COVER STORY : They Made the ‘List’ and Lived : Local Holocaust survivors reflect on wartime horrors, reliving experiences of 50 years ago through the new Steven Spielberg film and recalling Schindler himself--the Nazi businessman-turned-savior to whom they owe their lives
It was 1982, just after the publication of the award-winning “Schindler’s List” and exactly 35 years after Holocaust survivor Leopold (Poldek) Page had vowed to bring the story of Oskar Schindler, a freewheeling Nazi who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews, to light.
Page, owner of a Beverly Hills leather goods store, and author Thomas Keneally, whom he’d roped into writing the tale, had just finished a “Today” show interview when they were informed that MCA President Sidney J. Sheinberg was interested in buying the rights for a film to be directed by Steven Spielberg.
“Make me an epic, a movie that will be remembered forever,” Page recalls Sheinberg telling Spielberg at lunch the following spring. Over coffee, Page posed some questions himself--among them, when the shoot would begin.
Spielberg, who knew the value--and elusiveness--of a workable script, didn’t pull his punches. “In about 10 years,” he told Page who, unversed in the ways of Hollywood, was sure the director was kidding. Though Page, who was nearly 70 at the time, protested that he might not be around, Spielberg assured him he would.
Right on schedule, a decade later, Spielberg’s 3-hour-and-14-minute, $23-million black-and-white “Schindler’s List,” starring Liam Neeson and Ben Kingsley, is scheduled to open in Los Angeles on Wednesday. The 80-year-old Page and his wife, Ludmila (Mila), as predicted, were in the audience for the Nov. 30 screening at the Holocaust Museum in Washington--along with President and Mrs. Clinton.
If skeptics questioned Spielberg’s suitability for the project, Mila Page had no doubts.
“After watching ‘E.T.,’ I figured that anyone who could project so much love for humanity on screen can’t make a bad movie--no matter what Hollywood says,” asserts the 73-year-old Page, who like her husband, was plucked out of the Krakow-Plaszow concentration camp into Schindler’s factory and saved from certain death. “Spielberg did this project not for his career--he certainly doesn’t need it--but for his heart.”
The Times spoke with the Pages and with other Los Angeles-area couples whose lives were touched by Schindler. They offered up their impressions not only of the man himself but of the film inspired by his life:
Poldek and Mila Page
As Poldek Pfefferberg (“Changing my name when I entered this country was the stupidest thing I’ve ever done”), Page has a featured part in the Spielberg movie--on screen, as in life, providing jewelry and shirts to Schindler, whose penchant for women and the good life was well documented.
In 1940, Schindler had taken over an enamelware factory near Krakow in occupied Poland; in 1944, he transferred the munitions division to Brinnlitz, Moravia. SS Commander Amon Goeth, a drinking buddy of Schindler’s who ran the nearby concentration camp at Plaszow, was providing Schindler with Jewish slave laborers from the camp in return for cash and gifts.
Page, a Polish-born physical education teacher and army lieutenant, initially turned down the chance to work in Schindler’s factory, believing he could escape some other way. After he and Mila were imprisoned in Plaszow, however, inclusion on Schindler’s list was their only hope.
“The 25,000 Jews in Camp Plaszow knew that getting into Schindler’s camp was paradise,” Page recalls. “We knew we were in hell.”
According to the Pages, the charismatic Schindler greeted his new workers on arrival, offering them hot soup and bread. With his help, he assured them, they’d all survive. In appreciation, they presented him with a birthday cake made out of margarine and jam from their meager rations. Schindler’s factory in Brinnlitz was the ultimate con game, a munitions operation that, by design, produced nothing of use to the German war machine. Though he was arrested twice, Schindler had played the system well. Payoffs made to functionaries--from the top brass to secretaries--bought him back his freedom.
In May, 1945, however, the tables were turned. With the surrender of the Germans, the Jews became Schindler’s protectors. So their former boss wouldn’t be shot by the Russian liberators (“They had a tendency to kill first and apologize later,” Poldek explains), seven Jews accompanied him to the Western lines, where he surrendered to the French. As in the movie, they gave him a letter signed by all the workers attesting to the fact that he was one of the “good Germans.”
