As a child in Baranowicze, Poland, Renia Berzak had many friends. “I played with everybody. There was no difference because [some were] Jewish and [some] not Jewish,” said Renia. Her parents, Joshua and Leah (well-to-do businesspeople),also had many gentile acquaintances.
Renia dreamed of being a doctor, but her hopes were dashed the day Soviet troops marched into Baranowicze. “They were wild people,” recalled Renia of the Red Army soldiers. “Whatever they could grab, they grabbed from the Jews.” Together with other wealthy citizens from Baranowicze, Renia’s family was exiled to an outlying village. They lived there until the summer of 1941, when Germany overtook Poland. Joshua was arrested and murdered immediately.
At the beginning of 1942, Leah, Renia and her three younger siblings were herded into the Baranowicze Ghetto. Every day, Renia marched out with a work detail to a German garage where she was forced to scrub and clean. One day, as Renia toiled, her siblings were murdered in the ghetto. They had been denounced during a raid, when someone overheard them reciting the Sh’ma prayer. Leah escaped the massacre and found her way to Renia. “I couldn’t believe it because it was a very impossible thing at the time,” recalled Renia, who fainted with shock and relief when she saw her mother. “But her fate was to live.”
Together, Renia and Leah sneaked from the garage and took refuge with non-Jewish friends who risked their lives to hide them, first in a bitterly cold and drafty barn and later in a dark and cramped bunker beneath the floorboards of their home. For 22 months Renia and her mother sat, virtually unmoving, praying for liberation. When Renia despaired, her mother encouraged her to persevere. “Look, Renia,” she would tell her daughter, “You’re still young. You’re a child and the war will finish and life will be in front of you.”
Renia and Leah finally emerged from their tomblike sanctuary in the middle of 1944, as the Red Army advanced westward in pursuit of the retreating German troops. The following year they went to Łódź, where Renia met Peter (b. Pesach) Berzak, who would become her husband. Peter had spent the war as a member of the Russian partisans. In 1946, Renia immigrated to Palestine. Pesach, who followed clandestinely, arrived just three weeks before their daughter, Henia, was born. The family soon grew to include sons Joe and Harry.
On the advice of a relative, the Berzaks resettled in Johannesburg, South Africa. They hoped the climate there would be better for Harry, who suffered from asthma. In Johannesburg, Pesach established a wholesale clothing business and Renia taught Hebrew. The Berzaks lived briefly in Canada before settling in the United States. In 1980, Renia and Peter moved to Houston to be near Henia. Since Peter’s death in 1994, Renia has remained active in Houston’s Jewish community. A member of Congregation Beth Yeshurun, she was also involved with Hadassah and volunteered at Holocaust Museum Houston.
Joshua Hemerling, d. Baranowicze, 1941
Leah Hemerling, survived
Feigele, d. Baranowicze Ghetto, 1942
Hanale, d. Baranowicze Ghetto, 1942
Samuel, d. Baranowicze Ghetto, 1942