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A Cousin’s Courage

Decades after the deaths of my grandparents, who were Holocaust survivors, I discovered relatives I never knew—and my family’s heroic history

Sharon Marcus
December 07, 2021
Courtesy Merav Waldman/Jewish Women's Archive
Renia Kukielka in Budapest, 1944Courtesy Merav Waldman/Jewish Women’s Archive
Courtesy Merav Waldman/Jewish Women's Archive
Renia Kukielka in Budapest, 1944Courtesy Merav Waldman/Jewish Women’s Archive

This past March I received an unexpected text message from my cousin Carrie about a new book called The Light of Days by Judy Batalion. This book spoke at length about young women during the Holocaust who were a part of underground movements that planned and plotted against the Nazis.

As I read about these courageous heroines, my gaze stopped short on the name Renia Kukielka. The central character of Batalion’s book, she was known as a “courier girl” for Freedom, a youth movement that resisted the Nazis in Poland. At 18, she was a spy who delivered documents, food, and medicine to Jews in the ghettos; she also smuggled grenades and pistols, and hid bullets in jars of jam. With her fair skin and ability to speak Polish, she was able to pass as a Christian. Even after she was thrown into a prison and beaten, she never gave up her Jewish identity. Ultimately, she and her brother Aaron survived and immigrated to Israel, where they each had families of their own.

But her story isn’t what caught my eye; it was her name. Renia’s last name, an uncommon one, was also my family’s name. My cousin Carrie, also a Kukielka, had told me about the book to see if I had ever heard of Renia. It wasn’t every day that our family’s name was mentioned in a news article, let alone part of a bestselling book. I hadn’t heard of Renia, but as the memory-keeper of my family’s Holocaust stories, I was determined to find out if this unbelievable heroine and her brother were my relatives.

I found Batalion on Instagram and over the course of a month, we corresponded and, along with other members of my family, tried to piece the puzzle together. I discovered that the name Kukielka had changed to other versions: Renia’s brother Aaron, for instance, had changed his last name to Kleinman. When I told my cousin Carrie about this, she sent me a photograph of her with her father—my uncle, David Kukielka—and Aaron Kleinman. They had all met in Israel in 2007. Aaron Kleinman was my grandfather’s first cousin and—we now realized—so was his sister, Renia Kukielka.

When I was growing up, my grandparents never spoke about the Holocaust, and I never felt brave enough to ask them. I learned about their stories of survival through my mother and her siblings in bits and pieces, and I especially relied on my Uncle David who, like me, had an intense need to be the family’s memory-keeper after my grandparents died. He kept their stories alive for me—until he died in 2013. I heard about my grandfather’s sister Sala, who was thrown into a Siberian prison while pregnant; she escaped and survived, but her baby did not. My grandfather Shimon Kukielka lost his first wife and daughter in Auschwitz and my grandmother Yehudit Kukielka lost her first husband and young son when she was 21. There were countless others who had been murdered at the hands of the Nazis: my great-grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. Yet somehow my grandfather found my grandmother in a Lithuanian forest and together they immigrated to Israel after the war. There they would have five children, one of whom would be my mother, Bracha Kukielka.

But I had never heard about Renia and Aaron. So now, with all this new information about our family coming to light, I reached out to my aunts and I learned that my grandfather had been quite close to Aaron, who was a well-known cantor, when they all lived in Israel after the war. It was Aaron who brought my grandparents and their children to the ship that would bring them to the United Stated in 1962. After my family immigrated, my aunts and Uncle David would stay in Aaron’s home when they returned to Israel for visits. My Aunt Chaya recently told me she had known Renia but did not know anything about her extraordinary bravery. My great-aunt Sala, who also possessed a fighter spirit, was close with Renia; she attended Sala’s funeral in Israel. I suspect my uncle knew of Renia as well, but I believe he had no idea of her heroic past—as he most certainly would have shared her stories with us.

Suddenly stories I had never heard before began to come to life and with each new detail, memories of my own childhood with my grandparents began to resurface and find their way back to the forefront of my mind.

Carrie and I wrote an email together and Batalion, now known as our family matchmaker, sent it for us. Two weeks later, Renia’s granddaughter Merav—my new third cousin—responded. Suddenly my family had gotten much larger.

Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1970s, my world was deeply ingrained in shtetl life. I lived with my extended family in one house on Church Avenue. My grandmother raised me while my grandfather worked as a carpenter, my Romanian-Israeli father worked as a diamond cutter, and my mother and her siblings went to school. I spoke only Yiddish at the time.

