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Chapter One

Early Years 1908 -1938

 

Marriage: Svitavy 1928
Marriage: Svitavy 1928

Oskar Schindler was born on April 28, 1908[1] in Svitavy, a Moravian industrial town which, at the time of his birth, was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many ethnic Germans lived in Svitavy and the surrounding area, the Sudetenland. Oscar's parents, Johann[2] and Francisca,[3] had come to Svitavy from Silesia. Both were German. A sister, Elfriede,[4] born in 1915, was seven years younger than Oskar. The relationship between the two children was good. Oskar's relationship with his mother was, allegedly, also close; nobody, however, seems to know about his early relationship with his father. His father appears to have been a Jack-of-all-trades but dealt mainly with farm machinery, traveling the area plying his trade.[5]

In “Schindler's List” Keneally draws our attention to the Schindler's neighbors, one of whom was Dr. Felix Kantor, a liberal rabbi, who had two sons attending the same school as Schindler.[6] By all accounts, the children enjoyed a natural and free upbringing, participating together in the rough and tumble of daily life. Both Jew and Gentile assimilated into the social strata of the community. Keneally states that the Kantor family left Svitavy in the mid 30s and were not heard of again.[7]

At the end of World War 1, when Schindler was ten years old, Svitavy became a Czechoslovakian town. Schindler's education took place at the local German Grammar school. Expected to continue his father's business, he took the “Realgymnasium” course, designed to produce practical-based trades of all kinds suitable for the industrial requirements of the area. After well into completing junior school in Svitavy (November 1925), due to some boyish misdemeanor (cheating in school exams), he was expelled from school and never graduated.[8]

In his early to mid teens his physically strong body soon outstripped his parent's efforts to clothe him satisfactorily. At 18 years old, he had a heavy build and stood over 6 feet tall. Since he was 16 years old he had been renowned for his heavy smoking and frequent visits to the local drinking dens.[9] There followed several instances of brushes with the police. Arrested on several occasions for rowdiness, drinking and assault, he was well-documented with the judiciary.[10]

Women were always going to play a big part in the life of Oskar Schindler. By the time he was 19 years, and before his marriage, he had fathered illegitimate twins,[11] a fact that was not to become known until after his death in 1974. Further revelations revealed two further children out of wedlock: on March 20, 1933, his daughter Edith Schlegelova was born from a relationship with her mother, Aurelie Schlegelova (born 1909); On December 20, 1934, a second child was born – a son named Oskar, who has been missing from the records since 1945. This Oskar may be the individual that Keneally met in Australia.[12] His tastes in women gravitated towards the older in preference to the younger. He was to carry on his fraternizing with the opposite sex right up to the day of his marriage (and, of course, well after that), with near catastrophic results.

Schindler's main hobbies were anything mechanical. He was often seen with spanner [tool to undo nuts and bolts] and oily rag in hand and immersed in some machine or other. Johann Schindler encouraged his son's natural ability with motor bikes. He showed off his skills by competing in road races at a very high standard on specialized motorcycles. On the May 13, 1928, he came third in a road race in Brno, riding a 250cc Motto-Guzzi.[13]

Schindler's reputation as a gambler, drinker and womanizer would appear to stem from this point of his development. One observer of Schindler in Svitavy at this time was Ifo Zwicker, a Jew and a resident of the town where Schindler was born and grew up. He knew Schindler well, as he was also with Schindler
in the “Emalia” camp in Krakow. Interviewed some years later, he remarked:

“As a Svitavy citizen I would never have considered Oskar Schindler capable of all those wonderful deeds. Before the war, everyone in Svitavy called him 'Gauner' (swindler or sharper)”[14]

After leaving full-time education, Schindler worked in the family business in Svitavy. After a short break he commuted to Brno, where he worked for an electrical company as a representative.[15] Bored with this work, he then became the manager of a driving school in the town of Mahren - Schonberg.[16]

It was towards the end of 1927 that Schindler first met Emilie Pelzl, born October 22, 1907 at her parents' house in the village Alt Moletein, in the area of Honeenstadt, northern Moravia, and some 60 kilometers to the east of Svitavy. The family had lived in the region since the 12th century, when they arrived as colonisers.[17] Emilie lived with her parents and her brother Frank in a comfortable farm environment in a middle class district of the town. The Pelzl family made a good living as farmers trading in wheat, rye, and flax. There was also an orchard with many fruit trees and they kept horses for riding and for the plough. Emilie Schindler's recollection of her mother was that she was always understanding and sympathetic with a kind word for all. Emilie worked in the family home, for which she was paid. Her love for the country far outweighed her love for her weekly piano lessons, which were compulsory.[18]

As she grew up, she began to notice racial and cultural differences. Since she was small, she had always felt an attraction towards gypsies, their appearance, their freedom and independent lives. When the gypsies came to the town, she would go out of her way to talk to them, listen to their stories and songs. She could never understand the prejudice towards them. Emilie recalls that on one occasion an old gypsy read her fortune: “An extensive life with much pain and suffering. There would be a man who would take me away from Alt Moletein; I would love him but never be happy by his side.[19] ” Emilie's grandparents lived close by and were a great influence in her upbringing. Her grandmother paid for a dressmaker to dress Emilie and by all accounts worried about Emilie's eating habits.

