she wrote the book's afterword. Rena Bernstein now plays an active role in ensuring that the stories of the Holocaust are not lost to time. She speaks often to school-children, and will be the focal point of the upcoming "Celebration of Life," in which local students will express their feelings about the Holocaust through various art forms.
To contact Bernstein, call her at (718) 875-0531 or reach her via e-mail at email@example.com.