In early 1945, when a Russian-Jewish soldier rode in on horseback to help liberate Auschwitz-Birkenau, 21-year-old Renee Firestone was there, barely alive. Her mother and sister, victims of Nazi atrocities, weren’t so lucky. With odds heavily stacked against her, Firestone began life anew.
“Without a penny in my pocket, not even underwear, wooden Dutch clogs on my feet, emaciated and with my shaved head, I re-entered the world, the same world that put me in [Auschwitz] 14 months ago,” Firestone, now 92, said, addressing a crowd of nearly 800 at Pan Pacific Park as part of the 25th annual Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) Yom HaShoah commemoration on April 23.
“How does one become a human again?” Firestone asked, as the audience, which included 50 other Holocaust survivors, sat in silence.
Universal lessons of shared humanity was a prominent theme as survivors, community leaders and special guests honored the 6 million Jews lost in the Holocaust.
One of the featured survivor artists was 87-year-old Eva Zuckerman-Warner, who spoke to a small group that included her grandson Jerry. As a young girl who designed clothes for her own dolls, Zuckerman-Warner longed to attend art school. Hungarian anti-Jewish laws prevented her from doing so.
“I think I was born without a left brain,” she joked. “I only got the right brain. I’ve always been this way.”
Zuckerman-Warner sat beside one of her 20 sculptures, a life-size clay-molded face with a gaping mouth crying out in agony. She said the work is a tribute to the nameless, faceless Jews who perished in the concentration camps, an example of how the tragedies of her past dominate her work and often help her cope.
“For me, art is a way to reflect on the trauma of the Holocaust, the horrors I experienced,” she said. “This came from my heart. I wear my heart on the outside.”
Guests were invited to visit a new international traveling exhibition, “Names Instead of Numbers.” An in-depth look inside Dachau concentration camp, it features artifacts, letters, photographs and personal testimonies both from LAMOTH’s collection and from the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site in Germany.
“What’s really unique about this exhibit is that it shows the personal experiences of people who were persecuted by the Nazis,” Jordanna Gessler, LAMOTH’s director of education, told the Journal. “Each part of the exhibition is curated to highlight these individual stories.”
One of those individual stories is that of a young Polish man identified on a dilapidated, 1948-issue German driver’s license as Idel Aleksander. After his liberation from Dachau, he drove around Germany looking for surviving family members. He found none. Now 94, Joseph Alexander stared at his old driver’s license on display.
“I like that it’s here. I like that people will see it,” Alexander said. “It’s important that we share personal stories like mine in this way. There are still deniers out there in the world. I’m the living proof; so are these documents. People need to know these things happened to me. We have to keep talking about it.”
Paul Nussbaum, president of LAMOTH and a child of Holocaust survivors, opened the ceremony by reading aloud a letter sent by Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. He then delivered a fiery speech in which he spoke not just of a need to look back into tragic parts of history like the Holocaust, but also to recognize similar historical patterns forming today.
“We must bear witness now, because as I look across the landscape of Europe, Great Britain and — shamefully, I must admit — our beloved United States, the seeds of otherness have sprouted and are being fertilized by the sowers of hate, fear and intolerance,” he said.
John Emerson, the U.S. ambassador to Germany from 2013 until early this year, and his wife, Kimberly Emerson, a lawyer and human rights activist who now sits on the board of Human Rights Watch, served as keynote speakers. Both touched on the importance of Holocaust education to prompt change in future generations and to eradicate genocide in all forms. John Emerson made his point by illustrating the difference between history and memory.
“Historians conduct research, they fix dates and interpret the significance of events,” he said. “But memories are kept alive through storytelling, through teaching, sensitive writing, commemorations, even judicial proceedings, and especially at places such as this that are devoted to preserving survivors’ stories.”
Pairs of survivors and young grandchildren lit commemorative candles. A quartet of teenage classical musicians from Los Angeles County High School for the Arts performed “Tracks,” a melancholic composition written by Noah Daniel, a Milken Community Schools student. Alyssa Jaffe, a Santa Monica High School student, sang the U.S. national anthem and “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem. A delegation from the Knesset looked on.
In her speech, Israel’s minister for social equality, Gila Gamliel, said, “The difference between today and some 75 years ago is that today we have a strong State of Israel. This is our pledge. This is our bond. This is our unbreakable link. This is our ‘never again.’ ”
Firestone plays her part by traveling the globe as a public speaker. She told the crowd she felt compelled to take control over the tragedies of her past by sharing her story. A longtime Los Angeles-based fashion designer, she capped her speech by offering advice and hope.
“To parents, I say speak to your children and teach them to respect each other and help each other,” she said. “To the schoolteachers, on the other hand, I tell them to tell their students to put their cellphones in their pockets. This way, they may just find out that most of them want to live in peace, and by learning to respect and care for each other, maybe — maybe — we can make that happen.” n