*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Simone is an activist, feminist and educator. She has used her experience as the daughter of Holocaust survivors as motivation to do good. The things I have learned from her could fill volumes, but the lesson for today is “to speak in a more assertive way” because as a woman, “voice and body language are everything”. Please allow me to introduce my fierce, intelligent, and beautiful mother.
- Anna Scheumann
Michelle : What is your full name?
Simone: My full name is Simone Juliana Hilfstein Scheumann.
Simone: I was born in Bronx, New York. I now live in Nanuet.
Michelle: What is your occupation?
Simone: I am a retired teacher. I taught mainly chemistry and some biology.
Michelle: How long were you a teacher?
Simone: Almost 34 years.
Michelle: Amazing! Did you teach at public or private school?
Simone: I taught only at public school. One and a half years was in the Bronx and the rest of the years were in New Jersey.
Michelle: What inspired you to be a teacher?
Simone: That’s a great question. I always loved science, and the teaching was plan B. My mother was a teacher. My father was eager for me to have a profession where I would have a certain security. Starting out, I really wanted to be a veterinarian. After college I lived in Italy for approximately three years and I went to vet school. I got home sick, so I came home started graduate school for medical research which I did for a period of time while I was taking my ed courses. I ultimately decided I didn’t like to be in a lab setting. There are no weekends. You are working on live organisms and there are rarely windows. So even though I loved doing it, it was not suited for my personality.
Michelle: Are you are a big animal lover?
Simone: I am. Interestingly enough after I came back I met my husband who is allergic to animals.
Michelle: Oh no! But you have cats!
Simone: This is true. We vacuum a lot. We’ve been together 37 years so I think it worked out well.
Michelle: It was a good choice in the long run! When you were studying science did you ever feel you were one of the only women in your field?
Simone: When I was taking any of the so-called “hard sciences” like physics or chemistry there were about three women in a class it of about fifty men in the lecture hall.
Michelle: Did you ever feel discouraged?
Simone: It was difficult. I was told I should go teach bio and not get into chemistry. Big push for me to become a nurse because that was more of a traditional profession for women than science, but I was my own person. Things have changed tremendously and I couldn’t be happier.
Michelle : Your Mom was a teacher, what was your father’s profession?
Simone: My father was a beautician, hairstylist.
Michelle: Well I can certainly see where Anna gets her talents! Can you tell us a little bit more about your parents?
Simone: Both of my parents were born in Kraków, Poland. My father was born in 1920 and grew up in a very loving family. His father, who owned a beautician and barber salon, passed away when he was about 16. It was a family business and they owned a few shops. My father took over at an early age because his mother was not able to handle it all. My mother, from the same town, came from a relatively affluent family. She was on an academic track. 1% of Jews in Kraków were permitted to attend parochial school. She was into languages and she wanted to study Latin and Greek and so on. She was born in 1923. I just found that out a year ago. My mother changed her age during the war. She was 16 years old; she wanted to make herself a change of age which was part of her survival. Many women and men did that. There could be a computer entry error, but this was quite intentional. I have been doing genealogy for my family and I have been going back to Poland yearly. I’ve found some very interesting documents in the archives.
Michelle: Did your parents meet in Poland?
Simone: My parents’ families knew of each other because in Kraków. As big a city as it was, the Jewish community was very close. When both my parents were moved from their homes and into the Kraków Ghetto, before they went to the concentration camps, they lived in apartments with the families opposite each other. Both my parents’ mothers got together and asked my father if he would marry my mother so her could take care of her. They were married in the ghetto in 1942.
Michelle: You said both your parents were in concentration camps. Can you tell us about their story? I cannot fathom what they have been through.
