Emilie Schindler

Emilie Pelzl: born Alt Moletein, Austro-Hungarian Empire 22 October 1907; married 1928 Oskar Schindler (died 1974); died Berlin 5 October 2001.

Emilie Pelzl: born Alt Moletein, Austro-Hungarian Empire 22 October 1907; married 1928 Oskar Schindler (died 1974); died Berlin 5 October 2001.

Emilie Schindler helped her husband, Oskar, to rescue around 1,700 Jews from Hitler's extermination machinery in the last years of the Second World War. Had their activities been exposed, they would have been tortured and killed.

The writer Thomas Keneally first heard the story of the Schindlers' bravery in 1981 in a Los Angeles luggage shop – its owner, Leopold Page, owed his life to Oskar and Emilie Schindler. Keneally's novel Schindler's Ark (1982) became a bestseller and in 1993 was made into a film by the director Steven Spielberg, Schindler's List, which went on to win seven Oscars.

Had Emilie not married Oskar Schindler, she would probably have had a fairly quiet provincial life until 1945. She was born Emilie Pelzl in Alt Moletein, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in 1907. Her father was a prosperous Catholic farmer and she enjoyed her early life with her parents and her older brother Franz. Alt Moletein and the surrounding area was a district inhabited by Austro-Germans, Czechs, Jews and Gypsies. Emilie's mother language was German but she later learnt Czech and Polish.

Her father was called to the colours in the 1914-18 war and returned a shattered individual who never recovered from the trauma. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed and the Pelzl family were now citizens of the Czechoslovak Republic with 3.25 million other German speakers out of a population of 14.7 million.

After elementary school and a year at a Catholic boarding school, Emilie continued her education at an agricultural college. She was an open-minded girl, and her best school friend was Jewish. She met her future husband, Oskar Schindler, when he called at the farm with his father who was selling electric generators. They were married in 1928 and lived with Oskar's drunken father and invalid mother in the industrial town of Zwittau.

Oskar Schindler travelled frequently on business and, as an attractive man with a voracious sexual appetite, he was soon involved with other women. One of these recruited him to work for the German military intelligence service (Abwehr). His motivation appears to have been financial, a sense of adventure, and vague German patriotism.

Oskar's intelligence work took the Schindlers from Zwittau to Moravska-Ostrava (then known as Mährisch-Ostrau), Czechoslovakia's third largest town. Emilie worked as her husband's loyal secretary and they had four part-time agents. Close to the Polish and German frontiers, the town was a place of intrigue for German, Czech, Polish, and Soviet agents. Oskar Schindler's career appeared to be over in 1939 when he was arrested as a spy by the Czechs and sentenced to death. The German invasion in March 1939 saved him.

After the occupation of Poland in September 1939, Oskar Schindler was sent to Krakow and Emilie followed him. They lived in a lavish apartment taken over from a Jewish entrepreneur. Contacts in the Abwehr arranged for Oskar to take over an enamel factory, which was increasingly staffed by Jewish workers from the labour camp run by the notorious Austrian SS sadist, Amon Goeth.

Oskar manipulated the books and the workers' records to make his factory appear important for the war effort. In 1944 the camp was to be closed and the inmates sent to Auschwitz, which is only about 30 miles from Krakow. Oskar Schindler saw that his only chance to save his workers, and possibly himself, was by opening a munitions factory in Brnenec (formerly Brünnlitz). The difficulty was to get the necessary permit. Emilie claimed she got it by the lucky chance that the official in charge was her old swimming instructor.

Thus 1,300 workers on the famous list were saved. Emilie Schindler also claimed, in her autobiography, Where Light and Shadow Meet (1997, with Erika Rosenberg), that an old childhood friend of her husband got the women workers out of Auschwitz. This was Hilde, who worked for the German army and was the daughter of a wealthy industrialist.

Emilie was put in charge of securing food supplies, a task which engaged all her skills of buying, selling and bartering. As the Red Army approached in 1945, Oskar Schindler released his workers and made for the American lines. With the help of several of the former Jewish workers, he and Emilie eventually reached the Americans who put them on a bus with Jewish refugees going to Switzerland. After a brief sojourn, they settled in Regensburg, Bavaria, where they lived in poverty for several years. The locals did not want these outsiders and, in 1949, the Schindlers got berths on the last boat for Jewish refugees heading for Argentina from Italy.

In Argentina the Schindlers raised first chickens and then coypu (for their fur) on a small-holding outside San Vicente. For Emilie it was a life of unremitting toil. Oskar returned to Germany in 1957 to seek compensation from the West German state for the loss of his business property. He promised to return, but never did, and died in Frankfurt in 1974. Emilie Schindler claims she saw virtually nothing of any restitution award.

In 1963, the Jewish organisation B'nai B'rith heard about her plight and assigned a house to her in San Vicente. She also received a small pension from another group of Jews. Although she was dogged by ill-health, things were looking up.

Old age brought with it some relief. In 1993, Steven Spielberg invited Emilie Schindler to Jerusalem, where the final part of his film Schindler's List was being shot. He also paid for her trip to Washington for the premiere and there she was introduced to the US president Bill Clinton. She thought the film excellent, though not entirely accurate.

Emilie Schindler was honoured by Israel and granted honorary citizenship by Argentina. In 1995 she visited the Pope in the Vatican and the Grand Rabbi of Rome. She was a guest of the German government and met the president Roman Herzog. In 1998 the Argentine president Carlos Menem awarded her a pension equivalent to $1,000 a month.

Like most Sudeten Germans, Emilie Schindler had been deprived of her citizenship by the Czechs and so she took German citizenship. She received a small pension from Germany, and intended to take up the offer of an apartment at a nursing home in Bavaria.

However, in July this year, aged 94, she was taken ill during a tour of Germany. From her wheelchair she pleaded that a suitcase full of documents relating to Oskar and herself should be deposited in the Museum of Federal German History in Bonn. The suitcase had been found in Hildesheim in 1999 and handed over to the newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung which, despite her request, sent it to the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.

Too ill to be moved, she spent her final days in hospital near Berlin. To the end, she remained loyal to her religion, to humanity and, despite his faults, to Oskar Schindler.

David Childs

Sponsored Links