Schindler showed us an intriguing glimpse at the shadow world between
memory and legend. Her husband Oskar
Schindler became a household name as one of the great humanitarians of
the century, saving 1,200 Jews from certain death in the Nazi death camps
during World War II.
While Oskar Schindler's efforts to save hundreds of Jews are well known
thanks to Keneally's book and the movie Schindler's List, the
silver-screen version left Emilie on the sidelines. An unsung heroine. But
Emilie Schindler was just as involved in shielding Jews from the Nazis -
she was not only a strong woman working alongside her husband but a
heroine in her own right.
For five decades Emilie Schindler led a modest existence in her little
house in San Vicente 40 kilometers south-west of Buenos Aires with her
cats, dog and beautiful roses. Only the uniformed Argentinean police
disturbed the idyll. They were posted 24 hours a day to protect the old
lady from anti-Semitic and ultra-Conservative extremist groups.
Emilie Pelzl was born on October 22, 1907, in the city of Alt Moletein, a
village in the German-populated border region of what was then The
Republic of Czechoslovakia. Emilie later recalled the local pastor, an old
family friend, who instructed young Emilie that her friendship with a
young Jew, Rita Reif, was not good. Emilie defied the pastor and retained
her friendship with Rita, until Rita was murdered by the Nazis in front of
her father's store in 1942.
Emilie Pelzl first saw the tall, handsome and outgoing Oskar Schindler
when he came to the door of her father's farmhouse in Alt Moletein. It was
1928 and Oskar was selling electric motors. After a courtship of six
weeks, they were married on March 6, 1928, in an inn on the outskirts of
Zwittau, Oscar's hometown. Emilie's father had given Oskar a dowry of
100.000 Czech crowns, a considerable sum in those days, and he soon bought
a luxury car and squandered the rest on outings. In her A Memoir Where
Light And Shadow Meet by the Argentinean author Erika Rosenberg Emilie
recalls how she struggled trying to understand him:
spite of his flaws, Oskar had a big heart and was always ready to help
whoever was in need. He was affable, kind, extremely generous and
charitable, but at the same time, not mature at all. He constantly lied
and deceived me, and later returned feeling sorry, like a boy caught in
mischief, asking to be forgiven one more time - and then we would start
all over again ..."
World War 2 Oskar Schindler - with help from Emilie - decided to risk
everything in desperate attempts to save the 1200 Schindler Jews from
certain death in the hell of the death camps.
Until the liberation of spring, 1945, the Schindler's used all means at
their disposal to ensure the safety of the Schindler-Jews. They spent
every Pfennig they had, and even Emilie's jewels were sold, to buy food,
clothes, and medicine. They set up a secret sanatorium in the factory with
medical equipment purchased on the black market. Here Emilie looked after
the sick. Those who did not survive were given a fitting Jewish burial in
a hidden graveyard - established and paid for by the Schindlers.
Later accounts have revealed that the Schindlers spent something like 4
million German marks keeping their Jews out of the death camps - an
enormous sum of money for those times.
One night in the last weeks of the war a tireless Emilie, acting alone
while Oskar was in Crakow, saved 250 Jews from impending death. Emilie was
confronted by Nazis transporting the Jews, crowded into four wagons, from
Gollechau to a death camp. She succeeded in persuading the Gestapo to send
these Jews to the factory camp "with regard to the continuing war
industry production". In her A Memoir by Erika Rosenberg she
found the railroad car bolts frozen solid .. the spectacle I saw was a
nightmare almost beyond imagination. It was impossible to distinguish the
men from the women: they were all so emaciated - weighing under seventy
pounds most of them, they looked like skeletons. Their eyes were shining
like glowing coals in the dark .."
had to be carried out like a carcass of frozen beef. Thirteen were dead
but the others still breathed. Throughout that night and for many nights
following, Emilie worked without halt on the frozen and starved skeletons.
One large room in the factory was emptied for the purpose. Three more men
died, but with the care, the warmth, the milk and the medicine, the others
After the war survivors told about Emilie's unforgettable heroism in
nursing the frozen and starved prisoners back to life ..
Emilie Schindler is credited with many acts of kindness, small and large.
Even today surviving Schindler-Jews remember how Emilie worked
indefatigably to secure food and somehow managed to provide the sick with
extra nourishment and apples. A Jewish boy, Lew Feigenbaum, broke his
eyeglasses and stopped Emilie in the factory and told her: "I broke
my glasses and can't see .." When the Schindler-Jews were transferred
to Brunnlitz, Emilie arranged for a prescription for the eyeglasses to be
picked up in Crakow and delivered to her in Brunnlitz.
Feiwel (today Franciso) Wichter, 75, was No. 371 on Schindler's List, the
only one of the Schindler Jews living in Argentina:
long as I live, I will always have a sincere and eternal gratitude for
dear Emilie. I think she triumphed over danger because of her courage,
intelligence and determination to do the right and humane thing. She had
immense energy and she was like a mother."
survivor, Maurice Markheim, No.142 on the list, later recalled:
got a whole truck of bread from somewhere on the black market. They called
me to unload it. She was talking to the SS and because of the way she
turned around and talked, I could slip a loaf under my shirt. I saw she
did this on purpose. A loaf of bread at that point was gold .. There is an
old expression: Behind the man, there is the woman, and I believe she was
the great human being."
Schindler's life after the war was a long series of failures. He tried
without success to be a film producer and was deprived of his nationality
immediately after the war. Threats from former Nazis meant that he felt
insecure in post-war Germany, and he applied for an entry permit to the
United States. This was refused as he had been a member of the Nazi party.
After this he fled to Buenos Aires in Argentina with Emilie, his mistress
and a dozen Schindler Jews. The Schindlers settled down in 1949 as
farmers, first raising chickens and then nutrias. They were supported
financially by the Jewish organization Joint and thankful Jews, who never
forgot them. But Oskar Schindler met with no success, and in 1957 he
became bankrupt and traveled back alone to Germany, where he remained
estranged from his wife for 17 years before he died in poverty
in 1974, at the age of 66.