Series of Oskar Schindler articles | The Daily Mirror | 4th and 5th February 1994
Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 saw the beginning of a manic, brutal plan to exterminate the Jewish population who had lived there for centuries.
Few Jewish people survived Hitler’s Polish Holocaust. The fact that 1,100 did was due to the bravery of a German businessman, Oskar Schindler.
Schindler had followed the Nazis to Poland, hoping to make his fortune in the chaos of war – mostly bribes, black market deals and the unpaid labour of Jewish workers.
Eventually, Oskar’s conscience overcame him. But he knew that by not joining in he was risking his life. So he hatched an elaborate and dangerous plan to save as many lives as possible by persuading the Nazis it made better economic sense to draw up a 1ist of Jewish workers as part of a trained labour force for his factory.
There, on the pretence of work, Oskar could give shelter to the 1,100 men, women and children who managed to get on the list.
Their incredible story inspired Thomas Kenealy’s book Schindler’s Ark, which Steven Spielberg has now made into a film, Schindler’s List, starring Liam Neeson as Oskar.
Those whom Schindler helped to survive are now scattered across the world. We went to Israel to meet some of those survivors, now immortalised in Spielberg’s movie.
Their stories are a harrowing and haunting reminder of one of the darkest periods in European history. A period where six million people perished for the simple reason that they were Jewish.
The story of Rebecca and Joseph Bau
It is far from easy for Rebecca Bau to begin to remember what took place between the years of 1939 and 1945. But remembering what took place during the second world war, in order that future generations may never forget, is Rebecca and Joseph Bau’s legacy to the world.
Now a victim of Parkinson’s disease, Rebecca, frail and older looking than her 75 years, sits in their Tel Aviv apartment, and in her halting voice begins to tell us what it was like to be a 20-year-old Jewish student in Poland when war began. “You cannot believe what we endured. And how we did not know whether we were going to live from one hour to the next. My whole family were slaughtered. I saw sights no human being should ever witness.
“I remember a cart with the bodies of 20 babies being pulled down a street by a child. I saw mothers and children being made to walk barefoot through snow, in which the Nazis had hidden razor blades. When I am telling you this I have trouble believing myself that these things actually took place.”
Her husband shakes his head, agreeing with her sense of wonderment. Rebecca was a beautiful, accomplished girl who spoke eight languages when she was dragged from her home, imprisoned in a ghetto and then in a series of camps before her arm was tattooed with the Auschwitz numbers – A-27541.
“I was very pretty then,” she tells you. “So, the woman who branded me said she would keep the numbers small.” Such were the only acts of mercy possible under the dark clouds of Nazism. She was 23 when she met Joseph, a 21-year-old graphic artist who became the deep and enduring love of her life. They were both prisoners in Plaszow labour camp when Joseph saw this beautiful young girl walking towards him.
“I had to draw plans of another camp for the Nazis and I was standing outside the office waiting for the sun to come out so the drawings would dry. Then I saw Rebecca and I said to her: “I am waiting for the sun, but you are beautiful than any sun.
“That was the beginning of our romance. We fell in love so very quickly, we wanted to be married,” says Joseph with a tender look at the woman who became his concentration camp bride.
“You see, even in that terror there was love. I smuggled myself into the women’s barracks where my mother blessed us – that was our wedding ceremony. We spent the night together, listening to the shots killing two men who had been discovered in the women’s quarters.
“It was so awful, but I remember feeling relieved that those two had been caught because then they wouldn’t come looking for me and we could spend our wedding night together. We must have looked like pale skeletons then in those striped suits. I weighed 70lb and Rebecca 60lb, and we survived by existing on a diet of horse’s urine and nettles.
“In the film, Steven Spielberg shown us being married under a canopy made from an old sheet, but of course there were no sheets where we were, but we forgive Steven.”
Rebecca believes she survived through her job as manicurist and beautician to the SS and their wives – her most important being Amon Goeth, the Plaszow camp commander. “When I did his nails he kept his gun under my elbow in case my hands shook. He told me he would shoot me in the head If they did.”
Ironically, her hands now shake continuously from Parkinson’s disease. “I also did Oskar Schindler’s nails. Both Oskar and Goeth were very handsome men, except that one was filth on the inside and the other was goodness itself. I don’t remember much about Oskar then, but later we got to know him well when he came to Israel.
“He used to tell us how nauseated he was by what his countrymen had done. But I know his countrymen had great help from the Polish people themselves. They were the ones who pointed us out to the Nazis. They were the ones who sneered and laughed as we were crowded together in cattle trucks and paraded through the streets to the camps.
“Really, no matter how much I tell you,” says Rebecca. “I still cannot convey the terror and what those monsters were like. After the war, many Holocaust survivors wanted to put those terrible memories behind them, and never speak of such matters again, not even to their children. But not Joseph and I. We wanted our two daughters to know what happened to their grand-parents, to their cousins, their aunts and uncles. I still wake up screaming in the night from terrible dreams.”
Through contacts, Rebecca managed to get Joseph onto Schindler’s list, although she herself never made it. She appeared not to be worried about her own survival as long as there was hope of his.
Hers was the supreme sacrifice of a woman in love. “I think Joseph was more frightened than me,” she says softly. “For so much of the time I was angry, and that is a good strong emotion to have.”
Instead of Schindler’s factory, Rebecca was taken to Aushwitz, the camp designed for one purpose – the extermination of the Jewish race.
It is so hard to listen as she tells of one scene where she was forced to stand naked in the snow in a line of other women with her menstrual blood flowing down her legs, while the watching Nazi generals laughed, mocking them, and calling out jokes about the “tit parade.”