In 1914, when Emilie was seven years old, her father was recruited into the army. After the end of the war and his return to their farm, he had changed. During his service he had contracted an incurable case of malaria and a heart condition. He was subject to fainting fits without warning. At the age of 40 years he was a broken man, ruined. He had returned as one of the many mutilated, maddened, sick, and hungry from a discarded army.

At the age of 14 years Emilie attended a convent. She disliked this part of her education. The nuns were unpleasant, the food was awful, and the whole atmosphere was one of disillusionment and regret. Emilie says that the nuns did not understand her. She was a free country spirit now encased in an introverted environment, with no purpose in sight. After one year, Emilie left the convent and continued her education at an agricultural college where she remained for three years. It was the happiest time of her life. Emilie made many friends. One was a young Jewish girl named Rita Goss.[20] Emilie and Rita discussed the racial intolerance that was sweeping the country. Rita Goss was brutally murdered by the Commander of the German forces in Alt Moletein during the opening phase of the war.[21]

Emilie's relationship with her brother, Frank, strengthened due to her father's medical condition and withdrawal from normal life. She talks about her brother, when she found him in the stables smoking a cigarette. He persuaded her to try the cigarette, which she did. They were to share many secrets together over the years. One winter, when she was with Frank out in the woods on a very cold winter night, she was in danger of passing out with the cold. Frank made a sled and dragged her on it to the safety of home. He had realized the danger of hypothermia.

Her mother was now the mainstay of the family, on whom they all depended.[22] That Christmas was one to remember. Emilie marvels at her mother's puddings, with Christmas cake, home-made marmalade, cherry sponge cake, and her grandmother's huge goose full of apples and plums. This was the life of the well-brought up country girl of Alt Moltein.

She recalled:-

“Infancy and old age seem similar. When we are young, we perceive with innocent eyes, when we are old we forgive without indulgent spirit. Old age is a second innocence, and our memories are simply shadows, allowing us to perceive a contented reality. The images of my countryside childhood are forever in my mind, but that idyllic image would soon be torn by war, and by the arrival of a man who would take me away and share with me a life of happiness and misfortune.”

It was a business trip for Oskar, accompanying his father to the Pelzl household to sell electrical equipment to Joseph Pelzl. On that day, Emilie observed the two men as they spoke to her father; one, over 50 years, tall and well built. The other, young, slim, with wide shoulders, blonde hair and blue eyes. On subsequent visits, Oskar paid a little more than a casual attention to this young beauty. The business calls accelerated over the next few weeks; there was a flirtatious whirlwind courtship with a momentum of its own. Three months later, on the March 6, 1928,[23] against the wishes of both families they were married.

“My father was ill and bad-tempered, my grandmother was suffering from old age. and my mother progressively tired by over work. I was prepared to believe in words and emotions, and the protection his wide shoulders offered me. Now, I believe I would act differently.”[24]

On the very day of the wedding there was a disaster. The local police had received anonymous information that Schindler was already married. He was arrested and detained in the Svitavy police cells so that inquiries could be made. It transpired that Schindler had been co-habiting with a much older woman for three years, a fact that he denied to his new wife, Emilie. The allegation of bigamy was malicious, but the facts were correct and caused Emilie much heartache. She never forgave him.[25]

After the wedding, the newly married couple moved into Oskar's parent's house at 24, Iglaustrasse, where they occupied the upper part of the house. Emilie was never happy with this situation, and was in constant argument with Johann Schindler, whom she describes as an uneducated man who came home drunk on many occasions. She was kinder about Mrs Francisca (Fanny) Schindler, who she says was a very elegant woman, but always ill. Elfriede Schindler (Oskar's sister), then 13 years old, was described by Emilie as looking like Johann: ugly, with chestnut hair and large brown eyes. Despite all this, Emilie helped Elfriede with her homework and generally made allowances for her.

