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Chapter Eighteen

“To the Final Hour”: Schindler's War

 

The greatest threat that faced Schindler now was the imminent closure of the camp. Everyone knew that the front was near to collapse and that the last weeks would be the most dangerous. A group of Budzyn prisoners together with a number of other prisoners formed a resistance group in readiness for possible resistance should the Germans decide to force march the entire camp out of Brunnlitz. Worse still was the danger of entire liquidation, which was occupying Schindler's mind at this time. As it happened, Schindler was to face both scenarios. The first danger was the increased activity of Wlassove units[1] stationed in the surrounding area. Schindler had implemented his own defence measures. He went directly to SS Obersturmfuhrer Rausch, the SS and Police Chief of Moravia, and obtained arms on the pretext of defense against the Russians. For his cooperation, Rausch received one of Schindler's last remaining items of real value, the gift of a brilliant diamond ring for his wife. Schindler returned to the camp with hand-grenades, carbines, machine guns, and pistols. These weapons were concealed by one of the Bejski brothers (Uri Bejski 69384) in a storeroom at the factory.

For the second time in Schindler's war he had brought in uniforms to be used in the breakout of the camp. This time they were not uniforms of the Polish army, as they had been at Gliewitz, but uniforms of the SS and Ukrainian Guard. Itzhak Stern took great care in issuing the appropriate size uniforms to a select defense force.[2]

The climax of fear came with a solitary soldier on horseback who arrived in the camp and went directly to the Commandant's office to deliver what turned out to be the orders to liquidate the camp. Mietek Pemper, who was acting as clerk to the Commandant, was the first to reveal the contents of this secret communication. All the young, the ill, and the old were to be “resettled” (killed) immediately. Only 10 percent of the workers were to remain to decommission the camp. Schindler had decided that the waiting was now over and the priority was to get rid of the SS commandant, Leipold. With the help of Leib Salpeter (69282), the Zionist and chemist from Galicia, they got Leipold drunk, and then Schindler gave him lessons in throwing hand-grenades on waste ground at the rear of the camp.[3] The explosions caused near panic to those in the vicinity.

Mrs Schindler was horrified at what her husband was doing and begged him to calm down. Schindler's spontaneous action is another example of his well-thought-out and executed ploy to defeat the Nazis at their own game. He had thrown caution to the wind and, in doing so, had proved his intuition was right. General Schoener, whose Wehrmacht headquarters were a short distance from the factory, came over to investigate the disturbance. General Schoener gave Leipold his marching orders and the following morning Leipold was seen leaving the camp, fully armed, being driven to the front at Moravska Ostrava by Schindler.[4]

A new Commandant was sent to Brunnlitz. He was a 68 year-old local reserve officer and by all accounts a very calm and civil individual. The threat to Schindler and his Jews had now disappeared and it was now a matter of sitting out the war. On the evening of May 8, 1945, Schindler spoke to the entire camp, including the SS guards and the Commandant. They listened together to a broadcast speech by Churchill about the surrender of Nazi Germany.[5] After Churchill's message had gotten through to those present, there was general euphoria. Schindler then gave a speech to thank everyone for their trust and help in the most difficult of circumstances. Schindler's words were taken down in shorthand by his secretary, Hilde Berger (76207),

It is difficult to imagine the frantic activity in the camp at this time, with the sound of gun-fire in the distance. Most of the SS had been disarmed and had fled the camp. Schindler organized a home defense of the entire camp and factory. All the weapons were issued and they prepared themselves for any situation.[6] Wehrmacht vehicles were passing on the road at the entrance to the factory. The whole camp was split up into feverish activity. The Schindlers were preparing their escape to the West with the help of a select few Jews who would escort them. The Jewish prisoners who had come to Brunnlitz from Budzyn were out to settle old scores. They selected the Jewish Kapo, Willi, the most hated Kapo in the camp who had been with them in Budzyn . Willi had been responsible for the death of a number of Jewish prisoners in Budzyn. Willi was seized and strung up on a factory girder, where he died.[7]

The elderly Simon Jereth (69506) of the box factory (adjacent to Emalia), took out his false teeth and from the gold fillings Hersch Licht (68987) crafted a ring out of the gold. On the inner circle of the ring they inscribed a simple “thank you.”[8] Richard Rechin volunteered to drive the lorry that was to escort the Schindlers towards the American lines. The Schindlers were to leave in their two-seater Hawk[9] taking Schindler's woman friend Marta[10] with them.

