Schindler’s List is now out on Blu-Ray and there is renewed interest in this fictional movie. The photo above shows one of the scenes from the movie, which is loosely based on history.
In March 1941, the Jews in the area of Krakow, Poland had been put into a walled ghetto in Podgorze, a district of Krakow. This ghetto is depicted in the movie, Schindler’s List, but the actual scenes were filmed nearby in the old Jewish quarter called Kazimierz because there are modern buildings in Podgorze now, while Kazimierz was still in its original state in 1993.
On March 13, 1943, a Saturday, the Podgorze ghetto in Krakow, Poland was officially closed and around 6,000 Jews who were able to work were sent to the Plaszow forced labor camp, while around 2,000 children and old people were sent to other camps, including Auschwitz II, also known as Birkenau, which was both a labor camp and a death camp.
The next stage of the Final Solution for the Krakow Jews was the liquidation of the Podgorze ghetto and the transportation of the remaining Jews to the forced labor camp at Plaszow on March 13 and 14, 1943. Before the liquidation of the ghetto, there were 2,000 prisoners at the Plaszow camp, all of them Jews. Afterwards, the camp population rose to 8,000. At this point, Plaszow was still not a concentration camp, but a penal labor camp under the jurisdiction of local SS men in the General Government, as the central section of occupied Poland was called by the Nazis. According to the novel Schindler’s Ark, it was because Plaszow was a labor camp, under local authority, that the random killing of prisoners by Amon Goeth did not command much attention among the top brass. The novel Schindler’s Ark explains that executions and floggings at all of the concentration camps had to be approved by the central administrative office in Berlin, but not at the labor camps.
Until the middle of 1943, all the prisoners at the Plaszow forced labor camp were Jews. In July 1943, a separate section was fenced off for Polish prisoners who were sent to the camp for breaking the laws of the German occupational government. Polish prisoners served their sentences and were then released from the prison. The Jews remained in the camp indefinitely. Many Jews were sent on to the Auschwitz concentration camp, only 60 kilometers southwest of Krakow.
The Schindler Jews at first lived in the Plaszow camp and walked 2.5 kilometers to and from Schindler’s enamelware factory each day. The factory was in an ordinary-looking, modern, but dreary building in Krakow. Then Schindler bribed Plaszow Commandant Amon Goeth to let his workers move into barracks which he built in the courtyard of the factory. Schindler himself lived in a nondescript gray apartment building close to his factory. When I visited Krakow in 1998, Schindler’s factory building was being used by an electronics factory called Toplar. It is now a Museum for tourists.
There were many small sub-camps, such as the Schindler factory, in the Nazi labor camp system, but none where the prisoners were so well treated. The Nazis provided food for the Schindler Jews, but Schindler spent the equivalent of $360,000 to provide extra food, which he bought on the black market, for his prisoners.
One day, Oskar Schindler was out riding his horse, along a bridal path on a hill overlooking the Podgorze ghetto, when he saw the girl in the red coat among the Jews being marched out of the ghetto, walking on their way to the Plaszow camp.
In the photo above, you can see a red car, driving on Krakusa Street, where Oskar Schindler saw the girl in the red coat.
The photo below shows the bridal path along the edge of the hill overlooking Krakusa Street. This is where Schindler looked down from his horse and saw 7,000 Jews being marched out of the Podgorze ghetto, according to the novel, Schindler’s Ark. The bridal path was overgrown with trees when I took this photo in 1998.
The only non-Jewish inhabitant of the Podgorze ghetto was a master pharmacist named Tadeusz Pankiewicz. His Eagle Pharmacy was located at #18 on the cobble-stoned Plac Zgody which was the main square where selections took place and from where transports of Jews were sent to the Belzec death camp. I previously blogged here about how Amon Goeth took bribes from the Jews in exchange for not sending them to Belzec.
In 1993, the same year that the movie Schindler’s List was filmed, the Eagle Pharmacy building was turned into a National Memorial Museum. I visited the museum in 1998 and saw displays which showed pictures of the roundup and deportation of the Jews of Krakow. There was also a photo of Amon Goeth on display.
In 1947, Tadeusz Pankiewicz published his memoirs called The Pharmacy in the Krakow Ghetto. It is an account of how his pharmacy became a meeting place for the Jews in the ghetto where they could get information from the underground press. Letters were sent from and received at the pharmacy. It was also a hiding place for Jews whom the Nazis were trying to arrest for violations of their laws. According to the novel Schindler’s Ark, the pharmacy was where messages were passed between the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB) and the partisans of the Polish People’s Army, the two main groups which fought the Nazis in guerrilla warfare during World War II. In the movie, Schindler’s List, there is no mention of how Jewish partisans resisted the Nazis and helped to defeat the Germans in World War II.
So what does all this have to do with the girl in the red coat? In the novel, Schindler’s Ark, Oskar Schindler sees the body of the little girl in the red coat and at that point, he realizes that he should do something to save the Jews. Prior to this, Schindler had only been concerned with making lots of money by using the labor of Jews from the Podgorze ghetto. Using the labor of non-Jewish workers in his factory would have been at a much higher cost.
Did all this really happen? No, the girl in the red coat is symbolic, although she is based on a real girl in the ghetto, who was not killed.
The following quote is from an article in the Huffington Post about the movie Schindler’s List, which you can read in full here:
The name Oliwia Dabrowska holds little meaning to film buffs, but the 23-year-old’s first movie role was quite significant. Dabrowska played “Red Genia” or the “girl in the red coat” in Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” [...]
