Rena Finder, member of Schindler's List, speaks to Facing History and Ourselves board members.
Good morning. Can you all hear me? Good. Well, I am delighted to be here. To see all of you here is such an honor and privilege, and it's so exciting to be part of Facing History. It has always been a great, great honor for me. And especially so important for me to be able to come to the schools and to share my story with the students, because I'm a survivor.
I am, as a survivor, I am an eyewitness. As an eyewitness who is getting on in years and most of the survivors are getting older. So that in a few more years, there won't be any survivors left. And so we feel very strongly about sharing our experiences with the younger generation so that the story about Holocaust should never be forgotten. And so we feel that we sort of pass the torch of memory to the youngest people, to the future generation who will then become eyewitnesses. Because hearing an eyewitness makes you an eyewitness too.
And I want to tell you a little bit about myself, because I was born in Kraków, Poland. I was an only child. And Kraków, for those—some of you have seen the city, is a beautiful city, and I loved it. I loved living there. I lived across the street from the river, so I could go skating in the winter, swimming in the summer. And life was wonderful. My father was one of eight brothers. My mother was also one of seven siblings. I had a lot of cousins. There was always somebody to play with.
And I remember listening to my parents whispering at night many times when they thought I was asleep that there was talk about the great antisemitism that was encouraged in Poland, both by the Church and the government. And also I heard my parents worrying about things happening in Germany. My mother had a brother and a sister actually living in Berlin. They both were—one was a tailor, one was a dressmaker. But my father traveled a lot, and he went to Berlin many, many times. He used to come home and bring me gifts, things that you could not find in Poland.
And what I knew about Germany at that time was that it was a very, of course, cultured state, a cultured country, famous for its writers, its composers. Ordinary people. People you come across every day. They were doctors and lawyers and electricians and plumbers and teachers and policemen. Ordinary people. Husbands, fathers, sons, brothers. How could you even imagine for a moment that all those people would join the Nazi party and become cold-blooded murderers, sadistic murderers against innocent people whose only crime was that we were Jewish? It was unthinkable. It was unthinkable then, and it's still unthinkable now.
And so as a little girl, I still went my merry life, and I do remember that when I went to the first grade, I went to school right around the corner from my house, because being an only child, my mother always wanted to know where I was. And I remember playing at recess and with some other little girls when all of a sudden, one of the girls picked up a stone and threw it at me. And she said, you dirty Jew. And I just looked.
I remember I came home crying and I said to my mom, how can she call me dirty? I took a shower this morning. And so my mother tried to explain it, but it is very hard to explain. It is very hard for a little girl or a little boy to understand why they are being called names that they don't deserve.
But my good life changed on September 1, 1939. I was 10 years old. Germany invaded Poland, and it was in just a few days the mighty German army marched into Kraków. And I remember standing there and watching them, and it was such a shock. It was such a shock, because how I imagined the war to be would be just like the civil war.
I thought the men would meet in a big football place, which actually was across the street from my grandparents' house, and I would be able to watch them fight, one army on one side, other army on the other side. All they had were a musket. Some of them didn't even have horses. And of course, the German army with their tanks, with their trucks, with their jeeps, with their boots and their helmets, they really looked like they came from outer space.
But my father said don't worry, because nothing is going to happen to us, especially women and children. My parents survived the first war. As a matter of fact, my father, his eight brother and my mother's brother and my grandfather, they all fought for the independence of Poland. War in those days, was very difficult, because war is always very hard. There is always shortage of food, shortage of heat. People are hungry. But the civilians survived. We could not imagine that this war will be against civilians mostly.
So in the beginning, we had hope. That didn't last very long, because almost overnight from being a little girl, I became an enemy of the state. The German government issued orders that took all our civil rights away. Little girls were not allowed to go to school. We were not allowed to go and pray anymore. Our temples were burned or turned into stables. Our businesses were taken away from us. Our bank accounts were taken away from us. And we were told mostly that Jewish people will not be allowed to live in Kraków.
Now, at that time, there were about 250,000 people living in Kraków, and maybe 50,000 were Jewish. And actually we were allowed to live wherever we wanted. And we were told that anybody under 12 and anybody over 55 deemed unfit for work would be resettled to the farmers to help the farmer grow food for the German army. The rest of the people that would get a permit, they would be resettled also, but they would be taken into a ghetto, Kraków ghetto.
What is a ghetto? The ghetto actually is part of the city. In Kraków it is part of a very old city. It was about one avenue wide and four blocks long. All around it, the men had to build a wall. There was a lot of barbed wires on top of the wall. And the windows overlooking the wall had to be covered with plywood.
