On October 5, fifteen years ago, when Emilie Schindler died in a hospital near Berlin, only a few people knew that the world lost a woman of great courage and compassion. While her husband Oskar, the hero of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning movie “Schindler’s List,” was lionized the world over for his spectacular rescue mission, Emilie’s role in the daily acts of kindness and self-sacrifice in saving Jewish lives remained largely unrecognized. Her remarkable, quiet commitment was eclipsed by the more visible activities of her flamboyant husband.
Oskar and Emilie Schindler’s extraordinary story was brought to public attention in l982 when Thomas Keneally’s award-winning book, Schindler’s Ark, was published in England. The Australian novelist embarked on a mission of quest into the life and times of the couple after an incidental visit to a luggage store in Beverly Hills owned by a “Schindler survivor.”
“Beneath Pfefferberg’s shelves of imported Italian leather goods,” the author reveals in the introduction, “I first heard of Oskar Schindler, the German bon vivant, speculator, charmer… and of his salvage of a cross-section of a condemned race during those years now known by the generic name, ‘Holocaust.’” Fascinated by him, the author undertook an extensive research project entailing hundreds of interviews with “Schindler Jews” from the U.S.A., Israel, Australia, West Germany, Austria, Argentina and Brazil, and with the Schindlers’ wartime associates, reading letters and documents deposited at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and traveling to locations like Cracow, Plaszow and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Based on material these yielded, the author compiled a remarkable record of rescue “at a time when prudent people thanked their lucky stars for their birthright and kept their eyes averted.”
Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten German, moved to Cracow in the wake of the German occupation, and soon became the head of a major industrial concern and a powerful Nazi with influential contacts. One of those contacts was the commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp, Amon Goeth. Through visits to the camp, Oskar Schindler became aware of the atrocities the Jewish inmates suffered. In order to alleviate their plight, he worked out a scheme of requisitioning Jewish workers for his factory and, with the help of Emilie, was able to shelter and eventually save 1,200 Jews, a great number of them snatched from the jaws of Auschwitz’s gas chambers.
Witness after witness told of how Emilie Schindler nursed them back to health. “Emilie worked as quiet as a nun in the clinic,” Keneally wrote. “Those who were well… scarcely noticed her. But to the dying, she was more visible. She fed them semolina, which she got G-d knows where, prepared in her own kitchen.” Jewish women prisoners suffering from dysentery diagnosed by the Jewish doctor as beyond help recovered under her care.
“Mrs. Dresner was brought in, as were dozens of others who could not eat or keep food down. Two girls as well as Lusia the optimist were suffering from scarlet fever. Emilie spooned semolina into Mrs. Dresner for seven days in a row, and the dysentery abated… The teenage Janka Feigenbaum was put in there; she who had bone cancer and would die in any case, even in the best of places. She had at least come to the best of places left to her. Lutek, Janka’s brother, at work on the factory floor, sometimes noticed Emilie moving out of her ground floor apartment with a canister of soup boiled up in her own kitchen for the dying Janka… When Lutek’s glasses were broken, she arranged for them to be repaired. The prescription lay in some doctor’s surgery in Cracow, had lain there since before the ghetto days. Emilie arranged for someone who was visiting Cracow to fetch the prescription and bring back the glasses made up… One wonders if some of Emilie’s kindnesses… may not have been absorbed into the Oskar legend…”
Oskar Schindler died in 1974 and was buried in a final tribute on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl. In 1993 when Yad Vashem bestowed upon Emilie Schindler the “Righteous Among the Nations” award, the unheralded heroism of the quiet, unassuming German woman born in a small Czechoslovakian village finally received belated recognition.