One of the highlights of Emilie's early marriage was traveling to Prague on an errand for her husband. She was overwhelmed with the architecture and scenery surrounding Prague. Thereafter, everything declined. Her marriage was collapsing and she became sadder and disillusioned with life. Old man Pelzl had given Oskar 100,000 Czech crowns, a considerable sum of money. Despite old man Pelzl's attempt to safeguard the dowry, Schindler bought a car and squandered the rest in the bars and clubs of Ostrava and Svitavy. Emilie challenged him over this waste, for which Oskar would ask forgiveness, like a child who knew he had been caught in the act. Emilie, although very annoyed about her husband's stupidity and deceit, still thought of him as an affable, benevolent, magnanimous, and charitable person. She put his behavior down to the fact that he was spoiled by his mother due to the constant absence of his father. Her days were spent in domestic isolation. Schindler was without doubt a scatterbrain, an impulsive liar, and playboy of immense charm.

Emilie had led a comparatively sheltered life; a quiet convent schooled girl but endowed with personality and humor. She was a well-educated young lady who spoke very directly ands a woman of devout faith who attended mass twice a day.

She may well have been under the aura of her flamboyant husband, but she was subsequently never to be deceived again. However, throughout the tumultuous years ahead she would never hear a bad word against him and she remained loyal and supportive to the end. The marriage, as everyone had predicted, was one that Oskar would never quite adjust to. After a brief period of harmony, he reverted to the ways of a single man. Despite all this, the couple remained more or less together until their final separation well after the war.[26]

By the end of 1928 we find Schindler conscripted for military service in the Czechoslovakian army, where he served for 18 months. After completing his service he returned to his old job in the electronics company M.E.A.S. in Brno. The economic climate had changed and the company went into liquidation in 1931. The Schindler family business was also in financial trouble and that, too, went bankrupt in 1933.[27] Schindler started up on his own, running a poultry farm in the village of Ctyricetlanu, but gave up after six months, unable to make any money. After a short period of unemployment, Schindler worked in Prague, at the Yaroslav Chemnitz Bank. His last period of serious employment was as a representative for the Company 'Opodni Ustev', 30, Veveri Street, Brno, earning between six and ten thousand crowns a months.

In 1935, Johann Schindler left his wife Francisca and the marriage collapsed, leaving the family in turmoil. A short time later Francisca Schindler died, resulting in further recriminations and splits in the family. By this time Oskar had completely fallen out with his immediate family. He was not to see his father again until well into the war. He only had one other relative, an uncle named Adolph Luser, who had a publishing house in Vienna, whom he hadn't seen since 1929.[28]

Oskar, the reluctant husband, spurns Emilie and turns to other familiar pastures and into the web of espionage and treason.

 

 
Emilie Svitavy 1929   Emilie Poland 1940

 

Oskar Schindler (at the wheel) Svitavy 1928
Oskar Schindler (at the wheel) Svitavy 1928

 

