When I got off the ship that brought me to the United States in 1945, the American relatives who took me in urged me to forget everything that had happened to my family—and to me—in the Holocaust. They told me to never think or speak of it again. I was fifteen years old and they were adults, so I listened to them. For forty years I was quiet. I was not truly free until I started to tell what happened to me as a child. Here is my story.
chapter 1 | Berlin, germany | Summer, 1936
My birth name is Irene Hasenberg, but you can call me Reni (pronounced “Ray-nee”). Everyone did. I was a lucky child. I grew up in a large, light-filled apartment in Berlin, the sparkling capital of Germany, with my parents, John and Gertrude Hasenberg; my almost-eight-year-old brother, Werner; and my grandparents Julius and Pauline Mayer. Our parents and grandparents spoiled Werner and me with attention and toys. My favorite was a red tricycle that I got for my fourth birthday. I pedaled it with speed through the park, and flew across sidewalks, being sure to clean its wheels and shiny handlebars when I got home.
We celebrated Jewish holidays and our birthdays with relatives, always gathering together around the dinner table to eat challah, sing our favorite Hebrew songs, and drink more hot chocolate. Our voices were not very good, but who cared? We were together. We weren’t making a record to be played on a phonograph! My experience as a young girl in Berlin was wonderful, despite the fact that Germany was changing.
But what did I know? I was only five.
My grandparents, Opa and Omi, rented a small garden plot not far from our home. One warm morning, Opa announced it was a perfect day for planting seeds, especially for cucumbers and radishes, my two favorite crunchies. We all went. It took a lot of work to dig the ground and “prepare the soil.” We carefully put the tiny flat white seeds and the little round brown seeds into the dirt and covered them. Done with my row, I stared at the soil. I stared and waited a long, long time, until the top layer dried and lightened in the sun. Nothing happened.
“Reni, are you ready to go?” Pappi asked.
“Let’s wait until the crunchies come up.”
“That’ll take all summer!” Werner said.
“Reni, it takes a long time for the seeds to grow into vegetables,” Mutti explained.
Tears skidded down my cheeks. Opa knelt next to me, his knees clacking.
“Reni, don’t cry. These are special seeds. They grow very fast, for seeds. You need to be patient. Can you be patient?”
“That’s good practice.”
At home, Mutti and Pappi had a surprise: we were going into the city and to the zoo. I forgot about the seeds. But first, Mutti instructed, we had to clean up.
“I’m already clean,” said Werner. “I washed when we got back.”
It was true. Even his shoes were shiny. I looked at my dress and fingernails. There was dirt everywhere. I brushed off everything with great sweeps of my hands, even remembering to shake my hair.
“I’m all set to go, too!”
“Reni, you are not even close,” Mutti said, taking my hand and marching me to the bathroom.
She scrubbed me hard with soap and water, even digging into and around my ears.
“You’re breaking me,” I protested.
Mutti then wrapped me in a big towel, turned me around and dried me, like she was fluffing up my whole body. Then it was off to the bedroom to get me dressed in something fancy. Finally, I stepped into the front hall where Pappi and Werner were waiting.
“Oh Reni,” Pappi said with surprise, “you are here. I saw a little girl come in earlier, but I didn’t recognize her for all the dirt.”
“It was me!”
We took the big yellow tram to the zoo, the same tram Pappi rode every day to work. Cars and trucks honked here and there, weaving in and out. You never knew where the cars and trucks would go next, but the yellow tram always followed the same track and wires. And it always came and left at the same times, so I knew when Pappi would go to work and when he would come home. The brightly colored tram was easy to spot, so I could look out the apartment window and see it from far away and get ready for Pappi to return, when I would jump into his arms. He told me the other day that he could hardly lift me anymore. I was getting that big.
I looked out on Berlin. It was busy like ants over a picnic basket.
“Mutti,” I asked, “what is the black zigzag?”
It was everywhere: on flags as big as buildings, on trucks and cars, and on clothes.
She said it was nothing, so I leaned toward my brother and asked him.
“Really, Reni? It’s a swastika,” Werner said.
