|Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone presents eighth grader Hunter Link and his fellow Edwards Middle School students with copies of Lest We Forget, a publication of the Shoah survivor organization for which Firestone volunteers as a speaker and educator. Link was the winner of the Dryden-sponsored National Women's History Month essay contest with his paper about nurse Clara Barton.
NASA Photo / Tom Tschida
Firestone hopes for brighter future
X-Press Assistant Editor
In an appearance commemorating National Women's History Month, Holocaust survivor Renee Firestone incorporated NASA into her hopes for a brighter future for a world whose history saw the terrible chapter of Hitler and Auschwitz.
"My being here is one of the miracles that happen at Dryden," she said. "And every time I see news of a man landing on the moon or planning to fly to another planet, I can't help wondering, 'when is the human population going to learn to get along here before they go anywhere else?'"
As part of the national Women's History initiative, this year themed "Women Inspiring Hope and Possibility," Firestone gave the keynote presentation at a March 26 event attended by Dryden employees and students from Edwards Air Force Base Middle School. In her address, she shared the story of her capture by Nazi soldiers at age 19 and 13 months of imprisonment in the Polish concentration camp of Auschwitz before being liberated by Russian soldiers at war's end.
The audience listened somberly as Firestone told of suffering the terrible pain and atrocities of imprisonment and of losing her family members. Her mother was sent to the crematories immediately, her younger sister later taken from Firestone to perish among the children who endured medical experimentation at the hands of the ruthless Nazi physician Josef Mengele. Many in the audience shed tears openly and some asked tentative questions at the end of Firestone's talk.
"What happened when the Russians came to liberate you?" one queried. "Did they just turn you loose with a few bucks - a train ticket?"
"No," she answered ruefully, "no bucks, no train ticket. We were free to go, but we were sick; we had no food, no clothes, nothing. We walked, we hitchhiked or caught a train if we could." Firestone eventually found her way to Budapest, Hungary, where she was reunited with her brother and briefly with her father, who died of tuberculosis six months after being freed.
Firestone's appearance took place in the ISF, where a display featuring other important historical figures decorated the room. Portraits and biographies of United Farm Workers union co-founder Dolores Huerta, poet/playwright Maya Angelou and architect Maya Lin, designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, served alongside Firestone to illustrate the accomplishments of women who are role models of achievement for young people today.
The Dryden Equal Employment Opportunity office sponsored the event, which also featured an essay contest for the middle schoolers. Students wrote essays on female figures they found inspirational, and Center Director Kevin Petersen presented the winning certificate to Edwards Middle School eighth grader Hunter Link for his composition on nurse Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.
In remarks introducing Firestone to the crowd, Petersen noted the achievements of women at NASA and their role in the Agency's many successes.
"I think about the partnership between men and women here at NASA," he said. "I think of the roles women are playing in the X-43 program, and with the Mars rovers - women are helping every day to answer key questions about our world, here and beyond."
Firestone is a lecturer with the Shoah educational foundation, an organization established in 1994 by filmmaker and philanthropist Steven Spielberg after he produced the movie "Schindler's List" detailing the Holocaust. The goal of the foundation is to conduct public outreach that focuses Holocaust memories on prevention of future atrocities; Firestone presented each middle school student with a copy of the foundation's publication, "Lest We Forget." She also is affiliated with the Simon Weisenthal Center Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.
Speaking about her own hopes for the future, Firestone sounded a cautionary note.
"I was convinced there could never be another genocide," she said. "And then it happened again, to the Cambodians. The 20th century has been called the bloodiest in history but here it is the 21st century, and it's still going on.
"I keep wondering whether we can learn to get along on this Earth; if we're killing each other because we're different then we'll have to kill every one of us, because we're all different. I hope we can do better than that."