1. Archive

She saved her brother's life, but she lost her own

When Susan Farley began telling the story of her aunt's sacrifice during World War II, her mission was simple. It was to honor the woman who saved her father's life and perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the Nazis' largest concentration camp.

"My aunt saved my dad's life. Because he is alive, she also saved mine," said Farley, 62, a retired high school teacher with Pinellas County schools.

"I want to tell this story to anyone who wants to listen. Educating people is good, but I'm not trying to hit them over the head with it."

Today Farley will share her aunt's story during a meeting of the Clearwater chapter of Hadassah, a Jewish women's service organization.

The story about her aunt, Renate Gruenebaum, has taken a lifetime to compile. Farley's efforts began as early as age 6, while growing up in a neighborhood of Catholics and German Jews in New York City. Her parents, both Holocaust survivors, were among the community's German-Jewish residents. Her father, Manfred Greenbaum, who now lives in St. Petersburg, was a butcher. He met her mother, Greta Mayer, at the annual butcher's ball.

Farley was curious about her father's side of the family. Her aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins on her mother's side were the only relatives she knew.

"I would just ask him about his family when I was a child and he told me that his sister arranged for him to come to the United States. She got the necessary papers," Farley said. Her efforts saved his life.

A distant relative sponsored her father to come to America by putting up the required $100,000, she learned.

"He didn't tell me any more," Farley said.

Like many Holocaust survivors, her father, now 90, wanted to block out the horror that snuffed out the lives of 11-million people, 6-million of them Jews. By the time the war was over, two out of every three Jews in the 21 countries occupied by Germany were dead. Among those who perished were Aunt Renate, her grandfather and a great aunt.

Farley began to learn more about her lost family after she set off on a 10-country European tour in 1985. Traveling with her was son Michael, then 10. They visited Germany and saw the exterior of her mother's childhood home. They were able to go inside her father's former home, where they had coffee and cake with the woman who bought the house at the end of the war.

The Seminole resident also met the man who would become a friend and valuable source of information about her father's family and the small community of Jews who lived in the town of Wenkheim. At the time, Klaus Reinhart, a Catholic, was in charge of the restoration of the town's synagogue. In May, he and his family will travel to the United States to meet Farley's ailing father. Over the years Farley also has worked with a German historian to piece together her family's history.

"In my dad's hometown, there are no Jews left," she said, adding that there had only been about eight Jewish families in the town of about 1,000 people before the war.

Through her research, she learned that her father's family and other Jews in Wenkheim and surrounding areas were rounded up by the Nazis on Oct. 22, 1940. Her father, who had been able to leave for America in 1937, at age 22, was spared their fate.

"They had one hour to go to the center of town with a suitcase, with maybe one day's worth of clothing, one day's worth of food and 100 marks," Farley said, adding that they were sent to the south of France, which was unoccupied at the time.

"When they arrived in France, the French didn't know what to do with them. The French put them into Camp Gurs," she said.

Her grandfather died in Gurs. Aunt Renate managed to get out of Gurs to work for farmers in the Lyons area, where she remained for about 16 months. She eventually was sent to Auschwitz, where she was among the estimated 1.5-million people who were starved, tortured and killed. She was 29. Farley's great aunt also died in Auschwitz.

Retracing her family's tragic journey has been painful.

"At first, my parents didn't even want to hear about it," Farley said. "When I made my second trip to Germany in 1999, they weren't speaking to me because of it. They were so angry, they were not going to attend my very first presentation. They did come."

Her efforts to honor Aunt Renate's memory continue. Though time is running out, she wants to find someone in France who might remember her aunt.

"She probably lived with a farm family and there were probably children who would now be in their 70s or older. Possibly, someone will remember her," Farley wrote in an e-mail Tuesday.

"Someone might have a photo. Perhaps Renate did some sewing or embroidery that they still have. It's a longshot, but some day I'll visit and see."