This past Tuesday, on the 77th anniversary of the Kristallnacht—the “Night of Broken Glass”—a petite, 86-year-old woman named Rena Finder captivated hundreds of people in the Murray Function Room with her story of being a Holocaust survivor, and one of the 1,000 Jewish people saved by factory owner Oskar Schindler. This is the sixth consecutive year that Finder spoke at Boston College. The talk was hosted by the Shaw Leadership Program, BC Hillel, the Emerging Leader Program, and the Sankofa Leadership Program.
Finder was born in Krakow, Poland in 1929, the only child to Rozia Windisch Ferber and Moses Ferber. Growing up in Krakow, she was vaguely aware of anti-semitism. She recalled her first encounter with anti-semitic comments when she was a first grader. On the schoolyard, one of her classmates threw a stone at her and called her a “dirty Jew.”
“I came home and asked my mother, ‘Why would she call me that?’” she said. “I took a shower this morning.”
When Finder was 10 years old, Germany invaded Poland and took a stronghold in Krakow. To her, the Germans “looked like everybody else, so how could they be bad people?” Her view of the Germans drastically changed, however, when they forced all the Jews in Krakow into a ghetto in an old part of town.
“People can change so much when driven by hate,” she said. “The German soldiers looked at the Jewish people as inhuman.”
While in the ghetto, the Polish Jews made the most of the situation. They opened up shops and employed the ghetto’s inhabitants, operating as much as their own entity as the Nazi soldiers would allow. Yet any remnants of Jewish autonomy soon dissolved as restrictions became harsher. Stripped of their civil rights and forced to wear white armbands with the Star of David, Jews in the ghetto began to be taken away.
“Everyone was told they were going to work on a farm,” Finder said.
Amon Goeth, the Nazi Officer placed in charge of Krakow, liquidated the ghetto and sent all its inhabitants to work in a camp in nearby Plaszow.
“Amon was the most sadistic human being, and I even use the term loosely,” she said. “He must have been the devil.”
Commandant Goeth loved to kill and had no regard for the life of a Jewish person, Finder said. While sitting with a friend one day, she heard footsteps approaching from behind her. Suddenly, her friend collapsed, and as she attempted to pick her up, she realized Amon had shot and killed the girl simply for sport.
In such a bleak situation, Finder mentioned one glimmer of hope: Oskar Schindler, a businessman who joined the Nazi party with aspirations of getting rich.
“Even though he wore the diamond swastika, Schindler did not have the heart of a Nazi,” Finder said.
Schindler employed hundreds of Jews in the Krakow ghetto, and befriended Goeth in order to make sure the commandant spared the factory workers during his unwarranted killing sprees. When Goeth transferred the Jews to the Plaszow camp, Schindler convinced Goeth to build a small barrack next to his factory for his workers.
“Oskar cared about us,” Finder said. “When he stood in front of us, I expected him to grow wings.”
As the war progressed and allied forces triumphed over Germany, the SS started to close concentration camps in its eastern territories, and Plaszow was one of them. The inhabitants were sent west to places such as the infamous Auschwitz death camp. At this point for Schindler, monetary gains became secondary to the preservation of the Jewish people. He decided to build another factory in Brunnlitz, Czechoslovakia, and convinced Goeth to grant him 700 men and 300 women to be transported to the new factory. These 1,000 Jews would become “Schindler’s List.”
Finder remembered a friend of hers who fell ill before they boarded the train. An hour into the ride, she succumbed to scarlet fever. She stressed that if her friend had fevered up during the transition from camp to train, all the women would have been deemed infected and sent to the gas chamber. As a result of a miscommunication, the two box cars of Schindler’s women ended up in Auschwitz.
“When we arrived at Auschwitz, we all thought it was snowing,” she said. “We reached out our hands to try to catch the snow, but it was not snow—it was ashes from the crematorium.”
The women were forced to shave their heads, take a cold shower, and change clothes. Each subsequent task increased their uncertainty, and the women believed they would be placed in gas chambers soon.
Shortly after hearing his box cars had been misdirected, Oskar messaged Auschwitz demanding his workers to be redirected, and the 300 women found themselves on box cars finally headed for Brunnlitz.
Finder contended that she shared her story not for people to pity her but to bring about awareness to injustices and the value of life.
“Treat someone as you want to be treated, because we are all the same under our skin,” she said. “I hope there will be more people like Oskar.”
Featured Image by Sarah Hodgens / Heights Staff