Schindlers suitcase offers warning to Germans today

BERLIN — The unearthing of papers belonging to the famous Oskar Schindler in Germany is one of several recent tangible reminders that the Holocaust is not ancient history.

The papers, contained in a suitcase belonging to Schindler, also have an unpleasant message for Germans: They show how a man known for rescuing Jews was isolated and rejected by his fellow citizens after World War II.

"For the Germans today, Oskar Schindler is a very positive example," said Stefan Braun, a reporter for the Stuttgarter Zeitung, which began publishing some of the papers last weekend.

"But after the war, people were not really interested in knowing about his story. In one of his letters from 1948, he says, 'There is a neo-Nazism coming from the east. Nothing has changed and it is worse.' If things are better today, I can't tell you," Braun said.

The gray Samsonite suitcase with a tag that reads "O. Schindler" was given to the newspaper last year by a couple who found it while cleaning the home of their late parents. The family had been close friends of Schindler, whose story became world famous through Steven Spielberg's 1993 Oscar-winning movie, "Schindler's List," based on a book by Thomas Keneally.

Schindler saved more than 1,000 Jewish men and women from the death camps by providing work for them in his factory in Krakow, Poland. There are several copies of the list of people Schindler rescued. One was found in the suitcase.

Such brushes with history are common, even as Germany moves full-throttle into the 21st century. Last week, workers building a road in Berlin, the rededicated capital, struck part of the bunker where Adolf Hitler and his mistress, Eva Braun, committed suicide 54 years ago. Like other such sites, this one will be paved over to prevent it from becoming a neo-Nazi shrine.

In September, a huge Allied bomb was found by construction workers in Hamburg. It forced the evacuation of hundreds of residents and workers and shut down public transportation. The bomb — like others found occasionally throughout the country — had remained where it had fallen 56 years ago.

Germany usually brushes itself off and moves on after such encounters. But other matters are not so easily ignored. Newspapers are filled with stories about victims of Nazi persecution — including former slave laborers — who still await justice today.

The recent jump in right-wing extremist crime in the former East Germany has observers wondering if today's younger generation has learned from the past. In light of such developments, Schindler's 1948 warnings seem prescient.

Reporters Braun and Claudia Keller managed to keep the existence of the suitcase secret during the past year. Among the few who have seen its contents is former Israeli Supreme Court Judge Moshe Bejski, who was rescued by Schindler.

The papers include an exchange of letters from the 1940s through the 1960s, a copy of the list and a speech given by Schindler at the end of the war, urging the Jews from his factory not to take violent revenge. The family that had the suitcase wants it donated to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel, though Schindler's 92-year-old widow, Emilie Schindler, is now asserting her rights.

All of the contents "belong to me, because I am the widow and legal heir of Oskar Schindler," she said.

The journalists decided against writing a biography based on the material, but are considering publishing some of the letters, Braun said.

Meanwhile, the newspaper organized the papers to illustrate several points: Schindler's relationship to his German fellow citizens, his problems with alcohol and womanizing, and his connections with Israel and with German Jews. Publication of the series, called "Schindler's Suitcase," comes, coincidentally, at the 25th anniversary of Schindler's death.

Though experts at Yad Vashem have said the list of names is probably not the original, the letters clearly are and may provide important insights into the life of a complicated man, Braun said.

"First, there is the man who wants to be who he was during the war — the boss of a big company," Braun said, "But it was not possible, it was too difficult in postwar Germany.

"Secondly, [the letters show] how he learned that after the war Germany was not interested in looking at what happened" during the Holocaust. "He was very unhappy that Germans were not interested in the history, didn't want to hear about it. And they were angry that he had made a good impression in Israel."

In 1962, after Schindler was honored by Israel as a Righteous Gentile, his business partner in Germany "canceled the partnership because he said, 'I am a Nazi and now it is clear that you are a friend of Jews and I will not work together with you any more,'" Braun said.

Michel Friedman, a Frankfurt attorney whose parents were saved by Schindler, said the hope represented by Schindler is not extinguished.

"One can use Schindler's story, in the good sense of the word, to motivate young people to have civil courage, to prove to them that it makes sense to react," he said.

Toby Axelrod

Toby Axelrod is JTA’s correspondent for Germany, Switzerland and Austria. A former assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin office, she has also worked as staff writer and editor at the New York Jewish Week and published books on Holocaust history for teenagers.