Also in the ghetto, they would have—they would build, establish what we call workshops so that everybody would be employed. We were slaves. We were going to have to work with no pay, no food. But we would live. And my father said, don't worry, because when the world outside will hear what's happening to us, they will come and save us.
And so even though I was 10 years old. My parents were able to falsify my birth certificate, because I was lucky. I was tall for my age. And we went to report to the German headquarters to obtain our permits. And I remember standing in line in front of this big building. And it was like a big square, and we were surrounded by what seemed to me like hundreds and hundreds of guards. And the Germans were armed not just with their rifles and revolvers but also with the dogs. I remember the dogs. Huge, big, big dogs, as big as a pony. And they were trained to attack people and tear them apart.
And I remember standing there and the soldiers were standing maybe as far as the end of this table. And with his dog, he was threatening to let him go and jump at me. Now, there was this man, this soldier, and here was a little girl. Was I an enemy of the state? Was I able to do him any harm? I don't think so. But in the eyes of the soldiers, in the eyes of the Germans, the Jewish people were not humans. We were considered inhuman. We were considered worse than cockroaches or ants. And we were treated like we were inhuman.
I remember when the trucks came and the soldiers started to separate the families. They were taking men away from the women. All of a sudden there was just my mother and me and my father was in another line. And then the soldiers also started to take the children away from the parents or leaving the children and putting the parents in the truck. Well, you can imagine, people were crying and screaming, and the dogs were barking and the soldiers were shooting.
And there, right across the street, the Polish people were occupied. They went around their business. And there were street cars that were going all around, right across the street. And there stood maybe 25,000 people surrounded by the guards, by all types of soldiers and trucks, and it was like we didn't exist. They didn't hear us. They didn't see us. They just turned away like we did not exist. And I remember the feeling of betrayal I felt. How could somebody not look at us and try to help? After all, Jewish people lived in Poland for centuries, and were very, very patriotic.
I remember we were lucky. We obtained a permit. We were going to go into the ghetto. The rest of the people without a permit, we thought they would be better off. They will be outside. They will be on farms. We never heard from them again. Of course, we thought that there is a war, and so there may be probably this problem with the post office. Never saw those people.
And I remember that we were told that the ghetto was going to be ready about three weeks and that we were going to leave our homes and not able to take very many things with us, because we would not be assigned another apartment. We would just be assigned another part of a room in another apartment house.
And I remember how we packed. We were only allowed to take a very small suitcase. So we put a lot of layers on. I remember I had maybe four pairs of ski pants and four sweaters and six socks in my ski boots. I remember I walked and looked probably like a bear. And my father was able to obtain a pushcart. And so on that pushcart, we put some pots and pans, a mattress, some linens.
And I remember standing in my bedroom and looking around at all the things that I couldn't take with me because my mom said there was no room for it. I remember also my mom made me polish the mail slot on our front door. We were supposed to turn the key to the superintendent of the building by noon, and my mother wanted to make sure that everything was left clean, in order.
And I remember my closet was full of my clothing. I had a bookshelf full of the books, because I loved to read. I also had a bookshelf of Shirley Temple dolls, because you probably don't know about Shirley Temple, but when I was little, Shirley Temple was as popular, even more popular than Barbie is now.
And I loved the Shirley Temple doll. I saw all her movies. She was a very—was a child actress that was singing and dancing. She had blonde, curly hair. And I remember whenever I was allowed to get a present, like my birthday, or when I was on honor roll in school, I would get a Shirley Temple doll. I couldn't take it. I had to leave it.
And I remember as we left our beautiful apartment and we walked down the stairs, I knocked at the door of some of my neighbors that I knew from the day I was born and we were very friendly with. But there didn't seem to be anybody home. And so as we started to walk away from the building, I came back to look at my home, and I remember seeing all my neighbors peering at us from behind closed windows behind the lace curtains. And I was so disappointed. I was so hurt that nobody wanted to say goodbye.
And as we walked through the narrow streets of Kraków over the bridge to go into the ghetto, I remember there were—young were people were lined up and it was March. It was cold. And I remember people were throwing stones and saying good riddance. Good riddance of you Jews. Don't ever come back.
And then I remember the feeling walking through the gate of the ghetto and walking into our apartment building. We were assigned an apartment that was so old that the bathroom were outside in the hall. And it was on the fourth floor. I remember we had to take what little we had, it was still a lot to carry, and we walked into the kitchen. And I remember tiny, tiny kitchen with a tiny, tiny sink. I remember that sink. It was very low. It was like a half round. And I said to my mother, that reminds me of the seven dwarfs. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. How can we use that?
