Session I: Life before and during the Concentration Camps

Born in Poland, Rena Drexler was only thirteen years old when her world was suddenly pulled out from under her feet. She was one of fourteen siblings, eight boys and six girls, all of whom were forced out of their home in 1941 when Germany invaded Poland and Adolf Hitler rose to power. Forced to give up all their possessions, Rena’s family was shipped to a ghetto where food and water was scarce and hard labor was demanded from the wee hours of the morning. Rena herself became a seamstress in service to the Germans who had taken away from her everything familiar in her young life; her other family members were not as lucky. She recalled in horror the tragedy that befell her pregnant sister who attempted to flee to the Russian border and was shot in the back, drowning in the process. Rena and her surviving siblings kept the news from their mother, out of fear of breaking her heart with the tragic story. After several months of this degrading lifestyle, the Drexler family was evacuated to a cattle train and shipped to an Extermination Camp in Auschwitz.  Upon arriving, Rena recalls being ordered to undress and remembers watching the guards do away with her clothing. At this point, she was separated from the rest of her family and was sent to the barracks where she, and the rest of the victims, slept ten on one piece of wood while sharing one blanket infested with lice. After six nightmarish months, this fourteen year old girl was sent to work by the trains, charged with the task of separating the possessions of the incoming Jews as they were hopelessly piled into the extermination camps. She was told to look for money, jewelry, and valuables and anything that she found was handed over to the greedy hands of the Germans. She recounts, with tears welling up in her eyes, her companions in Auschwitz who were ruthlessly murdered trying to steal ammunition and initiate a rebellion against the German soldiers. The vivid imagery Rena provided in describing her unbelievable experience as a survivor really opened my eyes to the reality of the Holocaust. When we think Holocaust, we imagine masses and throngs of people being shipped from one city to another, being forced to work for the despised Germans if fortunate or being ruthlessly annihilated if unfortunate. But the emotional value and the intricate details often get lost along the way. If you really stop and appreciate the horrors Rena Drexler experienced as a young girl, the Holocaust as a historical event becomes much more real and relevant. With a mere fourteen years of age, Rena was taken to a location where everyday she was forced to anticipate the looming fate of extermination. Her teenage years were spent not in school learning history, but in concentration camps making history. Hearing her recount the terrifying years she spent in that hell hole was not only an eye-opening experience, but a source of inspiration as I came to recognize to a full extent the kind of courage and heroism this woman possessed that gave her the will to continue existing and enabled her to survive.

Session II and III: Liberation and Life after the Auschwitz Camps

            The day of liberation finally arrived. May 8, 1945, the day which Rena Drexler annually celebrated her birthday, the Russians invaded and liberated Poland; however, the day was far from joyous. Whereas those who were liberated by America were provided assistance and care, those who were liberated by Russia were left to their own devices. The Russians were relatively poor and could not provide the food and medication these Holocaust victims so desperately needed; Rena describes being liberated and not knowing where to go or what to do. She decided to revisit her neighborhood in Poland so that if anyone was alive, they would go looking for her and find her in her previous home. The journey to Poland took two months during which she and her surviving friends had no clothes or washing facilities and were often forced to shower in German farms. Once they reached Poland, she found that their home was now being occupied by a single elderly lady; having no money or options, Rena stayed at train stations where strangers frequently approached her and offered to take her in. Rena rejected all of their offers, not trusting anyone while maintaining faith and hope that things would turn out alright. While her sister insisted on staying in Prague, Rena paid smugglers who secretly brought her to Germany; she took residence in her friend’s brother’s apartment in Munich where the household work was divided between all the residents with one cleaning and another cooking and so on.

During her stay, Rena found herself disgusted and appalled by the German attitude towards the Jews; she relates sitting in the movie theatre one time and being confronted by a man who claimed, “It’s a shame that the Jews weren’t all killed.” As a ninety-five pound survivor who had barely made it out of the concentration camps, Rena could hardly stand to hear such hateful words, but time moved on and she soon discovered that her brother was still alive. In an attempt to find him, she declared that she would give her hand in marriage to the man who was able to find her long-lost brother and bring her to him. One of the men in the apartment took her up on her offer and found her brother’s whereabouts and the couple were married shortly after in Germany in 1946; with no money or prospects, Rena’s wedding consisted of ten people and after the ceremony, she and her new husband headed off to New York where they lived in a hotel room for a period of time. Once she discovered she was pregnant, they made their final move to California where her son was born.

In California, the quality of life began to improve, even though it was still very challenging. Rena was able to take classes at night and finish high school which she had been forced to leave behind in Poland. Even though money was very tight, she struggled to provide her kids with the education she was never blessed with; with one child graduating from John Hopkins University and another one graduating from UCLA and successfully practicing law, Rena glows with pride as she relates her children’s’ many achievements. But the tragedy of the Holocaust has left its mark forever on Rena Drexler. She visits Auschwitz from time to time and admits that the first time she made this trip, it was a very emotional journey and she often comes back feeling worn out. On a daily basis, she attempts to maintain a normal existence but sometimes, the profoundness of the experience overwhelms her and she gives in to the grief. She has also emerged from the tragedy with a new respect for all living things; she claims that once you experience hunger first hand, you feel for all living things and as a result, she always feeds her pets first before sitting down to eat herself.

Rena’s remarkable tale about life after liberation caught me by surprise; I had never really given thought to the kind of existence survivors led after the nightmare was over, just tactlessly assuming that things went back to the way they were before Hitler came to power and decided to annihilate all of the Jews. When Rena described the feelings she experienced after the Russians had liberated the concentration camps, feelings of fear and uncertainty and lack of direction, only then did I recognize and grasp the true extent to which the tragedy had impacted the lives of its victims. After being subject to years of starvation and torture, these survivors were freed, but were simultaneously thrown into another cycle of suffering and uncertainty; not knowing where to go, who to turn to, what to live on, where to live, many of these victims had to live through another nightmare of wandering around homeless with their source of food and shelter remaining unknown. Experiencing such trauma and still maintaining faith and hope is a miraculous feat and those Holocaust survivors who have shown such strength, such as Rena Drexler, are the epitome of courage and heroism.