Rena Finder is a Holocaust survivor from Schindler’s list, a roster of over one thousand Jews saved by Oskar Schindler. She has been a speaker for Facing History and Ourselves—the author of the textbook and materials used in the school’s history curriculum—since 1979. Rena was born in Krakow, Poland, in 1929, and was 10 when the Nazis invaded her hometown. Only Rena and her mother survived the war. After the war, Rena lived in a displaced persons camp until she came to the United States in 1948. Today she lives in Framingham, Massachusetts. She has spoken at schools around the world and at the United Nations in 2014. She is 88.
Why have you devoted your life to speaking about the Holocaust?
When the war ended, no one wanted to talk or hear about the Holocaust. We survivors had a lot to do besides mourning. We needed to start rebuilding our lives. But in the late 1970s, a professor published a paper claiming that the Holocaust didn’t happen. After that, a friend and I realized that we needed to start talking about the Holocaust. We were lucky enough to connect with Facing History. Margot, the founder of Facing History, really started the awareness and wrote the first book on how to teach about the Holocaust. Teachers and parents were nervous about us speaking to students. I knew that I needed to show the stories and tragedy of the people who were murdered, people whose only crime was being Jewish. Hitler may be dead, but his message is still alive and well. Because I was there, an eye witness, I have to talk about it [the Holocaust]; the world needs to know what hate can do. If we forget, history will repeat itself. It’s starting to happen again now. We the survivors have to tell the truth so that the young generation, the future generation, will learn how to be kind and how to treat others the way [they] would like to be treated, to forget religion and skin color because it doesn’t matter. People have to learn to be “upstanders,” not bystanders, in this world.
What would you say are the most common misconceptions about the Holocaust?
A lot of people don’t believe that the Holocaust happened—even older people, even Jewish people. I think that the tragedy is so overwhelming that people don’t believe it; they can’t imagine it. Normal humans can’t believe how full of hate people can be, or that the world could stand by and watch. That’s why it’s important to learn about Oskar Schindler. Once he realized what was happening to the Jews, he couldn’t stand by and do nothing. And he was just an average person. But the rest of the world closed their eyes and closed their ears and said, “There’s nothing I can do.” There was such an opposition to helping. Even with President Roosevelt. Roosevelt met with Jan Kraski, who told him what was happening in Poland. Roosevelt listened and then never said a word about it. It’s been over 70 years since the war ended, and there are still people who say the Jews didn’t tell the truth. Hate is still there for black, Muslim, and Jewish people—I just don’t understand how people can live with hate like that.
What can students and young people learn from the Holocaust?
Students are very powerful and can stand together against hate. I want all young people to know that they can make a difference. Soon, today’s teenagers will be able to vote and can change the world and make their voice heard. Young people have the power to make change. I am one of the few survivors left from Schindler’s list, and it’s very sad that people disappear and take the truth and their stories with them. Survivors are the only eye witnesses to the Holocaust and must pass the torch to young people and show what happens when hate is the leader of the world. It’s very important that schools teach about the Holocaust. I’ve been with Facing History since 1979, which does just that. Students need to hear survivors speak while they are still here. And we need teachers who are willing to learn, listen, understand, and pass their knowledge on to the younger generation. Students will become the witnesses to the eye witnesses—we call those people legacy partners—so that when we are not around anymore, somebody else will share our stories with others.