And then we walked into the first bedroom. There were already two families living there. We walked into the next bedroom. It was very small. There was a family of three there already. And the other half was for us. I remember my parents put a hook on each side of the wall and they hung a blanket over it, and so each would them have a little bit of privacy.
And the workshops in the ghetto would be very, very busy. We would all be working. And we felt we are going to be such a wonderful workforce. Naturally, they're going to need us, so they will let us live. And my father has always said, don't worry. Because when the world outside will hear what's happening, they will come and save us. And so we started to work.
I remember there's some people that were working as tailors and shoemakers and dressmakers. Some were made hats and helmets. I was working in a printing shop, actually, because, again, it was not close to where we lived. And my parents knew the people in charge, and they felt I would be safe over there. And we felt we will all be safe because we would be working very hard.
But that was an illusion. Because every morning and every night, the Germans patrolled the streets. And they would walk unexpected into the workshops or into the apartment buildings and for no reason at all, they would see somebody they didn't like, either they were too old, they were too young, they were too fast or maybe too slow, they would arrest those people and take them away, and we never heard from them again.
And I remember one day my mom told me that I had to hide with my grandparents who would not get a permit anymore. And in this great, huge building that we lived, there was also a huge courtyard with a huge mountain of dirt, of dry leaves, of stones.
And my mother thought it would be a good place for us to hide. And we sort of ducked into a tunnel and she covered us and she had to leave. She had to go to work. I never understood to this day why—I had a permit and I had to go to work, but I never had a chance to ask her about it.
But I remember laying there under all this mountain of dirt and feeling the ground shaking. And it was the trucks bringing the soldiers into the ghetto. And jumping out, running through the streets with their boots, I felt like there was an earthquake. And they ran into the courtyard and I knew they were—I could realize they were running into the different rooms in different apartments. You could hear them shooting. They were finding people who were hiding. And we were petrified. I remember shaking and holding on and hoping they won't find us.
Finally, after all that seems like eternity, they started to leave. And I knew they were leaving, because I could almost feel them walking through the cobblestone courtyard. And also picking up their rifles into the mountain of dirt. Luckily they didn't find us. They didn't have the dogs with them. If they did, they would certainly have found us.
And finally, my mother came in and she started to say, you can come out, out. And she started to help us. And as we stood there trying to clean out the dirt from our hair, and all of a sudden, we came face to face with the last patrol of the day. There was nobody around. Nobody. And there were no other soldiers. Just two young soldiers.
But they took one look at my grandparents and they knew that they wouldn't have a permit anymore. And they took them away. And the miracle was they didn't beat them. They didn't shoot them. They didn't shoot me and my mother. But, I was very close to my grandparents, and I remember them walking away holding hands, and the soldiers weren't beating them. They were just walking. And I never saw them again. I know that they went to Belzec and they were killed.
And then about three weeks later, there came that dreaded knock on our doors at midnight, and my father was arrested. My father was accused of being a member of Resistance. Now, we know that was not true, but we also know that somebody must have betrayed him to the Gestapo. Because my father was a very wonderful person. And of course, as far as I'm concerned, he was the top. But for other people who needed help were always coming and ask my father, and he always managed to help other people.
I especially remember one couple who had a baby that was born in the ghetto, and the baby was sick because there was not enough food. There was no food, no water, no electricity. And somehow my father was able to arrange for that mother to take that baby and get a permit to go to a hospital outside of the ghetto. So I knew when my father was taken away, somebody must have said something to the authorities that was not true. And I couldn't imagine how my mother and I would ever survive.
And at that time already, we have heard about Oskar Schindler. Now, Oskar Schindler was a German. He was born in Czechoslovakia. He was a young man, a very good-looking young man. Very friendly, very outgoing. He joined the Nazi party very early in life, because he was a very ambitious person. He wanted to make a lot of money. And because he had such an outgoing personality, he developed a huge number of high-ranking generals in the war department and, of course, also with the politicians.
When he came into Kraków, he got a factory called Emalia. Now, before the war, the Emalia was making just pots and pans. Oskar Schindler was able to obtain that factory and convert part of the factory for making ammunition. But Oskar Schindler knew nothing about running the business. He knew nothing about the enamel factory and even less about the ammunition factory. So he needed people who worked there before and who owned the factory before he took it over.
And even though Oskar Schindler had so many friends in the Nazis or the SS and he wore a diamond swastika on his lapels, he did not have the heart of a Nazi. To Oskar Schindler, his workers became his friends. He needed those people to make a lot of money. And he liked those people. Oskar Schindler looked at the Jewish people as his friends.
