I don’t sleep at night,” Auschwitz survivor Renee Gancz confesses in her sunny Tel Aviv apartment Tuesday.

The energetic, impeccably coiffed 87-year-old grandmother from Oradea, Romania, and I are meeting each other before traveling together for the January 27 onsite commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation. It’s my first time there; for her, it’s the first time back since her imprisonment and the murders of 100 family members there.

We’re both nervous about the upcoming journey.

It’s a trip she’s put off for decades, but when approached this fall by the World Jewish Congress to join a 100-strong survivors’ delegation, she agreed immediately.

“Yes. Now. Because there is no more time to think. I must.”

Her 99-year-old second husband Shmuel Gabor, whom she met in ulpan upon her aliyah in 1966 from Romania, says this trip is “her revenge.”

Till now she’s been loath to go there physically, and spiritually. But today she says she needs to go. To see — and feel.

“All my friends say, ‘You are such an optimist, when you come to Auschwitz, you’ll be sick.’”

It is that dark free fall to despair that has kept me as well from extermination camp tourism. In an inexplicable psychological knot, my family’s 1995 loss of a son and brother is indelibly intertwined for me with the massive multi-national tragedy of the Holocaust.

Lehavdil, as we say in Israel when trying to compare, but not compare, apples and oranges.

My brother Nick, dying from melanoma at 22, tottered on the same spindly legs, mutely stared from the same ancient face as those in the shocking Holocaust documentaries’ footage of the dead and dying.

‘You are such an optimist, when you come to Auschwitz, you’ll be sick’

I was almost 20, trapped in my own downward spiral of depression, when he died at home. His death, as it turned out, was a wake-up call for me to choose to think and live positively — because I still can.

Now, after my mother’s April death from breast cancer, it is time to unravel my knotted losses from the Holocaust, and mourn each tragedy on its own.

This article, and its sequel, is an experiment — a personal quest alongside Renee’s journey back.

As a journalist, I should use a veneer of objective professionalism to tell Renee’s story (and at the end of this project, perhaps she would have been better served by it). But her story is too horrific to truly comprehend.

“Those who were not in lager [short for the German Konzentrationslager] cannot understand,” she says.

The existential power of positive thought
Renee, who describes witnessing deaths of every sort, radiates life. Enthusiasm ripples off her, though she lost everyone but her mother to the Nazis — and to the Romanians and Hungarians, their aiders and abetters.

She is an amazing empirical example of the power of positive thought.

“I like to live, I like to work, I like dancing, and good books to read, good friends, music — all of this world!” she exclaims at one point with vigor women half her age would find enviable. Renee continues working until today and is a long-time contributor to a Hungarian-language journal based in Israel called Uj Kelet.

Before we can truly begin her story, she fusses over me, tsk-tsking about my cold hands, sends Shmuel to make me tea, grills me all about my six children, wants to see pictures (shows me a couple of snaps of her grandkids), and most importantly, asks if I have a dog. I do.

Letting me know I just passed a hurdle on the path toward her friendship, she says, “I just love dogs,” and shows me a coffee table book of purebreds. She tells me about her now-gone cocker spaniel and German shepherd.

“I was a dog in a past life,” she says, half-joking.

This is a woman who knows her life is a miracle.

She tells of three brushes with the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele, who was captivated by the vivacious beauty of the 16-year-old Renee upon her arrival at Auschwitz in 1944. All three times he ordered the barrack’s Kapo to give her a portion of sausage and bread.

She performs as she shares snapshots of her life under the Nazis, mimicking their movements and those of the small but cunning teenage Renee. For the Nazis she stands on tiptoes and marches, swinging her arms at right angles. When she is young Renee, she crouches slightly, looking up at the tall, all-powerful guards with an innocent expression on her face.

‘All my friends are dead, but that is natural. What is born, must die’

She talks of singing in the barracks songs about eating bread and schmaltz. Friends who were in lager with her were always welcomed in her spotless Tel Aviv home with a fresh roll and schmear of schmaltz.

“All my friends are dead, but that is natural. What is born, must die,” she says.

But what is most unnatural is when a child dies before his parents, and I saw my parents irrevocably changed by Nick’s death.

Even harder to bear perhaps is to be a child accountable for her mother’s life.

Renee, while riding in a cattle car jammed with 90 Jews and no water, food, or toilets on the way to Auschwitz, was told by her father that she was responsible for her mother Bella’s survival.

She said he offered a bargain that he, Laslo, would look out for her little brother Nikolai, while she had to protect Bella, who was a gentle religious soul, and look out for her.

