Fight Over Real-Life Schindler's List Rages in Court

This story has all the elements necessary to transform a tedious court case about estates, inheritances and family feuds into a gripping historical novel. At its center is Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist and bon vivant whom Yad Vashem named Righteous Among the Nations, a bankrupt man who brought Steven Spielberg his first Oscar as director.

Alongside Oskar is his wife Emilie Schindler, also a Righteous Gentile, whom he abandoned after World War II and who remained alone in distant Argentina. Between them is his mistress (or “best friend”), Annemarie (“Ami”) Staehr, who received or took a suitcase from Schindler containing thousands of valuable documents, which was later given to Yad Vashem.

None of the three is still alive. The person responsible for their reunion in an Israeli court is another woman, Prof. Erika Rosenberg, a Jewish resident of Argentina who befriended Schindler’s widow during the last decade of the latter’s life and became her biographer and legatee. Now she is suing Yad Vashem with a demand to take possession of the suitcase.

The case has come before the Jerusalem District Court, which last week rejected Yad Vashem’s request to drop the suit. This has paved the way for a fascinating trial, in which evidence will be brought that casts new light on the Righteous Gentile who became a major symbol after rescuing Jews during the Holocaust.

About one thing there is no dispute. In 1999, 25 years after Oskar Schindler’s death and two years before the death of his widow Emilie, a special shipment arrived at Yad Vashem from Germany. It contained a suitcase and crates full of documents from his estate, including his lists (the names of Jewish workers he gave to the Nazis, requesting they work at his enamelware and munition factories).

The person who brought this treasure trove to Yad Vashem was veteran German journalist Ulrich Sahm, who lives in Jerusalem and was at the time a correspondent for the German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung. Sahm tells Haaretz that the material, which included copies of Schindler’s original list, lay around in his home for a few days after it arrived in Israel. “It’s too bad that I didn’t know then that each of them was worth several million,” he says with a smile. After a few days he delivered the material to Yad Vashem, where it remains to this day.

The legal dispute centers around the history of the suitcase before it arrived in Jerusalem. One version of the story is provided by Prof. Rosenberg, who is suing for possession of the suitcase. She claims that in 1974, after Oskar Schindler’s death that October, his mistress, Staehr, took the key to his apartment in Frankfurt, entered “without anyone noticing,” as she puts it, and “smuggled” the suitcase full of documents to her home in the city of Hildesheim, about 320 kilometers (200 miles) away.

For a quarter of a century, Staehr kept the documents in an attic. During that whole time, Emilie Schindler – Oskar’s wife, who was living alone in Argentina – did not know about the existence of the suitcase. Staehr died in 1984. Her husband died a decade later. After their deaths, their sons found the suitcase and gave it to the Stuttgarter Zeitung, which published a huge scoop with selected extracts from its contents in October 1999.

‘Huge injustice’

This week, in a phone call from Argentina, Rosenberg related that she was at the Frankfurt Book Fair when suddenly she read in a newspaper that Oskar Schindler’s suitcase had been found. She immediately informed Emilie Schindler, who expressed the wish to see everything and asked Rosenberg to bring the case to Buenos Aires.

Rosenberg enlisted a German lawyer, who obtained a warrant to search the newspaper’s editorial offices. “They arrived, armed with the court order, ready to seize the documents. However, that same day, apparently after the newspaper’s editors heard about the issuing of the warrant, they had already smuggled the suitcase to Israel,” says attorney Naor Yair Maman, who is representing Rosenberg.

In Rosenberg’s version of events, the German newspaper smuggled Schindler’s suitcase to Israel under the widow’s nose. She claims that Emilie, who became ill as a result of the incident, said to her, “This is a huge injustice. I saved Jews, together with my husband, and now the Jews have taken the suitcase away from me. You must demand it, even after my death.”

At Yad Vashem, they reject Rosenberg’s version outright and are depicting her as greedy and trying to make money out of her connection with Mrs. Schindler. They state their claim in the defense brief: “An incomparably opportunistic, cynical and exploitative attempt to get rich by leveraging the relationship with Emilie – an attempt that must be condemned and rejected out of hand, both in the legal sense and the moral sense.”

According to Yad Vashem, Oskar Schindler himself gave the suitcase and its documents to his “very close friend” Staehr during his lifetime. Schindler was like a member of Staehr’s household, says Yad Vashem – her soulmate and a patient of her doctor husband. “She was probably the most significant figure in his life,” they say. This claim is reinforced by a 1999 report in the German media, to the effect that Schindler spent his last years in the couple’s home and that the Staehrs “saw to all his needs.”

At Yad Vashem they claim that Ami Staehr’s sons were surprised to find the suitcase and wanted to donate it to Yad Vashem. Before doing so, they gave it to the German newspaper, which published a report on it and handed it over to the German Federal Archive (the Bundesarchiv), where they made copies of its documents and these were later given to Emilie Schindler. At Yad Vashem, they believe the suitcase came into their hands legally and explain that Emilie Schindler had no ownership over it.

“It pains Yad Vashem that we need to go to places we wouldn’t have wanted to be dragged – to put Oskar in opposition to Emilie and say he was not with her,” Yad Vashem spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg tells Haaretz.

