As a Holocaust survivor and a teacher of comparative religion with a focus on Jewish tradition, I have had many opportunities to learn about the Holocaust. Yet, with the exception of reading a few key books on the Holocaust over the years, I have avoided Holocaust studies for the first sixty years of my life. There are 4,000 years of Jewish history and I did not want to make the Holocaust the central event in Judaism or my career.
In 2001, as my full-time teaching was winding down, I made a trip with other Holocaust survivors to Vilnius, Lithuania, which gave me the opportunity to visit Turmantas, the small village where I was born. Gradually I began a more serious study of the Holocaust and, by 2014, I felt a great responsibility to tell my own story of survival.
I have now read numerous books by historians, theologians, and especially by the survivors, but I can’t remember the last time I was as moved as I was after reading Celina’s story by William Friedricks. In this well-written book, Friedricks tells the incredible story of Celina Karp Biniaz, a child of the Shoah and a witness to some of the greatest Nazi horrors. He tells not only the story of Celina. We also learn a great deal about life in the Krakow ghetto and the Plaszow concentration camp. Of the sixty- to eighty-thousand Polish Jews who lived in Krakow, most were sent to be murdered at Belzec or at Auschwitz concentration camp. Celina and her family were sent to Plaszow slave labor camp.
It took many miracles for Celina to survive Plaszow, the most notorious concentration camp in Poland, where Amon Goeth, the most evil SS Nazi murderer, was the Commander. One survivor of this concentration camp said that when he saw Goeth, he saw Death. During Celina’s brief stay in Auschwitz when she was only 13 years old, she confronted Dr. Joseph Mengele, the Nazi physician who was responsible for the selection of victims to be killed in the gas chambers. Mengele also performed inhumane medical experiments on children. He became known as the “Angel of Death.” When Celina stood in line in front of him and he sent her to the left, to death, she said to him in German “Let me go.” And he did.
Celina was one of the youngest children saved by Oskar Schindler and his wife, Emilia. As it was the case with every Holocaust survivor, it took many people to save Celina. I was puzzled by Schindler, who belonged to the Nazi party and originally went to Krakow to make a fortune. Later, he used his fortune to save 12,000 Jewish lives. This issue is never explored in the book and maybe is something we will never know.
Perhaps equally important to her life was Mater Leontime, a 90-year-old German nun. She tutored Celina in German and English for two years after the war. It was her compassion that left Celina unbroken, with intact love for humanity. Although Celina could no longer believe in God after experiencing such unspeakable horrors, Sister Leontime’s influence led Celina to spend her life teaching young children forgiveness and love. According to the Jewish tradition, God is more interested in acts of loving kindness than in belief.
From 1939 to 1945, Celina had been denied any education. So, when she arrived in America in 1947, and first came to Des Moines, Iowa, she had a strong hunger for knowledge. In Iowa, she graduated from Grinnell College, and later devoted many decades to teaching and helping children to live a meaningful life.
I had the pleasure of meeting Celina in 2017 when she visited Grinnell. Like many other Holocaust survivors, myself included, Celina did not publicly speak about her Holocaust experience for 40 years. The catalyst for her to begin telling her story was watching Schindler’s List by Steven Spielberg in 1993. She once told Spielberg, “You are my second Schindler. He gave me my life, but you gave me my voice.” She is now a gifted speaker, and this book is an important contribution to the field of Holocaust studies by one of the last remaining Holocaust survivors. I highly recommend this book: it’s a precious gift to the world that teaches us how to remain human, despite all the evils of our time.
As Celina always says in her talks, “Don’t hate, try to see the good in people.” Today, when racism, extremism, and Holocaust denial are on the rise, it is important to listen to the story of this amazing woman and of her miraculous survival.
Saved by Schindler: The Life of Celina Karp Biniaz by William B. Friedricks (Ice Cube Press, 2022)