Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Story of Auschwitz

REVISITING THE PAST: Renee Firestone, holocaust survivor, on her first return to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1996.

Firestone Family

REVISITING THE PAST: Renee Firestone, holocaust survivor, on her first return to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1996.

The loud shrieks of bombs and airplanes were heard from inside the barracks throughout the night and come morning, the women weren’t called outside for the usual roll call. They gathered around the window, talking among themselves. There were no Nazis in sight. By 11 a.m., a prisoner opened the door and ran out into camp. Through the window the women watched her turn around, raise both hands in the air and run back toward them, yelling, “Germans Kaput!”

The Red Army had occupied Germany. World War II was coming to an end and after 13 months in a concentration camp, liberation had come for Renee Firestone. In a brief moment, her identity shifted from prisoner of Auschwitz-Birkenau to survivor.

Firestone will be speaking about her life today at 12:30 p.m. in the auditorium at GCC.

She was two weeks past her 20th birthday when she was hurled into the confined train to Auschwitz in April 1944. Along with her, her father, a textile businessman, her mother, a housewife and her younger sister had been taken from their home in Czechoslovakia. Her brother had already been separated from her family and placed in Hungarian labor camps.

Forced over the Polish border then escorted by Germans on train, it was uncertain as to what their future held.

“This old woman who was sitting at the edge of the cattle car ripped open her coat lining, reached in and removed a gold locket and started to cry, bitterly,” Firestone said in interview with Si Frumkin.

“I thought maybe that was her wedding picture in the locket, her family or grandchildren whom she left behind. . . I thought to myself, how cruel that they wouldn’t let her keep this little memoir and then she closed the locket and through the cracks of the cattle car handed it to the Nazis.”

The trip lasted three days without food or water with only a bucket for hundreds to share for bodily waste.

Nazis banged on the walls during the night, yelling at us to give up any valuables we possessed or we would be shot, Firestone recalls. This was followed by screaming and gunshots outside the train.

After arriving at camp, she was immediately separated from her parents but managed to keep her sister by her side.

The Nazis, described as young, handsome and smiling, led the women into an underground dressing rooms where they were forced to undress and stand naked from mid-afternoon to midnight.

The officers shaved the women’s heads, sprayed them with pesticide, and painted a yellow-stripe from their heads to their back to identify Jewish prisoners.

Firestone and her sister were eventually separated six months later. Her sister was killed briefly after their separation. She found out decades after she left Auschwitz that the Nazis had used her for medical experimentation.

Firestone recalls more than one run-in with the infamous Dr. Josef Mengele – “The Angel of Death.”

Mengele was a member of the team of doctors responsible for the selection of victims to be killed by gas chambers or through medical experimentation.

“Four days before liberation he shows up at our camp,” Firestone said in a phone interview. “We were told that Mengele was coming to check out our medical conditions, but to get undressed and stand in line and he’ll look at each of us.”

“When I came to him he tapped me on the shoulder and told me to open my mouth, he looked into my throat and said, ‘If you survive this war, have your tonsils removed,’ and of course at that time, I had no idea what was happening, so I thought, ‘Yeah, after I die I’ll have my tonsils removed,’” Firestone chuckled as she recalls the memory.

After Soviet forces moved over Germany, Mengele allegedly fled to Argentina, where he hid for the rest of his life.

When she left camp, Firestone marched to the Czechoslovakian border with eight former prisoners. They were penniless, their heads still shaven, and clothed in rags.

“We came to a little town where the girls said, ‘What are we going to do now?’ I said ‘Well let’s see let’s find a restaurant and maybe we can get some food,’” Firestone said.

“So sure enough, we found one and I speak Czech so I went in and the owner immediately recognized where I came from, he walked over and said to me, ‘Are you coming from camp?’ I said yes, then he told me to go in the kitchen and tell the cook to give me anything I want and as much as I want. I said, ‘Well I’m sorry but I have eight other girls that are waiting for me.’

He came out with me and took all of us through the back into the kitchen and fed us. He asked us where we were going to sleep that night. We had no idea. He said ‘Well, come back after 5 o’clock and you can sleep here safely.’ That was our first night of freedom,” Firestone said.

She spent three months homeless and eventually reunited with her brother in Budapest, where he had been a freedom fighter during the war after escaping a labor camp.

Firestone moved to the United States in 1948 with her husband, Bernard Firestone, also a holocaust survivor, and had a successful career as a fashion designer.

Today, 92, she lives in Beverly Hills with her daughter, Klara, named after her late sister.

Firestone said that the world today isn’t better off than it was when she was a prisoner in Auschwitz. And that terrorism is the new face of genocide.

“Most people don’t realize that [history] is repeating itself,” Firestone said. “The world is in worse shape than it was during the holocaust.”

She now travels the world to speak to people about her story in Auschwitz.

“I learned one very important lesson from the Holocaust and that was I will never judge people collectively,” Firestone said. “Each individual human being has to be judged by his own merit, who he is, what he does, how he acts.”

She has seen more atrocities than one could imagine. She has  known firsthand the consequences of unchecked power, seen the darkest corners of humanity the evil, bottomless depths man can sink to. But she’s also seen the unwavering resilience of the human spirit and experienced the kindness and compassion of strangers.

She has borne witness to it all and come out the other side.