Episode 6

Renee Hartman

“We lived on the fourth floor in the apartment. And my parents were both deaf. And I had a deaf sister. So I became the ears. I would have to warn them that the transport was coming. And what I would do is we would all rush in the back room. And when they knocked on the door, we didn’t answer. We were in the back room just trying to be as quiet as possible. And we used to live in terror of these boots.”

Renee Hartman was just a child when the Nazis swept into Czechoslovakia. Her parents and sister were deaf, so she became her family’s ears, alert to the sound of the Gestapo’s boots.

Photos and Artifacts

Bratislava

A truck full of deportees in Bratislava, 1942.
Item ID 11800
Archival Signature 1585/131
Credit: Yad Vashem
https://photos.yadvashem.org/photo-details.html?language=en&item_id=11800&ind=28

A yellow Star of David badge bearing the German word 'Jude' (Jew). In September 1941, the Nazi regime, at Goebbels's urgent request, ordered Germany's Jews over the age of 6 to sew on their clothing a yellow Star of David with the word Jude (Jew) in bold, Hebrew-like letters. The following year, the measure was introduced in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Slovakia, and other lands under German control. Date: Circa 1941 - 1945. Photo Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Charles and Hana Bruml

Renee with her husband Geoffrey Hartman at their wedding.

Episode Notes by Dr. Samuel Kassow

Renee Hartman was born in 1933 in Bratislava (Pressburg in German, Poszonyi in Hungarian). She had a younger sister, Herta, born in 1935. Their parents, like Herta, were deaf. Their father was a jeweler.

This is the story of two young children who were raised in a loving, religiously observant home and who experienced the traumatic and sudden destruction of their childhood, the loss of their parents, and their own deportation to the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, from which they were liberated by the British in 1945. As they struggled to stay alive, Renee and Herta were inseparable. No matter how depressed and distraught she became, Renee never forgot that her younger sister, unable to hear, totally depended on her. Together they survived a long nightmare that included betrayal, physical violence, life-threatening disease, and hunger.

During the time when Renee and Herta were born, the Jews of Bratislava lived in relative peace and security. Before World War I, most Jews in Bratislava had spoken Magyar or German (German was the language in Renee’s home). Between the wars they also had to learn Slovak as Bratislava, formerly under Hungarian administration, became part of the new Czechoslovak state, which was founded in 1918.

Under the leadership of President Thomas Masaryk, Czechoslovakia was a democracy, and somewhat more prosperous than countries like Poland and Hungary. Nonetheless, there were serious problems on the horizon. In 1930 Czechs accounted for barely half of the 16 million citizens of the republic, which they shared with three and a half million Sudeten Germans; three million Slovaks; 650,000 Hungarians; 745,000 Ruthenians; and 350,000 Jews. The Sudeten Germans became increasingly Nazified in the 1930s, and Hitler used their alleged sufferings as a pretext to destroy the Czech state.

The Slovaks, who claimed Bratislava as their capital, were another source of potential danger to the republic. While they were ethnically and linguistically related to the Czechs, there were also many differences that divided them. The Czechs tended to look down on the Slovaks, who were more rural, more devoted to their Catholic faith, and less developed economically. In turn, many Slovaks resented the Czechs, and they bore a special animus towards the Jews. Unlike the Czechs, the Slovaks had been under Magyar rule in the pre-war Habsburg Empire, and the Jews in these regions preferred German and Magyar to Slovak, which they saw as a backward peasant dialect. This provided a pretext for Slovak anti-Semitism. And while the Czechs had developed a strong and viable middle class, in the Slovak regions, the middle class was often heavily Jewish. Serious problems between Slovaks and Jews lay just beneath the surface.

Although Hitler had promised at the Munich Conference in 1938 to respect Czech independence once he got the Sudetenland, he broke that pledge in March 1939 when he sent German troops into Prague. This time his stated goal was to maintain order and to support Slovak independence. While the Czech lands became the German-ruled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the leaders of the anti-Semitic Slovak People’s Party, Father Josef Tiso and Vojtech Tuka, proclaimed the First Slovak Republic, which from the very beginning remained a close ally of Nazi Germany.

The new Slovak state quickly began persecuting its 90,000 Jews, who comprised about 3.5 percent of the population. The lure of Jewish property proved tempting to large sections of the Slovak population. The government expropriated Jewish businesses and purged Jews from the civil service, the free professions, and educational institutions. The Jewish Code of 1941 tightened these restrictions and forced Jews to wear the yellow star. On the other hand, the Catholic Church, while fundamentally anti-Semitic, protested the application of racial rather than religious criteria in anti-Jewish legislation.

In early 1942, the German government asked the Slovaks to send workers to the Reich; the Slovak leaders countered with an offer to deport Jews in their stead. The Slovaks even offered to pay the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for each deported Jew! Between April and September 1942, about 57,000 Slovak Jews—two-thirds of the total Jewish population—were deported to Poland.

