When Mimi Reinhard was born, Franz Josef was still "His Imperial and Royal Majesty, the Kaiser." The city where she was born, Vienna, was still the cosmopolitan capital of a huge empire that stretched from Sarajevo to Prague, from the Adriatic Sea to the banks of the Dniester. Jews still felt relatively secure in this part of Europe, almost totally integrated into society.
In the old black and white pictures, it is possible to see a young woman, of almost Aryan appearance, a student of philology at the University of Vienna, whose colleagues did not know she was Jewish. Could she have guessed that, by the age of 30, she would already have lost a husband, have been cut off from her only son and have stood on the train platform at Auschwitz? Did she imagine that within a few years her entire world would collapse, European Jewry would be destroyed and the whole continent would become an inferno?
No, she says softly. Who could have known?
What she could not yet have known was that it was one small detail in her biography, a detail she probably would not have mentioned in her curriculum vitae, that saved her and made her a celebrity this week at the age of 92.
Reinhard had taken a course in shorthand to prepare herself for college.
"It's the only practical thing I ever studied in my life," she says. This is what enabled her to work in the offices at the Plaszow labor camp and to transcribe Oskar Schindler's list on a typewriter.
Gambling on Schindler
There is perhaps no other event, film or work of literature that has publicized the Holocaust as much as Steven Spielberg's 1993 film "Schindler's List." It is no wonder the news of Reinhard's immigration from the United States to Israel last week appeared within hours on Internet sites in Polish, Russian, Turkish, Dutch and Portuguese. Since then, dozens of journalists from all over the world have been flocking to her door, trying to extract every bit of information about the life behind the famous film they have seen.
Reinhard met Schindler in October 1944. This was at Plaszow, a forced-labor camp not far from the city of Krakow, in Poland. The Red Army was gnawing away at the territories under Nazi control and the Germans had begun to retreat. Schindler, a German industrialist who ran an enamel factory in Krakow, wanted to move westward, deep into territory controlled by the Germans. His goal was to establish a weapons factory in Brinlitz, in what is now the Czech Republic. But he had a request: that "his Jews," the ones who were working with him at the enamel factory, would go with him. And in fact, he had another request as well: He needed a few hundred more workers, altogether 1,100 people, as there would be a lot of work at Brinlitz.
"We knew that Schindler treated his Jewish workers very well," said Reinhard in an interview with Haaretz. "That was his reputation at Plaszow. He asked the commander of the camp, Amon Goeth, to give him more workers; the famous list was created. First of all, Reinhard put Schindler's workers on the list, adding their family members and their friends. But all the time there were more and more. I typed in my name and the names of my friends, until the quota was filled. I did what I was told. They told me to type, so I typed.
"I wanted to go with Schindler, because of his reputation, but there were a lot of people who didn't want to be on that list. It was a gamble as far as we were concerned. To go with Schindler was no guarantee of anything. We didn't believe that Schindler would really succeed in saving us. He was just taking us to a different camp. Who knew? We took a chance only because we believed in Schindler."
Reinhard talks about the decision to join the list - a decision that, in retrospect, saved her life - in a dry and matter-of-fact way. She also relates the tempestuous story of her life slowly, maintaining throughout a calm and restrained expression. Only from time to time, she stops for a moment, recalling something. When she begins to speak again, a tear gathers in the corner of her eye, testimony to what no word can explain.
She was born in 1915. She came to Krakow in 1936 in love, after marrying a man from the city whom she had met by chance in Vienna. In June 1939, their son, Sasha, was born and three months later the war broke out. The German army occupied Krakow within a few days and made it the capital of occupied Poland. Reinhard and her husband managed to smuggle their son and his grandmother out to Hungary using Aryan documents, a journey that the two had to make on foot. Reinhard was subsequently arrested and her husband was shot and killed at the gate to the ghetto as he was trying to escape.
Like many of the Jews of Krakow, Reinhard was sent to the Plaszow camp. Because of that course in shorthand, she was assigned to work in the office and was thus spared the hard labor. But not the horrors.
"One day, an SS officer came into the office," she recalls, "and told my boss about a very unpleasant experience - he had had to shoot a small child. He had told him to strip off his clothes, but the boy answered that his mother would be very angry at him if he took off his clothes in the middle of winter, because he would catch a cold.
"The officer related that he did not want to damage the clothing, because at that time they were sending the clothes to Germany. In the end, he stripped the child and shot him, and he said this was most unpleasant, because he, too, had a child of that age at home."
Throughout, Schindler was making efforts on behalf of "his Jews" at the factory and, by means of deception and bribery, he saw to better conditions for them. However, when the train left Plaszow for Brinlitz, in the fall of 1944, the Germans sent it to Auschwitz.
Reinhard and her colleagues were at the camp for about two weeks, which she describes as "straight out of Dante's 'Inferno.'" During their internment, Schindler threatened the camp authorities that if they did not release "his Jews," he would go to Berlin and inform on them for subverting the war effort.
"We were certain that we were done for," says Reinhard, but Schindler managed to release them and, after several months in Brinlitz, in May of 1945, all of the prisoners were freed. Some 1,100 Jews were saved.
'A heart of gold'
Reinhard has even-handed compliments for Schindler, whose motives for saving Jews have been the subject of speculation since the film's release.
"He was no angel," she says. "We knew that he was an SS man; he was a member of the highest ranks. They went out drinking together at night, but apparently he could not stand to see what they were doing to us. They say that it could be that he realized that Germany was about to lose and he was tying to improve his situation and clear his name. I didn't see that. I saw a man who was risking his life all the time for what he was doing. But let us say that this was true, that he really was thinking about that - why weren't there more Nazis like him? He was a mentsch. Most likely, he had a heart of gold."
Reinhard says she hasn't discussed this until now. She says she barely told her children - her son, Sasha, whom she found in Hungary after the war, and the daughter who was born to her from her second marriage and died of an illness at the age of 49. She didn't attend the film's premiere in 1993.
"It was still fresh in my mind," she says. "I just couldn't. I did not want to relive it. After the war, I had a feeling that one part of my life had ended, that it wasn't me any more, and that I was starting anew. It was as though my life had started after the war. For me, the war was such a huge rupture that I felt I was not myself. In the end, I saw the movie, but I didn't feel like one of the prisoners. First of all, they are too well-dressed. But I did not see myself as one of them; it's as though I was not myself."
Now she is in Israel, 62 years after the end of the war. Her second husband died about five years ago and Reinhard decided to join her son, who lives in Israel.
"I came here once for three months," she relates. "I wanted to try living here, I even looked for a place, but I couldn't decide. Maybe then I was in better shape, and I thought that I could live alone in New York. I understood that I should have come here sooner."
This week, she moved into her new apartment in Herzliya and is trying to cope with the difficulties of immigration.
"Starting a new life again, at the age of 92," she says. "It isn't all that easy any more."