Despite the odds, survivor thrives, has miracle family after Auschwitz

Women who have given birth often describe the experience in almost mythical terms, evoking powerful images of God, nature and generations past.

But when Renée Duering calls the birth of her daughter Naomi a "miracle," the word has a resonance all its own.

Duering, now 75 and a resident of Daly City, was a victim of medical experiments in Auschwitz. As she lay on a cold examining table while a newlywed in her early 20s, a white-coated Nazi doctor injected her right ovary with an acid so strong Duering felt her insides burning for three days.

Although her second ovary was scheduled for destruction as well, luck and circumstance prevented that from happening.

In 1954, when Naomi was born, Duering was able to give herself a legacy she had lost almost entirely during the war: a family.

Both of her parents were killed in Auschwitz; a sister survived by hiding and now lives in Long Beach.

Walk into Duering's home today and you will see few immediate signs of her past traumas. Snapshots of two grandsons, aged 14 and 20, are attached to a full-length mirror. Colorful paintings hang on the walls. The blinds are partially open, casting a soft light on the tastefully furnished living room.

Take a closer look, however, and hints of a nightmarish past begin to emerge. There are books on the Holocaust, as well as videos, one of which Duering pops into the VCR for a guest to watch.

On a dresser at the back of the house is a picture of a young man with pale hair and wire-rimmed glasses. This is Duering's first husband, Fritz Kramer, who was killed in the gas chambers of Auschwitz after the couple had been married little more than a year.

"Handsome, don't you think?" she asks.

There are no pictures of Duering's second husband, a Polish soldier in the British Army's Jewish Brigade whom she met on the streets of Amsterdam following the war, and with whom she immigrated to Israel. He was sterile, she says, so she found another man to father the child she so desperately wanted.

"I had the idea to carry on the blood in my family," Duering recalls. Soon after she became pregnant, her husband divorced her, saying he did not want children.

If Duering is bitter about her husband's departure or the other disappointments life has handed her, it does not show. She tells the story of her life matter-of-factly, her eyes lighting up when she talks about those things that have gone her way.

"My first mother-in-law always said to me that you should look to those who have less," says the survivor, a native of Cologne, Germany. "I always try to keep a cool head and be happy for what I have."

Many were not lucky enough to survive Block 10, the Auschwitz unit where hundreds of Jewish women served as guinea pigs for medical experiments. Some died from the sterilization injections, which caused high fever and inflammations. Some were gassed once the doctors had finished experimenting on them.

A majority of those who did survive were left infertile and severely damaged, physically and psychologically.

Duering, able to conceive, was one of the luckier ones. But that does not diminish the torture she endured.

In addition to having her right ovary destroyed, the survivor recalls a doctor injecting an unknown substance into her back — 42 times in one session. At one point, weak from starvation, exhaustion and medical testing, she became gravely ill with diphtheria.

Among her memories of Block 10 are a meeting with Dr. Maximilian Samuel, the German obstetrician who had delivered her and who during the war worked for the SS performing hysterectomies on Auschwitz inmates. When he saw Duering in the camp he noticed a strong family resemblance and called her by her mother's name, Esther.

"Please tell me, Dr. Samuel, are you going to also use me as a human guinea pig?" Duering recalls asking the doctor.

"I don't think so," he answered and hurried from the room.

Duering also recalls a Mrs. Levi, Block 10's stern Jewish gatekeeper. Mrs. Levi, who had eyes "sharp and pointed as knives," found Duering beautiful and greeted her cordially whenever they met.

Evidence of Duering's youthful beauty remains. Her skin is smooth and her hair carefully curled. Dressed in a tailored brown frock, she exudes an elegance.

Beneath that exterior, however, the effects of the medical experiments linger. When the survivor gets ill — with a cold, flu or any other ailment — she always feels the symptoms strongest on the right side of her body, the side damaged by the Nazi doctors.

She fears physicians, who in turn, she says, seem to fear her.

"They don't want to touch me," she says. "They still can't believe what happened. They are afraid of the subject."

Even so, Duering will always regard certain doctors with a degree of gratitude.

An Israeli doctor had delivered the surprising news that although her right ovary had been destroyed, the left was intact; therefore she had a chance of bearing children. "I didn't even know I was still good on one side," she says.

And another Israeli doctor removed the number 62501, which was tattooed on her left arm. Today, barely a scar remains. The procedure took place in 1955, soon before Duering immigrated to America in hopes of starting a new life.

"I cannot forget" the Holocaust, she says. "But I didn't want people in America to interrupt my life by asking about [the number]. Even if I wanted to explain it, they wouldn't understand."

The doctor who removed the tattoo asked Duering if she wanted to keep the piece of skin that had the numbers on it. She asked him to throw it in the garbage. When he did, "it was like being free," she says.

America provided a new kind of freedom.

She raised her daughter while earning a living as a seamstress at such stores as Joseph Magnin in San Francisco. In her spare time, she began to paint; many of the creations hanging in a spare room of her home depict unidentified flying objects, a subject that captured her imagination some years ago.

Duering also decided she wanted a formal education.

At Skyline College in San Bruno, she studied psychology, English as a second language and judo. "I learned a lot about how to defend myself," she says, recounting with glee the time when she elbowed a man in a hotel bar whose advances she deemed inappropriate.

"Strong" is one of the words Naomi Harper uses to describe her mother. She also points to Duering's creativity and sense of humor.

Duering is "a very caring person but sometimes she's misunderstood because she gives the impression that what you're doing isn't good enough," her daughter says. "It's just her way of trying to help."

Because Duering's own mother died in Auschwitz, the survivor didn't have a maternal role model upon whom to base her own mothering skills, Harper says.

As a child who sometimes lacked guidance, Harper felt "stranded or alone, like a lost lamb in the woods."

Nonetheless, she recalls her mother as supportive, encouraging her daughter to express her identity and to pursue her dreams. And Duering always imparted to her daughter a sense that she was loved.

The story of how Harper was conceived "made me feel like I was special and life is very precious," Harper says.

"It made me realize how important it is for children to know how much they were wanted."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.