Tuesday night, at the urging of my friend, Vivian, a daughter of Holocaust survivors, I went to hear Rena Finder, a Schindler’s List survivor, speak at Boston College in the Murray room in Yawkey Center. I have heard Rena speak a couple of times before, but I thought Vivian might want to make sure the talk looked well-attended. Vivian assured me that wasn’t going to be the case and that lots of people would be there and not to come for that reason, but still I went mostly for Vivian. When I got to the venue and went in the room, I expected to see a half empty room. Instead, I saw that this huge room was standing room only, filled mostly with students! I wondered if this was a talk required for credit by a professor for a class.*
As Rena spoke, the room was completely quiet. She talked for a long period of time, holding everyone’s attention with frightening details. When she finished her story, the crowd quietly rose to honor and respect her and her ordeal as a young child (she was five when this all began). I looked around me and, to be sure, these were just about all young students. Rena took questions—“Did you ever see Oskar Schindler again?” No, but she did send him money when his fortune took a severe turn for the worse. There was another question about the movie Schindler’s List. Then this question—“When did you decide to start speaking about your experience in the Holocaust?” Here, her answer really struck a chord. She said, after the Holocaust, she quickly learned that people had their own hard luck war stories—they couldn’t buy sugar, there was no gas.… They had no interest in her story or those of other survivors. It wasn’t until the 1970s, when her friend was determined to tell her survivor story that Rena decided that it was time for her to do so as well. She became part of a small, but, at that time, growing group of survivors who felt it was their responsibility to bear witness to man’s inhumanity and speak of how bystanders found it easier, more practical, and “safer” to turn a blind eye to the suffering of their neighbors and fellow countrymen and feign ignorance—in other words to remain bystanders rather than to take on the role of “upstanders.” Rena spoke of the courage of those who, like Oskar Schindler, were upstanders. In this very dark time, there were in fact many upstanders, but not nearly enough. She mentioned “Facing History,” an organization based in Brookline, Mass. that tries to teach teachers these lessons and this terminology so they can educate their young students.
While her BC audience heard her words and were quite somber, the full effect of Rena’s talk didn’t hit me until I heard one student say to another afterwards in the restroom, “I never met a Holocaust survivor before.”
This student’s words made me think of the many times in recent years that I’ve heard people say “enough of the Holocaust already! Do they really have to shove it down our throats? We get it—time to move on!” I always think that this attitude of over-saturation is shortsighted, but that night I understood just how wrong their attitude really is and how out of touch they really are. There are so many people around us—who know so little of this venal and painful part of recent history. If survivors stop talking, and WE stop talking about it, all the rich and essential messages of upstanders and bystanders will be lost—and as I learned that night, there are still so many more people, young and old, who need to hear these stories and how things could have turned out better had those labels, upstander and bystander, been discussed and understood.
*I later learned from one of these students that many of those in that crowded room were student leaders at BC. What a great opportunity for them to hear the words of Rena Finder. The BC community and greater community will reap the benefits of the lessons learned by these young leaders. I could not have been more proud, as an alum of BC that night.