Do you remember the first time you heard a Holocaust survivor speak? I do. Her name is Renee. I met her when she spoke in my fourth grade class at Sunday school student at the Center for Early Jewish Education (which no longer exists, z”l). I remember everything about her talk – her voice, her wrinkled hands, her stories about Dr. Mengele and Auschwitz. I remember how two of the girls in my class broke down crying afterward. I remember how she comforted them. I remember that she told a story about a bathing suit…a gift from her father that she wore under her clothes on the way to Auschwitz in the cattle car. I remember that she said when it was time to strip down for inspection, she didn’t want to take that bathing suit off, because she knew that after that, everything would change. When she came back to speak to my fifth grade class the following year, we asked her to tell the bathing suit story again.
I’m 30 years old now, and I just returned from another trip to Berlin with Germany Close Up. This time, I was staff – I brought 26 Hillel at Stanford students with me. I thought about Renee often on that trip, as I have many times throughout the last two decades since I first met her. I had tried to look her up online, but there are so many Shoah victims and survivors name Renee. I couldn’t remember her last name. I was only 10 when I met her, after all.
Today, Holocaust Remembrance Day, my friend and colleague Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz posted a picture on his Facebook. The captions says “Such an honor to spend time with hero Renee Firestone (Holocaust survivor who was in Auschwitz). May she have health and success in inspiring through story.” She’s wearing sunglasses in the picture, but a Google search with her last name confirmed that this is the same woman who inspired me so many years ago! I immediately began to cry. I found her at last.
I have taken Renee’s story with me on every part of my journey. I thought about her when I was writing my first High Holiday sermon this past summer. I have thought about her every time the Holocaust has come back to me – in museums, in novels, in films, and in my own memories. I am so grateful that I saw that photograph today. I am so grateful to know that she is still alive and lively, inspiring others with her story every day. Thank you, Renee, for letting your story become part of mine.
This is what I wrote after I visited the Information Center at the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin this past March. It’s the Mourners Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead (which, actually, is a prayer in praise of living, and God), wrapped between words from a letter and a journal entry from victims of the Holocaust. I write this for them. For all of them. And also, for all of us.
Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mai raba
“Dear Father, I am saying goodbye to you before I die.
B’alma divrah chiruteh viyamlich malchuteh
We would so love to live but they won’t let us and we will die.
I am so scared of this death, because the small children are thrown into the pit alive.
Uvchayay v’chol beit yisrael
Ba’agala uvizman kariv
I kiss you tenderly.
Yehay shlama raba min sh’maya
“Blood, this blood of murdered mothers and children.
V’chayim aleinu v’al kol yisrael
And fear, the constant paralyzing fear, running, hiding, forests, bunkers
and all of this in vain
Oseh shalom bimromov
We are so powerless.
Hu ya’aseh shalom
We want to live!
Aleinu v’al kol yisrael
We want to survive this!
V’al kol yoshvey tevel
Where is God?!”