Dabrowska’s “red coat girl” has been the subject of much discussion and interpretation since “Schindler’s List” was released in 1993. The character bore surface similarities to Holocaust survivor Roma Ligocka, who was known for her red coat in the Krakow Ghetto, and wrote a memoir about her experiences. (Unlike Ligocka, Dabrowska’s “red coat girl” died in “Schindler’s List.”) Spielberg himself has said the significance of the red coat, the only splash of color in the black-and-white film, has more to do with reminding viewers of the way citizens of the world allowed the Holocaust to happen:
[ Spielberg said this] “America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it. We didn’t assign any of our forces to stopping the march toward death, the inexorable march toward death. It was a large bloodstain, primary red color on everyone’s radar, but no one did anything about it. And that’s why I wanted to bring the color red in.”
This quote from Wikipedia also gives the same words spoken by Steven Spielberg:
While the film is shot primarily in black-and-white, red is used to distinguish a little girl in a coat (portrayed by Oliwia Dabrowska). Later in the film, the girl appears to be one of the dead Jewish people, recognizable only by the red coat she is still wearing. Although it was unintentional, this character is coincidentally very similar to Roma Ligocka, who was known in the Kraków Ghetto for her red coat. Ligocka, unlike her fictional counterpart, survived the Holocaust. After the film was released, she wrote and published her own story, The Girl in the Red Coat: A Memoir (2002, in translation). The scene, however, was constructed on the memories of Zelig Burkhut, survivor of Plaszow (and other work camps). When interviewed by Spielberg before the film was made, Burkhut told of a young girl wearing a pink coat, no older than four, who was shot by a Nazi officer right before his eyes. When being interviewed by The Courier-Mail, he said “it is something that stays with you forever.”
According to Andy Patrizio of IGN, the girl in the red coat is used to indicate that Schindler has changed: “Spielberg put a twist on her [Ligocka's] story, turning her into one more pile on the cart of corpses to be incinerated. The look on Schindler’s face is unmistakable. Minutes earlier, he saw the ash and soot of burning corpses piling up on his car as just an annoyance.” Andre Caron wondered whether it was done “to symbolize innocence, hope or the red blood of the Jewish people being sacrificed in the horror of the Holocaust?” Spielberg himself has explained that he only followed the novel, and his interpretation was that
“America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it. We didn’t assign any of our forces to stopping the march toward death, the inexorable march toward death. It was a large bloodstain, primary red color on everyone’s radar, but no one did anything about it. And that’s why I wanted to bring the color red in.”
This quote, about the girl in the red coat, is also from Wikipedia:
Schindler prepares to leave Kraków with his fortune. He finds himself unable to do so, however, and prevails upon Goeth to allow him to keep his workers so he can move them to a factory in his old home of Zwittau-Brinnlitz, away from the Final Solution. Goeth charges a massive bribe for each worker. Schindler and Stern assemble a list of workers to be kept off the trains to Auschwitz.
[...] The train carrying the women is accidentally redirected to Auschwitz. Schindler bribes the camp commander, Rudolf Höß, with a cache of diamonds in exchange for releasing the women to Brinnlitz.
Contrary to what Wikipedia says, Schindler did NOT “prevail upon Goeth to allow him to keep his workers.” By that point in the movie, Goeth had been arrested by the Nazis and he was awaiting trial in Dr. Georg Konrad Morgen’s court. Goeth had disappeared from the movie and nothing more was said about him.
Schindler and Stern did NOT assemble a list of workers to be kept off the trains to Auschwitz. Schindler’s famous list was a list of workers to be sent to the Gross Rosen concentration camp because Schindler was setting up a sub-camp of Gross Rosen near his old home town.
Rudolf Höß was NOT the “camp commander” at the time that Schindler bribed someone to release the women to Brinnlitz.
Dr. Josef Mengele, the man who selected Jews for the gas chamber at the Birkenau death camp, is shown in the center of the photo above. On his left is Richard Baer, the last commandant of the Auschwitz main camp and on his right is Rudolf Höß (aka Rudolf Hoess), who had been the first Commandant of the whole Auschwitz complex; he was given this assignment on May 1, 1940. Höß was relieved of his duties as the Commandant of the Auschwitz complex at the end of November 1943 and promoted to a position in the Economic Administration Head Office (WHVA) in Oranienburg.
On May 8, 1944, Höß was brought back to Auschwitz to be the Commander of the SS men at Auschwitz and to supervise the gassing of the Hungarian Jews. (According to Laurence Rees, in his book Auschwitz, a New History, Hoess was also given authority over the Commandants of the Auschwitz II and Auschwitz III camps when he came back in May 1944.) Auschwitz II was Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp.
I believe that Spielberg is completely wrong in his claim that “America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening, and yet we did nothing about it.” What is today known as “the Holocaust” was mostly unknown until many years after World War II.
Update March 7, 2013:
I neglected to explain why Oskar Schindler REALLY made up a list of Jews to be saved from certain death.
Oskar Schindler’s real motive in saving a list of 1200 Jews was to save his own skin, not to save these 1200 Jews. Schindler knew that he would be put on trial as a war criminal, after the war, because he was the commander of a sub-camp of the Plaszow camp. He knew that the Allies had already made up new crimes, under which the war criminals would be prosecuted after the war.
Schindler knew that the Allies had already made up new laws, such as the “common plan” principle, under which the war criminals would be prosecuted. Under the “common plan” concept, anyone who had any connection to a concentration camp, in any capacity whatsoever, would be automatically guilty of a war crime.
By saving 1200 Jews in a new sub-camp of the Gross Rosen concentration camp, he would have a defense to the “common plan” principle. He would have 1200 Jews to put in a good word for him and save him. That is exactly what happened: Schindler was not put on trial after the war, and the Jews that he had saved took care of him for the rest of his life.