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Her story, history: The first women to arrive at Auschwitz, March 1942

To show that everyone has a story to tell.

by Helen Redfern

Suitable for Whole School (Sec)


To show that everyone has a story to tell, and in telling and listening to these stories, history is made and lives can be changed.

Preparation and materials


  1. The most boring subject ever

    (A teacher bumps into a student dawdling on the way to a lesson)

    Teacher  Shouldn’t you be in your first lesson by now? What’s taking you so long? Anyone would think you had nowhere to go to!

    Student 1  I’m in no hurry. I’d rather be going nowhere than to this lesson.

    Teacher  Why? What subject is it?

    Student 1  History. I hate history! It’s the most boring subject ever. All we have to learn in history is dates that are impossible to remember, meaningless numbers of victims of war, faceless names of people I’ve never heard of and dreary accounts of events that happened hundreds of years ago and have nothing to do with my life. It’s boring and it’s irrelevant. However long I take to get to the lesson, I’ll arrive too soon.

    Teacher  OK, well, if that’s how you feel, you won’t mind my taking a moment of your time to tell you one person’s story. Your history teacher won’t mind. In fact, I think he’ll thank me for this. You’ll soon see why.
  2. Auschwitz

     The date was 26 March 1942. To a number of young Jewish women this date was vitally important. Nor would their sisters and brothers, mothers and fathers, friends and neighbours, ever forget this date.

    This was the date when the first transport of Jews arrived in Auschwitz, one of the concentration camps used by the Nazis to imprison and exterminate the Jews. All the prisoners in this first transport were young women. 

    The seventieth anniversary of the first transport of women to Auschwitz was on 26 March this year. This anniversary has been marked by Heather Dune Macadam, a writer who helped one of these young women, Rena Kornreich, to tell her story. The book that they wrote together is Rena’s Promise. (The title refers to a promise Rena made to their mother, also imprisoned at Auschwitz. When the family was forced to split up, she promised that she would look after her sister Danka.).

    During March 2012, in honour of the memory of these women, Heather retraced their journey to Auschwitz.
  3. And now for the numbers.

    These numbers were not meaningless to the prisoners.

    –  999 young Jewish women, arrived at the camp that day in March 1942.
    –  They were mostly between 16 and 22 years old (Rena was 21).
    –  These women were nameless to their guards. Each was now a mere number. Rena Kornreich was number 716, which indicated that she was the 716th woman to be numbered in the camp.
    – Rena was one of the few survivors. Her ordeal in the concentration camps, first in Poland and later in Germany, lasted to the end of the war: 3 years and 41 days later.
  4. Rena’s story

    Rena’s story could never be called dreary, and it’s certainly not boring. Her book is the only book to be written by a survivor of that first transport of women to Auschwitz.

    It describes how she managed to survive so long in spite of extreme hunger, pain and abuse, and spending ten to twelve hours every day doing forced labour.

    It details moments of joy and love. She writes of performing cartwheels and of drawing strength from her sister Danka, who was arrived at Auschwitz three days after Rena).

    It reveals constant fear, the knowledge that if you did something wrong, you would be shot by the guards.

    It tells of sharing information through the bedroom window with the men in the block on the other side of the barbed wire fence.

    It relates her narrow escape from Dr Mengele’s medical experiments and tells of her strange meetings with the notorious SS woman, Irma Grese.
  5. A story for today

    This personal story of courage and compassion is still touching lives today. There is a Facebook page where people from all over the world share their thoughts and experiences with Rena’s co-author, Heather Dune Macadam, and also with Rena’s daughter, Sylvia, and Danka’s daughter, Sara. These are real people. Rena is a real person. This is a real story.

    This real story reminds us of the resiliency of the human spirit.

    It demonstrates the power of people to help one another in unimaginable circumstances.

    It challenges each one of us with a message of how to love fellow human beings after seeing the worst they have to offer.

    Rena’s story includes a date that must not be forgotten, numbers that hold enormous significance. It is an exciting and inspiring story that has relevance for our lives today.

    This is her story. This is history.

Time for reflection

Leader   Let us take all this one step further. Listen to the words of this meditation.

Student 2  History is not a list of boring facts, figures, names and places.

History is the accumulation of hundreds of thousands of individual stories.

Human history is packed with emotion, relationships, ideas and actions.

Student 3  Let us listen to the stories of the past.

Let us be inspired by them and learn from them.

History doesn’t need to repeat itself.

Let us help change the world one word at a time.

Student 2  All over the world today, decisions are being made that are shaping the course of history.

Individual stories of exploitation, suffering, torture and death are being lived out every second of every day.

Voices cry out all over the world with stories that need to be heard.

Student 3  Let us listen to the stories from around the world.

Let us be challenged by them and act upon them.

Let us resolve to play a part in changing the course of history.

Let us help to change the world one word at a time.

Student 2  Each one of us makes decisions every day that affect our own life story.

Our lives matter.

Our stories are important.

Each one of us has a story to tell.

Student 3  Let us listen to the stories of those around us.
Let us realize the significance of our own story.
Let us make a difference.
Let us help change the world one word at a time.


‘Were you there when they crucified my Lord?’ (Hymns Old and New, 540 (Kevin Mayhew))

‘When I needed a neighbour’ (Come and Praise, 65)

Publication date: June 2012   (Vol.14 No.6)    Published by SPCK, London, UK.
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