The first time I heard Rena Finder, a tiny, 91-year-old Holocaust survivor with a slight lilt in her voice, speak, was mere weeks after the 2017 March in Charlottesville that left our nation reeling that such hatred and anger could be happening in the United States of America. Rena was speaking at an annual event at Boston College where she exhorts students and professors alike to be “Up-standers” not “By-standers” and to recognize that every voice, every story, and every individual has the opportunity to shape our future. We can let hate rise, or we can choose to deliberately work against it.
Her speech, where she recounted her life before, during and after the Holocaust, was moving and compellingly told. She was a small girl when the Nazi’s forced her family out of their apartment and into the Krakow Ghetto, and she chose to describe the pain she felt leaving her toys and books like Little Women and other favorite classics. As she named her favorite stories, the same ones so many of the audience had loved as children, she was able to draw us all into the horrors of the Holocaust, and the audience was silent, and hanging on her every word, for the rest of her hour-long tale.
After the war, for quite some time, Rena could not speak of what she endured. The pain of losing her father, grandparents, cousins, and other extended family, was unimaginable, but as she realized that anti-Semitism and hate were again rising, she could not remain silent. She has spent decades now speaking about her life, and extorting others to speak as well. Her story, in versions for adults, is recorded on “Facing History, Facing Ourselves,” told in the movie “Schindler’s List,” and videotaped often at events where she speaks, but on Dec. 26, 2019, just a few weeks ago, Scholastic published her memoir, “My Survival: A Girl on Schindler’s List,” aimed at middle-grade students.
Rena’s account is highly readable, infinitely moving, and extraordinarily powerful. She survived time in the Plaszow and Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camps, and recounts the lengths Oskar Schindler went to protect his workers, saving them from certain death. One of the ways Rena’s story is different from most Holocaust stories aimed at students, is that throughout the book, it feels as if she is having a conversation with the reader. She asks questions, she talks directly to the reader, she shares hope and agony and reality. The first paragraph ends with: “The Holocaust should never be forgotten and should never happen again—but how can we protect against that? You, dear reader, can help. One person with courage to stand up for the innocent can make a big difference.”
Students will find the book compelling to read, but I would make the case that it would make a powerful read aloud. Pausing to gasp at her story and discussing her experiences, emotions, and craft as a writer and storyteller are enough to encourage teachers to use her book as a Read Aloud, but her ability to break the spell of the story to ask powerful questions would make this an incredible call to action for young readers/listeners, and would provide opportunities for students to engage in the kind of deep reflection and thinking all teachers would hope to encourage in their classrooms, and leave them begging to get back into the book. I can see this book leading to powerfully written, evidence-filled spoken and written responses, a desire for students to read more; fiction and non-fiction, on the Holocaust, and help students understand how powerful the written word can be.
This book is one of those page-turning stories that a reader cannot put down because it draws us in, forces us to think about our thinking, asks us to think about ways reading this book changes the way we want to live our lives, and stays in our minds long after the final page is turned. Teacher friends, grades 5 and up, I am going to do what Rena asked, and speak directly to you: get this book, read it yourselves, then read it aloud to your students and share your own reactions, as well as those of your students, with us here: verbal and written. Let’s be Up-standers, not By-standers!