فصل 13

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فصل 13

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The Gates Are Opened

Both Oskar and a group of prisoners had radios and were able to keep in touch with what was happening during the final days of the war. They knew that Russian soldiers were shooting nonmilitary German citizens, but they believed the war would end before any Russian army units could reach the Zwittau area. The Jewish prisoners had hoped that the Sudeten area would be captured by the Americans, but the news they heard indicated that the Russians would reach them first. Nevertheless, the group of prisoners closest to Oskar were working on a letter in Hebrew to explain Oskar’s actions during the war. They hoped that he would be able to present this letter to American forces, with their significant number of Jewish soldiers, including army rabbis, and that this would guarantee his safety.

Oskar heard the news of the German surrender on the radio in the small hours of 7 May. The war in Europe would cease at midnight on the following night, Tuesday, 8 May 1945.

At midday the next day Schindler stopped work in the factory and everyone listened to Winston Churchill’s victory speech as it was broadcast in English from London. A few of the workers understood what Churchill was saying and the news spread quickly. As the SS men learnt what had happened, they started to look away from the prisoners and the camp and began worrying about the approaching Russians and the dangers the world beyond the camp might hold for them. Nevertheless, they remained conscious of their duty and stayed at their posts until midnight.

In the long hours leading up to the peace one of the prisoners, a jeweller named Licht, had been working on a gift for Schindler. The prisoners knew that Oskar and Emilie would have to leave Brinnlitz as quickly as possible after midnight, but they wanted to mark this departure with a short ceremony and a special gift.

Licht was making a gold ring with these words on the inner circle: He who saves a single life, saves the entire world - the Talmudic verse Itzhak Stern had quoted to Oskar in the director’s office at Buchheister’s in October of 1939. But where had he found the gold? Old Mr Jereth, who had helped Oskar find the wood for his first sub-camp, insisted that Licht use his gold teeth. ‘Without Oskar Schindler,’ Mr Jereth said, ‘my gold teeth would be in some heap in a Gestapo storehouse, with the teeth of thousands of other Jews.’

Everyone was looking for ways to help the Schindlers. Other prisoners took apart Oskar’s luxury car and hid his diamonds inside the doors and under the seats.

Six hours before midnight Oskar called his prisoners and staff to another assembly, and the SS again stood along the walls with their guns. The Herr Director wanted to make a final speech about the new world they would all soon enter.

‘The unconditional surrender of Germany,’ he said, ‘has just been announced. After six years of cruel murder, we cry for the victims, and Europe begins to return to peace and order. I ask all of you who have worried with me through many hard years to act now as civilized, decent men and women. The soldiers at the front, as well as the little man who has done his duty, are not responsible for what a group, calling itself German, has done.

‘Millions of Jews have been murdered - your parents, children, brothers and sisters - and many Germans have fought against this killing, and even today there are millions of Germans who do not know about the horrors committed in their name.

‘I beg you to leave justice to the authorities, to tell your stories in the courts. Do not commit acts of revenge or terror. For your own safety, keep order and act with understanding towards the people outside these gates.

‘Do not thank me for your survival. Thank your own people who worked day and night. Thank Itzhak Stern and Mietek Pemper and others, who thought about you and worried about you every day, and faced death for you at every moment. With their guidance, continue to make only honourable decisions.’

The prisoners thought Oskar was walking on dangerous ground when he turned his attention to the SS men. ‘I would like to thank the SS guards for acting in an extraordinarily good and correct manner in this camp.’ If the SS accepted Oskars praise, then there would be nothing left for them to do except to walk away.

‘In conclusion,’ Oskar ended, ‘I request you all to keep a three-minute silence, in memory of the countless victims among you who have died in these cruel years.’

After the three minutes the SS left the hall quickly, and the prisoners asked Oskar for a few minutes of his time before he packed and left. Licht’s ring was presented, and Oskar spent some time admiring it and showing the verse to Emilie while Itzhak Stern translated it for her. Then Oskar became very serious as he slowly placed the ring on his finger. Though nobody quite understood it, it was the moment in which the Jews became themselves again, and in which Oskar Schindler became dependent on their gifts.