Simone: After the Nazis moved the Jews out of their locations, about 30,000 Jews were moved into about a 6 block radius. There were several families living in one apartment. Maybe like 10 people living in a 1 bedroom apartment. The people were used to build roads for the Nazis. Building roads, building concentration camps and so on. My father's family business happened to be in Podgórze, which was the Krakow Ghetto, so he was able to work. This time he did the hair for the Nazis, for their wives and their mistresses. So that’s why he had a little more leeway to help my mother. After the ghetto was liquidated, which meant thousands of people were shot on the spot, including many family members of both sides, my parents went to a camp outside Krakow called Płaszów. It was a labor camp. My mom sewed uniforms for the Nazis, or towed stones that were being smashed from quarries or other places. My father worked as a beautician for some of the most notorious Nazi criminals. They were there until Płaszów was liquidated, again more people killed, and they marched to Auschwitz. Which in itself was an ordeal. Once they were in Auschwitz they didn’t stay there very long. They were then sent to other camps in Germany because the Russians were coming in on the front and they were moving people out. Basically my parents survived because they survived. They lost touch with each other. My father was convinced my mother had perished. She had learned how to sew. She worked in Płaszów in the kitchen preparing so-called food. To work in the kitchen my mother had to pass through a line of Nazis; they had whips on both sides. If you ran fast enough you weren’t beaten as much, but if you made it to the other side you could work in the kitchen. She had physical and emotional scars.
Michelle: Did you feel your family’s trauma directly influenced your childhood or upbringing?
Simone: It did. Life long. There are certain motivations, my attitude towards family, work ethic, everything that can encompass a life. Some of which I didn’t realize until I got a little older.
Michelle: Do you have siblings?
Simone: I have one brother, Leon. He is 8 years older than I am. He was born in 1946 when my parents were being housed in a Displaced Persons camp. After the war ended in ’45, my parents were liberated from two different camps. The surviving Jews and others were placed in DP camps which were often converted from the top concentration camps. They were then cared for, sent to school, seen by doctors, and psychiatrists or psychologists. Whatever they needed. They were there from 1945 until 1949. People don’t realize they couldn’t just leave. They were there, they didn’t have papers. Many of them had not finished school. So in the DP camps they were taught professions. They formed organizations. They found people, they married, they had children. My parents were in a community set up in the village of Gailingen, Germany by The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. My brother was born just outside Gailingen in a Konstanz hospital. I actually have a document giving my mother permission to travel to the hospital. And then they came here to the United States. Agencies helped them to find families or organizations. In my case, family and distant relatives sent papers so that they could come over.
Michelle: Did they enter the United States through New York City?
Simone: They came through Boston by ship and then relocated to upstate New York before moving to The Bronx. They got an apartment, my father started working, and by the time I was born in 1954, he opened his first beauty salon in Manhattan on my birthday. I should tell you that one of my grandparents survived, which is very unusual. My mother’s mother. Her name was Anna. My grandmother came to the United States in 1951, and she was also in the DP camps. She had a different experience. She was also in concentration camp but she made herself younger by two years. She was born in 1898 but her birth record says she was born in 1900. My grandmother was one of the oldest survivors. She lived until she was 80. My father passed away at 78. My mother was not truly 78; she really passed away at 79.
My grandson is named after my father, whose name was Max. Its tradition for Ashkenazi Jews to name children after those of the past.
Michelle: How do you continue to stay connected to your family’s history here in the United States?
Simone: I have been involved with a holocaust survivor organization called the New Crakow Friendship Society for over 35 years, and I am on the board of directors. It is a philanthropic and educational organization with the idea that the world should not see an atrocity like this again. But it also helps to keep children of survivors connected, and now subsequent generations. My father was one of the 13 founders of the organization. My parents transferred their experiences to me because I lived with not just my two holocaust survivors, but three because my grandmother survived as well.
Michelle: I have read that trauma can be passed also in your DNA, is that true?
Simone: Yes. There is a certain degree of anxiety, but then there is also being more open minded, not taking too much shit — or really any shit from anybody. My father took his angst and turned it into action through philanthropic work, which is really now what my life is about.
Michelle: It’s a miracle that your mother, father, and grandmother were able to not only survive, but then come here to the United States and start a new life. And you have this incredible family. It’s just amazing.
Simone: Absolutely, and they did well! My grandmother lived with us, so my mother was able to go back to school when I was 5 years old. She was always very bright, and finished high school when she was 16, but of course there were no documents so she went back to high school and got her GED. From there she earned her bachelors and started teaching junior high school history, science and then ended up teaching computers. While working as a teacher at the junior high school my mother earned her masters and her PHD. She was a Copernican Scholar so she lectured at Yale, Harvard, Washington University and Princeton. My mother’s goal in life was to become immortal. So now when you go online and type in Dr. Erna Hilfstein — there she is!
