A visit to the Museum of Tolerance

renee firestone
Renee Firestone, one week shy of her 93rd birthday.

A three-hour flight delay is not usually welcome news, but it was this week. I’d already planned to squeeze in a trip to L.A.’s Museum of Tolerance on my way to LAX and the delay meant I could extend my visit. It meant I would be able to stay long enough to witness one of the hour-long testimonies the museum regularly schedules with Holocaust survivors.

It meant I got to hear the lovely Renee Firestone speak.

The day was full of surprises. Lovely is not a word I would expect to describe a talk on the Holocaust, any more than welcome is a word normally used to describe a flight delay. But lovely is the perfect word for Ms. Firestone.

One week shy of her 93rd birthday, she exuded beauty, resilience and a stalwart sense of purpose. An accomplished fashion designer, mother and wife, and a Holocaust survivor, Ms. Firestone’s story has been featured in four films including Steven Spielberg’s 1998 documentary, “The Last Days.

“Come on up to the front,” she said before beginning. “Why sit so far?”

I moved up a few rows, along with some others, to fill one of the empty seats closer to the front. There were around 50 people gathered in the small auditorium to hear her story.

“I am a Holocaust survivor,” she began. “Almost every Jew alive today is a Holocaust survivor. Do you understand that?”

The room was silent.

“I am going to be 93 years old in six days,” she continued. “I consider myself lucky.”

Her story that began in her birth country of Czechoslovakia, a nation that no longer exists. She had a childhood not unlike the typical American child has now — with store-bought clothes, a good education and the freedom to move about as she wished. She had the same liberties we take for granted today.

They slowly dissolved as World War II wore on through her teen years. When she was 20 years old, the Nazis ordered her family to go to Germany to help with the harvest. They were allowed one suitcase.

“Don’t worry,” her dad said. “The Americans are coming. The war will be over in four months.”

They were marched through the streets to the train station and herded onto a cattle car with 120 others. There was no room to sit, no food nor water, and the doors were locked from the outside.

“This must be a short trip,” Ms. Firestone remembers thinking.

The trip lasted three days. When they arrived at the unknown destination, which they would later learn was the Auschwitz death camp, they were told to leave their suitcases on the platform, and separated into groups based by age and gender. Her mother was taken and placed in a group of older women and girls. She and her 16-year-old sister were put into a group of healthy young women. Her father went with the men.

“You and I cannot be separated,” Ms. Firestone told her sister. “No matter what you see or hear do not let go of me.”

Across the road, they saw a strange-looking village and “some skeletons walking around in striped pajamas.” They were told to strip naked and join a line of at least 1,000 women. Their heads were shaved and they were given a pair of the same striped pajamas.

Six months later, her sister was taken from the camp.

Thirty seven years later, Ms. Firestone found out through her work on Spielberg’s Holocaust documentary, that her sister was taken for medical experiments, which killed her.

Ms. Firestone spent 14 months in the Auschwitz death camp.

“We think humanity learned from the Holocaust. Let me tell you, humanity learned nothing,” Ms. Firestone said.

But she keeps telling her story with hope for the future. She speaks often to young people. She asks them to put their phones away, start talking to each other, and tell people who they are.

She wonders how much longer she’ll have to tell people who she is.

 

 

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