The nightmarish world which Rina Finder describes with unflinching detail in her memoir is a difficult one for children to understand. The author, a survivor of Auschwitz who found protected status on Oskar Schindler’s famous list, uses simple and direct language to narrate her experience and raise questions for young readers about the best and worst of human nature. My Survival stands out among books in this genre through its accessibility as well as its story’s powerful consistency. Finder and Joshua M. Greene balance each element of tragedy and heroism, avoiding neat parables about hope, but still finding it within a terrifying account of Jewish suffering and bystanders’ collusion with the perpetrators. Their portrait of Oskar Schindler, an imperfect human being who finds a moral core within himself, challenges assumptions about why the world stood by as Europe’s Jews were destroyed.
One of the central messages of the book is the persistent antisemitism of Finder’s Polish neighbors in Krakow, which left Jews constantly vulnerable. At various points in her memoir, Finder raises, but does not attempt to answer, the causes of this painful reality. As she and her family are seized from their homes and sent to the ghetto, they hear the enthusiastic cries of their neighbors shouting, “Good riddance! Go, Jews! Don’t ever come back.” The poignance of eleven-year-old Finder’s sorrow is unmediated by any plausible explanation: “I couldn’t understand why they hated us so much.” Even returning as a survivor after the war, nothing has changed; Jews are still unwelcome.
Finder loses her father, other relatives and friends, and although her mother remains, her role as a protective parent is cruelly distorted by the Nazis. Early in the book, Finder remembers a sense of safety, as her mother could watch her playing in kindergarten from the balcony of their apartment building. Later, mother and daughter find protection with industrialist Schindler but are briefly interned in Auschwitz before he, again, rescues them. Schindler becomes the benevolent parent after Finder’s real family is reduced to helpless victimhood. She is careful to portray him as a man who had initially been interested in only promoting his financial interests, but ultimately found the courage, at great personal risk, to bribe and lie to the Nazis in order to maintain a safe environment for his Jewish laborers. Finder also emphasizes the equal bravery of Schindler’s wife, Emilie, who employed all her skills to care for their workers and other Jews desperate for shelter.
Finder and Greene use unadorned language and carefully interwoven background material to translate an experience which, Finder admits, can only be approximated in words. The facts alone replace metaphors, as in one grotesque incident when prisoners arriving at Auschwitz, dying of thirst, try to catch snowflakes on their tongues only to learn that they are human ashes. She offers this moment of horror without elaboration because none is needed. Early on in the book, she states that her memories are only as accurate as anyone else’s can be, but she promises that her story preserves essential truths. Later, she suggests that readers consider the different means by which history may be recorded and interpreted. Through acknowledging the limits of memory and the reality of Holocaust denial, Finder entrusts readers to engage with her past and to look for ways in which they can stand up to hatred and seek possibilities to continue Schindler’s legacy of opposition to evil.
My Survival: A Girl on Schindler’s List is highly recommended, although some anecdotes in the text may not be appropriate for every child. The book includes a section with photographs found by the author after the war.
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.