And Oskar Schindler, very early on, when he realized what the Germans had in mind for us, the "Final Solution." The "Final Solution" means to finish with all the Jews so there'd be no one alive. Oskar Schindler was not going to stand by and let it happen. And so he started to hiring more and more people, because he was enlarging his factory. And the people who worked for him would leave the ghetto every morning and come every night and would talk about how wonderful he was. So it was everybody's dream to go and work for Oskar Schindler.
When the orders came that the ghetto was going to be liquidated—Now, how many, have you all seen the movie Schindler's List? Because if you have, I want you to know that the movie was almost a documentary, because everything in that movie was exactly the way things happened. It happened to me. That was my life. When I went to see that movie, I felt like I left my seat and went into the movie and lived all of it all over again.
And in that movie, you would also—for those of you who saw the movie, and for those of you who didn't, I hope you will, well there is a scene in that movie where a limousine comes bringing in all kinds of high-ranking generals. One of them, whose name was Amon Göth was going to be in charge of liquidating the ghetto and establishing a concentration camp outside of the Kraków ghetto, about seven kilometers.
And I remember that so well, because people were saying that Amon Göth is from Vienna. And of course, we were so naive, and we felt, well, the Viennese people, they are so cultured. He is going to be better. He will be more human. Amon Göth was the most sadistic murderer that ever lived. Amon Göth was a man who enjoyed killing. Amon Göth had the villa right at the camp. The camp Płaszów.
It was built on the little village called Płaszów. There were three Jewish cemeteries there. And when they started to build the camp, when they started to build the barracks, they had, of course, to erase the cemetery. And you can imagine what happens when you do that. We had little tombstones. Men were building the barracks and the women, all the women from the ghetto, were sent to build a road from the broken tombstones.
Now, wherever you go nowadays, you see a lot of construction . So you know what it takes to build a road. All kinds of machines. Can you imagine women sitting on the ground trying to put together a road from the broken tombstones? It was impossible. Couldn't do that.
So Amon Göth would stand on the veranda of his villa every morning and when the people were going to work at six o'clock in the morning, he would just stay there and watch and he would just go hunting. But Amon Göth was not hunting for animals. He was hunting for people. So you never knew wherever you were when the next shot would come from.
I remember sitting in that line. The women were sitting—a long, long mile-long line of women sitting trying to figure out how to build a road. And Amon Göth when he got tired of standing on his veranda, he would come down. He would walk behind us. He had a dog, a big dog. I never saw a dog like that in the United States or ever. It was a big white dog with the black polka dots on it. We always called it polka dots.
But the dog was huge. Not like a dalmatian. And the dog's name was Rolf. And when Amon Göth came by and he stood by you and if you didn't say "good morning, Sir Rolf" to the dog, he would shoot. I remember how scary it was. And to this day, I am afraid of big dogs.
And I remember especially that one day when I was sitting next to my mom on one side and on the other side my friend Stella. Now, her parents and her brother were taken away very early, because her brother had muscular dystrophy and he was considered even worse because he was physically handicapped and they took those people first.
And I remember that all of a sudden, my friend Stella fell over. And I put my hand behind her and I whispered, sit up, sit up, because I hear Amon Göth. And I tried to pick her up, and then I realized that she was dead. That he had shot her, but she was sitting right next to me, and I didn't hear her. I didn't hear it. I didn't know.
When finally the camp was ready, we were told that we have to leave our little places in the ghetto. And anybody under 12, anybody over 55 would not be allowed to go into the camp. So anybody would have to remain in the orphans' home. My mother and I were taking care of my little cousin Jenny. She was five years old, and she was blonde, and she had blue eyes. Well, you know Hitler wanted to have an Aryan race. Everybody blonde, blue-eyed, and very athletic.
Have you seen pictures of Adolf Hitler? Have you seen pictures of all his so-called cabinet? They were ugly men. Some of them are very heavy—obese. Certainly none of them was blond and blue eyed. Our children were beautiful, just like all of you. All of you students, you are beautiful. So were our children. But not in the eyes of the Germans.
I remember I tried to take my Jenny with me. I had, again, a tiny little suitcase and I wore a long coat. And she was holding onto my waist covered with the coat. And I tried to walk through the gate. I was supposed to walk with my printing shop. And one of the soldiers stopped me, because he was touching everyone with the rifle, and he hit her, and she fell and she cried. And as a miracle, he didn't shoot us. And he said to me, take her back to the orphans' home. Then you can come back.
