Simply put, Rena’s Promise: A Story of Sisters in Auschwitz is about the Holocaust. It follows Rena Kornreich and her sister, Danka, as they attempt to survive one of the most horrific events in history. Rena was on the first transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau and was the 716th Jewish woman in the concentration camp. From the second week of June 1940 Rena and Danka, along with their passing friends and family, endured three concentration camps (Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Ravensbruck) until the liberation of Ravensbruck in April of 1945. The book follows Rena’s journey of protecting her sister, her friends, and (last in her mind) herself through the terror of the Holocaust. It showcases her self-less courage, boldness in the face of fear, and intelligence as she makes it from day one in Auschwitz to the final liberation.
The author of the book is Heather Dune Macadam. She is the one who compiled Rena’s story into a book twice (once in a regular version and then in the expanded version). At the time of the book, she was still in college studying writing, and because of a mutual friend between her and Rena, she was commissioned to write Rena’s story. Now, she has a Masters in Creative Writing and has been awarded several honors for her work including a PEN American stipend and Outstanding Writer of the Year in the state of North Carolina. At the time the book was written her only qualification was a writing ability and the willingness to listen to Rena as she talked about her story. Since the books publication, she has become the director and president of the Rena’s Promise Foundation and Rena’s Promise International Creative Writing Camp.
The conception of the book happened accidently. Rena dialed the wrong number and ended up on the phone with an old friend, Corrine. Through the conversation, after the ‘hello’ and ‘how are you’, Corrine mentioned she had been going through a tough time. She talked about the pain of her past and Rena, without thinking, said she knew all about that and started talking about her time in Auschwitz. Corrine wanted to know everything, and Rena said she’d been writing the story in her mind for years, but just couldn’t get it on paper. She needed someone to listen to her tell the whole story and then write it down. Corrine told Rena she knew the perfect person. That perfect person was Heather Dune Macadam.
Heather drove two hours to Rena’s house every weekend for four months and sat with her for hours on end with a tape recorder rolling and a pad of paper and pen at the ready. The original idea was for Heather to sit quietly as Rena told the story. After the day was over, Heather would drive back the two hours and transcribe what Rena had said. However, the most pertinent memories were usually the most painful ones and Rena did not want to dwell on them. The compromise was for Heather to listen, but to gently tug at the painful memories and get Rena to share more and, through the tears, Rena spoke magic that Heather was able to write down.
The book is told in first-person from Rena’s perspective. It talks about the time before the Holocaust to the events that occurred in the thick of it. Readers will be in the camp with the S.S. men and women, with the prisoners, and, most importantly, with Rena. The story is told chronologically and, in some cases, readers will meet a person with Rena and, just a few pages later, watch them die at the hands of the S.S. The only thing that is for certain at the beginning of the book is that somehow Rena survived. However, when readers find themselves on the ground with Rena as she is being beaten or standing in a line of women being taken to the testing centers where Jews go to die, the doubt of Rena’s survival creeps into their mind. Just when they think she’s finished, Rena comes up with a plan to save her, her sister, and, in many cases, other girls in the camp.
Even though the author is technically Heather, Rena told the story. She is one hundred percent involved in the process of creating the book. This is her story. Therefore, she is just as much of an author as Heather. That makes the story raw and powerful. Readers can’t dismiss the events as fiction. They are forced to recognize that these horrific moments were lived and experienced by Rena, Danka, and the others in Auschwitz-Birkenau. That creates a kind of credibility for the stories presented.
The most memorable moment in the book for me was when Rena and Danka are standing in line in Auschwitz-Birkenau awaiting their fate. There are two rows of people. The first row goes to work in the concentration camp. The second row goes to an unknown and unfamiliar place. Rena and Danka are moved to the second row and lead to a building where they take off their uniforms and trade them for new clean and crisp clothes. For a moment they think this is it, they’re the lucky ones. However, by the time Rena figures out something isn’t kosher, she is forced to think fast and get her and her sister away from this place. This moment in the book made my heart beat faster than almost any other part. I doubted their survival as they grabbed their uniforms and walked through the concentration camp and tried to go unnoticed. I just knew an S.S. was going to pop out, capture them, and kill them on the spot.
The book in incredible. Most of the Holocaust stories I’ve read have been fiction or at least heavily fictionalized. This one was real and I greatly appreciated that. I caught myself dismissing some of the more horrifying parts because “it’s just a book.” That’s when I had to remind myself that this was not just another book. This was Rena’s story. I couldn’t push these events under the rug and ignore the terror. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone. It is violent and heart-wrenching and there are some aspects that will keep readers up at night. However, since finishing the story I don’t have any regret for reading it. As a matter of fact, I think I’m ready to read it again.