Wer einen menschen rettet, rettet die ganze welt.
October 22, 2017 8:09 PM   Subscribe

On this day in 1907, Emilie Pelzl was born in Alt-Moletein, a tiny Moravian village in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1928, at the age of 20, Emile married a traveling salesman from Zwittau.

I'm sure you know about Oskar and his famous list. Let me tell you about Emilie:

After marrying Oskar, Emilie moved from her home to Zwittau, where he continued to pursue various business and romantic opportunities. In the 1930s, as the Nazis rose to power in Germany, Oskar became a spy for the German military intelligence service, Abwehr. After the invasion of the Sudetenland, he joined the Nazi Party; the Schindlers continued to collaborate with the Nazis through the invasion of Poland in 1939.

It isn't clear when or why Oskar and Emilie committed to saving the lives of the Jewish workers in their enamelware factory. In her autobiography, Emilie states that Oskar's motives (at least initially) were to stay out of the army and avoid being sent to the Eastern front. What is clear, is that at some point while in Krakow, the Schindler's fates became inextricably tied to "their Jews". The Schindler's dedicated themselves to providing protection to as many as they could. Elderly and disabled people were given important-sounding job titles, and children's ages were changed, ensuring they could remain in Plaszow, rather than being shipped off to Auschwitz. At one point, Emilie arranged for a Jewish woman to get an abortion knowing that if she were to give birth, the mother would be sent for death and the infant would be used for medical experiments.

As the war wore on, the Nazis announced Plaszow would be closed and all it's residents sent to Auschwitz. Again using his Nazi connections, Oskar was able to obtain an abandoned factory in Brunnlitz, Czechoslovakia under the pretense that it would make ammunition for the war effort. All of his workers would be shipped to the factory, not to Auschwitz. At this point, the war was not going well for Germany, and food rations were in short supply -- especially for expendable Jewish slave labor. Rather than watch the Schindlerjuden starve, Emilie worked to obtain food and supplies from the black market. Even going so far as to distract SS officers while the workers unloaded a truck full of black market bread literally right behind their backs.

In the last months of the war, while Oskar was in Krakow on a business trip, Emilie was summoned to see if she would accept two carloads of Jews who had been rejected by another factory, due to their poor health. Having transferred from a mining camp in the middle of the winter, they were starving and freezing. Emilie convinced the SS commander that the people, barely more than skin and bones, were critically needed as workers in the factory.

"We found the railroad car bolts frozen solid .. the spectacle I saw was a nightmare almost beyond imagination. It was impossible to distinguish the men from the women: they were all so emaciated - weighing under seventy pounds most of them, they looked like skeletons. Their eyes were shining like glowing coals in the dark .."

Of the 120 people in the train cars, 107 were still alive. 3 more would die but the remaining souls would be slowly nursed back to health over the course of several weeks.

As the war came to an end, Oskar and Emilie escaped Czechoslovakia and settled back in Germany. As ethnic Germans, they were stripped of Czech citizenship; in Germany, they were seen as traitors to the volk and the heimat. However, the Jews whom they saved did not forget them, and arranged for Oskar and Emilie's resettlement in Argentina.

In Argentina, Oskar continued to pursue get-rich-quick schemes and other women. Emilie tended their small chicken and nutria farm, doing whatever she could to support their meager lifestyle. In 1957, Oskar returned to Germany to claim reparations for the loss of their factory in Brunnlitz. Emilie never saw him again, or any of the 100,000 mark payment he received as compensation. Oskar died in 1974, at the age of 66 and was buried in Israel.

After living for years in poverty, B'nai Brith learned of Emilie's plight, bought a small home for her to live in and gave her a small pension. There she would remain for almost three decades, until the story of Oskar and Emilie's actions became known around the world. Emilie then became something of a celebrity, meeting Bill Clinton, the German Prime Minister, & the Pope. Toward the end of her life, she asked to come back home, so the German government arranged for her to live in an assisted living center in Bavaria. Emilie died on October 5, 2001, in Brandenburg, Germany, less than a year after relocating from Argentina.

Inscribed on her headstone is the following:

"Wer einen menschen rettet, rettet die ganze welt." - Whoever saves a person, saves the whole world.
posted by Big Al 8000 (7 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
In my family, there has always been a rumor that we were somehow related to Oskar Schindler's wife -- nobody knew the details but they knew her maiden name was Pelzl, so that had to mean something. My great-grandfather, who's surname was Pelzl, brought his family to the United States in the late 1870s from that same village -- Alt Moletein. While we can trace our family back to 1795 in that little village, I don't know the exact link connecting Emilie to me. But she is my cousin -- that I believe. I am proud to carry the family name -- I hope I live up to the humanity she demonstrated.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 8:12 PM on October 22, 2017 [16 favorites]

Fantastischer Beitrag!
posted by jferg at 8:20 PM on October 22, 2017 [3 favorites]

By some yardsticks, Oskar Schindler was really kind of a dick; he drank too much, cheated on his wife, and it sounds like he abandoned her. And yet - this guy who was kind of a dick saved the lives of over a thousand people. ...As one of the survivors put it, though:

"There is an old expression: Behind the man, there is the woman, and I believe she was the great human being."


(I've seen Schindler's List just shy of twice: once in the theater, and once I turned into it halfway through when it was on PBS or something, and kept watching through to the end. The first time I was just left in shock; the second time, though, when it got to the grave scene at the end with Emilie and the real-life survivors all lining up to place stones on his grave, I bawled. MInd you, I don't cry at movies; but this, this was a full-on Oprah ugly cry.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:13 PM on October 22, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thank your for this post--how cool that she is your cousin! Emilie sounds like an amazing person. I'm sorry that she was abandoned by Oskar but glad she was rescued by B'nai Brith. What a life she led. What a perfect epitaph.

Empress, the first time I saw Schindler's List it was on the theatre when it first came out, and I rarely if ever cried at movies, but I was in floods of tears. (Now I just cry at the drop of a hat, basically.) I remember going to the women's washroom after the movie and every one of us I there had clearly been ugly crying.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:40 PM on October 22, 2017 [1 favorite]

The quotation on Emilie's grave is from the Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5. It's an extract from the admonition given to witnesses in a capital trial, and more fully it says:
‎"In monetary cases, [a false witness] can return the money and achieve atonement. But in capital cases, the blood of [the victim] and all his future offspring hang upon you until the end of time. [...] It was for this reason that man was first created as one person [Adam], to teach you that anyone who destroys a life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed an entire world; and anyone who saves a life is as if he saved an entire world."

It's quite amusing to see it in such a different context, but highly appropriate of course.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:45 PM on October 22, 2017 [5 favorites]

posted by Hermione Granger at 3:27 PM on October 23, 2017 [2 favorites]

Really liked reading this piece. Living in Berlin Germany and I find this history very interesting. Great context
posted by Gerritjanr at 3:56 AM on October 26, 2017 [1 favorite]

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