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Oskar Shindler and the famous list
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Photo: AP
Emilie Schindler
Photo: AP
Schindler's list: The story behind the documents
Spielberg's film made Oskar Schindler famous, but left his widow bitter and frustrated. Now her heiress claims historical docs belong to her, demands Yad Vashem return them
It is one of the most talked about historical documents from the Holocaust. A nine-page list consisting of 1,098 names of Jews – 801 men and 297 women – who were all saved because of the famous Righteous Among the Nations honoree Oskar Schindler.

 

Over the years this list became a symbol of courage during a very dark time for humanity, much acredited to the successful Hollywood film "Schindler's List" by director Steven Spielberg.

 

Now, 17 years after the movie premiered, the sensitive question is brought up once again: Who is the rightful owner of the real Schindler's list in theYad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem?

 

It's hard to over estimate the historical value of the original list, also due to the successful Hollywood film. In fact, it is because of this that every copy of the list is worth a lot of money.

 

It is then easy to understand how sensitive the issue is now, in light of two separate legal struggles on behalf of a Jewish journalist from Argentina who claims to have the rights to two original copies of the list.

 

Argentinean author Erika Rosenberg befriended Emilie Schindler a few years prior to her death. Rosenberg assisted Schindler in writing her autobiography and after her death published a few books about the famous couple.

 

When Emilie died in 2001, Rosenberg was appointed as one of her heirs and received the copyrights to all of the documents written by Oskar Schindler. She now claims that since Oskar Schindler was the one who wrote the list, she is its rightful owner.

 

In a letter she recently sent to Israeli officials, Rosenberg claims the rights to documents written by Schindler, including the notorious list, which made their way to the Holocaust Museum in Israel during the 1990s in a questionable manner.

 

The women beside him

The journey these documents underwent, in a suitcase belonging to Oskar, in order to reach Israel could easily be turned into another box-office hit. After World War II, the Schindlers escaped to Argentina and lived on a farm. In 1957, Oskar Schindler decided to abandon his wife, returning to Germany where he lived with his mistress in the town of Hildesheim.

 

Oskar Schindler visited Israel 16 times. In 1962 a tree was planted in Schindler's honor in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, and he was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations in 1993. Oskar Schindler died in 1974 at the age of 66 and was buried in Israel upon his request.

 

Emilie was also recognized as Righteous Among the Nations, especially because of her initiative to save 100 Jews who were left to freeze to death in train cars near Schindler's factory towards the end of the war.

 

In 1997 she wrote in A Memoir Where Light And Shadow Meet, with the help of Rosenberg, that neither she nor her husband were heroes, they just did what had to be done.

 

After Oskar died, Emilie was declared to be his rightful heir by a German court. When Schindler's mistress passed away sometime during the end of the 1990s, her son and neighboors discovered an old suitcase in the attic of the house in Hildesheim filled with over 7,000 documents and pictures belonging to Oskar Shindler, including a rare copy of the famous list.

 

They decided to hand over their findings to the German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung, which later published a series of articles about Schindler and the lists, quoting from the documents found in the suitcase.

 

Following these publications, Emilie hired an attorney, with the help of Rosenberg, and demanded all the newly found documents be returned to her. A German courthouse agreed with her and issued a search warrant of the documents and lists at the publishing house.

 

However, by the time the courthouse representatives arrived at Stuttgarter Zeitung headquarters to search for the documents, the suitcase was already on its way to a Lufthansa airplane about to leave for Israel.

The German newspaper decided the proper place for Schindler's list and the rest of his personal documents were in Yad Vashem.

 

Ulrich Sahm, a German journalist who was the Stuttgarter Zeitung's corrospondant in Israel at the time, recalled the incident this week. Sahm said he had driven to Ben-Gurion Airport to release the documents from customs: "I was very excited. These are highly valuable historical documents." He said that after a few days he handed the papers to museum chairman Avner Shalev.

 

However, as far as Emilie Schindler was concerned – the documents had disappeared.

 

The Schindler documents were on display in Yad Vashem undisturbed until Sahm published his book in March 2010. In the book, the 60-year-old journalist living in Jerusalem for the past 40 years discusses the Schindler list story in great detail.

 

Erika Rosenberg, who now owns the copyrights to these documents, read the book and decided to react. According to her, she now has proof that the documents found in Schindler's suitcase were robbed from the estate and transferred illegally to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

 

Rosenberg wrote a long letter to Israeli officials, including to Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai, claiming they should intervene in order to return the lists to their rightful owner.

 

She wrote that after reading journalist Sahm's story of how the documents were handed over in a secret operation, she had written Yad Vashem personally. This lead to a long correspondence with the museum, which said they had received the documents legally.

 

Rosenberg stated that this is a lie, saying the museum's behavior is not consistent – on the one hand it recognized Emilie as Righteous Among the Nations, but on the other hand it hid Schindler's list from her. Rosenberg went on to say that returning these documents is "a matter of honor and respect, and above all - justice."

 

Not a single cent 

The harsh letter exposed the bitterness and claims made by those who were close to Emilie Schindler against the man who made Oskar's name became synonymous with Holocaust remembrance – Steven Spielberg.

 

Rosenberg criticized Spielberg, saying he "earned millions from the movie" but never gave Emilie a single cent. She added that everyone 'profited' on Emilie's behalf, except for her.

 

Emilie came to Israel in 1992 to participate in the final scene of the famous movie, where Holocaust survivors and their families visit Schindler's grave in Jerusalem. After her passing, Rosenberg filed a suit against Universal Studios, which produced the film, claiming they did not honor an old agreement signed while Oskar Shindler was still alive, promising him 5% of the profits from a movie based on his life.

 

Deputy Prime Minister Yishai passed along Rosenberg's letter to the museum Chairman Avner Shalev.

 

Yad Vashem spokesperson Iris Rosenberg said: "Yad Vashem, a global and central institution and the official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, is doing all that it can to acquire any documents or items from the Holocaust. They are preserved here and are accessible to researchers, students and anyone who is interested. We believe that Schindler's list is an historically valuable document belonging in Yad Vashem – where millions can see it. We don't accept Erika Rosenberg's claim. Yad Vashem received the documents given to us by the newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung legally, including original copies of Schindler's list."

 

Aside from their historical value, the lists are also worth a lot of money. In March 2010 another original copy, though only partial, was auctioned off online for the price of $3.1 million. The seller, an antique dealer by the name of Gary Zimet, said he inherited the copy from heirs of Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who worked for Shindler during the Holocaust and is credited with typing Schindler's list.

 

Rosenberg quickly filed a lawsuit in New York in an attempt to stop the online auction or to transfer the money to her account. A restraining order preventing Zimet from selling the document was issued in May 2010, but last Thursday a judge rejected her claim and allowed the auction to continue. The judge ruled that Schindler's copyrights will not be violated by the auction, unless it will be published.

 

Either way, it seems this story is far from over, and we might learn the legal fate of one of the most important documents of the 20th century very soon.

 

Beatrice Overlander contributed to this report

 

 

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