Where Light and Shadow Meet
Like most girls brought up on the tales of her countrymen, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, one farmer’s daughter dreamed of happily ever after. Ironically, however, because of her prince, Oskar Schindler, she became the little girl in the fairy tale whose life led to a sinister horror in the woods.
Emilie Pelzl was born in 1907 in Alt-Molstein, the Sudetland, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. An old Gypsy woman read her palm when she was a young girl: “I see your lifeline is long. You will meet a man who you will love above all, though you will not be happy at his side. There are other things, my child, I do not dare tell you.” Her words frightened Emilie who took solace in a first of May custom of planting a tree to ward off evil. Her early sense of righteousness became apparent when she defied her local pastor who instructed her to terminate friendship with Rita Reif because she was Jewish.
While the Grimm girls met their princes in poetic locales, (a ball, a tower, a glass-coffin,) the twenty-year-old Emilie met her flawed prince in a rather more prosaic place. On a Thursday afternoon Emilie stepped out of her farmhouse and noticed two men; it was the latter of which she took interest as he was slender with broad shoulders, blond hair and deep blue eyes. While the older one tried to convince her to purchase a motor which would supply her home with electricity, another type of electricity passed between her and the older man’s blond-haired companion. Soon Oskar was making frequent trips from Moravia to Alt-Molstein and Emilie surrendered her heart on a moonlit evening when he kissed her under a plum-tree. But Oskar Schindler was able to play on women as Antonio Stradivarius could on his violins.
After a courtship of six weeks, Emilie and Oskar were married on March 6, 1928, at an inn on the outskirts of Zwittau, Oscar’s hometown. Herr Pelzl gave his daughter a sizable dowry of 100,000 Czech crowns and a warning: Oskar was a known heart-breaker. When she was dancing in her short white wedding dress her grandmother remarked she looked like Sleeping Beauty-- one who was in for a rude awakening, as it transpired. On her wedding day she discovered her husband’s Achilles Heel, (a euphemism for another vulnerable part of his anatomy,) was women when a vindictive former lover reported Oskar to the police on a trumped-up pretext and he was hauled in for questioning. It was not the most auspicious start to married life. Neither was his squandering of her dowry on frivolities such as outings and a luxury car.
While Emilie’s life alternated between grief and happiness, the affairs of Europe were deteriorating with the rise of Hitler who absorbed the Sudetland into the Third Reich. Unemployed, and with his get-rich schemes all resulting in failures, in 1938 Oskar joined the Nazi Party. After the invasion of Poland he was sent to Krakow, (situated thirty miles from Auschwitz,) where he was in charge of an enamelware factory. He staffed it with hundreds of residents from the Jewish ghetto and workers/slaves from the nearby Plaschow Concentration Camp. If Emilie thought the move to Poland was to constitute a belated honeymoon, she was in for yet another rude awakening.
Oskar Schindler, who had spent his life looking for his niche, found it in Poland, the epicenter of genocide. Faced with unimaginable brutality, Oscar changed his agenda to enriching his coffers earned by exploiting the Jews to saving their lives. He spent his ill-gotten gains to bribe the SS to look away when he began to employ people too young, too old, and/or too ill to operate machines. Emilie, in memory of Rita who had been murdered in their hometown, and as a devout Catholic, devoted her life to the same cause. She alternated between entertaining the local SS commandment Amoth Goethe to sumptuous dinners and feeding starving workers. This time, however, there was no tree she could plant to ward off such evil. One evening Oskar confided in Emilie that Goethe had decided to close the Plaschow Camp and send their workers to Auschwitz. Together they came up with a plan: to open a munitions factory in Brunnlitz, Czechoslovakia, and to draw up a list with the names of those they ‘needed.’ The lynchpin was acquiescence from the Brunnlitz mayor, which was highly unlikely as the local population was against having Jews in their midst. In addition, the nature of such a factory would make their town a target for Allied bombs.
Undeterred, Emilie went in the role of ambassador and in a rare episode of serendipity in that horrible time he turned out to be Emily’s old swimming teacher from Alt-Molstein. She left with priceless permit in hand. The fortunate people on the Schindlers’ list, Oskar and Emilie, along with their beloved dogs Rex and Karin, relocated to the factory where life was a daily fight: against lice, typhus, and execution from the SS if their motives were discovered. In the evenings Emily had to switch roles and entertain the wives of SS officers.
On the day the Armistice was signed Oskar assembled his workers to listen to Winston Churchill announce the surrender of the Wehrmacht and to express his regret there was nothing more he could do. The workers signed a document testifying to all the Schindlers had endured to ensure their survival. With the Soviet Army advancing, because of Oscar’s membership in the Nazi Party, Oscar and Emilie were forced to flee as the document would not serve as shield. Their lives now became a desperate struggle for survival. The Czech government had stripped the ethnic Germans of their citizenship and after relocating penniless to Munich, Oscar could not find work. Moreover they were in constant danger from former Nazis who viewed the Schindlers as traitors of the Fatherland.
