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Chapter Thirteen

Schindler in Budapest

 

By his actions it is conceivable that Stern altered the fate of many Jews. Through his work, he gained an extraordinary insight into the day-to-day activities, the confusion and the confrontations within the German administration. He distributed money and medicines to the needy on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee. Itszak Stern was a loner and had previously occupied a small room in the Ghetto where he carried on his welfare work in the Krakow district.[1] Before the enforcement of the Ghetto residence regulations, there had been a serious outbreak of typhoid in the shtetllech on the outskirts of Krakow. Stern bought vaccine with the allotted zloty from the Joint, and single-handedly organized a mass vaccination programme. Within two days, all the Jews had been vaccinated. TOZ [The Joint Distribution Committee] received a thank-you letter from the German Health Authority.[2]

In her psychological analysis of Schindler, Dr.Wundheiler, makes the following interesting comments:

“As stated before, it is one of my purposes to show that Schindler underwent a development from a person whose concerns were limited to people he knew, to someone whose concern included many human beings he did not know at all. Firstly, one needs to consider that he employed many at Stern's request. He not only knew Stern, but a very special relationship between him and Stern had already begun to develop. From early on, Schindler seemed eager to please Stern.”

Dr. Wundheiler's analysis of Schindler is, in my opinion, correct. We must remember that the Schindler/ Stern relationship went back to November 1939; that Stern, the Zionist, was working for the “Joint” and was very influential in securing employment for selective activists in Emalia. Above all, the relationship between the two men was symbiotic. Stern may have been the first and only human being to recognize Schindler's deepest motives and bring out his greatest talents. Stern admired his intelligence and inventiveness, his courage and love of taking risks, and he called on and developed his compassion. He brought out the best in him and Schindler thanked him by loving him. We are dealing with an exceptional relationship between these two men – indeed, so exceptional that it may have altered the course of survival for the Jews of Krakow.[3]

Working conditions for the Jews in the Ghetto were becoming critical. Many of the Jews sought security by working for the Wehrmacht as they felt that this afforded them a certain protection. Stern also considered this action prudent and procured for himself a job at the Broadcasting Equipment store in Krakow. In addition to this job and his voluntary work, Stern worked for the Trust Administrator Unkelbach, referred to earlier. Stern audited the books for Unkelbach once a month. He wrote the accounts for the Treuhandstelle, which had to be written on special forms and done with typical German thoroughness. For these jobs, Stern was allowed out of the Ghetto, giving him some freedom of movement and useful opportunities to further his charity work and report on the day-to-day situation.

In October, 1942, Stern was taken ill with suspected appendicitis and was taken to a hospital in the Ghetto. He was due to have an appendectomy the following day. Unkelbach, a well -known SS murderer, came to the hospital. Unkelbach confronted Dr Hilfstein (68895), and ordered him to abandon the proposed operation on Stern, and to send him home immediately. Failure to comply would result in the shooting of all the doctors. Nobody knew why Unkelbach had issued this ultimatum, but Stern went home immediately. Three days later the reason became apparent. The Jews of the Ghetto braced themselves, trembled, and again prayed to the Almighty. The SS were more thorough than in the June “Actions.” Selections, deportations, and killings proceeded in an orderly way. Hospitals in the Ghetto were surrounded and raked with gunfire, Doctors, patients, and orderlies were shot on the spot. Stern's life had been saved.[4] Mrs. Stern, in an interview with the author, confirmed this incident and stated that her husband was only running a high temperature and, therefore, an operation had not been necessary. Later it was learned that Stern's sudden removal from hospital had been instigated by Schindler, who used Unkelbach to repay an old debt.[5]

It may have been that Unkelbach had double-crossed Schindler. A few days after Stern's release from hospital, Schindler was arrested by the Gestapo and taken to Pomorska Street, where he was interrogated over alleged black market deals. His company's books had been seized and inspected for irregularities. The exigency plan was activated by Schindler's secretary. Wherever the phone calls came from is not known, but within hours Schindler was released without charge. The pressure from above was too much for the Gestapo and SS.

