The Story of Rachel Gleitmen, a Holocaust Survivor


Sophomore Gemma Wirtenberg has been thinking a lot about the history of the Holocaust, especially in light of Pine Crest’s recent symposium for the freshmen. In this guest column, she was able to share her great grandmother’s story and her experience surviving this tragedy. 

My great grandmother, Rachel Glietman, survived the Holocaust. She was featured in the documentary Paper Clips which filmed her participation in a project having to do with paperclips. This documentary/project took place in 1998 when she, along with two other survivors, traveled to a predominantly Christian area of Tennessee to educate middle school children about the Holocaust. Most of these students did not know any Jews (considering this town did not have any Jews residing there), let alone any facts about the events of the Holocaust. Initially, the school established this project to create awareness of hate crimes and to gain a better understanding of other cultures in a town with little to no diversity. The school officials, along with the help of the survivors, focused the project on the Holocaust. The students were assigned to collect 6 million paper clips symbolizing the 6 million Jews that perished during the Holocaust. The final piece of this project was to place these paperclips in a German rail car, echoing the chilling end to the Jewish lives lost to the Nazis. Survivors of the Holocaust spoke to the children about their personal stories, which included watching their siblings and family members die by the hands of the Nazis right before their eyes.

Rachel Gleitmen was born in a small town near what was Munkacs, Czechoslovakia in 1923. She was one of seven children and in 1944, she was packed into a cattle car and driven to Auschwitz. This region consisted of 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by German Nazis in Poland. Starving and terrified, they were directed by a German officer in “elegant white gloves” to go to the right or the left. She, along with her father, older brother, and sister, survived. But she never saw her mother or her three younger brothers again.

She was eventually ushered into a building with around 500 other females. Their hair was shaved and they were forced to surrender their clothing. They all originally thought they were taking a shower until they realized there was no water coming out. My great grandmother said the room contained hard cement floors and stark white walls. They stood there waiting until the doors opened and were told to exit. This makeshift “shower” was really not a shower but rather a gas chamber disguised. The gas chamber malfunctioned. She did not realize it at the moment, but this malfunction saved her life.

In the years following the Holocaust, my great grandmother spoke to many communities near and far about her experience. Her oral history interview is a permanent part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Collection. As painful as it was for her to recount these atrocities, it was her life’s mission to keep these memories alive so, as she would say, “never again” would Jews live to experience another genocide.

A few years ago, my aunt, uncle and grandmother attended a ceremony at Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to the Holocaust) honoring my great grandfather, Henry (also a Holocaust survivor). The Kohldorfner family risked their lives and the lives of their young children to hide my great grandfather on their farm in Scnaiste, Germany. This family was recognized by Yad Vashem as “Righteous Among the Nations.” The main goal of Yad Vashem in this respect is to pay gratitude on behalf of the Jews and the state of Israel to individuals who risked their lives to protect Jews during the Holocaust. 

Hate crimes are still rampant today. In 2021, antisemitism was at an all-time high according to the Anti-Defamation League. From 2020 to 2021 alone there was a 34% increase in crimes committed against Jews. It is vitally important to recognize the hard-fought freedom of our Jewish ancestors. That freedom should not be taken for granted. We must defend our Jewish identity and not tolerate this hate. For Jews or any other race, religion or ethnicity, it is important to educate others of our history and how far we have come despite challenges faced throughout time. 

This Spring, I am traveling to Germany. I will be visiting Hitler’s bunker, Dachau’s concentration camp, and other significant sites of the Holocaust. It is a trip that I very much look forward to, but also comes with mixed emotions. It will be painful to stand in the same sites of my family’s most atrocious tragedies. However, I believe it is necessary in honoring my Jewish heritage and identity.

So how do I, just one person, show gratitude for an immeasurable amount of sacrifices on behalf of  my family? I appreciate the  integrity kept in their darkest moments, the strength they had to persevere despite feeling helpless, and the courage to escape. I am in awe of their courage, as well as their ability to adapt to a new life post-Holocaust. Despite these hardships, my great grandparents, as well as many other brave survivors, protect and preserve our Jewish heritage by retelling their painful stories for generations to come. There is no simple answer for how I can truly show my gratitude; however, I will continue to remember their legacy, retell their story, and educate others, so that history does not repeat itself. 


The Paper Clips Documentary

The Anti-Defamation League, 

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum,