On October 16 last year at 3pm, we were at home together, in the living room laughing about something we had just seen on television. I don’t even remember what about, but I remember the sound of laughter. And then I remember a few seconds later, how the laughter stopped abruptly and it turned into a horrible silence. I only registered our shock and horror when I looked into your wide-open eyes and I saw a reflection of that shock and horror.
Today, almost one year on, I want to tell you the story of Rena Finder.
When Rena was 13, only a year older than you, she was taken to Auschwitz, that concentration camp in Poland where Jews were sent never to return.
She was standing in a line in Auschwitz, in the bitter cold, starving and waiting to be sent to death. A prison guard was inspecting the prisoners. He stopped in front of a young girl standing next to Rena, and yelled in her face, “You don’t talk here” then slapped her.
At that moment, Rena who was nothing but a wisp of a girl herself, straightened up and told the guard “But she didn’t say anything!”
She knew the punishment would be severe but even though she was only 13, she also understood that she did not just want to be alive, she wanted to live. “They could take my sanity and my life but I would not let them take my soul. I would not stand by and do nothing,” she said later.
I say ‘later’, because Rena managed to survive. Maybe it was a miracle, or maybe she was just lucky, but she was the youngest Jew to be saved by Oscar Schindler. Mr Schindler was a German who helped save the lives of hundreds of Jews during the World War II, and Rena and her mother were among those prisoners on his list to leave Auschwitz and go and work in his factory. There is a movie about him which we can watch together.
After the war, Rena spent most of her life going to schools and explaining to children how important it is that if you see something wrong happening, you speak out. She thought that this was the most important lesson to be learnt from the war, because it was the thing that hurt her most.
In this world of bullying and hate crimes, it’s important to teach children not to stand by and do nothing
“One day the trucks came and we children were taken away from our parents and the children were screaming and the parents were screaming and people were being shot in the street. I looked around and across the street people were walking around. I could not understand it. No one heard us, no one saw. No one cared,” she said.
Some of these people were their neighbours – people who had been their friends. But it is easy to see why their neighbours acted like that: they were afraid and so they thought it’s better if they do nothing.
What were they afraid of? Every day on radio and in the streets and in theatre plays, the Ministry of Public Enlightenment – which was like a ministry in charge of telling people what the government wanted them to believe – told people again and again of the “danger of foreign enemies” and how they should not trust people who had a different religion, or different passports, or different ideas. The messages were repeated so often that people started being afraid – even of their own neighbours – and angry at anyone who was not “like them”.
So fear made people not do anything, even if they heard people lying, or saw unfair things happening. They just shut up, because they were afraid they would lose their job, or be labelled a rebel and anyway, wasn’t their own life good as it is?
That hurt Rena a lot more than the physical pain or the hunger, because she believed that fear and hate made people become less and less human. “When we turn our back to others and look only at ourselves, we may save our lives but lose our soul in the process,” Rena told schoolchildren.
Of course you can tell me that that was a really long time ago, in “ancient times” when people had no internet or no mobile phones and so they could easily be scared. But I am not so sure we are so different today: we often discuss what is happening in the US or in Italy, or in Malta.
Fear is the seed of hate. “It gives us permission to close our eyes and pretend not to see what is in front of us,” Rena always tells children. Courage, she says, gives us clarity of mind and true power.
“Don’t be a bystander, to be a bystander is worse than to be a perpetrator. Be an up-stander like Oskar Schindler! In this world of bullying and hate crimes, it’s important to teach children not to stand by – you have to go and get help. Don’t stand by and do nothing.”
Do you know how Rena managed to keep going during that difficult time? Before her father was killed, he always told her that he believed the truth always comes out, and they would be saved. This hope kept her spirit alive throughout.
And my hope is in you and your friends. I hope that you will never stand by and do nothing in the face of injustice.
I know that you will always make me proud.
This week we remember what can never be forgotten: the assassination of the journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in our European, democratic country.
Indifference will kill our soul.
This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece
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