by Larry Smith
During the entire period in which we worked for Director Schindler he did everything possible to save the lives of the greatest possible number of Jews, in spite of the tremendous difficulties...we owe our lives solely to the efforts of Director Schindler and his humane treatment of his workers. -- testimonial letter at the end of the war from the 1200 men and women saved from the Holocaust by Oskar Schindler
Today, there are more than 8,500 living descendants of the Jews who were on Schindler's 'list of life' during the Second World War. In all probability, none of them would be alive today if that list had not existed.
Most people are aware of Schindler, an opportunistic businessman and one-time German spy, because of the 1993 Academy Award-winning movie named after him - Schindler's List - starring Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley. But his story remained obscure for almost 40 years, until an Australian named Thomas Keneally was persuaded to write a book about it.
During a chance meeting in Los Angeles in 1980, Keneally was inspired by Leopold Plefferberg, one of the Jews who had worked in Schindler's factory near Krakow, Poland, during the war. And After publication of Schindler's Ark in 1982, Pfefferberg worked to persuade Steven Spielberg to film the book.
As things turned out, Pfefferberg was Spielberg's guest on March 21 1994, when Schindler's List won seven Academy Awards - including Best Picture. In his acceptance speech, Spielberg thanked Pfefferberg for "carrying the story of Oskar Schindler to all of us."
The 1200 men and women saved by Schindler are a tiny remnant of what, in 1939, was the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world. By the end of the war, almost all of the three million Polish Jews had been killed by the Nazis, in what Hitler described as "the final solution of the Jewish question".
One of the survivors saved by Schindler was in Nassau last week to talk about her experiences on behalf of the local Jewish community. Rena Finder is a sprightly 83-year-old who has spent the last several decades speaking to various audiences in the hope of keeping the lessons of the Holocaust alive. She emigrated to the United States in 1948 and became a US citizen seven years later.
"Most Holocaust survivors don't like to talk about their experiences," said Zlicha, who was born in Israel. "But Rena does, although she had it much easier than other survivors because she was on Schindler's list. I was very impressed with the turnout for her presentation. We were hoping for maybe 100 people, but the hall was packed with over 650, including students from at least four schools."
Rena's visit was underwritten by donations from the Jewish community and contributions from corporate sponsors. Governor-General Sir Arthur Foulkes was the guest of honor at the event held in the Sheraton Cable Beach Hotel. He said it was important to remember atrocities such as the Holocaust, the enslavement of Africans in the New World, and the genocide in Rwanda.
"And we must understand the worrying signs that precede these calamities - the racial, cultural and religious arrogance of those who seek to persecute others. We have to make sure it doesn't happen in our own community," he said, pointing to the words of the American philosopher Sam Keen:
Exaggerate each feature until man is
metamorphasized into beast, vermin, insect.
When your icon of the enemy is complete
you will be able to kill without guilt,
slaughter without shame.
Bahamian financial advisor Richard Coulson was one of those who attended the event. He, too, was impressed with the interest shown in Rena's presentation: "We all know the general story, but to hear it from someone who was actually there was very interesting," he told me afterwards. And for those who don't know the story, here is a summary in Rena's own words:
"The war ended 67 years ago but it doesn't seem that long to us, and we are all afraid that the Holocaust will be forgotten when we survivors die. I was born in Krakow - an only child surrounded by love. We lived in a beautiful apartment by the river, and life was wonderful until Germany invaded Poland.
"I watched the German Army march down the street. They looked human, but they considered us inhuman. They stripped us of our citizenship, confiscated our homes, businesses and bank accounts. We could't walk on the sidewalk or use public transport.
"We were herded into a ghetto by soldiers and dogs, while other people lived normally across the street. Nobody saw, or heard, or cared. And no-one said goodbye to us. We were invisible, although we had lived in Poland for centuries and were very patriotic.
"We were slave labourers (in the ghetto). At the age of 12 I worked in a print shop. There was little food, water or power, and it was very cold in winter. They took my grandparents away, and then my father a few days later. We never heard from them again.
"Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party who came to Krakow to set up a factory and get rich. But his workers became his friends - he looked at us as people.
"Amon Goeth came from a respected family in Vienna. It is impossible to imagine that such an ordinary person would become such a sadistic murderer. When we left the ghetto some of us were taken to a nearby camp and set to work building a road with broken Jewish tombstones. Goeth stood in front of me many times a day, but I never looked at him. To look at him was to see death."
(Amon Goeth was the SS officer in charge of the concentration camp near Krakow, where Rena was imprisoned. Goeth passed his mornings using a high-powered rifle to shoot children in the camp, and would often set his dog on inmates to tear them apart. He was arrested by the Americans in 1945 and executed by the Poles in 1946.)
"Schindler's factory was not far from the camp and he befriended Goeth, saying he needed children to work because of their little fingers. Mother and I were put on his list by a friend of my father's, and to leave that devil Goeth for Oskar was like being liberated. We were crazy about Oskar - he made us feel human.
"Germany was losing the war against the Allies, but it was determined to win against the Jews. When Schindler moved his factory out of Poland we were transported to Auschwitz and it was a nightmare, but nobody ever saw or heard all those trains transporting Jews to their deaths. Not all the victims were Jewish, but all the Jews were victims.
"At Auschwitz we tried to catch the snowflakes to drink and then we realized it wasn't snow but ashes, and the stench was terrible. We passed through the selection and a man sent me and my mother to the right. I later learned he was Dr Josef Mengele, the angel of death.
"Three and a half weeks in Auschwitz was a lifetime. And then Oskar sent his secretary with diamonds to get his 300 women workers back. We were the only ones ever let out of Auschwitz alive. And when the train doors opened Oskar was on the platform offering us soup. I will never forget that. For the last seven months of the war he took care of us while hundreds of thousands of other Jews were herded into Germany and killed.
"At the end, he gave himself up to the Americans - the Russians would have killed him - and we gave him letters of support. Within a short time we went back to our home in Krakow. My mother and I were the only ones from our community to return, and if it was not for Oskar I would't be here today. He gave us life."
The moral of the story? "Forget about hate," Rena said, "but don't be afraid to speak up for what is right."
At the point when he could walk away from the war a rich man while his Jewish workers died in Auschwitz, Schindler spent every penny he had to bribe Goeth and other Nazi officials to move 1,200 Jews out of Poland to the relative safety of a new factory in Czechoslovakia.
After the war, he was reduced to receiving assistance from Jewish organizations, and died penniless in 1974, at the age of 66. At his own request he was buried in Jerusalem, and to this day no-one knows what his motives were.
But because of what he did, Rena and others on Schindler's list were able to lead normal lives in America. You can see her pictures here: