The Emerging Leaders Program welcomed Holocaust survivor Rena Finder back to Boston College for a ninth year on Tuesday. Finder is one of the 1,200 Jewish people saved by Oskar Schindler’s efforts to remove them from concentration camps.
Born in Krakow, Poland in 1929, Finder said that she is committed to telling her story, as she believes that by calling us to remember the horrors of the past we may challenge ourselves to change the future.
She began by telling the crowd in Gasson 100, which was filled to capacity with students, professors, and dozens of nearby residents, that—this time—her lecture was unique compared to previous years’.
“This is a different year,” Finder said. “Things are happening in this world that we did not expect. For me, this sends me back to 75 years ago, to the war.”
Finder continued by saying that she truly believed another war of the same magnitude would never occur again but that she is now unsure. In the context of contemporary international conflicts, she emphasized how important it is that people, especially younger generations, understand the weight of the past.
She urged students in the audience not to be bystanders, but to face injustices and avoid the detrimental urge to stay silent.
Finder was 10 years old when the Germans invaded Poland. She was an only child and her life was joyous and full of love before the outbreak of the war, she said.
Despite her age, Finder began to recognize changes that followed the German invasion. It was on her school’s playground that she first experienced bigotry—sentiments that grew more apparent as new policies began to target Jewish communities, she remembered.
Finder recalled being astounded by the way neighbors and friends turned against one another, and especially how quickly people turned against her family. She said that Hitler’s new regulations against Jewish people tore apart communities, inciting fear and deception. When the Jewish population in Krakow was forced to move to a ghetto, people threw rocks and jeered at them.
“It seemed like the world went black,” Finder said. “Nobody saw anything. I will never understand how people could believe [Hitler], and yet somehow, millions believed him.”
After her father was arrested and sent away, Finder and her mother were sent to a concentration camp. She faced horrifying levels of dehumanization and was deprived of basic needs such as food, clothing and water, she recalled.
Soon after their arrival, whispers about Schindler, a successful businessman, spread through the camp. He was planning to take 150 concentration camp members to come work for him in a new factory that produced ammunition. Finder and her mother went to work for him, which she described as leaving hell and entering heaven.
Schindler specifically saved Finder in one instance when she was wrongly accused of breaking the machine she was using. He became a figure of bravery and compassion amid the utmost depravity, she said.
“Oskar Schindler was our savior,” Finder said. “He was everything. Our lives were in his hands.”
After some time, Schindler decided to move his factory after hearing of Hitler’s plan to consolidate the majority of concentration camps into one: Auschwitz-Birkenau. He was planning to bring every worker with him to the new factory,.
“How could they think about building a place that made ashes out of human beings? It cannot be explained. And yet, it happened—I was there,” she said.
The dehumanization reached an even more horrifying level. Women’s heads were shaved, leaving them bloody and in pain, and as they moved to the showers, Finder turned to her mother, whom she did not even recognize, and asked if they were dead, wondering if the suffering was finally over. Her mother responded as cold water poured over them.
“‘No, we are not dead,’” Finder recalled her mother saying. “‘We are alive. Touch me, touch me.’”
As Germany began to fall to the Russians, the Germans moved their camps inward, sending thousands into the worst winter of the 20th century to march. Many didn’t survive the journey, but finally, Schindler saved Finder and her mother, along with the other women from the factory, and brought them to his factory for medical care and safety.
“If not for Oskar Schindler, I would not be here. I was able to get married, to have children, to have grandchildren and great grandchildren because one human being would not stand idly by,” she said. “I believe in humanity, in people—that people can be good and work hard to make sure that we have a better world.”
Finder said that by telling her story again and again, people become witness to the horrors of the Holocaust through her. She hopes that the torch of her memory will reach people and inspire them to stand strongly against injustice and hatred, she said.
Featured Image by Sarah Hodgens / Heights Archives