She is ten years old when life for her and her parents becomes more and more threatening. “One had the impression that a new law was passed against us every day,” recalls Rena Finder. By “us” she means the Jews of her hometown of Kraków. Since the Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Poland in September 1939, they have felt the hatred of the conquerors.
One day the Germans announce that Jews are no longer allowed to own radios and bicycles. Then they are forbidden to celebrate religious services. From December, Jewish children are no longer allowed to attend school. And all Jews must wear white armbands with a blue Star of David sewn on as a sign of their exclusion. Anyone who does not comply with the prohibition must expect to be shot immediately or deported.
Rena Finder’s autobiographical book, I Survived, co-written with documentary filmmaker Joshua M. Greene, is a harrowing document. Because while Finder survived the Holocaust, not so many of the people who were close to her, starting with her father, who was murdered in Auschwitz. “In my eyes, my father was the smartest and strongest man in the world,” she writes, “and I was convinced that nothing would happen to him.” Finder and her mother survived because they worked with around 1,200 Jews for the entrepreneur Oskar Schindler. He saved her.
This story is familiar from Steven Spielberg’s feature film Schindler’s List, but in Finder’s book it takes on greater power and immediacy because the author experienced it herself. In March 1940, like all Kraków Jews, Rena and her parents had to leave their homes and move to the ghetto, a quarter in the south of the city sealed off with a wall and barbed wire and closely guarded by soldiers.
Where previously 3,000 people lived, more than 16,000 Jews are now crammed together in tiny apartments and with miserable food. Together with her mother, Rena has to do forced labor in a printing shop, 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“In the Kraków ghetto we had death before our eyes every day,” says Finder. Rudy, a friend of her father’s, is shot dead by a German officer as he is leaving the ghetto hospital. The only reason for the murder: He is a Jew. When the ghetto was liquidated in March 1942, Rena and her mother were sent to the Plaszow concentration camp. The food there consists of one foul-smelling bowl of soup and one stale piece of bread per day.
Commandant Amon Göth is notorious for shooting prisoners from the balcony of his villa. He is said to have never had breakfast without first killing at least one person. “It made him happy to kill,” writes Finder. But just three kilometers away, Oskar Schindler runs the Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik, which is considered important for the war effort because shell casings are produced there. Because they know the man who keeps the list of the “Schindlerjuden”, Rena and her mother manage to find accommodation there.
Schindler is a member of the NSDAP, but treats Jews like human beings. At first he employs them because they are cheap labour, but soon he invests his entire fortune in bribing SS bigwigs like Göth so that the Jewish prisoners can stay in his company. Finder calls him an “angel”. When a group of his female workers are nevertheless deported to Auschwitz – including Rena and her mother – Schindler buys them free with a bag of precious stones.
After the war, Rena Finder marries, moves to the USA and has three children. In 1979 she met the founder of the organization “Facing History and Ourselves” and began to report on her life in schools, universities and synagogues. Her moving book ends with an appeal to her young readers to stand up for the marginalized: “Stand up for them – and don’t just remain uninvolved.”