After the routine trauma of smelling the burning flesh of the living and watching smoke billow from Auschwitz’s crematorium, after losing her parents and seven of her siblings, and after serving in four slave labor camps: how did Helen Rieder recover a positive attitude and carry a smile on her face after surviving the Holocaust?
“I choose: to remember those that showed me kindness, even if it was at a risk,” Renee Rieder Siegel said, quoting her late mother.
Despite Helen’s persecution, Renee had another powerful message to deliver on behalf of her mother to the employees of Defense Logistics Agency Troop Support and NAVSUP Weapon Systems Support April 26.
“Don’t hate. We’re not born hating. It is taught to us and nothing good comes from it,” she said.
Renee addressed the theme of the Department of Defense 2017 Holocaust Days of Remembrance, “Learning from the Holocaust: The Strength of the Human Spirit,” and her mother’s words on choices and tolerance spoke directly to the Defense Logistics Agency’s core values of resilience and diversity. DLA Troop Support’s Resilience program and the Equal Employment Opportunity and Diversity Office are in place to help uphold these organizational virtues.
Renee presented the story of her mother’s life through video clips, photographs, quotes and personal explanations. Helen was born in Czechoslovakia in 1927 to a Jewish couple who had nine children and owned a successful bakery.
After her father was sent to a labor camp in 1939, Helen was forced to leave school to help her mother continue their business and care for her younger siblings. In April 1944, Helen and her family members were ordered to leave their home for a ghetto.
“Six weeks later they were transported by cattle car to Auschwitz. Helen was 16 years old. She was subsequently sent to four slave labor camps. She was liberated by the Allied Forces in 1945. After the war, Helen learned that only she and one other brother had survived,” read Helen’s biography.
To overcome the atrocities she experienced early in life, Helen chose to focus on the kindness of those around her, chose tolerance and chose to “make something of herself” through education, Renee said.
Beyond surviving and reclaiming her own life, Helen had a responsibility to uphold since last seeing her father in 1944.
“Someone must survive from this family and tell the world what happened here,” Helen’s father told her as he neared the end of his life as a victim of the Holocaust.
Throughout her life, Helen told her story to hundreds of people, most recently for the Esther Raab Holocaust Museum and Goodwin Education Center in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. As she neared the end of her life at age 88, however, Helen feared that the history of the Holocaust would be increasingly denied as fewer survivors were alive and able to share their first-hand accounts.
So Renee, whose name means “born again,” took on this responsibility.
“As my mother’s daughter, I feel that it’s a sacred privilege that I am able to keep her legacy of memories alive and continue to fulfill my grandfather’s last wish,” Renee said.
“I want people to know what can happen when bigotry and hatred are allowed to go unchecked – what can happen when people remain bystanders and do not stand up and speak out against injustices wherever they see them,” Renee said. “And I also want people to realize the power of kindness. Even what might seem like a small act can ultimately make a difference in someone else’s life.”