Footnotes
  1. Certified extract from Registrar Births Deaths and Marriages, Svitavy.
  2. Return
  3. Johann Schindler (born 9.5.1883 Svitavy) described by Emilie Schindler as often drunk and absent from the family home at 24, Iglaustrasse, Svitavy (now 24, Poličska Street). Johann died in the Kisslau camp in Eichstädt on 19 February, 1947.
  4. Return
  5. Francisca Schindler (nee Luserová), was born on 15 February, 1884, Svitavy. Within the family she was called 'Fanny'. Described by Emilie Schindler as a very pleasant and elegant woman who was always ill. Francisca Schindler died aged 53 years (1935). There marriage took place on 12 October, 1907.
  6. Return
  7. Emilie Schindler's memoir describes Elfiede as like her father: ugly, with chestnut hair and large brown eyes. According to Emilie she was ignored by everyone.
  8. Return
  9. An interesting newspaper cutting found by the author in Svitavy town archive. No date but probably early thirties. The document is a half-page section for advertisements by local businesses. There is two of particular interest: (1), 'Hans Schindler', Zwittau, (Svitavy) Iglaustrasse 24 (Schindler family address). 'Insurance Business; All Insurances catered for, fire, theft and personal insurance'. Immediately after this section there is a 'motif', then, 'All farm machinery of the highest quality supplied; (2) A similar advertisement with the same 'motif' but headed 'Franz Schindler, Zwittau (Svitavy) Lotschnau 187'. According to the translator there is no connection. The 'motif' was used by similar allied trades.
    According to Emilie Schindler, Johann Schindler specialised in the selling of electrical generators for domestic and farm purposes. He had previously traded in Insurances but the business had collapsed.
  10. Return
  11. After Primary school, Schindler attended the 'Realka' gymnasium, Svitavy.
  12. Return
  13. Thomas Keneally's, Schindler's Ark, London, 1982, 37. Hereafter Keneally
  14. Return
  15. Thomas Fensch, Oskar Schindler and His List, Vermont, 1995, 13. Hereafter Fensch/Steinhouse. Also included in this letter were references about Schindler by Herbert Steinhouse. (Spielberg commences his portrayal of Schindler as from 1939) This disclosure by Steinhouse is very interesting as it corroborates many instances received from other sources: Schindler's interest in Jewish culture from a very early age. One of Schindler's favourite images of Jewish life in Krakow was the sight of a Hassid scurrying across the square with a goose tucked under his arm ready for Shabbes (As related to the author by Mrs Sophia Stern, wife of Itzhak Stern).
  16. Return
  17. Schindler's local drinking house was the Hotel 'Ungar' in the main street of Svitavy. The place where, at 16 years of age he would taste his first pint of Pilsner beer, where he would celebrate his wedding, conduct his Abwehr activities and the place where he would be arrested for spying and later sentenced to death. The hotel is still functioning and has retained that mysterious atmosphere where small groups of people still conduct their business at all hours of the day and night. The hotel is now called the Hotel 'Slavia'.
  18. Return
  19. List of previous convictions for minor offences taken from the Police files at Svitavy and Brno Magistrates Court Office and the opinion of local people who knew Schindler at the time.
  20. Return
  21. Wundheiler refers to twin girls. In Brecher's introduction, p.xxxiii, of her book Schindler's Legacy. There is a photograph of Schindler: Oskar Schindler with female companions, apparently twins, taken about 1940. (Photo by courtesy of Pola Yogev).
  22. Return
  23. (1)Wundheiler. After Keneally had written Schindler's Ark he was approached by a big blonde man who claimed to be Oskar's illegitimate son: 'First I thought this guy was a con',' said Keneally, 'but he had too much information, and he sure looked like Oskar. He said his mother had him and his sister by Oskar, and they had lived a block away from Emilie and Oskar in Svitavy'. Source from American press report. In Mrs Schindler's memoir she confirms that an illegitimate son of her husband lived in Australia.
  24. Return
  25. Official Programme number 624457, Zavod Brno-Sobesice 13. Kvetna. On the 19th May, 1928, in the magazine 'Sport', the results of the times trials on the 12th May are shown. First: Jaraslav Tichy, riding a Terrot, 2.58.6, Second, Mirko Wagner, riding a Terrot, 3.17.1, and Third, Oskar Schindler, riding a Motor-Guzzi, 3.22.5. Source material from the Svitavy museum. Verified by the author 1995. See also Keneally, 38-40.
  26. Return
  27. Herbert Steinhouse, The Real Oskar Schindler , Saturday Night, April, 1994, 77
  28. Return
  29. Moravska Elektotechnica (M.E.A.S.). Brno.
  30. Return
  31. Mahren -Schonberg is half way between Svitavy and Ostrava. It was during this period of employment that he was to meet Ilse Pelican agent of the Abwehr.
  32. Return
  33. All genealogical documents were lost in the Second World War.
  34. Return
  35. Emilie Schindler, Where Light and Shadow Meet, Ney York, 1996. Hereafter Light and Shadow.
  36. Return
  37. Emilie also stated that there were other things that the gypsy would not elaborate on. She was not to tell her husband about this incident until after the war when they were on route to Argentina. It has all come true.
  38. Return
  39. Keneally refers to this incident but names the girl as Rita Reif. 41.
  40. Return
  41. Keneally states that she was killed in 1942.
  42. Return
  43. Emilie states that her mother was a 'just woman', which was passed on to her.
  44. Return
  45. Verified by the author, Svitavy 1996 ( Town Records )
  46. Return
  47. Light and Shadow.
  48. Return
  49. People Newspaper, Buenos Aires, 1994, 7 (date of article mislaid). Interview with Emilie Schindler by journalists David Gardner and Corinna Honan.
  50. Return
  51. Since the Spielberg film, Mrs Schindler has been the centre of media attention. She has always given frank observations about her relationship with her husband. The author interviewed Mrs Schindler on three occasions at the King David Hotel, Israel in 1994. She has remained the main source of information regarding Oskar Schindler. Her involvement with her husband in his Abwehr duties and her direct action at the Brunnlitz camp cannot be underestimated. Her relationship with Oskar had always been strained.
  52. Return
  53. Ball-Kaduri. See also Keneally, 41.
  54. Return
  55. Czech Security Police Documentation/C.J.1553/1/pros.-30. Dated 19.738. Interrogation of Oskar Schindler by Inspector Kirbek of the Security Police Department, Brno.
    This document is one of a series, and obtained by the author in Prague, Svitavy and Brno, dealing with the surveillance and arrest of Schindler during his spying activities in July, 1938. Under interrogation Schindler admits his association with the Abwehr, his methods and contacts used during his activities. It also gives us further information about his personal life. The documentation contains 30 pages of reports, statements including a full set of Schindler's fingerprints, photograph and description. Hereafter Czech Security Document - Schindler.
  56. Return

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