Holocaust survivor speaks out

She tells her story to remind others of the horrors of Auschwitz

STRONG STILL<br>Renee Firestone, at 84 years old, tells her story of living through Auschwitz to ensure people remember the atrocities during World War II.

Renee Firestone, at 84 years old, tells her story of living through Auschwitz to ensure people remember the atrocities during World War II.

Photo By Katie Booth

Through the cracks they could see it was daylight. They had traveled through the middle of the night after three days in a crowded cable car. They had no place to sit or put their luggage—nothing but a bucket to pee in and a knot of fear and uncertainty in their empty stomachs.

She could hear shooting and screaming and kids begging their parents to go home. When the doors to the cable car opened, there was a scene of chaos; thousands like her getting off a line of cars that kept going as far as the eye could see.

She grasped the hand of her younger sister, Clara, determined never to let go.

“We are going to be together,” she told her.

It has been 63 years since Renee Firestone’s internment in Auschwitz, the place that would become known to the world as the largest Nazi extermination camp.

The 84-year-old woman still tells her stories, wishing all the while that she didn’t have to.

“Friends ask me: Why don’t you sit at the television and knit?” Firestone told a large audience Monday night at her speech at the Performing Arts Center on the Chico State campus.

Current events like the genocide in Darfur and the recent tragedy in Mumbai push her to do as much as she can.

“We forgot,” Firestone said with a slight accent. “They told us ‘never again.’ We really learned nothing from the Holocaust.”

Firestone was 20 years old when she arrived at Auschwitz, a camp in Poland surrounded by barbed wire and with rows and rows of wooden barracks, filled with “human skeleton[s] in striped pajamas,” she said.

Born in Czechoslovakia, Firestone was 9 years old “when a little man that looked like Charlie Chaplin was elected chancellor of Germany.” She had watched the progression of the war with optimism, not believing the stories of murder inflicted by the Germans.

“We had no idea,” Firestone said.

In 1944, Firestone was among the last remaining Jews in Europe still in their homes. They were told they would be sent to work and were given 24 hours to pack a suitcase of a specified size.

On the day they arrived in Auschwitz, she and thousands of others were sprayed with DDT, and their heads were shaved. The prisoners were stripped of their clothing and forced through ice-cold showers to be “refreshed” in front of laughing Nazi soldiers.

Her mother was put on a military truck with the elderly and the young, on their way to the gas chambers.

Flames shot out of large, brick chimneys and ash fell from the sky, lighting up the otherwise black night.

“It look[ed] like hell,” Firestone said in broken English to a quiet and somber audience.

With her sister crying next to her, Firestone approached an overseer and asked when she would be united with her parents.

“You don’t see the chimney and fire and smoke? There go your parents!” she was told. “When you go through the chimney you will be united with your parents.”

Her mother and father were killed, and her sister was used for medical experiments before being killed so she could tell no one of her experience.

Firestone was liberated on the last day of the war, and roamed around Europe “like the homeless,” she said. She was reunited with her brother, who had escaped a forced-labor camp, and in 1948 moved to Los Angeles with her husband and young child.

Today, Firestone tells these stories as a form of closure. But “the biggest tragedy is that there can be no closure,” she said.

It took her two years to recover physically from Auschwitz. She attributes her survival to youth, age and pure luck. “Mentally, I’m still working on it,” she said.