The world was at peace, but none of the people inside Brinnlitz camp had a clear idea of what that meant for them. Over the past year Oskar had built up a store of weapons which he now passed out among the prisoners, who were glad to have some protection against the SS guards. But they need not have worried because the SS were ready to give up their own weapons and hurry towards their homes. When midnight came, there were no SS men or women in the camp, not even Commandant Motzek.

Now it was time for the Schindlers to depart, but first Oskar called Bankier and gave him the key to a private storeroom. It contained eighteen truckloads of high quality fabric, thread and shoes, which Oskar had agreed to store for the Nazi Weapons Department. Now this huge supply of goods - estimated to be worth 150,000 American dollars - would give the prisoners something with which to start their journey into freedom. Some of them made travelling clothes out of the fabric, others saved theirs to trade with as they moved out of the camp. Each prisoner was also given a ration of cigarettes and a bottle of whisky; these too were items which could be traded.

Oskar and Emilie wore the striped uniforms of prisoners as they said goodbye and climbed into their car with one of the prisoners as driver. Eight other Jewish men had volunteered to follow the Schindlers in a truck loaded with food, and with cigarettes and alcohol for trading. Oskar was anxious to leave because of the threat that the Russians could arrive at any time, but still he gave Stern and Bankier instructions until the last moment. The prisoners watched as the car and truck rolled through the gates. After so many promises, they now began to realize that they had to bear the weight and uncertainty of their own future.

The prisoners did not move out of the camp for three days as they tried to make certain that the world outside was safe for them. They remembered that the only time they had seen the SS show fear, apart from their anxiety in the last few days, had been when typhoid fever broke out. So on the morning after the Schindlers left they hung typhoid fever signs on the gate and along the fences.

Three Czech soldiers arrived at the gate that first afternoon and talked through the fence to the men on guard, ‘It’s all over now,’ they said. ‘You’re free to walk out whenever you want.’

‘We’ll go when the Russians arrive,’ said the guards. ‘Until then we’re staying inside.’ Schindler’s Jews wanted to be certain that the last German unit had gone. The Czechs walked away.

In fact, the Brinnlitz prisoners watched a German unit drive down the road from the direction of Zwittau later that day. Before they were out of sight, one of the German soldiers turned and fired his gun into the camp. A girl was slightly wounded by flying pieces of bullet, but her injury was not serious and no one else was hit.

They were also visited by five young German soldiers on SS motorbikes. When they turned off their engines and walked towards the gate, several of the men inside wanted to shoot them, but cooler heads persuaded them to wait and see what the soldiers wanted. ‘We need petrol,’ said the oldest of the Germans. ‘Have you got any we can have?’

Leopold Pfefferberg argued that it was better to supply them with some fuel and send them on their way than to start a fight.

‘I hope you realize there’s typhoid fever here,’ said Pfefferberg in German, pointing to the signs.

This seemed to impress the soldiers, who had no desire to add fever to their troubles. When the cans of petrol were brought to them, they thanked the prisoners politely and left as quickly and quietly as possible. This was the prisoners’ last meeting with anyone from Heinrich Himmler’s special army.

On the third day a single Russian officer rode into the camp on horseback, and after a short conversation half in Russian, half in Polish, he asked for a chair. Standing on it, so that the prisoners could see and hear him, the officer gave them the standard liberation speech in Russian: ‘You are free to go to town, to move in any direction you choose. You must not take revenge. We will find your enemies and punish them in a just and fair court.’ He got down from the chair and smiled. He pointed to himself and said in old-fashioned Hebrew that he was Jewish too. Now the conversation became friendly.

‘Have you been to Poland?’ someone asked.

‘Yes,’ the officer admitted, ‘I’ve just come from Poland.’

‘Are there any Jews left up there?’

‘I saw none, but I heard there are still a few Jews at Auschwitz,’ the Russian reported. Before he left he promised to send them some bread and horsemeat. ‘But you should see what they have in the town here,’ he suggested.