So I was happy to take her to the orphans' home, because I knew what the barracks were going to be like, and here would be a big building with a lot of children, because the Germans were bringing older children from surrounding communities whose parents have already been taken away. And I felt every orphans' home in Europe was usually taken care of by nuns. So they will be taken care by nuns and they will be doing fine. I was happy.
And as I ran, and I left her with friends of my mother who had a baby there and didn't want to leave, of course. And so I ran to join my group to go through the gate, and I realized that some of the people in my group in their backpack, they were smuggling their little children. The children were drugged so they wouldn't make noise, so they wouldn't move. And those were the lucky people who have some Polish friends, those who we called the Righteous Gentiles, those who risked their lives to save a Jewish child.
They were in danger. Not just of the soldiers, not just of the Gestapo and the SS. They were in danger of their own neighbor. Because if the neighbor suspected they were keeping the Jewish child, they would report them to the authorities. For a loaf of bread. For a bag of potatoes. Those people, some of them who are still alive, of course they are honored by the whole world.
And I remember as we ran into the camp, the huge, huge camp surrounding by miles and miles of electrified barbed wires, and getting into the barracks, men and women were separated. And I remember that we had a tiny suitcase. We could have brought very little with us. The barracks, there was nothing there. We didn't have bunk beds. If you can imagine probably a room as big as this and it was built what we called three tiers of shelves, because you had to crawl into it. And there was just a hay mattress. That was it. We had nothing.
I remember the very first night when we got into the camp. The soldiers came and took everything, everybody out, had to get out of the barrack. And they walked by to make sure that nobody had any jewelry. By that time, people were able to hide it or it was taken away. And all of a sudden, I realized that I had earrings. Because it's a custom in Europe that when it's a girl, at six months old, the grandparents buy earrings.
So I had earrings that were tiny, tiny, like, tiny, tiny. What can I tell you? Earrings that looked like forget-me-nots. Three little tiny blue stones. And that soldier just pulled it off. And I just stood there. I was too stunned to cry from the pain and the fear. And my mother always thought that nothing like that could happen to her little girl, because of course she thought I was so cute.
I also had a tiny little ring, I remember, that one of my father's friends gave me when I was 12. And it had a tiny diamond. And they pulled it off my hand too. Now, if I had realized I had it, I would have taken it off, but I just never thought about it.
And life that camp was so horrible, because every morning and every night we stood for roll call, and we were exposed to public hanging, public beating, public shooting. You just never knew what Amon Göth will do on that day. And that went on twice a day every morning before we went to work and every night when either we came back from work, and night shift was a roll call.
Oskar Schindler, whose workers had to walk from the factory to the camp and back, he became a very good friend of Amon Göth, because he needed Amon Göth. And he supplied all of his friends with wonderful whiskey and cognac and silk shirts and cigars. Nothing but the best. Always entertained them. Always had huge parties.
Everybody asked Oskar Schindler, because he was always saying, well, I got to keep my workers overnight sometimes when he knew that the people were going to be picked up and taken away. And he was always complaining that his workers spent too much time walking back and forth from his factory to the camp.
And so he got the permission from Amon Göth to build a small factory, I mean to build a small camp next to his factory. And he needed more workers. Especially, he said, he needs the young girls who have skinny fingers to clean the shells for the ammunition. My mom and I knew, knew the man in charge. His name was Marcel Goldberg.
He actually, he and his wife and sister, shared our room in the ghetto. And actually, he was a friend of my father. And I have always suspected that he was the one that betrayed my father. But I didn't think about it till much, much later. And so I went and told him that my mother and I wanted to be on Schindler's List, on the one from Płaszów to the one to Emalia.
And so the day came that my mother and I were able to join a group of 100 women that were sent from Płaszów to Emalia. And that was like leaving hell and going to heaven. That was like leaving the devil and going into the arms of an angel. Because there is no hope in Płaszów. And hope couldn't live in Płaszów. And all those times that I stood in front of Amon Göth, I never looked straight at him, because I always felt that if I don't make eye contact with him, he won't see me. And if he can't see me, he's not going to shoot me.
And I remember when we got to Emalia, to the barracks. They had bunk beds. The barracks were much smaller. The guards were not allowed to enter the camp. Only they stood in the front as we walked from the camp to the factory, and they were not allowed to be in the factory either. And it was like going to heaven. I mean, to me, Oskar Schindler was an angel sent from heaven. He became like my father. And I remember that every time I looked at him, I expected him to sprout wings.