She was always reading, writing and editing, critiquing articles that other professors’ had written and so on. She had a long bio of that stuff. She spoke 8 languages and wrote 8 languages fluently. She never understood why Americans basically speak only one language.
Michelle : It sounds like education and knowledge were incredibly important to your mother.
Simone : Absolutely. She knew the one thing that no one could take away from you is your education. The Nazis tore the earrings out of her ears so she would not wear earrings anymore. All the jewelry was taken away, all her clothes, everything. What you know, the things your learn, they can’t take that away from you.
Michelle: You mentioned that you go back to Poland once a year. Is there anything in particular you visit, or any distant family?
Simone: There is no family, there is a cemetery. They took the tombstones to build roads and other edifices but my great grandmother's tombstone is there. I know where it is, I go there because my parents used to.
Michelle: Anna mentioned to me about your Polish citizenship. I’d love to know more about that!
Simone: Last year I was granted citizenship. It's an interesting story. There's property in Poland, I've come to terms I probably will never get back because of the politics that are going on right now, but I knew it would be helpful if I became a Polish citizen. My parents never gave up their Polish citizenship. They were liberated in Germany by France and never went back. There was a law passed in Poland after communism fell so that people could reclaim their citizenship or subsequent generations. The Polish government was doing very well but ended up electing someone who is not good. People didn’t go out to vote. Similar to what we have going on here.
Michelle: Speaking of politics, what are your thoughts on what is going on our country?
Simone: I think it's devastating. I think of the gains we made just in my generation — and I chained myself to the U.N. for freedom. I picketed for civil rights, I picketed for a women's right to choose. Then I look at what is happening now and I think — excuse me? My parents came to this country for a certain amount of freedom and now it seems to be going backwards.
Michelle: What are the issues that are most important to you?
Simone: Women's rights. More importantly, women's bodies being dictated by men. It is just outrageous. And besides that, civil rights. This whole question of immigrants, we are a country of immigrants! The fact that the current and past administrations couldn’t resolve immigration issue, now makes it all so much worse. It’s so much worse. I volunteer for short periods of time teaching English to people from Latin countries. It’s usually the moms with their children because the husbands are working. But now they have stopped showing up because they are afraid. And many of them, by the way, are in this country legally.
It’s all about the money. It’s not about the people. The issue I see living in the New York metropolitan area is that we don't get the full brunt of what's going on. The East Coast, the West Coast, we're more of a melting pot. We are a little bit more tolerant. We have issues too but it’s a little bit more comfortable for us, but so much of the country feels threatened by people coming in to take jobs when the fact is immigrants come in with different ideas. They create more jobs!
There is this idea that when my parents were coming to the United States, that they were wanted. They really weren't. There were ships turned away with women and children that were then sent back to gas chambers and murdered. So they didn’t want foreigners here, or “strange people” that didn’t speak the language.
They don’t teach this in history classes. Especially in this country. They don’t teach that after the war Jews were in DP camps and had restrictions put on them. They don't even know what a displaced persons camp was. This is not a new history. In this country during the World War 2, our government set up in internment camps for American citizens who were of Japanese descent. My father would say “this is human nature.” He always told me that it’s easier to be bad and to do bad things than it is to be good. That was his lesson. If you want something, it is easier to grab and take it, than to work hard to get it.
Michelle: Are you fearful that the next generation will forget or will become disassociated from the atrocities that your family survived?
Simone: I paid witness, my daughters have paid witness and then the next generation will and so on. It is supposed to remind people that there is a dark side to human nature and we always have to be vigilant, because it is constant struggle. That's why there are museums dedicated to this. And how there could be individuals, educated people supposedly, that deny the Holocaust ever happened? The Nazis themselves took photographs and films because they were proud of what they were doing.
You go to a museum; there are lampshades made from Jewish skin, there are soaps made from Jewish fats. They were happy with that! And how about the United States and other countries who sent soldiers to fight and often killed? Their families lived on, do they think they fought for something fictitious? It’s ludicrous if that’s permitted.
