By Pat Ciarrocchi
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — As the world watched images of families dying from chemical weapons in Syria, a Jewish woman from Boston who survived the Holocaust was asking herself how this could happen again.
Her name is Rena Finder, and at 84, she’s a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother and survivor. Rena came to Philadelphia for the 20th anniversary screening of the film that told her story, “Schindler’s List.” She is one of the last eyewitnesses to both a horror and the hope imbedded in her childhood.
One of the opening clips of the film finds Oskar Schindler, played by actor Liam Neeson, telling a Nazi officer, “I want my people.” The officer asks, “Who are you, Moses?”
But at just age 13, Oskar Schindler was more than Moses.
“I thought he was an angel sent from above,” says Finder. “Sometimes, I would look at him and expect him to sprout wings.”
Finder was a child in Krakow, Poland, when the Jews were gathered into ghettos because they were Jewish.
As we sat among posters depicting the film, Finder shook her head.
“How could you really imagine that it was genocide? That it was murder of innocent people? That [it was] because we were Jewish.”
Schindler was a businessman. He had friends in high places, as Finder recalled. He had witnessed Jewish families pulled from their homes, shot in the streets, with children running to hide. He stepped into the chaos with a list, requesting workers from a concentration camp near his family.
“He said he needed young children with skinny fingers to clean the shells for ammunition,” remembers Finder.
Rena and her mother were on the list. They worked, and they survived.
Schindler’s critics called him a womanizer and a drunkard. Rena saw him differently.
“He was not a holy man, and he helped. But where were the holy people? They were sitting behind closed windows with the shades down. They didn’t hear. They didn’t see. They didn’t care. People said the whole time, ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t hear. I didn’t see, and there was nothing I could do.’ That’s a lie. There’s always something you can do,” she says.
That’s why it’s troubling to Rena as she watches Syria, where a government authorized the gassing of its own people. Among them were 400 children.
“I feel horror. I feel fear,” says Rena. “I can’t believe it’s happening again. People being gassed. Children. And we’re still doing nothing. I’m not a politician, and I’m scared of war. But I think the whole world should take a stand against gassing innocent people.”
Rena Finder’s story is documented through the Shoah Foundation, Spielberg’s effort to collect the testimony from 50,000 holocaust survivors. Today, there are 52,000 stories to hear. Scholars are able to study those testimonies at the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.
Thursday night’s screening in Philadelphia benefited the Shoah Foundation.
Rena called Oskar Schindler a shining example to the world that you don’t have to stand by and do nothing.
When she was a child herself, watching children being taken away by guards for a certain death, she asked, “Where are you, God?”
Now, she tells her story with an elegance, fluency and purpose, because she says she wants the next generations to do better. Now, that is her prayer.