“Schindler was a little like Noah,” Mila observes of the man whose 1,200 Jewish employees have spawned more than 6,000 descendants. “He gathered an ark of survivors, a cross section of people from all professions--husbands, wives, children, to form the nucleus of a Jewish community of the future.”
Schindler became a friend of the Pages, one with whom they socialized after the war. In the late 1950s, when Schindler returned from Argentina to Frankfurt, Germany, with only the shirt on his back, Page raised $7,000 by asking each of the survivors to donate a day’s pay. In 1963, he flew to Paris to present a hungry Schindler with a check for $37,500--his share of an MGM film deal that never panned out. Martin Gosch was to have produced the project, which had a screenplay by Howard Koch (co-writer of “Casablanca”). After approaching Sean Connery to play the role of Schindler, however, the studio decided to back down.
“The new administration at the studio shelved all its big-budget projects,” recalls Irving Glovin, an attorney who represented Schindler in the ‘60s. “The only way to get it made was to gain control of it myself.”
In 1980 he did, leasing the rights to the material with Page for a two-year period. During that time, an unsuspecting Australian novelist named Thomas Keneally walked into Page’s leather store and--despite protesting that he was too young, too ignorant of the Holocaust and too Irish Catholic (“three good reasons to write the book,” Page shot back)--was sold a story along with a briefcase. (A Thames Television BBC movie about Schindler won England’s top documentary award in 1983.)
In 1974, Schindler, previously dubbed a “Righteous Gentile” by the state of Israel, died of a heart attack at the age of 68. Buried in Frankfurt, his body was later taken to Jerusalem. Page’s mission since then, he says, has been to defend Schindler against charges that he was driven by a desire for personal gain rather than by humanitarian impulses.
“Schindler did come to Poland to make his fortune,” Page says. “But from the first day, he called us his ‘children’ and, until five minutes after midnight on the day of liberation, took responsibility for our survival. Instead of taking the $2 million he had in November, 1944, and going off to live the good life, he risked everything he had--his money, his life--with no thought of compensation except the love, and thanks, of those people he saved. It hurts me that people question his dignity.”
Henry and Edith Silver
A little more than a decade ago, Keneally contacted Henry Silver, asking his assistance in writing “Schindler’s List.” Silver declined. Almost 40 years after the end of the war, he explains today, the wound was still fresh. And, besides, he didn’t want history to accuse him of glorifying a Nazi.
“Looking back, I should have cooperated,” says the 80-year-old Silver, a kindly, nattily dressed man sitting in the dining room of his Encino apartment. “As the Talmudic inscription on the ring we gave Schindler says, ‘To save one life is to save the whole world.’ Whatever drove him, the man deserves credit. Without Schindler, I wouldn’t be here.”
Born in Poland, Silver and his wife, Edith, 72, were among the 35,000 Jews in their hometown of Radom sent to concentration camps when the Germans invaded in 1943. They placed their 11-month-old, as-yet-uncircumcised, son on the doorstep of some purportedly sympathetic Gentiles whom, they hoped, would legally adopt him. The couple called the police instead. Removing the armband identifying her as a Jew, the blond, blue-eyed Edith escaped to the orphanage to get a peek at her son. To avoid being separated from her husband, she later sneaked onto an all-male transport train by dressing as a man.
“I’m a coward today, but I was a devil back then,” she says. “You didn’t think. You survived on your instincts. You did what the times called for.”
Fate, as always, played a part in the saga. The Silvers arrived in the deadly Majdanek-Lublin concentration camp just two days after its 28,000 Jews had been sent to the crematorium. A few months later, they were shipped to Krakow-Plazsow, where they came in contact with Schindler. Henry--whose father, mother and eight brothers and sisters died in the war--landed a prized job in Schindler’s enamelware factory. He escaped the wrath of the bloodthirsty camp commander Amon Goeth by taking care of his savage dogs.