I remember spending many afternoons walking around our Brooklyn neighborhood with my grandmother. We would visit the local fishmonger, where she would buy fish heads for broth and grind her own pike to make homemade gefilte fish. We would light the Sabbath candles and keep a kosher home. In the early mornings my grandmother would put out trays of smoked whitefish surrounded by slices of tomato and rings of raw onion, and my grandfather would dig into it in between puffs of his cigarettes, while he watched the local news and yelled at the television. I would sit and watch him pull thin fish bones out of his teeth as he ate, while his giant hands moved around the platter, leaving nothing behind. He would occasionally look over at me and give me a wink and a smile and then happily return to his feast and puffs of smoke.

Despite the pain and loss that overshadowed my family, my grandparents were my real-life superheroes. They had managed to not only rebuild their lives from nothing after losing everyone and everything around them, but somehow, they were able to smile and laugh again. For me they were the definition of resilience, and the center of my childhood. Their stories lived in my bones. As a child, I never allowed myself to imagine a world without them in it, but as I began to grow up and understand more, the fear of losing them began to slowly creep its way in.

Eventually we moved five minutes away from my grandparents, yet I still chose to spend my time with them. Having been raised by my grandparents while my parents worked, I was extremely close to them, especially my grandmother. Perhaps it was her soft-spoken demeanor that I was drawn to, or perhaps it was her calming energy. My grandmother taught me what it meant to be resilient. It was always her face that would appear in my mind when I was struggling. I would think of her tragedies and her ability to find joy again and this gave me the will to keep going.

As I got older, I spent my time between two very different worlds. By day, I was an American, jeans-wearing girl who spoke perfect English, was obsessed with Judy Blume books, and hung out at the local Kings Plaza mall on the weekends with her friends and ate nonkosher slices of Sbarro pizza. By night, I would happily escape to my grandparents’ small Brooklyn apartment, and immediately transport myself back to the comforts of my shtetl world. I would lie in bed with my grandmother and my fluent Yiddish would naturally find its way back. We would watch The Carol Burnett Show and I Love Lucy, laughing together until my grandmother’s false teeth would inevitably pop right out, sending us into hysterics.

Suddenly my family had gotten much larger.

My grandfather died when I was 17. After his funeral, I remember sitting on the rug facing my grandmother as she rested on the couch. I remember the creases of her soft wrinkles surrounding her sky-blue eyes. I remember feeling brave in that moment and without any hesitation I asked her if she was afraid to die. And she responded to me in her usual, quiet and gentle voice, “No, Sharele ... I’m tired.” I didn’t understand what she meant by that until years later after her death.

I was 22 when my grandmother died. It was the loneliest time of my life. I was suddenly not only left without my one true source of strength and comfort, but I was alone without anyone to share my stories with, and the memories became my own. That’s what happens when you are the only grandchild raised by Holocaust survivors. It ended with just me.

I have spent most of my adulthood trying to find ways to stay connected to my grandparents. I found ways. I visited Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and imagined my grandparents there with me, pointing to the faces in the black-and-white photographs of their aunts and uncles who had been murdered. Years later I would work for The American Society for Yad Vashem in New York where I would meet Elie Weisel and other surviving heroes and heroines. I named my daughters after my grandparents (Maya Yehudit and Shayna Rose) and we would light the Sabbath candles because my grandmother would want me to. And through these small acts I told myself their stories would forever be with me, and my daughters would know their legacy. It was up to me to keep the stories of their pain, loss and survival safe.

But then, this July, I clicked on a Zoom link that connected me to three strangers in Israel, with eyes the same shade of blue as mine. My 11-year-old daughter, Shayna, named after my grandfather Shimon Kukielka, sat next to me. Staring into the faces of my new family members, an entire new world suddenly opened up. At 48, I never imagined I would be meeting new relatives. As the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I learned from an early age that many of my relatives’ lives were cut short and that because of this, we were a small family. But now, not only do I have new family members to share my life’s stories with, but I also now have a new source of strength to draw from.

Discovering that Renia Kukielka, a truly courageous standout heroine of WWII, was also my cousin has awakened a new kind of resilience in me. She reminds me that in moments of deep despair, we can fight back and stand up for ourselves and for those who don’t have a voice. And my grandmother Yehudit, who embodied a quiet strength, taught me that no matter how dark life gets we must always find a way to let the light back in. My daughters don’t have to look very far to find inspiration. They come from a legacy of empowering women who were beyond brave and who not only survived but thrived.

We are no longer a tiny family of survivors; we are also a family of fighters. We defied the Nazis. I am now connected to a larger family than I ever imagined made up of all different kinds of strength, and for this I am most grateful for the text message I received in March that changed my life.

Sharon Marcus is a New York City public school teacher and is currently writing a children’s book inspired by her childhood with her grandmother.