How She Survived Auschwitz

I am inspired by vibrant and impassioned octogenarian women. It’s wonderful to see them lead meaningful lives, and they give me hope that I can stay active, even in my eighth decade (if I’m blessed to be alert and alive).

Some people let challenges stop them cold in their thirties; others wouldn’t dream of being thwarted by the challenges associated with aging. Grandma Moses developed arthritis in her seventies, making it hard for her to continue embroidering, which was her passion. Her sister, Celestia, thought that painting would be easier for her, so Grandma Moses began painting in her late seventies.

Renee Feller, now 85, was ordained as a rabbi when she was almost 70, but this woman’s life has been anything but conventional for as long as she can remember, and not always by choice.

When Renee was six, in Czechoslovakia, she lost her mother to a mysterious illness, and her father married Renee’s first cousin. “She was stupid,” Renee tells us in her frank new memoir,  From Auschwitz To Zabar’s.  “I liked her sister better because she was the smarter one, but my stepmother was the pretty one. Maybe that’s why my father married her.”

Seven years later, Renee lost her father, brother and most of her family in the Holocaust, but this 13-year-old girl miraculously managed to survive by claiming she was 18.  After suffering a year of unspeakable horrors, resilient and courageous Renee was sent to America to live with relatives she didn’t know. Always looking for happiness and family, she married a man who suffered from bipolar disorder and abused her. She divorced, but lost her next two husbands, one to lung cancer and the other to a heart attack.  She raised three daughters, one with Down’s syndrome who lives in a group home, and another with bipolar disorder who died several years ago.

Renee’s remarkable toughness and persistence carried her through almost non-stop, terrifying circumstances. She admits to depression, anger, frustration, and even what she suspects was a total nervous breakdown, but she soldiers on through each and every adversity, never indulging in self-pity, never maudlin. Indeed, Renee has a yen for moving on, for risking the new and unexplored, and she has undergone a number of  therapies and lifestyle programs to help her cope with a life of unrelenting challenge.

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