My father spoke about the Holocaust to public schools, parochial schools, wherever they'd have him. One of the children asked “what does freedom means to you?” My father’s definition of freedom was very basic. If you stretched out your arms, and move around the room, that’s your freedom. When you touch somebody else, that’s not freedom anymore.
You have your own space of freedom but you should not interfere with somebody else's freedom. That’s what freedom meant to him. So I try to do my best. I volunteer my time. Last year and the year before was a fundraising bike ride from Auschwitz to Krakow. 55 miles called The Ride For the Living. I will do it again, hopefully, if my health is good. I've also done the Avon Breast Cancer Walk.
Michelle: How did you get involved with the Avon Breast Cancer Walk?
Simone: I'm a breast cancer survivor. 10 years. It's 39 miles over 2 days.
Michelle : Incredible.
Simone: Now I'm doing the bike ride through Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's. Because okay — I have Parkinson’s. I'm just going with the flow, trying to raise money because everybody needs help. I try to help other people connect with organizations and do my little bit.
Michelle: And you find all this time to do so much. You do more than most people that I've ever met in my life. I think you’re incredible.
Simone: Well thank you. I feel like I should do more.
Michelle: I see Anna pretty often, and she is always talking about you. Always saying how awesome and incredible her Mom is. We were thinking about who I should interview next for Nasty Women of New York and she suggested you, Simone, and I’m so glad she did. I’m also so glad we could schedule this, you’re so busy!
Simone : Sleeping is optional. And well, there’s a calendar. Very strict calendar. I also do pottery! I started nine years ago, it’s very therapeutic.
I could sit and watch TV day after day, but for me now with my life, I keep with busy exercise. I go to the gym, I do Pilates. I have to leave time for me and my physical health now. I have to because exercise is the most important for Parkinson’s. That and modern medicine.
Michelle: Have you seen an increase in Parkinson’s awareness and treatment?
Simone: It has improved because of Michael J. Fox. He's one of the big ones! There is a lot more research because of his foundation, they raise millions of dollars and the 100% of the money raised goes to research. 100%. I've been involved in a few trials and genetic testing. We're trying to find markers. There are new drugs in development. There is brain surgery, also very helpful. If you have the predisposition and you're under tremendous stress, it can apparently trigger Parkinson's. So that's why I attribute myself getting it. I think having breast cancer was a stressor for me. You know, like life isn't enough! I have found that all through my life that everybody has stuff. Even if you don't know they have stuff, they're just putting on a face .
They have an illness they haven't told you about. They have family conflict. Everybody has baggage. So you just. . . I'm just plodding along. The busier I am, the less time to think about my own stuff.
Michelle: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
Simone : Yes.
Michelle : What do you think is the biggest challenge facing today’s women?
Simone : Having a voice, getting out there, and getting involved. It's very easy to whine and complain. Not so easy to get out there. Run for office, educate yourself, and be part of the discussion.
Michelle : Are you registered to vote?
Simone : Yes. And I vote in every election and primary. Hell yes.
Michelle : Who is your hero?
Simone : My father.
Michelle : What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Simone : Being surrounded by my family. And good friends.
Michelle : Is there anything in your life you still want to accomplish?
Simone : I want to continue what I’m doing for as long as humanly possible.
Michelle : If you hosted a dinner party and could invite anyone living or deceased, who would it be?
Simone : I would like sit down with all of my family who were murdered, and say hi.
Michelle : Before I let you go, I just have to know about the Pope.
Simone : Oh yes. Well, I lived in Italy during vet school. I went back on many visits, and on one of these visits I got into an audience to see the Pope. I spoke Italian, but apparently not very well. I stood up to ask a question and addressed him in Italian by the wrong word. He laughed at that. So I spoke to him in Polish. And I asked why the papacy did not do anything during the war when millions of Jews and Christians were being murdered by the Nazis.
That was not on the script.
The Pope had me escorted out.
All images and content © Michelle Kinney Photography (Minnie Kinney LLC) *
*Unless otherwise specified.