“What’s a schweiss . . . schweiss schick . . . er?”
“Swastika,” he corrected me.
“I’m going to count them all. One, two, three, four, five . . .”
“Do something else, Reni,” Mutti commanded.
“All the banners and flags are for the Olympics in August,“ Werner said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Reni, do you know anything?” said Werner.
“I know there are maybe fifty swas . . . black zigzags,” I said, and looked toward Mutti to be sure she wasn’t listening. “Maybe more. I’ve really been counting.”
“The Olympics are when sports players from all over the world come here to play, “ said Werner. “They will compete for medals. I’ve heard Germany will win a lot, especially in gymnastics and track and field. It’s a big deal.”
“Yes it is,” Pappi added, “and Werner, you, and I are going to watch the action.”
For once, Werner didn’t know what to say, finally eking out ‘really?’”
“What about me?” I asked. “I want to go.”
“You and I will go shopping,” Mutti said.
Well, I didn’t want to go to the Olympics that badly.
We walked up to the gate for the zoo, and I forgot about the black zigzags.
Inside, Pappi let go of my hand and I ran ahead with Werner, but not too far. Everything was so green: the puffy trees and the bristly grass. Beds of yellow and red flowers hugged tiny fences. The red was as bright as the big flags that floated over the buildings. I wanted to run into all that color, but I had learned to stay on the gray paths. We saw the elephants swing their tails and trunks, and I pointed at the big-mouthed hippos. We fed the goats that circled us and nibbled at our hands. My favorite was the monkey house with the playful, swinging families.
I rested my head against Pappi and his dark suit on the ride home. Then I remembered the magic seeds. What did they look like as they tossed and turned in their little dirt beds? I wondered out loud. Werner said I was hopeless, and Mutti pinched his arm. As we walked home from the tram, Mutti suggested we walk past the garden. I saw dots of green and red on the ground: shiny cucumbers and radishes. I ran across the dirt, though I knew I wasn’t supposed to, took a cucumber, and bit into it to make sure it was real. It was the juiciest and most delicious cucumber I had ever eaten. Oh, they were special seeds! Opa was right.
“Wait. You need to wash those first, Reni,” Mutti called.
I piled as many as I could into my skirt pockets. Mutti and Werner took the rest.
“Opa, Omi, look!” I cried as I entered our kitchen and emptied my pockets on the wooden kitchen table.
“You must have done a very good job planting them, my dear. I have never seen them come up this fast,” Opa said.
“Yes, and I’ve never seen vegetables grow without plants,” Werner said. “Like they came straight from the vegetable stand.”
“All the more special,” I added.
I took another bite of my cucumber. Sure, the seeds were special, but we were also very, very good gardeners.
That night, cozy in my bed, I thought of our cousin Bert’s upcoming birthday party, excited that I would be able to wear one of my nice dresses. Maybe my blue-and-white plaid one with yellow buttons, or, if I was really lucky, Mutti would let me wear my white dress with tiny red and blue hearts and the smock, if I promised not to get it dirty and change as soon as I got home. I liked the puffy short sleeves on both, and . . .
I heard Werner’s bed creak. Even without the golden light from my monkey night-light, I knew Werner had gotten out of bed and was standing next to me. I turned my face to the wall.
“Reni,” he said, “are you sleeping?”
“Yes, I am sleeping.”
“Reni, I want to ask something. Do you think that I’ll have a bad dream?”
There was a wobble in his voice. I didn’t answer. Lately, Werner had bad dreams more and more—it was a pain. It was like he looked for bad things to dream about. I didn’t want to talk with him. I wanted to think about dressing for Bert’s birthday. Bert would be six . . . just like I would be in December.
When I didn’t respond he continued.
“It’s all the swastikas. They’re everywhere now, like the Nazis. And I heard the Nazis are doing bad things. Bad things to Jews. Jews like us.”
“Stop it,” I interrupted, “You’re okay, Werner. No bad dreams tonight.”
“Oh . . . okay,” he said. “Thanks. Good night.”
With that, he went back to the dark of his bed and crawled under the blankets.