She took this as a command.

“When my father said something it was kadosh [holy],” she says.

Bella survived, alongside her daughter going from Auschwitz to KL Stutthof in Danzig, to agricultural work, back to Stutthof, and on a forced march into Germany toward eventual liberation. She returned to their Romanian town after the war to await her husband and son, and died of cancer in 1953.

Laslo and Nikolai were murdered at the end of April two weeks before the end of World War II in Europe.

“I kept my word; my father didn’t,” she says.

After meeting Renee, I try to put her story into context. Like oil on Teflon, my thoughts slide as I read and I’m reminded of the clear lessons from my dynamic former History of the Holocaust professor, John Efron.

History of the Holocaust
It was like going to a weekly rock concert. The star, a young Australian prof, played to a packed lecture hall filled to the aisles with 400 corn-fed Indiana University students.

As he took the stage, adjusted his body mike and straightened his hipster specs and sweater vest, a preternatural anticipation would fill the hall. We waited, almost bracing ourselves for that week’s emotionally cathartic, intensely fascinating journey into the bowels of humanity.

Prof. Efron laughs as I describe this 1998 scene to him. Today he’s the Koret Chair in Jewish History at the University of California-Berkeley, where he is a specialist in the cultural and social history of German Jewry. Then, he was arguably the most popular lecturer on the Indiana University campus.

Efron modestly chalks this popularity up to the time period, which spawned what he calls “a certain Americanization of the Holocaust.” The 1990s saw “Schindler’s List,” the opening of the Washington DC Holocaust Museum, a slew of memorials and Holocaust courses at universities across the nation.

“It became part of the American culture,” he says in a late-night intercontinental telephone conversation this week. That said, “I was certainly not expecting the size of the crowds that we got in Indiana.”

“It was, I have to say from a personal perspective, exciting to be able to have a class of 400 — I enjoyed it, doing what I was doing. It was important,” says Efron, whose mother fled Poland before World War II. The Australian Jewish community he knew during the 1960s and 1970s was what he calls a “refugee/survivor community.”

“I have a deep sense of personal investment in the subject as well, which may have made itself manifest in the course of the lectures,” says Efron.

‘My senses of shock and horror are not diminished, they are, in fact, renewed every time I teach it’

Some 17 years after attending his lectures, I remember Efron began the course talking about the Armenian genocide as what laid open the possibility of large-scale genocide. He discussed the various methods of implementing the Final Solution, from mass shootings to trucks converted into mobile gas chambers, to the evolution of the systematic gassings seen at extermination camps like Auschwitz.

He was a passionate, ironic, and methodical teacher, and a really snappy dresser to boot.

“It was a performance, not in a pejorative way, but you have 400 people who have come to see you talk for an hour and you’ve got to hold their attention,” he shrugs.

I tell him I am preparing to go to Auschwitz for the first time and am nervous about reporting from there. I ask him whether from an emotional standpoint it’s gotten easier for him to delve into this material over the decades.

“I would say that it has not gotten any easier to teach. From the first day I taught it to the class last semester, I still seem to get upset, if not choked up, at the same places in the lecture as the first time I taught it — though I try to hide it,” he says.

“It is what it is. It’s not an impediment, not upsetting my ability to convey the subject,” he says a little defensively.

“My senses of shock and horror are not diminished; they are, in fact, renewed every time I teach it,” he says.

Throwing the dead on the wagons
Renee sounds almost blase in describing the horrors of Auschwitz, where some 1.1 million Jews were murdered. She tells of people dropping dead to her right and left at all times. She says barrack-mates would take the dead by their hands and legs and throw them on a growing pile on a wagon; she mimics the deads’ limp arms and legs.


She talks about Hungarians, whom she openly hates, who would line Jews up in rows of threes so they could spare bullets by shooting the first, then having the projectile continue on its lethal journey from one emaciated body to the next.

‘I have a hundred tales to tell you’

Food was power in the camps, and as an agricultural worker, she was able to mete out vengeance, or even forgiveness.

“I have a hundred tales to tell you,” she says. “I am here… I am lucky.”

We make tentative plans to tour Auschwitz together the day after the ceremony. She says she would like to, but is playing it loose at her age.

I leave her Tel Aviv apartment feeling inspired by this extraordinary woman, by her astonishingly active and bright husband (I checked his ID and he really is 99), and soothed in a way.

On my next visit, Renee says she will cook for me. Perhaps I’ll ask for bread and schmaltz, and we’ll discuss our two brothers named Nick.

Read more: A journey to Auschwitz with Renee | The Times of Israel
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