As the war came to an end, Rebecca managed to escape from the death camp and was eventually reunited with Joseph. “I wasn’t very good-looking by the time it was all over,” says Joseph. “I had lost all my teeth. I needed sticks to walk. But my wife still loved me.
“She was in a hospital when I found her a year later, after the war had ended. We used to have a special whistle back in the camp, a sort of signal for each other. As I came up the hospital steps to where Rebecca was lying I began to whistle our tune
“When she heard it, she dropped her bowl of soup, shouting ‘that’s
my husband. He’s alive. He’s alive. It was a very beautiful moment, just holding each other for a long time.”
Hassada, their daughter, told me: “My parents’ love is as strong now as it was then. They don’t need anyone else, only each other.” Joseph and Rebecca came to Israel in 1950 and rebuilt their lives from the ashes of their past.
Brave, with a resilience that defies belief, they exchanged the nightmare of Poland for an infant state called Israel where they found once again hardship, food shortages and no housing. Their first few years in Israel were spent in a tent.
But at least, as the Baus say. they had discovered freedom from terror. “Now,” says Joseph proudly. “I have taught my grandson the tune I used to whistle to Rebecca. “To hear it whistled in freedom is a joyous thing.”
The rogue who saved 1,100 people from death
Somehow the truth about Oskar Schindler is more poignant, more compelling than man who has become a symbol of Nazi resistance. The hero who saved 1,100 Jews, was, according to those who knew him far from being a saintly, selfless being who sacrificed all in the name of human decency.
Oskar was a racketeer, a skilled player of the black market, who’s first priority at the start of the war was to make his fortune on the backs of unpaid Jewish labour. When eventually he could no longer stomach the sights that greeted him daily in the streets of the ghetto, his priorities changed, and he became what he is remembered as today – one of the heroes of Jewish history.
He was a handsome bear of a man who drank at least a bottle of brandy a day, gambled away all the money grateful Jews gave him, and after the war broke his wife Emilie’s heart through his constant, incurable philandering.
After the war, Oskar and Emilie emigrated to Argentina although Oskar often returned to Israel to visit the people he called Schindler’s Jews. He died in 1974, broke and living in a rundown Frankfurt apartment. Shortly after his death, survivors arranged for his body to be transferred to Jerusalem.
It lies there now in an honoured place in the Catholic graveyard overlooking the Old City. Yet Schindler’s story could have remained unknown to the world outside Israel had it not been for a chance meeting between Leopold Page, one of those rescued by Schindler, and Australian writer Thomas Keneally.
Steven Spielberg’s film is based on Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark.
The book is the result of a chance encounter 13 years ago when Keneally wandered into a Beverly Hills leather goods shop and began chatting to its owner, Leopold Page.
When Leopold learned that Keneally was a writer he disappeared into the back of his shop and emerged with a folder of documents and photographs. He looked at Keneally and said: “I have here the best story of the century, about a man who saved me and hundreds of others. It’s yours if you want to write it.”
When Spielberg, whose family had lost 20 members in the Holocaust, read the book he was struck by a combination of feelings. Horror at what he just read, mixed with the movie-maker’s excitement on discovering an extraordinary project. “Making the film was a sobering experience,” he says.
“Just being there on the great killing fields of Europe, creating events that had actually taken place. There wasn’t a day when I wasn’t frightened, when I didn’t think to be a Jew there 50 years ago was an automatic death sentence.”
The story of Janek and Helen Dresner
The elegantly dressed man who opens the door of the large prosperous-looking Tel Aviv apartment is Dr Janek Dresner, a dentist and one of Oskar Schindler’s Jews. There is little about Dr Dresner that speaks of terror or torture. Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking this man’s idea of hell is losing a golf match.
“I don’t have too many emotional scars because I was saved by Schindler,” he says. “In the film I’m portrayed as a child although I was 20 years old when my father, a textile merchant, managed to persuade Schindler to put my mother and my sister on the list.
“We were one of the few families to survive the Holocaust and I’m glad to say that my parents lived here in Israel to a ripe old age.
“Talking of Schindler,” Dr Dresner says: “Oskar was not a saint or a hero. He was an adventurer, a rogue and he remained one for the rest of his life. He was always broke, and he loved danger, and he always had a different woman on his arm.
“I was on the committee set up to look after Oskar when the war ended, and when he came here to visit my wife Helen and me, we would plead with him to stay with us in Israel so we could look afterhim.
“I used to say to him: ‘Oskar we can give you an allowance and find you an apartment in Tel Aviv.’ But then he would be off again. We felt responsible for him, but you couldn’t control Oskar. Up until his death in 1974, he sought risks and the unpredictable.
“But he loved those he had saved and we loved him. He would place his hands on our children’s heads and say ‘these are mine too. Without me they wouldn’t be here’ And of course, he was right.”
Dr Dresner says that it is only now he is able to reflect on what happened when he was a young man in Poland. “All around me I saw indescribable things taking place. I look back now, and wonder, did I dream such monsters existed?”
He looks across at Helen, another concentration camp survivor, and a knowing look passes between them. It was a look that said: We know it happened but, if we had spent our lives thinking about it, it could have driven us mad.
“These days, Helen and I think more of what took place. Who can explain such a catastrophe?” asks Dr Dresner. Has he ever visited Poland or Germany since the war? “No, I couldn’t face the thought.” As he replied, a faint shudder passed through his body.
“Nor do I know whether I can stand watching the film. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that men like Spielberg have revived that terrible history so that no one forgets. That is an accomplishment indeed.”