Working independently, Stern had proved himself essential to the Krakow Jews. An articulate report writer, he satisfied all needs. He was respected by both the Judenrat and the German administrators. In lieu of payment from the “Joint,” he accepted luxuries such as milk, cocoa, and cheese which he distributed to the children and the main hospital. Although the Stern / Schindler activities were quite independent of each other, Schindler ensured that Stern's funds were adequate by topping up the coffers at the most unexpected times and places. Stern was now at the very center of the turmoil engulfing the Jews. He was privy to some of the most sensitive intelligence concerning impending operations by the SS, which had been imparted to him by Schindler. He was clever enough to glean information from his employer Unkelbach and balance this information with his loyalties to Schindler, the Judenrat, and his fellow Jews. With the liquidation of the Ghetto, Stern found himself in the melting pot of the Plazow labor camp, and he knew that they were on the last stages of “resettlement.” His and his fellow Jews' last hope now Schindler.

It was not long before Unkelbach's workers brought trouble to factory “Progress.” Shortly after the concession from Amon Goeth to allow selected prisoners to move freely about the town, three employees from “Progress” disappeared, resulting in a huge scandal. An inquiry established that, after being delivered by the guards, the workers were allowed to wander around unguarded and unsupervised in the factory grounds. They were able to walk into Krakow and taste life's freedom. Because of this scandal the factory was closed and all workers returned to Plaszow. The disappearance of the three Jews wa, at first not followed up. Perhaps Goeth wanted to protect Unkelbach, his friend.

When in the Ghetto, the Jews were under the jurisdiction of the Gestapo, who benefited economically from them. As soon as the Jews were put into camps, they were placed under the jurisdiction of the SS, who then rented them out to various companies. The friction between the Gestapo and the SS affected the Jews. Some members of the Jewish Council and the Jewish Security Police worked with the Gestapo to track down hidden Jews. The Jews believed that by their cooperation they might survive the war.

For whatever reason, the missing Jews from factory “Progress” were reported to the Gestapo, who lost no time in accusing Goeth of negligence. Goeth issued an ultimatum to the whole camp: “Give me their whereabouts or you will all be shot.” Goeth seized Stern as a hostage. Within hours an address was forthcoming. An armed posse of SS went to the address in Krakow. It proved to be correct and there was a bloodbath. Stern was saved. Unkelbach had lost the confidence of Goeth and was arrested. He was accused of taking bribes from Jews to allow Jewish children to be smuggled into the camp. Despite Unkelbach's claim of wanting to kill all the Jewish children, he was disarmed and arrested. According to Stern he was never seen in the camp again.

An insight into Stern's character was given by Menahem Halberthal, who worked closely with Stern after the war. He reflected on their special relationship:

“Stern was not religious, but he retained a close interest in religious matters. His knowledge of Judaica was immense. He was a man of compromise, a negotiator, a man of understanding. He was always philosophizing and had a quotation or anecdote for every occasion and always tinged with humou. He never argued but persuaded by gentle coaxing. This was his strength and the strength that supported all those around him, even Schindler”. [6]

Stern's attitude, even under pressure from the SS, did not fail him. Dr. A Lilienfeld, a doctor at the Gestapo prison in Lvov, was interviewed after the war by Ball-Kaduri. Lilienfeld stated, that in his experience, “...sadistic instincts are less aroused when not showing fear.”[7]

In the Plaszow camp various small workshops were sprouting up. Every additional workshop meant more work for the Jews and therefore greater security. It was apparent that for the SS to pursue their annihilation program, there were four stages: concentration, segregation according to fitness and exploitation through physical labor, extermination, and finally, physical destruction of the habitat. This plan had held up well in the ghettos and camps of Eastern Europe with characteristic German efficiency, though, as will be noted, some unforeseen developments altered both the timetable and the course of the operation.

The Chief Architect of Plaszow camp was a Pole, Zygmunt Gruenberg, and a particular friend of Stern. Gruenberg suggested to Goeth that he put Stern to work in the works office, as he had vast knowledge of managing small industries and was a professional bookkeeper. Goeth agreed and Stern joined a team of outstanding Jewish workers in the administration offices of the camp. Among them were the Jews Joseph Bau (69084), Moshe Bejski (69387), and the man who was to hold the key to essential intelligence of the forthcoming events, Mieczyslaw Pemper (69514).[8]

 

Mietek Pemper
Mietek Pemper

 

With Stern's new-found influence, he was to make two personal interventions and seek the direct help of Schindler. The first was for Mania Peltzmann, born in South Africa, who was living as an Aryan on forged South African papers. Her parents, Gusta Peltzmann (76392) and Hersch Peltzmann (68967), were suffering physically in Plaszow. Mania Peltzmann made a direct approach to Schindler, requesteing help in getting her parents into Emalia. The second intervention was for Rabbi Jacob Lewertow (68872). Rabbi Lewertow was being harassed by Goeth and it was only a matter of time before Goeth would deal with him. In both cases, the three fugitives found their way into the temporary safety of Schindler's Emalia factory. Rabbi Lewertow will be remembered in Spielberg's film as the factory worker who was timed by Goeth in the making of hinges, then taken out when several attempts were made by Goeth to shoot him.

