When Renee Firestone spoke, Mount Mercy listened.
A packed Chapel of Mercy on April 16 was like a house during The Night Before Christmas. There was no empty pew or chair in sight, and yet not a creature was stirring as the audience sat listening.
Firestone is a Holocaust survivor, a native of eastern Czechoslovakia who told of how her family lived with Hungarian and then German occupation. The Hungarians enforced many anti-Jew Nazi laws, but it was when the retreating Germans, pouring out of Russia, took over the area that Jews were rounded up and sent to death camps.
It is something to hear a person who was there give her eye-witness account. She has done it many times and remained poised during her speech, but I wonder about the toll reliving those horrible memories must take.
Still, if Firestone were not strong, she would not be here. She is a survivor.
I found myself moved by many things during her speech. I felt sympathy for her, enduring such a tragedy. I felt saddened by the deaths of everyone she knew. And I felt particular sympathy for her father. At age 50, he had spent the war years encouraging Firestone not to tune into or believe the horrible rumors about the Germans that were circulating in her town. Surely they were not rounding up Jews and shooting them at mass grave sites in forests in Poland and occupied regions of the Soviet Union.
And, when word came that the family had to pack to be moved to forced labor camps, surely it was to work in factories or on farms—after all, as a nation mobilized for all-out war, Germany could not afford to destroy its own workforce. It turned out that Firestone’s father was wrong. The rumors were true, and then some. There were no “fields” for the Czech Jews to harvest, and the factories were crematoriums for mass disposal of murdered civilians.
Right until the end, the Germans massacred innocent civilians just because they were either Jewish or undesirables of some other sort.
I felt my heart breaking for a man who could not believe the civilized citizens of his neighboring country could sink so low or be that evil. One of the great tragedies of Nazi Germany is that it showed a “civilized” country could be capable of outright evil.
If I could send a message to Firestone’s father, it would be: Don’t kick yourself because you didn’t believe. It was just too awful. It was hard to fathom.
The other person I felt particular sympathy for was Firestone herself. As she noted in her speech, her whole family, her whole network of friends, disappeared into the death of the Holocaust. Why was she spared? It’s a question she asks herself repeatedly, and that she feels as a burden.
Survivor’s guilt—it seems such a real emotion and yet so misplaced. There sure is a lot of guilt to go around, but virtually none of it should be for a young woman who just happened to beat the odds and survive.
Now, almost 70 years later, approaching age 90, Firestone is bearing powerful witness. I’m glad I was there to hear her. I’m glad the Chapel of Mercy was packed for her speech. It’s too bad that some who wanted to hear her were unable to.
It won’t be that many more years that survivors such as Renee Firestone are still around to bear witness. And sadly, the Holocaust of World War II is not a unique event. As the terror in Boston shows, the targeting and murder of the innocent continues today.
But the terror in Boston is an isolated event. The horror of the Holocaust is that it was so efficient, so thoroughly organized, carried out over such a long time and at such great cost—murder as a large scale national industry.
Thank you, Renee Firestone, for helping those of us who are too young to directly remember to at least hear the echo of memory in your stories. And may we learn from your experience.