In 1939, Rena Finder walked away from the home in Krakow, Poland where she had grown up alongside her mother and father with a suitcase and a cart. As she walked away, she saw her neighbors and former friends watching her through the windows. She had just knocked on their doors, but no one had answered—they did not want to say goodbye to her family as they were displaced to the ghetto.
Finder spoke at Boston College on Oct. 28 in the Murray Function Room. She said she was about to enter the fifth grade when World War II began, and that she was sent to a ghetto in Krakow. Oskar Schindler saved her and her mother several years later. The Shaw Leadership Program, BC Hillel, the Emerging Leader Program, and the Sankofa Leadership Program hosted Finder for the fifth consecutive year.
Despite 70 years having passed, Finder said she still finds it hard to accept that ordinary German citizens could oppress her family in the country she had grown up in. Overnight, she said, she became an enemy of the state.
“They were fathers and husbands and sons and brothers,” she said. “How could you ever imagine that all those millions of people, ordinary people, would join the Nazi party and become cold-blooded murderers? It was impossible for me to accept then and it is almost impossible for me to accept now.”
After Finder left her home in Krakow, she lived in a nearby ghetto for several years. Her family was assigned a room in an apartment with three other people. To maintain some semblance of privacy, they hung a blanket to separate the room into two sections. The ghetto lacked consistent water and electricity, and there was no access to medical care.
“My father said, ‘Don’t worry,’” she said. “‘Don’t worry because someone will hear what is happening to us and they will save us.’ Every day the Germans were patrolling the city the ghetto and they would come into the buildings and if they didn’t like somebody they would take him away and we never saw him again.”
Around this time, Finder noted that she and her mother began to hear about Oskar Schindler, who had converted a factory that had once made pots and pans into one that manufactured ammunition. After they had been transported to Plaszow, a concentration camp near the ghetto, Finder and her mother heard that Schindler planned to hire more people for his factory.
Through a friend of the family, Finder and her mother were placed on his list. Schindler had them removed from Plaszow and they began work in his factory.
“He replaced my father as much as can be possible,” she said. “I knew he would take care of us. In our small and horrible world this was all the sunshine that we had, knowing he was taking care of us.”
This respite, however, did not last very long. Finder and her mother were soon transferred to Auschwitz Birkenau, where they spent about three and a half weeks—this concentration camp, she said, was where the gas chambers and crematoriums were first built.
She noted that during her time in Auschwitz, she did not have access to enough food and the guards were incredibly cruel.
“I felt like I wasn’t me,” she said. “I was so totally dehumanized and terrorized and humiliated.”
Finder recounted that Schindler sent a secretary to bribe the head of Auschwitz to release the people on his list, and that he argued that they were his trained workers and he needed them. Finder also mentioned that the group went through sanitation before being placed back into the boxcar that traveled on to reach the camp. This time, though, instead of being packed together into the car, they could actually sit, Finder said.
“The train stopped and the door opened and there in the station stood Oskar Schindler,” she said. “And that is a picture that will always stay in my mind.”
Finder urged the audience to stand up for those who are bullied and oppressed—to not be a bystander. Politicians that could help ignored the reality of what was going on, she said, while Schindler actually made a difference.
“He was the first one to show the world that there is always something that one can do,” Finder said. “All those people that could help sat in their offices with their windows down and their shades drawn … Oskar Schindler and Mrs. Schindler cared. We have to teach our children to stand up, to make a difference—to be an upstander, not to be a bystander.”
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff