Role in rescue of Jews was overlooked

The life of Emilie Schindler, who died on October 5th aged 93, was mostly overshadowed by that of her industrialist husband, …

The life of Emilie Schindler, who died on October 5th aged 93, was mostly overshadowed by that of her industrialist husband, Oskar, who was hailed for having saved more than 1,000 Jews from Nazi death camps. Although her significant role in that campaign was acknowledged in Thomas Keneally's 1982 book, Schindler's Ark, she was sidelined in Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film Schindler's List (1993).

In 1993, however, Emilie Schindler was awarded Israel's Righteous Among The Nations Award for her virtually single-handed success in stopping the Nazis from sending a trainload of 120 Jewish men, women and children to Auschwitz. One scene of Spielberg's film was supposed to portray this, but was cut from the final version. Being overlooked so thoroughly may explain why she entitled her 1996 autobiography In Schindler's Shadow. "Oskar is the hero," she said in 1999. "And what about me? I saved many Jews, too."

Born to Catholic farmers in the village of Alt Moletein, Sudetenland, in what is now the Czech Republic, Emilie Pelzl was a down-to-earth, hard-working girl. Convent-educated, she loved animals - especially horses - and had a closer relationship with her grandmother than with her mother. She once ignored the hostility of other villagers in choosing to befriend a local prostitute.

Emilie Pelzl studied at agricultural college, and seemed prepared to spend her life farming in Alt Moletein. But when she was 20, the swarthy, charming Oskar Schindler drove up to the farm on his motorbike and whisked her off her feet. She later recalled how her father warned her to be careful - Oskar was known as a heart-breaker - but it was love at first sight, and, almost immediately, she accepted his proposal. They married on March 6th, 1928, in the Czech town of Zwittau, and spent their first years together living with Oskar's parents.


In 1935, Oskar Schindler had begun working with German military counter-intelligence, the Abwehrdienst, which nearly got him executed by the Czechoslovaks in 1939. But after Hitler invaded Poland, he accepted a Nazi offer to run a Jewish-owned enamel-ware factory in Krakow, employing cheap labour from the local ghetto.

Emilie Schindler joined him in 1941, the year before he bought the factory, partly with funds raised in the ghetto. In return, Schindler employed Jewish workers from the nearby Plaschow concentration camp.

Sometimes opportunist, he joined the Nazi Party, courted the SS with bribes, and used his influential friends to save his workers from the cattle trucks. Emilie Schindler played the role of obedient and pretty wife, cutting between entertaining the local SS commandant, Amoth Goeth, to dinner, and feeding starving Jews. She also became adept at begging the miller for grain, buying fruit and vegetables on the black market and deceiving the wives of Nazi bigwigs.

After the liquidation of the Kracow ghetto and the transportation of its inmates, Schindler composed his famous list, promising Nazi commanders money for each of the 1,300 men, women and children whom he said he would employ in his munitions factory in Brunnlitz, in Czechoslovakia.

Emilie Schindler always insisted, however, that it was she - and not her husband - who signed the documents that saved the workers. She went to the mayor of Brunnlitz, her former swimming teacher, and obtained the permit that was to save their lives. In the event, the workers at Brunnlitz never worked, and the Schindlers spent much of their time trying to feed them.

It was towards the end of the war that Emilie Schindler helped save around 120 near-starving and frozen Jews from an Auschwitz-bound train. "The people were far too weak to work," she later recalled. "But I told the guards: 'Yes, we'll take them,' and so we began to care for the exhausted ones, and to recover the dead." Her biographer Erika Rosenberg says she took the same risks as her husband in her fight to save Jews.

At the end of the war, the penniless Schindlers moved to Munich, and, in 1949, to Buenos Aires, where they attempted to make a living mink-farming. As is clear from her husband's letters to his friends, it was Emilie Schindler who took responsibility for the animals, while he took to drink.

He left her in 1957 with a huge pile of debts, and returned to Germany. She never answered his letters, and did not attend his funeral in Frankfurt in 1974. In the 1950s, the Jewish organisation B'nai B'rith secured her a pension, which was later supplemented by Germany.

At the time Keneally's book was published, she was living a reclusive life in a run-down cottage close to Buenos Aires, with 20 cats, dogs and chickens for company.

Then, in 1993, Emilie Schindler suddenly became the centre of attention: Spielberg invited her to the premiΦre of Schindler's List in Washington, where the Clintons received her, after which she went on to Israel. The film director gave her a cheque for $50,000 and, after the publication of her memoirs, she was repeatedly invited back to Germany. Last July, she fulfilled her wish to return to Germany to die, settling into a retirement home in Bavaria. After suffering a stroke, she spent her final two months in a clinic outside Berlin.

To the end, she swayed between admiration and contempt for her husband, whom she had refused to divorce. She never stopped wearing her wedding ring and said recently: "If I could choose again, I would pick Oskar."

Emilie Schindler: born, 1907; died, October 2001