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Behind the Headlines: ‘Schindler’s Suitcase’ Has Warning That Resonates with Germans Today

October 19, 1999
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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.

Meanwhile, suspected Nazi criminals continue to resurface. French investigators have just confirmed the long-standing rumor that former SS officer Alois Brunner, one of the most-wanted Nazi war criminals, is living under an assumed name in Damascus. Brunner, now 87, is to be tried in absentia for war crimes in France.

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.

"Our first impression was that there were so many letters, pictures, newspaper articles, and we did not know how to handle it," said Braun, 35. "Nearly every evening we sat at home around the suitcase, just reading letters. We were trying to find a way to publish this, but not too quickly."

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. According to the wishes of the family that had the material, it will be given entirely to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.

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, on 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. Reportedly, during the so-called denazification process in West Germany, when the Allies encouraged Germans to clean house and earn a fresh start, Schindler was threatened for revealing former Nazis.

Michel Friedman, whose parents were saved by Schindler, said the newfound letters are important because they "confirm that his economic situation after World War II was very bad, and the only ones who helped him were the Jews, and not the German government, which paid pensions to old Nazis."

"Schindler was a guest of honor at my Bar Mitzvah and he was at our house" for Sabbath dinners, said Friedman, a Frankfurt attorney and member of the Central Council of Jews in Germany. He said he hadn’t yet seen the contents of the suitcase. "The suitcase is very old, it has a lot of trips behind it," Braun said. "When you open it you see a lot of old papers, very old letters. No one writes such letters any more today, and no one collects them, either. It was completely disorganized."

Reading the contents gave him "the feeling of being intimate with someone I never saw.

"He was a very open-minded and free-speaking person. He said what he was thinking. He was balancing between a lot of hopes, a lot of disappointments."

Schindler immigrated to Argentina after the war, but later returned to Germany. In his final years he received a pension from the German government. He died in Frankfurt in 1974 at the age of 66 and was buried in Israel as he had requested. In his last years, he had spent much time there.

Schindler’s troubles with alcohol and womanizing are not unknown. For Braun, it was fascinating to read about the failed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film project based on Schindler’s story. Though Schindler did get some advance money from the project, it was canceled in 1966.

"Of course he was devastated," Braun said. "That was the end of the final hope."

For Friedman, 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.

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