As the Russian officer had urged them, the Brinnlitz prisoners began to move out of the camp. Their first experiences of the world outside were a mixture of the positive and the negative. A grocer offered some of the boys a bag of sugar he had been hiding in his storeroom. The boys could not resist the sweet taste and ate the sugar until they were sick, learning that they had to approach their freedom more gradually.

On Mila Pfefferberg’s first visit to the village of Brinnlitz, a Czech soldier stopped two Sudeten girls and made them take off their shoes so that Mila, who had only an old pair of boots, could select the pair which fitted her best. Mila felt embarrassed by this sort of choice, and after the soldier had walked away she hurried after the girls and gave the shoes back. The Sudeten girls, Mila said, would not even speak to her.

Some of the families began to find their way to the West - to parts of Europe, to North and South America; others made plans to go to Palestine and settle with other Jews. Husbands and wives found their way to pre-arranged meeting places; others went to the Red Cross for news of family members.

Regina Horowitz and her daughter Niusia took three weeks to travel from Brinnlitz to Krakow to wait for their family Dolek arrived but he had no news of little Richard, who had been taken away from him with a group of children several months previously. Then one day in the summer of that year Regina saw the film of Auschwitz which the Russians had made and were showing without charge in Polish cinemas.

‘It’s my son, it’s my son!’ Regina screamed when she saw Richard looking out from behind the fences. Through a Jewish rescue organization the parents learnt that Richard had been adopted by some old friends who thought Regina and Dolek were dead. He was returned to them, but he was now a nervous child and had terrible dreams because of what he had seen in the camps.

After leaving, Oskar’s group were stopped on the first day by Czech soldiers. One of the prisoners explained that they were all prisoners from the Brinnlitz labour camp: ‘We escaped and took this truck and the director’s car.’

‘Do you have any weapons?’ the Czech officer asked.

‘Yes, we have a gun for protection,’ the prisoner answered.

‘Give it to us. You’ll be safer without it if the Russians stop you. Your prison clothes are your best defence,’ explained the officer. Then he directed them to the Czech Red Cross in the next town.’They will give you a safe place to sleep for tonight.’

When the Brinnlitz car and truck reached the town, the Red Cross officials suggested that the safest place for the Schindlers and the nine young men to sleep would be in the town jail. So they took their few pieces of luggage into the jail for the night, leaving the car and truck in the town square.

When they returned to their vehicles in the morning, they found that everything had been taken - not only the hidden diamonds and food and drink, but also the tyres and the engines.

They could only continue their journey by train and on foot. They wanted to go towards Linz, where they hoped to find some American military units, and as they walked through a wooded area they met a group of American soldiers.

‘Don’t move,’ said the leader of the group, after he heard Oskar’s story. He drove away without explanation but returned within half an hour with a group of Jewish American soldiers and even a rabbi. They were very friendly and kind to the nine prisoners, who were the first Jewish concentration camp survivors they had seen. When Oskar showed the rabbi the letter from his workers, there were many tears as well as handshaking and clapping. Schindler and his party spent two days on the Austrian frontier as special guests of the American rabbi and the military commander. Then they were given an old ambulance to drive to Linz in Upper Austria.

From Linz, where the group reported to the American authorities, they travelled to Ravensburg. Again the Americans listened to their stories of Plaszow, Gross-Rosen, Auschwitz and Brinnlitz before finding a bus for them to drive to Constanz, on the Swiss border. They believed the Schindlers would be safer in Switzerland, and then they and the prisoners could begin to make their own plans for the rest of their lives.

They reached the border and crossed into Switzerland, but they were then stopped and put in jail. They were not sure which story to tell: the truth or that the Schindlers were also Jewish prisoners. After several days the whole truth came out and local officials welcomed them and moved them to a fine hotel for several days of rest, paid for by the French military government.

By the time Oskar sat down to dinner with his wife and friends on that first night at the hotel, he had no money or diamonds left, but he was eating well with members of his ‘family’. He did not know it then, but this would be the pattern for the rest of his life.


The Final Years

Oskar Schindler lived for almost three more decades after the war, but, as Emilie Schindler said in 1973, ‘Oskar had done nothing impressive with his life before the war and has done nothing special since.’ He was fortunate, therefore, that in that short fierce period between 1939 and 1945 he had met people who had stirred him to use his deeper talents.