Bribery and personal contacts enabled 16,000 Jews to secure various exemptions that saved them from this first round of deportations. Renee’s father had also obtained an exemption, probably because he was a skilled jeweler and goldsmith who reworked confiscated Jewish jewelry into Catholic religious objects.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel and Gisi Fleischmann, one of the few women to become a genuine leader during the Holocaust, created a semi-clandestine organization called the Bratislava Working Group that bribed Slovak leaders and even negotiated with the main SS representative in Slovakia, Dieter Wisliceny. Their efforts—along with pressure from the papal nuncio and the misgivings of many Slovak leaders who had become aware of the Final Solution—seemed to produce results: in September 1942, the deportations were halted.

Neither Renee nor Herta was old enough at the time to remember exact dates or to offer a clear chronology of their wartime experiences. Even after the deportations ceased in the fall of 1942, the remaining 24,000 Slovak Jews lived in constant fear that they would resume. The Germans increased pressure to restart the deportations and some radical fascists within the Slovak leadership agreed. In the spring of 1943, there was much talk of sending new transports to Poland, but in the end that did not happen.

In 1944, however, the surviving Slovak Jews saw their reprieve come to an abrupt end. The outbreak of the Slovak National Uprising in August 1944 gave the Germans and the Slovak fascists the opportunity to pounce on the Jews and deport them. The Bratislava Working Group, meanwhile, had overestimated its bargaining power and understood too late that the new SS satrap, Alois Brunner, was determined to murder every last Jew in Slovakia. Fleischmann would perish in Auschwitz, Rabbi Weissmandel survived the war.

Most remaining Slovak Jews were sent first to the Sered’ transit camp and from there to Auschwitz. Several transports left for Auschwitz in September and October of 1944. After the destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz in November of that year, subsequent transports from Sered’ were sent to other camps, including Bergen-Belsen and Theresienstadt. All in all, about 13,500 Jews were deported from Slovakia in late 1944; 10,000 died.

Sometime in 1944, Renee’s father had sent his two daughters to live with a non-Jewish farming family in the Tatra Mountains. But after a time, either because their parents stopped paying the family (Renee’s version) or because Renee demanded that they return home (Herta’s version), the two girls were sent back to Bratislava. When they got there, they learned that their parents had already been arrested. Unable to find a stable hiding place, and facing rejection from people whom they had considered family friends, a desperate Renee went to a police station and turned herself and her sister in. At first amused and then incredulous, the Slovak police sent the two girls to Sered’, where they learned that their parents had just been deported to Auschwitz.

It was probably sometime in November 1944 that the girls were put on a transport to Bergen-Belsen. (Just a few weeks earlier they would have been sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.) They ended up in a children’s barracks with mostly Polish-speaking children. Here, too, Renee did all she could to protect her younger sister, once even kicking a German doctor to keep him from taking Herta away for “medical research.” Renee remained hopeful that they’d be reunited with their parents and whenever a new transport arrived, she would call out their names. This once so angered a German guard that he hurled her against a rock and she temporarily lost her hearing.

By late 1944, conditions in Bergen-Belsen were rapidly deteriorating. Originally planned as a camp for “special” Jews who might be exchanged for German internees living abroad, by the second half of 1944, Bergen-Belsen had begun to receive many thousands of emaciated inmates from Dora-Mittelbau, Plaszow, Auschwitz, and other camps. Conditions became even worse when the notorious Josef Kramer was appointed commandant of the camp in December 1944. On his watch, new transports swelled the camp population from 15,000 in December to 60,000 in April. The inadequate food rations shrank even further and a typhus epidemic raged through the camp. Between February 1945 and the liberation, 35,000 prisoners died. Another 14,000 died after the liberation. Renee contracted typhus and barely survived.

After the war, the Red Cross sent Renee and Herta to Sweden. In 1948 American relatives brought them to the United States. These religious relatives received them warmly but, perhaps hoping to spare the girls, showed little interest in hearing about their experiences. Herta eventually went to the Lexington School for the Deaf in Queens, New York, where she thrived. She married, had three children, and spent many years working in data entry in banks. She now lives in Las Vegas.

Renee moved to New Haven, Connecticut, where she studied library science at Southern Connecticut State College and became a librarian. She married Geoffrey Hartman, who was born in Frankfurt and left Nazi Germany on a Kindertransport in 1939. Geoffrey taught for 40 years in the Yale English Department, retiring as Sterling Professor of English and Comparative Literature. He died in 2016. The Hartmans had two children—a daughter, Liz, and a son, David.

Together, Renee and Geoffrey helped found the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies at Yale as well as Yale’s Jewish studies program. Renee has written extensively about the Holocaust, including a book of poetry, Wounded Angels, and a chapter on Bergen-Belsen in The Power of Witnessing, edited by Nancy Goodman and Marilyn Meyers.

Additional readings and information

Hartman, Renee. Wounded Angels. Porlock Press, 2007.

Goodman, Nancy, and Marilyn Meyers, eds. The Power of Witnessing: Reflections, Reverberations, and Traces of the Holocaust. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012.

Renee’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide): https://fortunoff.aviaryplatform.com/r/5t3fx73x7c.