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Mar 19, 2012 6:42 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Author Retraces Journey Of A Holocaust Survivor

Mar 21, 2012 8:30 AM

Small acts of kindness poked holes in the ashen skies above the concentration camps during the darkest days of World War II, lighting the way for survivors, a small group that included two young Jewish sisters from Poland who were among the first women sent to Auschwitz—the largest and most infamous network of Nazi concentration camps.

This weekend, Hampton Bays author Heather Dune Macadam will take part in the worldwide remembrance marking the 70th anniversary of the first transport of 999 women to Auschwitz by traveling to the camp in Poland and honoring the Kornreich sisters, Rena and Danka.

Ms. Dune Macadam co-authored the late Rena Kornreich Gelissen’s Holocaust memoir, “Rena’s Promise: Two Sisters in Auschwitz,” in 1995, and the two became friends during the process. Danka Kornreich Brandel, now 89, lives in a nursing home in East Meadow.

Starting on Saturday, March 24, Ms. Dune Macadam will follow the path of Ms. Kornreich Gelissen’s 1942 train transport across Slovakia, from Bratislava to Poprad, where the first transport of women originated, then on to Oswiecim in Poland, via the Carpathian Mountains. She will arrive on Monday, March 26, marking the anniversary of the original transport’s arrival at Auschwitz. She expects that her train trip will take 11 hours.

From there, Ms. Dune Macadam will walk to the museum at Auschwitz, where she will spend the day remembering the courage of the survivors and also honoring those who lost their lives—an estimated 1.3 million people, according to revised estimates.

Ms. Kornreich Gelissen, a survivor of that first transport who eventually immigrated to the United States, died in 2006 at the age of 86 from Alzheimer’s disease. Her younger sister was not part of that historic first transport but joined her sibling later at Auschwitz.

“I feel incredibly energized and excited about going,” said Ms. Dune Macadam before embarking on her journey that will honor her old friend and the other 998 women included in that first transport. “These were young women, ages 16 to 22 years old. I want people around the world to light candles and remember them.”

Ms. Dune Macadam, who has studied Buddhism, said she is looking forward to the healing power of her trip. “The power of women is to heal, and I want to walk into Auschwitz with that light,” she explained.

The author will be sharing her journey through social networks like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube, so people all over the world can virtually follow her trip. Her companions will be her boyfriend, journalist and author Simon Worrall, and Welsh singer/songwriter Jem, who fell in love with Ms. Kornreich Gelissen’s story of survival a few years ago.

At the same time as this cyberspace event, there will be memorials at Jewish centers in Vienna, Bratislava and other locations around the world. Ms. Kornreich Brandel’s daughter, Sara Cohen, who lives in Wantagh, will be singing “Vi Ahin Zol Ich Geyn,” or “Where Can I Go?” a popular song from the Polish ghettos, at a “Promise Vigil” set for Monday, March 26, at 7 p.m., at Welwyn Preserve in Glen Cove.

“Seventy years is not that long ago,” Ms. Cohen said, adding that her family was touched by the response to her mother, Danka’s, and Aunt Rena’s story of survival. Ms. Cohen hopes Ms. Dune Macadam’s three-day journey will inspire people around the world to reflect on the lives of these women and learn about resilience and the power of love.

“I’m amazed now, knowing what my mom went through, of how she rebuilt her life,” said Ms. Cohen, who performs at local senior centers, including her mother’s in East Meadow.

In March 1942, Rena Kornreich was being harbored by a family in Hummené, Slovakia. Believing she was doing the right thing by following the law that all Jews should report to German labor camps, and worrying about the safety of those who were hiding her, she turned herself over to the authorities. After a horrifying train journey, the then nearly 22-year-old daughter of a Polish farmer was branded with the number 1716, which would become her identity for the next three years.

That four-digit number followed her through her time at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland and through a death march—a term used to describe how the Nazis, when facing defeat, forced concentration camp prisoners, most already weakened by overwork and starvation, to walk dozens of miles to train stations before transporting them via rail and away from the front lines. She eventually arrived at Wodzislaw Slaski on the Czechoslovakian border. She and her younger sister, who had previously joined her at Auschwitz, would later be sent to two more concentration camps in Germany—Ravensbruck and, finally, Neustadt-Glewe. They were liberated from the latter by American soldiers in 1945.

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