Edith was less fortunate. Sent to Auschwitz in the fall of 1943, she was separated from her husband until the end of the war. Using information collected by a brother-in-law, the reunited couple tracked down their son, whom, after a blood test and a court case, they managed to retrieve. According to the Silvers, he was the only Jewish child from Radom to survive.
Schindler, they say, remains a mystery.
“In my personal opinion, Schindler was out to save himself--but he saved a lot of Jews in the process,” Henry Silver says softly, seemingly fearful of sounding ungrateful. “At the end of the war, he called us all together and, no longer concerned with proving his commitment to the German authorities, told us he wished he could be as free as we were. We’d all be saved, he said. But what would happen to him?”
His wife agrees: “Schindler was a better diplomat than Hitler,” she says, “a smart cookie who realized that the war was going to be lost and was primarily concerned with saving his neck. The Jews were his tools--a way to avoid going to the Front. Though there may have been some seeds of humanity in there, it was nowhere as clear-cut as at the end of Spielberg’s film.”
Since landing in Baltimore in 1949, the Silvers have added a daughter to their family and--after working in the grocery business, real estate and construction--are living a comfortable retirement. Still, continuing nightmares are a fact of Henry’s life.
“Before I walked in to see ‘Schindler’s List,’ I had the whole movie in my head,” he says. “Hundreds, thousands, of pictures before my eyes. Though the film, to me, was still a ‘Hollywood production'--nowhere near as bad as the experience itself--Spielberg took a big chance. Who knows if people will be able to accept this horror?”
Unable to watch the graphic scenes of mass killing, Edith left the room several times during the screening. Trembling and nauseous, she developed a searing pain in her side that she feared was the onset of a heart attack.
“For the past two days, I relived those experiences of 50 years ago,” she said. “I don’t know if other survivors will want to put themselves through all that. American Jews and others who want to scrape away that terror may not want to expose themselves to this reality. But the Holocaust wasn’t a hoax. Jews are still being made the scapegoat. Look what’s happening in Germany right now--it could all happen again.”
Richard and Lola Krumholtz
Richard and Lola Krumholtz were high school sweethearts. She was an Orthodox Jew. His family, the owners of a hotel and restaurant business, was the only one in his hometown of Krynica, Poland, selling ham. In August, 1942, with the war at its peak, they--with Lola Orzech (see below), who remains a friend--became three of the first seven “Schindler Jews.”
Though their 12-hour stints in Schindler’s enamelware factory were far more arduous than portrayed on the screen, they say, their plight was better than most. One day, Schindler came to the day shift and, without explanation, advised his workers not to return home. The next morning they found out that their fellow Jews had been sent away to be killed. Schindler then collected their IDs, on which he placed an official stamp. Only through his intervention were they able to remain in the ghetto.
Though rations were tight, no one starved, says Richard, 78.
“Schindler put up signs advising Polish workers that their allotment of vodka would not be forthcoming since production had been substandard,” he recalls. “He’d then sell the vodka on the black market to buy us food. In the beginning, without question, it was all about making money--Jews, after all, were a source of cheap labor. Later, when Schindler realized that Germany was losing the war, he wanted to be on the right side. Still, he was a good person. He had a lot of guts.”
Like one young woman in the Spielberg film, Krumholtz pleaded to get his mother employed--a request granted, in part, because a shoemaker friend supplied Schindler with boots. Bribes were an integral part of wartime life. Some highly placed Jews accepted diamonds and cash from those interested in getting on Schindler’s list. When their names were added, Richard’s was among those taken off. Without Schindler’s protection, he was sent to a series of death camps where he spent the duration of the war.
Still, 76-year-old Lola refuses to lay blame.
“You can’t condemn people for what they did at the time,” she says. “Nothing was normal. Getting on the list meant life.”
