By Josh Premako, 4/19/2012
Holocaust Survivor Continues to Share Her Story
It was 1977, more than 30 years since Renee Firestone was trapped behind the walls of the infamous Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, when she heard about a Jewish cemetery being desecrated in the San Fernando Valley.
That night, she said, she had her first nightmare since her imprisonment. In her dream, the ground was stained red with blood, and prison guards were yelling at prisoners to line up for roll call.
“I woke up to my own voice screaming ‘They told us never again,’” Firestone, 88, said during an interview in her Beverly Hills home.
Shortly after that nightmare, she decided to start telling her story.
A story of a Jewish family hauled off to a Nazi concentration camp, where a younger sister was killed at the hands of Nazi doctors and yet somehow she survived.
Born in 1924, Firestone grew up in Czechoslovakia — in an area now part of Hungary — one of the last places Jews suffered during World War II.
One spring day in 1944 after German forces had occupied the country, Jews in her town were told to pack one suitcase and go the train station. It was there that men, women and children were packed 120 deep in cattle cars, and sent on a four-day journey without food or water, headed to what they thought would be a work camp.
They did not realize they were being taken to Poland — to Auschwitz.
“What I seldom speak about is the first moment arriving at Auschwitz,” Firestone said. “It sends your life upside down. What you see doesn’t make any sense.”
For instance, she and many others did not realize until told that the camp’s massive brick chimneys were not part of a factory or bakery, but from ovens where prisoners were being cremated.
Firestone would spend 13 months behind the walls of Auschwitz, losing her mother and her sister, Klara. It would not be until many years later that Firestone would learn that her 16-year-old sister died at the hands of Nazi doctors, among them Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s “Angel of Death”. She would not learn until after liberation that her father was still alive.
While visiting the former concentration camp during filming for the 1998 documentary “The Last Days”, Firestone found out her sister was shot after being experimented on by doctors supervised by Mengele.
Firestone came face to face with Mengele shortly after first arriving at Auschwitz. While she was in a crowd of female prisoners lined up to have their hair shaved off, she said Mengele gestured for her to step out of line. She would not realize who he was until much later.
“He walked in the room and singled me out of thousands of women,” she said.
Telling her to stand under a light, Mengele examined her blonde hair and blue eyes, asking Firestone who in her family wasn’t Jewish. They were all Jewish, she replied, to which Mengele answered, “That’s impossible.”
Firestone said she grew worried that once her sister’s head was shaved she’d have a hard time recognizing Klara out of thousands of women, and that she broke away from Mengele and ran back to her sister.
“When I think back, that was my first bit of luck in Auschwitz,” she said, as she explained how guards yelled at her. “He usually shot people who disobeyed.”
After being liberated in 1945, Firestone settled in Prague. She had found her brother, who had escaped from a hard-labor camp and become a resistance fighter, and they learned their father was still alive. (He died in a Czech hospital that year.)
Firestone had actually met her future husband, Bernard, several years before her imprisonment, when she visited the labor camp where her brother was at the time.
After the war, Firestone’s brother ran into Bernard in the streets of Prague one day.
“A year later, we were married,” she said. The two would remain married for 55 years, until Bernard’s death in 2001.
In 1948, Firestone and her husband came to America, and she learned she had an aunt in California.
“She insisted (we visit),” Firestone said. “We decided to come and of course, we got stuck. We loved it.”
Firestone would spend years as a fashion designer in Los Angeles, even teaching fashion at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Not long after coming to America, Firestone tried to tell people about what she had been through, but she said many did not want to hear it. Don’t think about it, focus on the future, she said they told her.
“I understand,” she said. “The Americans were tired of the war.”
And so, for many years she did not talk about it, until 1977 when she was approached by the newly formed Simon Wiesenthal Center. Shortly after that, and the nightmare mentioned earlier, she decided to start sharing her history.
“It was scary. I cried a lot,” she said. “It needed to come out.”
The response, she said, was that “people were interested from the very beginning.”
For 35 years, Firestone has traveled throughout America and internationally telling her story, frequently speaking to groups of students. Adorning her living room are photos of her with politicians and celebrities, and numerous plaques and certificates.
But what matters most, she said, are the letters she frequently receives.
A note from an astronaut-in-training includes a copy of a certificate of recognition he planned to include for her in a space capsule. Tucked inside a yearbook from an Irish high school where she spoke is a letter signed by students thanking her for coming.
“It’s the letters (that matter),” she said. “The awards and pictures will go in the garbage can one day.”
In addition to being a lecturer for the Wiesenthal Center, Firestone is also on the board of directors for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. She has also been tireless in raising awareness of crises in Rwanda and Darfur, Sudan.
Sunday marks Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For Holocaust survivors, every day is a day of commemoration, Firestone said. “(Yom HaShoah) is for the world to remember. … The world did not change. Genocide is still going on.”
While Firestone did not grow up in a particularly religious household, she said her family celebrated major holidays and there was never any question as to their heritage.
Despite all she suffered, she said she still has faith.
“I don’t think God is responsible for any of the genocide,” she said. “God created man and equipped him with a heart, with a mind, with free will. To blame God would let humanity off the hook.”