Salvation seemed to appear in 1949 when a Jewish organization provided them with two tickets to embark on the last ship transporting refugees to Buenos Aires. Emilie felt its name, “good air,” was a propitious sign and in South America they would find the happiness which had alluded them in Europe. They were accompanied by a dozen Schindlerjuden and Gisa, Oscar’s mistress. Her husband had dropped this tidbit while they were packing; however, Emilie no longer had the energy for reproach. The couple settled on a farm in San Vincente which reminded Emilie of her childhood home. She ran the farm on her own, raising hens while her husband raised hell in the capital, carousing and finding solace in the arms of Gisa.
After eight years Oskar hit on another get rich quick scheme: to raise minks for their furs, which he joked was the origin of her maiden name Pelzl. Emilie tried to dissuade him, arguing she knew nothing about raising them and knew the work would fall on her when he got bored. He assured her of its success by explaining all women loved furs; she bit her tongue from responding the only time she had ever seen one was on the shoulders of his lovers, a present from him. Of course, Emilie took over the responsibility of the minks while Oskar took to drink. In 1957 Germany passed a law offering restitution to victims who had suffered financial loss as a result of the War. They decided Oskar would return to the Fatherland to collect reparation for their confiscated Brunnlitz factory. With the money they would try to recoup their losses from the mink business which had drained the last of their resources.
Emilie had met Oscar on a Thursday, married him on a Thursday, and on a Thursday accompanied him to the airport. As they drove there was silence in the car and Emilie wondered how it was possible that after sharing their lives for thirty years they were at a loss for words. She was bewildered that after all their horror the link between them had severed. As she watched her husband walk away, she realized he had become a stranger and at the same time, someone with whom she would be irrevocably tied. Oscar was never to see Emilie, (or Gisa,) again, a fact of which only he was privy at the time.
In Krackow Emilie had been in an unfamiliar environment without knowledge of Polish and bereft of family, but had youth and the man she loved. Now she was once again in a foreign country; however, this time she was approaching old age, financially destitute, and bereft of company other than her dogs, cats, chickens and minks. One can easily envision Emilie looking upwards with the words, “You know, Gott, there are other people.” Of the hundred thousand marks of reparation money, Oskar sent her two hundred German marks along with a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. The enclosed letter gave news of how he was putting on weight from his windfall as he was eating a lot of lobster and drinking a lot of good wine. She threw it in the fire and never opened another one from him, appalled she had wed the ultimate narcissist. Whenever asked about her absent husband, conflicting emotions of love and bitterness was revealed when she referred to him as a ‘saufkopf,’ ‘drunk,’ and ‘weibheld,’ ‘womanizer,’ but then added, “If he’d stayed, I’d have looked after him.”
Emilie Pelzl Schindler emerged from her Argentinean shadow in 1993 when she received a letter, (one she did not burn,) from Steven Spielberg inviting her to Jerusalem. The famed director wanted to shoot the final scene of Schindler’s List in Israel and wanted to include her and the survivors in its closing scene. Although she felt his film should have been entitled The Schindlers’ List, and although she took exception to Oskar’s portrayal as a flawed hero (she only saw him as flawed at that point), she agreed to go. She expressed her resentment when she stated, “The Jews he saved. Me he abandoned.” But the reunion with her former workers whose lives she had saved was emotional, as was her visit to the cemetery where Oskar had been interred in 1974. In keeping with Jewish tradition, she placed a pebble on his grave, dismayed it was covered with sand rather than a cross. As she stood there she said her farewell to her flawed prince.
“Well, Oskar, at last we meet again, but this is not the time for reproaches and complaints. It would not be fair to you or to me. Now you are in another world, in eternity, and I can no longer ask you all those questions to which in life you would have given evasive replies…and death is the best evasion of all. I have received no answers my dear. I do not know why you abandoned me… But what not even your death or my old age can change is that we are still married. This is how we are before God. I have forgiven you everything, everything…”
After the Hollywood epic made her husband’s name a part of Holocaust history, and before she returned to Argentina, she met with President Clinton and Pope John Paul who had spent his youth in Kracow, and became a heroine in her adopted homeland, and was affectionately dubbed Mutter Courage. In 1994 she was declared a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and two carob trees were planted side by side alongside a plaque bearing the couple’s names.
Emilie returned to Germany and settled into a retirement in Bavaria where she passed away in 2001 at age ninety-three, fulfilling the last of the gypsy’s predictions. She never stopped wearing her wedding-ring and said, “If I could choose again, I would pick Oskar.” Her tombstone contains a large cross and a verse from the Talmud in German, “Wer einen menschen rettet, retter die gannze welt.” “Whoever saves a single life saves the world entire.” In her bid for remembrance she published her memoir, whose title was a metaphor for her tumultuous relationship with Oskar, Where Light and Shadow Meet.