Yad Vashem’s lawyers will present the court with testimonies to the effect that, right from the start, the Schindlers did not enjoy a strong relationship. “During most of the Holocaust period and the time he acted to save Jews, the couple lived separately from each other,” states the Yad Vashem defense brief. The relationship between the two is described as “shaky.” To strengthen their case that the suitcase and the documents in it belonged to Oskar and not his widow, at Yad Vashem they had to distinguish between his rescue actions and hers. “Emilie Schindler was involved only in part of Oskar’s rescue activities … The prevailing opinion today among the vast majority of historians is that it was Oskar Schindler who initiated the rescue operation,” they wrote to the court.

‘A fascinating woman’

To get to the bottom of this story, it is necessary to go back in time to World War II. German industrialist Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, took over a factory for producing enamel that had belonged to Jewish owners in Krakow (in occupied Poland) and there he employed Jews from the nearby ghetto. During the war, when he became aware of the Nazi’s atrocities, he transformed his operation into a rescue mission, in the context of which he saved the lives of some 1,200 Jews. Emilie also participated in the rescue work. Schindler’s life after the war was less glamorous than it was depicted in Spielberg’s award-winning “Schindler’s List” (1993), itself based on the 1982 Thomas Keneally novel “Schindler’s Ark.”

After the war, Schindler and his wife were broke and emigrated to Argentina. Their new enterprises were not successful and they separated.

In 1957, Schindler returned to Germany by himself. At Yad Vashem, they have documents showing he asked to deposit selected documents with them from his personal archive. In the 1960s, he even came to plant a tree at Yad Vashem and was recognized as a Righteous Gentile. Emilie was awarded the honorific title only many years later, in 1993. As noted, Oskar died in 1974; his coffin was subsequently brought to Israel and he is buried on Mount Zion.

Emilie remained in Argentina. There, Prof. Erika Rosenberg, the daughter of Jewish parents who fled Germany in the 1930s and immigrated to Argentina, entered the picture. In 1990, she conducted a research project on Jewish immigrants in Argentina, and in that context she heard Emilie Schindler’s story for the first time.

“Her story fascinated me,” Erika Rosenberg said this week. “This is a fascinating woman, who saved thousands of Jews.” When she went to Emilie Schindler’s home, she says, she was amazed to find Emilie living in poverty, alone save for the company of cats and dogs. “It was a small house with no furniture. She barely made it to the end of the month. The phone and electricity bills and taxes weren’t paid, because she didn’t have any money.”

The meeting led to the two women becoming close and gave rise to a series of books that documented Emilie’s story, written by Prof. Rosenberg. In ensuing years – in the books and in interviews to the press – Emilie voiced criticism of her husband. “He simply left me and I had to pay his debts,” she said in 1999. “He didn’t behave well, but I don’t want to talk about it.”

Prof. Rosenberg claims she took care of Emilie and helped her financially, when no one else stood by her. She also says that in 2001, when Emilie Schindler felt she was about to die, she asked to be buried in Germany. “She was very ill. I organized everything for her, including her burial, which I paid for myself.”

At Yad Vashem, they see the two women’s relationship in a different light. “We checked in Argentina, and discovered that these stories are not accurate,” says Yad Vashem’s Iris Rosenberg. “Emilie Schindler received financial support from Jewish organizations like B’nai B’rith, which looked after her.” The Yad Vashem spokeswoman describes the relationship as exploitative. She bases this view, in part, on an investigative report by Canadian newspaper The Toronto Star in July 2001, headlined, “The complex friendship of an author and Schindler’s widow.”

“Erika Rosenberg used Emilie Schindler’s name,” says Iris Rosenberg. “She pushed away the people who were around her, and charged money for interviews with her.”

Another item offered in evidence by Yad Vashem is the 2004 biography of Oskar Schindler by U.S. historian David M. Crowe (“Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List”). The book raises claims that in 2001, when Emilie Schindler was 93, ill and suffering from dementia, Erika Rosenberg dragged her from Argentina to Germany in order to publicize a new book of hers, contrary to doctors’ recommendations. In Germany, Emilie Schindler’s condition deteriorated. She was hospitalized and died a few months later in an old age home.

The Schindlers did not have any children; Erika Rosenberg was recognized as one of Emilie Schindler’s heirs, and has a document that she says bequeaths her the suitcase. “The deceased’s clear and unambiguous will echoes in the spaces of the world – from the expanses of Argentina through an attic in Frankfurt, Germany, to the cellars of Yad Vashem in the umbilicus of Jerusalem,” writes Prof. Rosenberg’s attorney, Maman, in the suit, adding that he expects “historical justice” to be done.

Yad Vashem rejects these claims, saying it is a “delusional and baseless suit, which expired under the statute of limitations years ago.” Their attorneys, from the law firm of E. S. Shimron, I. Molho, Persky & Co., wrote to the court that Prof. Rosenberg is a “serial plaintiff and loser,” and submitted documents showing that courts in Germany and the United States have already rejected her claims. Be that as it may, visitors to the Jerusalem District Court in the coming months are assured of a fascinating history lesson.

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