He cared about us. He used his own money to buy more food, because certainly the rations that he was getting couldn't keep us alive. He made sure that we had medical care. I remember I had pneumonia, and I actually stayed in this little clinic that he had for a week. It was the Jewish doctor taking care of me. In Płaszów, if you went to a little hospital, next day, the German would shoot you. Hope was alive and well in Emalia. Oskar Schindler would come into the factory every morning and he would say hello to everyone. He cared about everyone.
And I remember I was working on my machine lathe. I was making shells for ammunition. I remember it to this day that it was like once a wall with windows because we could see outside. And all the young people were on that line with the small machines making shells for ammunition. And I liked it, and I was very fast. I was really doing a good job. Because I was working for Oskar Schindler. I would do anything for him.
But I was so good that one of the foremans took me away from that machine and put me on a big press. That press was in the movie. And it was impossible to work on it, before. It was very difficult. It was very heavy. And used to break all the time. I worked on it maybe for three hours, the machine broke. And the foreman came running and yelling, you broke the machine? That's sabotage. And I'll call the guards and they will shoot you.
Well, somebody called for Oskar Schindler. And I remember to this day how he walked from one side of the building to the other. There was a glass like a bridge. And he came down and he was so serious and he looked at the foreman and he looked at me. He walked around the machine and then he started yelling at the foreman.
And he said, why did you take a little girl and put her on a big machine? He said only men are allowed on that machine. And then he asked me where did you work before? Where do you want to go? And I pointed to my machine, and he says, you go there. Nobody will ever touch you. And after that, every morning when he came in, he would go by. He would pat my head. He would say Wie gehts es Kleiner. It's, how you doing, little one? It was heaven.
But heaven didn't last very long, because the Germans were losing the war against the Allies. But they were determined to win the war against the Jews. And so they were closing all the camps in Poland and Czechoslovakia and sending its prisoners, the slaves, deep into Germany. And that's when Oskar Schindler made his famous deal with Amon Göth. He was going to move his factory from Kraków to Brünnlitz, Czechoslovakia where he was born. And he knew a lot of people there.
And so the women were taken out of the camp first. We were tattooed by the Jewish doctors with KL, which stands for concentration camp. And of course, the doctors didn't have the right instruments, and they didn't really know anything about it. So they tattooed us and the tattoo didn't last very long. It didn't last long at all. Two years after the war, the tattoo disappeared. Unlike all of my Jewish brothers and sisters who are tattooed in Auschwitz with a number on their arm. They go to the grave with that number on their arm. And I am sure there must be a good place for them in heaven waiting for them. We were lucky.
But I remember that we were packed into one of the boxcars. Now, I want you to imagine a boxcar. You know how big or how small they are? And by that time on the list, there were 300 women. And so we were packed into these two boxcar. And I remember we stood like this because you couldn't move.
There was no air. There was no bathroom facilities. There was no food. There was no water. And some of the women after a while started to faint. And we had no idea where we were going, because it didn't look like we were going where we thought we would be going. I remember we tried to find little holes in the wood and try to see. By that time, it was getting dark and you couldn't see anywhere.
And I remember when the train finally stopped and they opened the door, I remember the spotlight shone on the train. And I remember seeing miles and miles of barbed wire. Hundreds and hundreds, it seemed to me, soldiers with the dogs. And there was a sign. It said Auschwitz-Birkenau.
And then we knew. We have heard about Auschwitz-Birkenau. There were rumors. We didn't believe it. How could you believe it in a 20th century that people would build a place, a special factory for murdering people? It was unthinkable. It was unthinkable then and it's unthinkable now.
Auschwitz was a big camp. There was Auschwitz I where the Germans kept their prisoners of war, their religious prisoners, political prisoners and other. But it was in Auschwitz-Birkenau when they built the gas chamber and when they built the crematorium. And it was to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were bringing all their Jewish slaves. Because all the Jews were victims, but there were some victims also that were not Jewish. And I remember we were helped to get out by the prisoners. We have to jump down from the train, from the boxcar. And we were running. Right away they were yelling heraus, heraus, mach schnell.
Always beating us with their whips. And we realized there was a terrible stench in Auschwitz. And also we thought it was snowing. It was November. It was cold. Winter comes early to Poland. And so we tried to catch the snowflakes to get—we were so thirsty. And we realized those were not snowflakes. Those were ashes. The family of the guards from Auschwitz who lived not too far from the camp, they used to complain to the visitors from Berlin that they couldn't hang up their laundry and they couldn't let their children play, there was too much ashes.
