Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone to share her story

Firestone will speak at several locations in Cedar Rapids this week

Victims mourned on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Berlin (Photo © Herald Times )
Victims mourned on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in Berlin (Photo © Herald Times )

Nearly 70 years have passed since Renee Firestone was forced into a crowded train bound for Auschwitz.

The year was 1944. Firestone and her family were living in Hungary, where life was getting difficult for Jewish families. Firestone’s brother was taken to a work camp soon after his 18th birthday and her father had lost his business.

Firestone, her parents and younger sister thought they were going to a work camp in Germany. They were told they’d have housing and paying jobs. She’d heard rumors of mass graves filled with Jewish bodies, but was sure they were just that — rumors.

The idea of such horror was too great to believe.

The three days Firestone spent traveling in the cramped train, with no food and no water, brought those rumors to light.

Arriving at Auschwitz, Firestone was immediately separated from her parents. Keeping a death grip on her younger sister, Firestone managed to stay with her as they were forced to strip naked, shower in cold water, and have their heads shaved.

Dressed in similar gray cotton dresses, it was nearly impossible to tell one woman from another. The Nazis had stripped away their identity, just as they had taken their clothing and other belongings.

“People ask me if I hate the Nazis,” Firestone, now 89, said in a phone interview from her home in California. “I don’t judge because I have no right to judge.”

She doesn’t like to use the word hate. It’s too powerful. Hate, she said, is what causes people to kill.

There’s been enough killing.

“When I was liberated from the camp, I was 21 years old,” she said. “I was ignorant. They told us this would never happen again and I believed them.”

But it did. It has.

“The world didn’t learn anything from the Holocaust,” Firestone said.

That is why she travels the globe, sharing the story of her time in Auschwitz. She will speak at several locations in Cedar Rapids this week.

Firestone talks about her mother, who was taken to the gas chambers because she had gray hair. She talks about the day her sister disappeared, of not knowing what happened to her.

Decades would pass before she’d learn her sister was among the Jews tortured in the “medical-experiment hospitals.”

Rarely a day comes that Firestone doesn’t share her story with someone. The traveling, the questions and the memories can be difficult, but not talking would be harder.

“There are fewer survivors every year,” Firestone said. “It is important for us to speak. We have a responsibility to remind the world, to warn the world of what has happened. We have to start teaching our children. We can’t be afraid to tell them. Our children have to know what happened.”

That includes her own daughter, Klara Firestone, who is the founder and president of Second Generation, Los Angeles.

Firestone also has a granddaughter and three great-grandchildren — but she pauses after mentioning them.

Firestone has never wanted revenge for what happened to her. Revenge, she said, can lead to hate. She could let the past consume her, but she hasn’t.

She moved to the United States in 1948 with her husband and daughter. She learned English. She became a fashion designer. She became a voice of Holocaust survivors.

She lived.

“That’s my revenge on the Nazis,” Firestone said with a quiet laugh. “They wanted to kill us. I have three great-grandchildren.”


Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone will speak at several locations in Cedar Rapids this week:

  • 11 a.m. Tuesday, April 16, in Iowa Hall at Kirkwood Community College
  • 7 to 9 p.m. Tuesday, April 16, in the Chapel of Mercy at Mount Mercy University
  • 9 a.m. Wednesday, April 17, at Washington High School
  • 3:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 17, in Kesler Lecture Hall of Hickok Hall at Coe College
  • 9:40 a.m. Thursday, April 18, at Xavier High School

Firestone’s visit is sponsored by the Joan and David Thaler Holocaust Memorial Foundation, which has brought Holocaust survivors and children of survivors to Eastern Iowa for more than 25 years.“It’s about education and it’s about understanding,” Joan Thaler said. “It’s just amazing how much interest there is in this. We want people to know this has happened and we want them to learn from it.”

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