Zahava Rendler was born Golda Feuerberg in Stryi, Poland, in early 1941, amid the Nazi invasion that aimed to control Europe and murder all Jews. As a child, she was placed in a convent, where she was later found by her father once the Nazis were defeated.
“I was hunted like an enemy, my name was taken away, I was forced into hiding, I was separated from my family,” Rendler said. “It is a miracle that I, a Polish Jewish baby, survived the Holocaust.”
But the miracle did not happen in a vacuum, she noted: “Some brave, courageous Polish people risked their lives in order to save me.”
Rendler told her story of survival on Feb. 19 during a live streamed event with the Nancy & David Wolf Holocaust & Humanity Center. The event commemorated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and marked the fourth anniversary of the museum at the historic Union Terminal, where Rendler spoke with David Wise, the center’s interim CEO.
The event was bittersweet, as Rendler both warned about issues of antisemitism and expressed the hope that attendees can work together to fight back against hate.
“Today when I hear the word, antisemitism, I’m shivering,” Rendler said. “I’m just thinking about my parents…who had to give away their baby, not knowing if they will ever see me again.”
When Nazis occupied their town, a family friend helped Rendler’s family – her parents, her sister, and herself – hide in a bunker with almost 30 other Jewish adults. Once or twice a week, the family friend would stop by to bring food and other supplies.
“Everyone spoke in whispers, and I, only nine months old, was given sleeping pills just to calm my cold, my hunger, and my fear,” she said.
Over time, concerned that the bunker would not stay safe, the family friend found a Polish woman who was willing to take care of Rendler. New identification papers were forged, and Rendler was given a new, non-Jewish name: Olga Pachulchak.
To prepare for her new life, Rendler’s parents switched from speaking Yiddish with her to speaking Polish, though it made little impact. She learned her first Polish word once she moved from the bunker to the home of the Polish woman: milk, or mleczko.
But after two years, the Polish woman grew too scared to continue caring for Rendler.
“One day…there was a rumor that the Germans are in town and they were [looking for Jews], so whoever is hiding a Jew, their fate would be exactly the same fate as the Jewish fate,” Rendler said. “She got very nervous, afraid for her own kids. So she turned me over to a nearby convent, that same day that she heard the rumors.”
In the convent, Rendler played with dolls made out of rags and recalled the bombs falling as World War II neared its end. Once it did, her father came to find her – but the nuns pretended Rendler wasn’t in their convent. It took bribing one of the nuns with a kielbasa to find Rendler. Afterward, Rendler and her father immigrated to the then-new state of Israel.
In 1963, Rendler came to Cincinnati – arriving on a train at the Union Terminal, which also welcomed many Holocaust survivors to Cincinnati in the years after WWII.
Since then, she has made a career educating about Hebrew and Judaism at Rockwern Academy, teaching several generations of Jewish Cincinnatians (including interim center CEO David Wise and his children).
In telling her story of survival, Rendler also shared her thoughts on hatred today. “I feel that antisemitism is not exactly just against Jews,” she said. “It is against every minority that people are attacking.”
Rendler emphasized that she does not want her past to be her grandchildren’s future, and encouraged listeners to be an “upstander” – someone who takes action against hate, rather than being a bystander to it.
“We must learn from what happened years ago,” she said. “How can we help? First of all, to respect each other, to help each other…and to educate others, to accept others for what they are, not to judge them.”
The event with Rendler also highlighted the continuing relevance of the Holocaust & Humanity Center amid rising antisemitism in the United States.
“Our mission has never been more important than it is in this moment,” said Jackie Congedo, the center’s chief community engagement and external relations officer.
“We know that these trends are not happening in a vacuum, that in fact, where we see rising antisemitism we see rising hate and intolerance and polarization across our society.”
At the same time, Congedo pointed to some light in the darkness: The Holocaust museum has seen record attendance over the past month, which she sees as “a clear indication that Cincinnatians are willing and motivated to learn from the lessons of the past.”
For local Holocaust survivors, the museum’s success makes them feel assured that their stories won’t be forgotten by the many audiences who experience it, Rendler said.
“If something happens to me, at least the people in Cincinnati, the Holocaust survivors, will always have their stories in here,” she said.
“And by me speaking all over Ohio, being the ambassador for the Holocaust center, it gives us great hope that…you will be able to continue our legacies.”