Between the end of the war and 1949 Oskar and Emilie lived in Germany, often staying with Schindler Jews who had returned to Munich. They lived very modestly; they had traded the last of their jewellery for food and drink and the Russians had taken Oskar’s property in both Poland and Sudetenland. Still he was always as generous as possible with the Brinnlitz survivors who had become his family.

Many of the survivors from Plaszow and Brinnlitz were invited to attend the final trial of Amon Goeth, one of the first trials for war crimes brought by the Polish government. They found the former commandant thin from illness but still unwilling to accept any guilt for the killings at Plaszow. ‘All orders for each death and transportation were signed by my superiors,’ Goeth claimed, ‘and were therefore their crimes, not mine.’

The judges listened to Goeth but they also listened to different accounts from survivors, including Mietek Pemper and Helen Hirsch, who gave clear details of Amon Goeth’s crimes. Goeth was hanged in Krakow on 13 September 1946.

Towards the end of the forties Oskar was looking for a new business, something that would give him the kind of opportunities for success that he had found in Krakow in 1939. He decided to farm in Argentina, but he had no money to support this plan. However, an international Jewish organization stepped in to help him, based on his wartime activities as owner and director of the only two labour factories and sub-camps in the Nazi-occupied territories where a Jew was never killed, or even beaten, but was always treated as a human being.’

With 15,000 American dollars from this organization, the Schindlers sailed for Argentina in 1949, taking half a dozen families of Schindler Jews with them and paying the fares for many of them. They settled on a farm in Buenos Aires province and stayed there for a decade, but for many reasons the farm failed and the Schindlers went bankrupt. Perhaps Oskar’s skills needed to be balanced with the more serious business sense of men like Itzhak Stern and Abraham Bankier.

By the beginning of the sixties Oskar was back in Germany and Emilie was still living in Argentina; they would never live together again. With ‘loans’ from a number of Schindler Jews Oskar tried to set up a cement factory, but soon he had gone bankrupt again.

In 1961, hearing that he was in trouble, the Schindler Jews in Israel invited Oskar to visit them at their expense. He was welcomed enthusiastically, and even though he looked older and heavier, the survivors were glad to see that he was still the same charming, sociable Herr Director at the series of parties and receptions held in his honour.

On Oskar’s fifty-third birthday he was formally honoured with love and thanks in Tel Aviv in the Park of Heroes, where he was described as the man who had saved the lives of more than 1,200 prisoners at the Brinnlitz Concentration Camp. Ten days later in Jerusalem he was declared an Honourable Person and invited to plant a tree beside those of other honourable Germans, including Julius Madritsch and Raimund Titsch, owner and manager of the Madritsch Factory, where Jews had also been fed and protected.

The publicity Oskar received in Israel often made his life more difficult in Germany, where some people continued to hate him for being a Jew-lover. These attacks increased his need to depend on the Jewish survivors for his emotional and financial security. For the rest of his life he spent about half of every year in Israel, being treated like an honoured member of the family, and the other half in a small, dark apartment near the railway station in Frankfurt.

The Schindler Jews never forgot him, and worried that he often seemed discouraged and lonely and always short of money. Leopold Pfefferberg urged other survivors now living in the United States to contribute one day’s pay a year to Schindler. Others, including Itzhak Stern and Moshe Bejski, persuaded the West German government to provide him with a decent pension based on his wartime heroism, the property he had lost and his poor health. In addition to the pension, the German government also officially recognized Schindler’s noble acts during the war years.

As he entered his sixties, Oskar was still living and drinking like a young man although he was very ill with heart problems. He was working for several Jewish charities, and wherever he travelled he was well taken care of by his children, the survivors. But now they had become more like his parents, and they were concerned about his health and happiness.

Back in Germany one day in the autumn of 1974 Oskar fainted in his small apartment in Frankfurt, and he died in hospital on 9 October. A month later, according to his wishes, his body was carried through the crowded streets of the old city of Jerusalem and buried there. A crowd of Schindler Jews can be seen in the newspaper photographs of the ceremony.

He was grieved for on every continent.

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