The Budapest connection

 

Rudi Kastner
 
Rudi Kastner
 
Rudi Kastner
 
Rudi Kastner
Rudi Kastner   Joel Brand   Oskar Schindler   SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer
Adolf Eichmann
The Hungarian Quartet

 

Resistance took on a more urgent guise. It was imperative that the information known by many in Krakow had to get to the outside world. Towards the end of 1943, Stern was called to Schindler's factory. A ghetto policeman had orders to escort Stern from Plaszow to Emalia. On entering Schindler's office Stern was confronted by Schindler and two strangers. The strangers immediately asked him what was going on inside Plaszow camp. Stern took Schindler aside and questioned the wisdom of talking to these people. As it turned out. one gentleman was Dr. Sedlacek, who was working for the “Joint” and the other was from a dubious source but, as Stern recollects, he was an agent from the Canaris office (Franz von Kohrab). Schindler stated that the men had recently come from Hungary and Turkey. Stern gave them a run-down of the situation and suggested they visit the camp to see the mass graves. Schindler agreed to this and contacted Goeth to inform him that he had some special armament visitors and that he would be giving a party that night to which Goeth was invited.[9]

This was an amazing front by Schindler, but it worked. That night during the festivities Goeth invited the armament contractors to visit the workshops in the camp. Schindler received authority to speak to Stern and have him accompany the inspection. Stern was instructed to stop near the site of the mass graves and attend to his shoe laces. A concealed camera photographed the scene, and the photographs were later smuggled out to Budapest to his old contacts Kastner, Brand, and Springman and then on to Palestine.[10] Shortly after, Schindler was smuggled out of Krakow in the back of a newspaper van to Budapest to meet his Jewish contacts. Many of us know of the infamous blood for trucks deal proposed by Adolf Eichmann when things began to go against the Nazi war machine. Under the macabre offer thousands of Jewish lives would be bartered by the Germans in exchange for 10,000 military trucks to be turned over to the Nazis. How seriously the West considered the offer came to light in the report of a disclosure by Schindler. Jewish authorities in Budapest wanted desperately to know as early as 1942 whether the Eichmann offer could be trusted. Schindler had given personal testimonies to the death factories and to the terror being unleashed upon the Jewish people. Having delivered his message he was taken back by the same route. From Schindler, the West had confirmed the facts of German murder. This singular exploit brings into focus the true man.

At an informal select gathering Schindler was introduced to Dr. Sedlacek by his old boss in Krakow, Major von Kohrab. It was suggested that he should make a trip to Budapest[11] to meet with the Jewish Relief Organization, and pass on the true nature of the extermination of the Jews in Poland. First-hand knowledge was essential as the information coming out of Poland was unbelievable to the Jewish agencies and more importantly, elsewhere. Schindler in his position as an agent of the Abwehr was the holder of a special security passport, which enabled him to travel within and outside of the Reich. Usually he would drive his Hawk motor car across borders but, on this occasion, he was smuggled across the borders in the back of a newspaper van.

In Budapest he was to meet with Samual Springman and Rudy Kastner, members of the Zionist rescue organisation and leading figures in the Jewish Relief Organization. He handed to Springman and his associates evidence of the Jewish transports to the death camps and the cruelty inflicted on the Jews of Poland. He gave his listeners hard numbers: 80 percent of the Jews of Warsaw had already been murdered as well as 66 percent of the Jews of the Lodz Ghetto and 50 percent of the population of the Krakow Ghetto. Those who were still alive after the ghetto liquidations rapidly disappeared into forced labor camps. After his report, the Zionists in Budapest trusted Schindler enough to ask him to transmit rescue money to the Zionists in Krakow and to enlist his long-term cooperation in rescue acts. On Schindler's return to Krakow, he handed a large amount of zloty to the Jewish Defence Committee in the Ghetto. Schindler also had a list of important Jewish Zionist activists who were working undercover, both in the Ghetto and on the Aryan side. He was requested to get them into Emalia as one of the few safe havens in Krakow. Over a period of a few months, Schindler had traced 18 persons on the list and had taken them into his factory.[12]

