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Oral history interview with Dr. Kaja Finkler

Oral History | Digitized | Accession Number: 2018.159.1 | RG Number: RG-50.030.0969

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    Oral history interview with Dr. Kaja Finkler


    Interview Summary
    Dr. Kaja Finkler, born on January 4, 1935 in Warsaw, Poland, describes her family’s birth name traditions; her parents, Chaim and Golda; her family’s Hasidic background; the history of Hasidism; the importance of music within her family and having a strong Jewish identity from an early age; her family members and history; being an only child; the many rabbis in her family; growing up speaking Polish and Yiddish; her mother’s refusal to speak Polish after the war; speaking Polish, Yiddish, Swedish, and German by the time of her arrival in the United States; living in an apartment in the Jewish neighborhood of the town of Otwock, Poland before the war; her mother’s modern habits and decision to attend university to study law; Raphael Lemkin, his creation of the word “genocide,” and the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1948; her and her mother’s loss of social status upon their immigration to the United States; moving to her step-grandfather’s apartment in Warsaw across the street from the Pawiak prison; being separated from her father, who was sitting Shiva for a family member in his hometown of Piotrków Trybunalski, Poland, during the invasion of Poland in September 1939; the bombs and fires in Warsaw during the invasion; her aunt’s flight to the Soviet Union after the invasion; German antisemitism; the ghettoization of Warsaw and her family’s apartment falling within the Warsaw Ghetto borders; attending the Ghetto’s kindergarten; her mother’s oral history interview about her wartime experiences before her death in 1991 (see RG-50.110.0001-0002); the construction of walls surrounding the Ghetto; having the physical appearance of an Aryan; her two uncles working in the black market and her family being relatively well off; starvation; seeing bodies in the streets; confiscation of jewelry and other items; claiming that an uncle was her father when German soldiers came to get him for forced labor and the soldiers then leaving; missing her father, who was unable to travel to Warsaw to be with the family; her mother’s relationships with her siblings; her mother’s work as a forced laborer in an ammunitions factory; the widespread belief in the Warsaw Ghetto that there would be a war, but no one foreseeing deportations; a typhus epidemic and her mother’s decision to send her to live with her father and his mother in her apartment in Piotrków Trybunalski; being smuggled out of the Ghetto and traveling with a Polish woman by train to Piotrków Trybunalski in 1942 or 1943; her neglectful grandmother; her mother joining her and her father in Piotrków Trybunalski; the town’s ghetto; the family’s attempt to go to Switzerland; her parents’ disagreement over whether or not to send her to live with a Polish family; going into hiding with twelve other people, including her parents, grandmother, other relatives, and two other Jewish couples, in a small, closed-off section of the apartment building’s attic for two or three weeks; a Jewish woman, who had been hiding and caught in the building’s basement, giving up the family’s attic hiding location; a German soldier who allowed his dog to attack children; joining the rest of the Jews who had been rounded up in the town’s synagogue; a member of the Judenrat who paid the Germans not to deport her and her grandmother; being moved to a smaller ghetto; the confiscation of goods; her mother, uncle, and grandmother being sent to a forced labor camp in Skarżysko-Kamienna, Poland and their work at the ammunition factory there; German soldiers beating her father and his subsequent death; the head of the Judenrat sending her to live with a family, who treated her like a servant; working at a lumber mill; her memory of nearly being smothered to death while hiding in the Piotrków Trybunalski apartment building attic; her deportation to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in winter 1943 or 1944; lying about her age and having her head shaved upon arrival; her job as a potato peeler; roll calls (Appelle); rationing her food; trading bread for a pair of boots and a German guard helping her to put them on; her mother’s transport to an ammunitions factory in Leipzig, Germany; her mother managing to maintain her religious practices and traditions; rumors that the war was coming to an end; her transport to the camp at Bergen-Belsen by cattle car in 1945; liberation by British troops; the death of a girl from overeating upon liberation; wanting revenge for her family members immediately after liberation; her estranged grandfather who had escaped Poland before the start of the war with the help of a visa issued by Chiune Sugihara and via the Trans-Siberian Railway, eventually coming to Japan and the United States right before the attack on Pearl Harbor; contacting this grandfather with the help of a British chaplain; the efforts of Swede Folke Bernadotte, Count of Wisborg, and the White Buses operation; traveling to Sweden with the White Buses and her recovery; her mother surviving a death march; learning via her grandfather that her mother was alive and back in Poland; reuniting with her mother in Stockholm before they traveled together to the United States; talking about their wartime experiences right after reuniting and then only rarely afterwards; being greeted by her grandfather, other relatives, and the press upon arrival in New York; living at her grandfather’s house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; her mother’s difficulties adjusting to life in New York; her mother recording her experiences on audio tapes after her retirement around 1969, eventually recording about 100 tapes; inheriting the tapes and using them to write her 2012 work “Lives Lived and Lost: East European History Before, During, and After World War II as Experienced by an Anthropologist and Her Mother”; her reaction to listening to the tapes after her mother’s death in 1991; the importance of memory in Judaism; traveling all over the world; the events in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017; antisemitism in the United States today; and the importance of diversity.
    Dr. Kaja Finkler
    Ina Navazelskis
    interview:  2018 May 06
    creation: Chapel Hill (N.C.)

    Physical Details

    1 digital file : MPEG-4.

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    There are no known restrictions on access to this material.
    Conditions on Use
    Restrictions on use. Restrictions may exist. Contact the Museum for further information:

    Keywords & Subjects

    Topical Term
    Antisemitism. Authors. Black market--Poland--Warsaw. Bombing, Aerial--Poland--Warsaw. Child concentration camp inmates. Concentration camp inmates--Family relationships. Dog attacks. Forced labor. Hasidism. Hidden children (Holocaust) Hiding places--Poland--Piotrków Trybunalski. Holocaust survivors--Family relationships. Holocaust survivors. Holocaust survivors' writings. Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)--Personal narratives. Jewish children in the Holocaust. Jewish councils. Jewish ghettos--Poland--Piotrków Trybunalski. Jewish ghettos--Poland--Warsaw. Jews--Identity. Jews--Music. Jews--Poland--Warsaw. Jews--Social life and customs. Mothers and daughters. Naming ceremonies. Refugee children--Sweden. Roll calls. Starvation. Typhus fever. World War, 1939-1945--Campaigns--Poland. World War, 1939-1945--Deportations from Poland. Women--Personal narratives.

    Administrative Notes

    Ina Navazelskis, on behalf of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History Branch, conducted the oral history interview with Dr. Kaja Finkler on May 6, 2018 in Chapel Hill, NC.
    Funding Note
    The cataloging of this oral history interview has been supported by a grant from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
    Record last modified:
    2023-11-16 08:05:51
    This page:

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