And I remember as we were running, I could see ahead of us, way ahead of us, even though it was midnight, it was dark, you couldn't see, I remember seeing chimneys. And I remember smoke coming out of chimneys even though it was dark and fire. Didn't believe it. Could not believe what it represented.
And I remember we finally came to a halt in front of a huge barrack. There was a lot of German, well-fed and well-dressed uniform. And one especially with a whip in his hand was saying some women left, right, left, right. And we realized those going to the left could barely walk. They were exhausted from the trip. But those going to the right, we started to realize, were our women, our women from Schindler's List. We were much better off than any other victims because we came from Oskar Schindler.
And I remember we started to pinch our cheeks so we would look better and we stood up straight and were pushed into this barrack. We were told to strip from head to bottom. I remember they told us that we had to fold our clothes. There was a bench all around the wall there was bench and to put our clothes there. And I was smuggling a picture of my father under my tongue. And I realized that they looked into everybody's mouths to see maybe people have a gold tooth then they would pull it. I didn't have any, but still, I took my picture of my father, the only thing I had remaining from my father, and I put it in my shoe.
And I remember we were standing in line and we were shaved from head to bottom. And by the other prisoners. And they didn't have the right instruments. And so they were pulling our hair and cutting in together with the scalp and we were crying. And they were saying, don't cry. You don't have nothing to worry about. You're not going to the gas chamber. They are over there, they said, pointing to the other side.
And I remember just the way you saw it in the movie when they pushed us into this other room. And it was dark. We didn't see. We didn't know what was happening. And we were scared. And all of a sudden, the light came on and the water came down. And I looked around. I looked at my mother. I looked at all the friends I had been working with them for so many years.
I didn't recognize anyone. And I said to my mom, well, now we are dead. We have nothing to worry about. They had killed us and it didn't hurt. And my mother said, no, we are not dead. And she touched me. Said we're going to be OK. And I just looked at her and looked at all my friends. And without our hair, we felt so totally dehumanized, humiliated, traumatized.
Because all those years in a camp, in the ghetto, when I was little, when I was smaller, I had big, heavy braids. And when we went into the ghetto, my mother took me to the hairdresser to cut it so I would have less hair. And my father cried. And all the time, of course, in the ghetto, in the concentration camp, we had no shampoo. We didn't have soap. We didn't have towels. But we were still girls. Can you imagine how you would feel if they just take your hair? And I remember when I touched my scalp, I just shivered. Couldn't believe it. I said to my mom, no, we're dead.
And then after the showers came down for a very short time, they pushed us to another side of the building. And there were women SS guards, and they were vicious. And I remember there was a pile of wooden boots, wooden shoes, on one side, and a pile of clothing on the other side. And when you put a wet foot into a wooden shoe, right away you get blisters. And of course, we couldn't sit down and try anything on. You just put your foot in. If one were too big or too small, too bad. You had to keep it. And then there was a pile of clothing.
At that time, I guess they ran out of uniforms, because most people in Auschwitz wore uniforms, Häftling, prisoner's uniforms. And I remember seeing something that was yellow with red in that pile of clothing. And I had a dress—just before the war started, my mother allowed me for the first time to choose my own dress for school. And I said, maybe it's mine. They took everything I owned. Maybe it's mine. So I started to pull it out. I was pulling and pulling and pulling.
And finally, I pulled out a chiffon dress. It was yellow. It had red flowers, but it was huge. It was big. Probably belonged to a big, fat lady. And here I was a little tiny, skinny kid. And I remember I had to tie it around me like 10 times so I wouldn't trip and fall. And they pushed us to the other side, and there we were in hell again. And I said to my mom, I told you we are dead. Where are we? Barracks on each side of the muddy roads and the prisoners in that barrack, the women, they were like walking corpses.
You know, there are no words in any language to describe what Auschwitz was like. Because if you were not there, you could not imagine a place like that. And we were there because we were considered inhuman. Because we were Jewish, we were inhuman. And we were there to wait our turns to be killed.
And I remember one day where we stood for a roll call, what we did during the day was taking mud from one side of the road to the other. And next day we were bringing it back. And then we stood for hours for roll call. And one day two soldiers came over while we were standing for roll call and they took me and a friend away. And we had no idea where we were going.
We were crying, and they were saying—my mother was crying—and they were saying, oh, they will be back. And this, I want you to think about it. Why were we in Auschwitz? Because we are inhuman, right? They were going to kill us any minute. So they took two Jewish girls, took them to the clinic for an experiment to take blood from us to make plasma to send to the Russian front to save the life of a German soldier.