One of the last acts Schindler was to discharge and share with his Jewish workers was the issue to each and every one of a length of cloth from the spinning mill textile store.[11] Stern and Salpeter dished out vodka and cigarettes, considered by Schindler as first-aid packages. Last farewells were offered, and the Schindler group left in a convoy. Oskar was dressed as a Jewish prisoner and was in possession of his ring, reference documents written in Hebrew, and one large diamond which he concealed in the front seat of his car. Their journey took them through the panic of the retreating Germans and the partisans who were controlling the roads. Stopped by a Russian patrol they were stripped of their watches. At a later check point where they stayed overnight, they lost all their property and their vehicles were damaged beyond repair.

Near the village of Eleanorenhain they came across an American military outpost where they were detained. The Americans, believing they were escaping Nazis, took them into custody. Lt. Kurt Klein, himself a German-born Jew listened to their story and inspected the references that Schindler showed them. Another batch of army officers arrived on the scene. Among this group were several Jewish soldiers and a rabbi. There was no doubt now as the unbelievable story began to unravel. For the Schindler group, the nightmare was over.

 

Footnotes
  1. The Germans had set up a new army, a million strong, composed of Russians, Ukrainians, and Russian prisoners of war. A Soviet General, Wlassove, who was captured by the Germans at Stalingrad, had been designated the Commander of the new army.
  2. Return
  3. Ball-Kaduri documentation. Recollections by Moshe Bejski, Mietek Pemper and Richard Rechen in interviews with the author. Schindler's own defene team was apart from other defense activity in the camp. He was unable to control some of the Budzyn prisoners who were starting to act independently.
  4. Return
  5. I found this recollection by some of the survivors incredible. I double-checked the archive material and translation documents of Ball-Kaduri and it appears from the evidence that there is much substance in it.
  6. Return
  7. Witnesses to Leopold's departure was given by Eduard Heuberger (69820) to the French Military Authorities after the war. See also the Ball-Kaduri documents. The witness Bronia Guns-Sperling (76287) refers to the prisoners digging their own graves in the camp and the confrontation with Leipold. This episode is well documented in Yad Vashem.
  8. Return
  9. The Jews Arthur Rabner (68989) and Selman Szydlo (77177), both radio technicians, had been receiving news from the front for some time. Schindler had supplied the radio, and the information received was used on a large scale map showing the front coming nearer and nearer. On a visit to the factory in 1995/6 I noticed that radio speakers were still in situ. The present director of the factory told me that they had been there since the war.
  10. Return
  11. Dr. Alexander Biberstein, ' Extermination of the Cracow Jews,' 1955 (Polish -translated by Leo Aftergood)
  12. Return
  13. Moshe Bejski recollects this incident and says that he never agreed with hanging Willi. See also Dr. Alexander Biberstein (note 6) 154.
  14. Return
  15. I met Hirsch Licht and his daughter in Jerusalem where Hirsch gave me his personal account of that day.
  16. Return
  17. Mrs Schindler states that this vehicle had been custom-built for the Shah of Persia. but the war impeded the delivery. The vehicle was originally light blue but had since been re-sprayed grey. See Mrs Schindler's memoir.
    Schindler bought the vehicle in Berlin soon after he took over the Rekord factory' (Emalia). He took one of his Polish (non-Jew) secretaries to Berlin and paid cash for the vehicle. The money had been given to him by the Abwehr. Statement of Eva Kiza, Jon Blair film 1982.
  18. Return
  19. Marta-Eva Scheuer remained with the Schindlers throughout the peace.
  20. Return
  21. Moshe Bejski with his length of cloth went to Prague where he exchanged it for his first suit of clothes. He had last worn a suit in 1939.
  22. Return

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