After liberation, Lola accompanied a girlfriend on a search for her fiance and, at a train station near Prague, ran into an acquaintance who informed her that Richard was alive. With fabric Schindler gave them for clothes and underwear, she paid a Red Cross truck to take her to him. In 1946, they moved to the United States, becoming the first Jews from the camps to settle in Los Angeles, where Richard established a chain of luggage stores. Schindler visited their Mar Vista home twice. In June, they flew to Israel, where, at Spielberg’s invitation, they were among the 128 real-life survivors who participated in the movie’s epilogue.
“Schindler’s List,” Lola is convinced, should capture the Oscar for best picture. Her husband goes one step further.
“This picture should be nominated in the documentary category,” he states. “That’s how real it seemed.”
Stanley and Lola Orzech
Lola Orzech, a 68-year-old Holocaust survivor who lost her mother and three sisters in the war, has never told her story. As she sits in her North Hollywood kitchen, the memories come flooding out. Those of Schindler are particularly vivid.
“Oskar Schindler was a tall, handsome, powerful-looking man,” she begins. “Diamonds on his fingers. When he walked into the factory, you didn’t have to see him, you could smell him--all the cigarettes and perfume. He’d flirt with a German-speaking girlfriend who worked next to me, but I assumed he never looked my way. After the war, though, I was waiting for a streetcar and he came up to me to ask how I was doing. Schindler knew his people.”
When the Plaszow ghetto was cleared out, Schindler made a list of those designated to go to his Brinnlitz factory. Orzech was one of the 300 women transported to Auschwitz instead.
“We were taken to the showers, and we thought that was it,” she recalls. “Three weeks later, they called our names and released us--a first, I’m sure. No one realized that Schindler paid for us with his own money.”
Near the end of the war, moreover, Schindler heard that plans were being made to dig a moat around the camp he had created for his workers. Fearing that the Jews were about to be executed, he selected 15 who had military experience and supplied them with a rifle and a pistol.
“He told us, in case it comes to that, some of us can save ourselves,” Orzech recalls. “Schindler saw what was happening to Germany and was protecting himself. Still, it was unbelievable that any German would do this for the Jewish people. Whatever his original motives, I think his humanity kicked in.”
Her husband, Stanley, a survivor of four concentration camps who never made it into the Schindler ranks, nods his head soberly.
“Whether Schindler was good or bad was beside the point,” he asserts. “No other German wanted to get involved. Ninety percent of the German and Austrian people didn’t give a damn what was going on in the camps--and they knew. Schindler wasn’t a hero--just a human being. They were in short supply.”
Watching Spielberg’s movie, Lola says, brought everything back. The days she stood by her machine fixated on food. The way she’d pull horse meat out of the soup to make a sandwich with her one slice of bread.
“I’d give some of my portion to my brother,” she says. “He was a tall man and his eyes were wild with hunger. I couldn’t swallow, seeing him.” Her brother survived the war and is living in Australia.
If the Orzechs have a bone to pick, it’s not with the production. This movie, they agree, captured the reality far better than previous Hollywood films and serves as an important reminder of a dark period people want to sweep under the rug. What upsets them is the fact that Lola Orzech, one of Schindler’s original group, was never mentioned--ignored in favor of the Pages and others who “came aboard at the last minute.”
“Ironically, we took a trip to Poland earlier this year and, without realizing it, were in a hotel right across from the one where the production crew was staying,” Lola says. “Though we met one of the makeup artists and hairdressers on a bus who told us that the last part of the movie was being shot, I wasn’t going to chase them. We also happened to be in Israel around the time they were shooting the epilogue. No one ever approached us to take part.”
Still, the Orzechs acknowledge, that’s the small stuff. Life--fortunately--goes on.
“We bleed,” her husband says. “We get together with friends. We go to Vegas and have a good time. No matter what, though, the past is on the table. It’s like it all happened yesterday. I come from an Orthodox home. I believe in God. But sometimes I think he closed his eyes when we needed him most.”
* NEXT WEEK . . .
An interview with director Steven Spielberg in the Los Angeles Times Magazine.