And I remember that the nurse was very nice to us. We lay each one of us on a bed with white sheets and pillowcases, and the nurse was all in white, and she took blood from us. And I remember that when I sat up, I fainted. I had no blood to give. And she was very good to us. She gave us a slice of bread with a slice of liverwurst. And it was the best thing I ever ate. And I ate half of it and the other one I saved for my mother. And then the soldiers brought us back to the barracks where they took us from.
Because I had no idea where I was. I have my friend Zezette who was in camp in Auschwitz for two years. After the war when we went to—many years when we went to Poland, she knew exactly where to go. I had no idea. If I look even at the plan I still don't know which barrack I was, where I was.
But then after three and a half weeks, the women on Schindler's List were getting very sick. We had dysentery. We were starving. And all of a sudden, the orders came that we were going to leave. And then this time we went through the showers. We got some other clothing.
Now, Oskar Schindler did not come to Auschwitz himself to take his women. He sent a very beautiful young secretary with a fortune of diamonds to bribe the commander of Auschwitz. And I understand when he talked and told the commander of Auschwitz that he needed his workers and they said to him, but they are old. They've been here for three and a half weeks. They are ready to be sent to the gas chamber. We'll send you new ones. And he said, no, I want mine, because they are trained.
And when we—this time we were feeling more [INAUDIBLE] so that we could sit. Each one of us was sitting, and I had a friend. My friend Hester was laying on my lap with such a raging fever. She was so hot. She was burning. And I remember sticking my little finger trying to scrape some icicles, some snow to put on her lips.
An hour after we left Auschwitz-Birkenau, she broke up in scarlet fever. If she broke in scarlet fever while we were still there, they would have never let us go. Scarlet fever is infectious disease. It's not that they were worried about us. They were worried about themselves. That was another one of the miracles.
And then when the train finally stopped, there in front of us on the station stood Oskar Schindler in all his glory. I remember it like it was yesterday. He had his green Tyrolean hat with a cigarette in his hand always and a long Tyrolean coat, and he said, you are finally here. Now you have nothing to worry about. I will take care of you. And take care of us he did.
Because the last seven months of the war, when thousands and thousands of my Jewish brothers and sisters were sent through the worst winter of the 20th century, the winter of 1945, people walked from Poland into Germany. They froze to death. They were shot when they couldn't walk anymore. Some of them were put in trains and left in the railroad station so that when the air raid siren, the soldiers ran away. The trains were left on the station. They were bombed. The airplane people, the air force didn't know who was there. Thousands and thousands of people perished. We on Schindler's List were taken care of.
It was harder for Oskar Schindler to buy food. But Mrs. Schindler was going to all her friends around the farms. At one time, I remember she got some farina. And she cooled that farina on the little—they had a little apartment on the factory floor. They had a beautiful villa not too far. They never slept there, because they were always afraid if they are away, the guard, especially the Obersturmführer Leopold who was in charge of the guard, he just wanted to kill us. And with Oskar Schindler around, he could not do it.
But Oskar Schindler and one of the young people, young men, in our camp, became a very good forger. And so one of the documents they forged was an order ordering Obersturmführer Leopold to Berlin for an audience with Hitler. So he left. Of course, he got to Berlin, he had no audience with Hitler, and they sent him to Russian front.
But now, Oskar Schindler was in charge of the guard. Do you know that the last seven months of the war, when thousands of people are dying? On Oskar Schindler's List, one woman died from a heart attack and one young girl died from bone cancer. Till the very end taken care of by Mrs. Schindler. And when they died, they were buried in a casket. And I want you to think about it, because nobody was buried in a casket.
If it was not for Oskar Schindler, I wouldn't be here. I was given life. I was able to grow up, to get married, to have children, to have grandchildren, because of one man who could not stand by and do nothing. And this is something that I want you all to remember. You are all beautiful young people, and you are very important. You are our future.
And you are going to go out into the world where there is a lot of people that say the Holocaust didn't happen. Well, you are eyewitnesses, and you have the power to make decisions. You have the power to stand up to a bully, because a bully is a coward. A coward will only attack somebody who is small. You have the power to make changes. You have the power, if you like, to send a letter to the president, your vice president, senator, congressman. You are future voters. And you are important. You are very important. You are future voters.
And I think that when the war ended and I thought there will never be another war and when Korean War started and Vietnam, Somalia, Rwanda, Darfur. Innocent people are still being killed. I know that you will be able to change it, because you will never be a bystander. To be a bystander is worse than be a participator.
You have to be an upstander. You have to stand up for what's right. You can't say, oh, it's not happening to me, I don't have to worry. It is happening to you, and you can change it. And I know you will. Thank you so much.