Holocaust Survivor Shares Story With BC Community
Published: Thursday, October 31, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 31, 2013 02:10
“I remember being aware immediately of a horrible stench,” said Rena Finder, a Schindler’s List Holocaust survivor. “There was such stench in Auschwitz. And it was November. It was cold and we were very thirsty and we saw that it was snowing—so we tried to catch some of the snowflakes. And then we realized that it was not snow, these were ashes. And I remember we were running and ahead of us there were big outlines of what looked like chimneys. And even though it was so dark, you could see the smoke—you could see fire. We didn’t believe it. How could you?”
Finder shared her story with the Boston College community on Tuesday evening in a talk sponsored by the Emerging Leaders Program, the Shaw Leadership Program, the Sankofa Leader Program, and BC Hillel.
Finder was born in Krakow, Poland in 1929, but life as she knew it ended abruptly with the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. She survived the Holocaust with the help of German industrialist Oscar Schindler, whose efforts to assist his Jewish workers is documented in the award-winning film Schindler’s List. According to Finder, the depiction of Schindler in this film was, “Just the way I remember him.”
Rena imagined the war like being at a baseball or football game. Finder said, “Actually, my grandparents lived right across the street from a football stadium, and I used to watch the games from their window. And that’s what I imagine the war would be like. I’d be watching from the window and there would be the enemy on one side and the Polish on the other side and they would fight.” According to Finder, when the German army marched in, with their uniforms and shining boots, it was apparent the Polish army never had a chance.
The first thing that the Germans did was deal with the so-called “Jewish questions.” Orders came that anyone under the age of 12 or over the age of 55 would not be able to stay in Krakow. Finder was 10 years old, but her parents were able to change her birth certificate.
She remembers the day her family went into the city to receive their permits. Surrounded by what seemed like 100 soldiers, trucks came in and took children away from their parents and vice versa. All around them the Polish people went about their business. Finder remembers a feeling of betrayal. She said, “Neighbors, people that knew us, how could they do that?”
Finder and her family were given three weeks to move out of their house and into the ghetto. Each family was allowed a pushcart and each family member was allowed a small suitcase. Finder remembers how her mother made her polish the mail slot before they locked the door. How her mother wanted to make sure they left the house in perfect condition. They had knocked on the doors of neighbors to say goodbye, but no one answered. Finder later saw them peering behind closed windows.
“Nobody had the guts to say goodbye,” she said. “Those were neighbors of ours that my parents knew for years and years.”
As she walked through the streets of her beloved city, people of all ages threw stones at her family and screamed, “We are so happy to get rid of you, you Jews don’t ever come back.” In the ghetto, the kitchen had a sink that reminded Finder of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. “It was not real,” Finder said. “It was like we went to a place that did not exist.”
They were required to work in the ghetto. “We were all very happy because as long as we were working we would be [a] good work force, we would be slaves because we weren’t paid, so the Germans would make a lot of money off us and let us live,” Finder said. “Many times, however, people went to work and did not come back. Eventually her grandparents were taken away and her father was arrested and accused of working with the resistance, which was a lie. She never saw them again.
According to Finder, Schindler was an ambitious young man. He desperately wanted to make a lot of money. Although he was a member of the Nazi party, he did not have the heart of a Nazi. He regarded the people who worked for him as friends. And he realized much earlier than everyone else what the German soldiers were planning on doing with the Jews. He would say he wanted Jewish workers because he only had to pay them 50 cents a day as opposed to a dollar a day for Polish people.
Eventually, the people of Krakow were used to build a concentration camp atop three Jewish cemeteries in the area. Finder remembered sitting in a long line of women with one of her friends, Stella. She had a brother with MS, so her parents and her brother were some of the first people taken away. All of a sudden Stella fell. Finder said, “And I remember I put my hand behind her, and I whispered, ‘Get up, get up, Amon Goeth is right behind us.’ And all of a sudden I realized my hand was warm, wet. He had killed her.”
Finder doesn’t remember how or why her mother heard that Schindler was going to need more women to come and work for him, but she sent her to the man who was in charge of the list. While at the factory, Schindler became a father to Finder.
Germany was losing the war, however, so Schindler’s workers were put into boxcars.
“There were like 150 women in each boxcar when you really couldn’t put more than 20,” Finder said. “I remember how we stood like sardines—you couldn’t turn, you couldn’t move. And so many women were unconscious they were just standing there because there was no place for them to fall.” They arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, were shoved into a barrack, and asked to take off their clothes. They were shaved from head to toe, sometimes cut at the scalp due to poor instruments, and disinfected with powder before being showered. According to Finder, when they shaved her hair, she felt so dehumanized, humiliated, and traumatized, that she just couldn’t believe that she was alive.