“They were educated, cultured and family loving people. They kissed their children and wives goodbye and then went to work–some engineered and built gas chambers, some worked on the railroad system that transported people to death camps and some placed human beings into the gas chambers and burned them. They looked human. They did all the things that human beings do —they prayed, they laughed and they loved and they also participated in the work of killing people. They were the soldiers who worked in the concentration camps. It was unthinkable then and unthinkable now,” she said.
Rena Finder, the youngest and last Holocaust survivor from Schindler’s list, shared these sentiments with me during an interview last year. Rena, at 10 years old, became an enemy of the state because she was Jewish.
Alongside her mother, naked, bleeding and filled with terror, Rena was marched into what they were told was the gas chamber. The door was locked and the lights went out as the women screamed in horror waiting for the gas. She would die for the crime of being Jewish.
For many of us, when we hear these stories we think of a time in the past, a time in history when people were not as enlightened and easily drawn into propaganda and fearful behaviors. But are we really different today? Will future generations look at us and shake their heads and wonder how we could have been so indifferent to the needs of others and allowed our fear to drive our behavior?
A survivor of starvation, cruelty and torture, Rena continues to share her story in the hope that the world will understand the real danger—indifference. At the age of 87, Rena reflects on the beginning of a journey that ended with the extermination of millions of human beings. The journey began with messages of fear and blame.
Propaganda that started subtle and gained energy and momentum as fear and anger increased. If there were not enough jobs or shelter, blame was placed on the Jews. In fact the aim of the Ministry of Public Enlightenment was to remind people of the struggle and danger of foreign enemies and Jewish subversion. These messages were shared in art, books, movies, music, the press and sources that people trusted –churches and political leaders.
The messages were repeated often and played to the fear of self-protection and superiority. Rena’s neighbors who once invited her into their home to play with their children, now closed their blinds and pretended not to see when guards pulled her out of her home and took her away. Those who lived near the camps where human ashes floated in the air denied that they knew anything about what was happening. Fear led to indifference which led to the worst crime of all—the separation of us and them.
“Before my father was killed he held me and whispered in my ear that the war would not last —the world would learn about what was happening and would save us,” Rena shared. It was the voice of her father that kept Rena’s spirit alive through the starvation, the torture, the daily humiliation and the vision and smell of death that floating over her head. “I would close my eyes and in my mind, move myself from the concrete bed of the barracks and into his arms,” she said. It was his voice and message of holding on to hope and putting faith in humanity that kept her spirit alive from one moment to the next. “My father believed the world would save us,” she said.
Throughout history, there are stories of many individuals who risked their own lives to save a life. Many countries, but not all, opened up their borders and gave fellow human beings a chance to live. Our history books are filled with stories of many morally courageous people who stepped into their humanity and made a difference. The danger of fear and hate is that it robs us of our very humanness. When we turn our back to others and look only inward, we may save our lives but lose our soul in the process.
I am afraid. I am afraid of terrorists. I am afraid of living in a world filled with violence. But mostly I am afraid of allowing my fear to turn me away from knowing the needs of others. I don’t want to be politically led by those who preach anger for their own ego and power. I don’t want to be guided by religious doctrine that says love thy neighbor—but only if they look, think, love and behave as you.
Fear is the seed of hate. It gives us permission to close our eyes and pretend not to see what is in front of us. But moral courage, gives us clarity and true power. Today, I fought for my courage. I put my youngest daughter on an international flight and through the tears and anxiety, reminded myself of the importance of living our lives and not becoming paralyzed by the trap of fear. In similar fashion, I will continue to battle through anxiety and fear to help save the lives of others including refugees who are fleeing from danger in an attempt to save their lives and the lives of their family. I am not naïve to the danger of our world and the complexity of the solution. But living at the expense of others is only about existing not truly living.
One day as Rena stood in line in the bitter cold weather, starving and waiting for death in Auschwitz, she found her moral courage. When a guard slapped the young girl standing next to her for talking, Rena recalls feeling a moment of clarity. “I spoke up and said to the guard —but she didn’t say anything,” Rena cried. She knew the punishment would be severe but at her young age she also understood that just living was not enough—she wanted to survive. “They could take my sanity and my life but I wouldn’t let them take my soul. I would not stand by and do nothing,” Rena said.