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Birenbaum, Halina

BIRENBAUM, Halina

Nationality: Israeli (originally Polish: immigrated to Israel, 1947). Born: Warsaw, 15 September 1929. Family: Married Chaim Birenbaum; two sons. Career: Prisoner, Majdanek, Auschwitz, Ravensbrück, and Neustadt-Glewe, World War II. Author and translator. Award: "Figure of Reconciliation" award, Polish Council of Christians and Jews, 2001.

Publications

Collection

Sounds of a Guilty Silence: Selected Poems. 1997.

Memoirs

Nadzieja umiera ostatnia. 1967; as Hope Is the Last to Die: A Personal Documentation of Nazi Terror, 1971; as Hope Is the Last to Die: A Coming of Age under Nazi Terror, 1996.

Powrót do ziemi praojców. 1991.

Kazdy odzyskany dzien: Wspomnienia. 1998.

Wolanie o pamiec. 1999.

Poetry

Nigun penimi. 1985.

Nawet gdy sie smieje. 1990.

Nie o kwiatach. 1993.

Other

Translator, Asher karati la-metim: Shire geto Varshah [What I

Read to the Deads], by Wladyslaw Szlengel. 1987.

* * *

Halina Birenbaum is a Polish-born Jewish author, poet, and translator best known for Hope Is the Last To Die (1967), an autobiographical account of her experiences in the Warsaw Ghetto and a series of concentration camps. Born in Warsaw in 1929, she had her childhood interrupted by the invasion of Poland in 1939. She lived through the initial period of occupation and the establishment of the ghetto, managing with her family, and due primarily to her mother's determination and courage, to avoid being captured and sent to the camps until well into 1942. She was sent first to Majdanek, and then, after surviving a night in the gas chamber only because supplies of gas had run out, she was sent to Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück, and finally Neustadt-Glewe. She lost almost her entire family, including her father; her mother, with whom she was particularly close; one of a pair of brothers; and virtually all other relatives and friends.

All Birenbaum's activities, literary and otherwise, form a coherent whole and serve the same end: promotion of understanding and reconciliation between Jews and especially Poles, but also Germans and others. After liberation she returned to Warsaw and in 1947 emigrated to Israel with a Zionist organization. In Israel she initially devoted herself primarily to being a wife and mother. She relates how, at a time when it was not a common occurrence, she was asked, as a survivor, to speak to a group of Israeli school children about her experiences in the Holocaust. She agreed, somewhat reluctantly, and in the process discovered an ability to communicate with an immediacy and sincerity that she was later able to transform into an equally effective voice on the printed page. Although she had already committed herself to record her experiences in writing, the experience of establishing a connection with the school children motivated and inspired her and helped give shape to her feelings, memories, and beliefs.

Birenbaum's autobiography, as well as her other writings, may be somewhat lacking in artistic sophistication, but it is highly effective and demonstrates clarity of thought, a well-developed vision of the world and human nature, and an expansive and compelling spirituality. Her work is informed not only by a desire to come to terms with the evil she and others experienced but also to proclaim the existence of good as well as a powerful affirmation of hope and faith. She is often compared to or at least grouped with Anne Frank and Hannah Senesh because of the subject matter and adolescent narrative perspective of her work.

Since the initial publication of Hope Is the Last To Die in 1967, Birenbaum has spent her time writing and working with young people in Israel, Poland, and Germany. She has frequently accompanied groups of Israeli youths to Poland, visited elementary schools in Germany, and addressed a variety of formal and informal youth groups in Poland. She has been the subject of two documentary films, one French and one Israeli. She writes in Polish and Hebrew and frequently publishes creative, topical, and reflective pieces in Polish publications. In March 2001 she was awarded the "Reconciliation Person of the Year" Award by the Polish Council for PolishJewish Dialogue for her "patient service to the sacred and difficult cause of reconciliation." The award was all the more significant in that it was given at a time when the controversy surrounding the "Jedwabny affair" was raging in Poland (evidence had surfaced implicating Polish citizens of the town of Jedwabny in executions and other atrocities against Jews for which the Nazis had been held responsible). Birenbaum, while not failing to record acts of perfidy and cowardice on the part not only of Germans but also of Poles and Jews, has gone to great lengths in her writing and public life to point out countless acts of courage and generosity on the part of all groups but perhaps especially of Poles.

—Allan Reid

See the essay on Hope Is the Last to Die: A Coming of Age under Nazi Terror.

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