As a lifelong educator, Dr. Kaja Finkler believes strongly in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s mission of Holocaust education and remembrance.
“I want the Holocaust to be taught to people who have not been exposed to it and have no connection to its history,” she says. “Young people today must know about this because it’s part of the legacy that they inherited and that also has shaped their lives. They must make sure it never happens again.”
A Holocaust survivor, Kaja recently wrote about her wartime experiences in her book Lives Lived and Lost: East European History Before, During, and After World War II as Experienced by an Anthropologist and Her Mother. The book is based on Kaja’s memories and those of her late mother, who recorded hers on 100 tapes before she passed away in 1991.
The only child of a distinguished Polish rabbinical Hasidic family, Kaja was born in Warsaw in the mid-1930s. In 1940, she and her mother were forced into the Warsaw ghetto, where they lived together until Kaja was smuggled out in 1941 to avoid a typhus epidemic. She was sent to the ghetto in Piotrków, where she was reunited with her father who had been trapped there when the Germans invaded Poland and he was unable to return home to Warsaw.
After sustaining multiple beatings in the Piotrków ghetto, Kaja’s father died there in her arms. Kaja survived the ghetto’s liquidation, working in a slave labor plywood factory, and was eventually sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp and then to Bergen-Belsen, where British troops liberated her in April 1945. She was reunited with her mother in Sweden following a four-year separation and together they immigrated to the United States in 1946.
After her retirement in 2009 from a 37-year career as an anthropology professor, Kaja began translating from Yiddish to English her mother’s experiences—memories that served, in her mother’s words, as “a living diary, in honor of those who were murdered. My memories will be their tombstones for there are no tombstones or traces of them now.”
This work, which yielded Kaja's recent book, also led Kaja to the Museum’s library. The Museum’s commitment to Holocaust education, its central location in the nation’s capital, and its support from the federal government were all important motivators in her decision to designate the Museum as a beneficiary of her retirement plan assets and to become a Legacy of Light Society Guardian Founder.
“When I’m gone, I want people from all walks of life to still be learning about and discussing the Holocaust,” Kaja says. “This is very important to me. Each person’s experience during the Holocaust is unique and must be preserved and transmitted, and I am entrusting the Museum to ensure this happens.”