Dr Wundheiler's observation on the Budapest action is interesting:

“His long range cooperation with the Zionists is possibly the most important evidence of development I am trying to sketch. Certainly, this cooperation was risky, and one might argue that Schindler did what he did because he enjoyed taking risks. Perhaps that is true, but so what? Is an action less high-minded and admirable because the actor enjoys it? Besides, one should keep in mind that the typical hazarder likes to take risks because any victory in a life full of risks adds to the risk-taker's glory in his eyes as well as the eyes of others.”[13]

Since Schindler's activities had to be entirely clandestine, there was not even the reward of temporary glory. There was no monetary reward either, since unlike some others who transmitted money to Zionists in various eastern European cities, Schindler never kept a percentage of the money for himself.[14] Whether or not his cooperation with the Zionists appealed to the gambler in him, it drew on his compassion and altruistic feelings in that it required selfless actions on behalf of people who were strangers to him and about whom he knew nothing except that they were in terrible danger. In summary, then, he continued during this period to shelter Jews he knew and, in addition, he took many under his wing whom he did not know, but who needed his protection.

It is difficult to imagine what state of mind Schindler was in at this time. In his report to Ball-Kaduri he writes of coming near to a nervous breakdown and was at his lowest ebb. Well after the war, Moshe Bejski (69387) asked Schindler why he had gone to all the trouble to help the Jews and at the same time lay himself open to detection by the SS. Schindler simply stated, “I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings. If I'm walking in the street and I see a dog in danger of being crushed by a car, wouldn't you try to help?”[15]

I have already referred to Schindler's utter depression when the children of the Kinderheim were transported. Because of its importance I will refer again to the Wundheiler notes relating to Schindler's love and compassion for children. During some of the worst excesses of the SS, Schindler, with the help of Bousco and Madritsch, smuggled a number of children out of the Ghetto by delivering them into the caring hands of Polish nuns. Exact data concerning the number and ages of the children are hard to come by. According to Wundheiler, a German doctor named Stroder, who was a paediatrician at the hospital in Krakow, stated that many of the children he attended were Jewish and he believed that most of them came to the hospital with the aid of Schindler.[16]

This was an act of compassion, deepened and enhanced by Schindler's identification with the children as well as their parents. These parents surrendered their children to strangers, in the anxious and uncertain hope of saving them and seeing them again. Schindler recognized that the greatest need of these parents was to have their children saved, that the pain of the temporary loss with the hope, however slim, of seeing them again at some time, is infinitely more bearable than total loss through death. It is noteworthy that this was probably Schindler's main motive behind all his rescue actions during this period. Further, we must remind ourselves that Schindler was still an active agent of the Abwehr, albeit directed against the enemy within.

 

Footnotes
  1. Ball-Kaduri, 18.
  2. Return
  3. Ibid.
  4. Return
  5. Wundheiler.
  6. Return
  7. Mrs Sophie Stern.
  8. Return
  9. Ibid. See also Ball-Kaduri, 48.
  10. Return
  11. Interviewed by the author in Tel-Aviv, 1995.
  12. Return
  13. Another influential Jewish leader that immediately comes to mind, who also had these qualities, was Dr Elachanan Elkes of the Kovno Ghetto.
  14. Return
  15. Interviewed by the author in Germany 1995.
  16. Return
  17. Ball-Kaduri documents. See also statement of Stern - Yad Vashem, and Keneally 243.
  18. Return
  19. Ball-Kaduri documents and statement by Stern at a Schindler gathering in 1962 in Tel-Aviv. Keneally, 243.
  20. Return
  21. Mrs Schindler - Jon Blair interview.
  22. Return
  23. Ball-Kaduri.
  24. Return
  25. Wundheiler, 13.
  26. Return
  27. Ibid 14.
  28. Return
  29. Interview by the author with Moshe Bejski 1995.
  30. Return
  31. Wundheiler, 11.
  32. Return

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