Emilie Schindler, the wife of Oskar Schindler of “Schindler’s List” fame, is no longer alive. Schindler’s mistress Annemarie (Ami) Staehr is also no longer alive. But the dispute over documents Schindler left behind has, in a sense, brought the women to the Jerusalem District Court. It has given new life to Schindler’s hidden sides: his infidelities, out-of-wedlock children and debts.
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“Schindler’s private life is a matter for historians, not just lawyers,” attorney Yair-Naor Maman told Haaretz this month. In the court proceedings, Maman is representing Prof. Erika Rosenberg, the daughter of Jewish parents who fled Germany in the 1930s, emigrated to Argentina and still lives there. Rosenberg is Emilie Schindler’s biographer, but also became her friend, helped take care of her and became her heir after Emilie’s death in 2001.
In the court case, Rosenberg is suing the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and research center, demanding the return of a Schindler suitcase and thousands of valuable documents that were given to Yad Vashem.
In 1999, 25 years after Oskar Schindler’s death and two years before Emilie’s, a special shipment arrived at Yad Vashem from Germany. It contained a suitcase and crates of documents from his estate, including his famous list – the names of Jewish workers he gave to the Nazis, requesting that they work at his enamelware and munitions factories.
Rosenberg says the suitcase and documents belong to her. Yad Vashem disagrees.
In an affidavit, Rosenberg says “she finds it improper and disrespectful to go into the couple’s private lives ... even so far as to enter their bedroom.” Still, the two sides are apparently being forced to search the bedroom to answer the question: To whom does Schindler’s suitcase belong?
Rosenberg has an interest in proving that relations between the Schindlers were good in the hope of convincing the court that Schindler’s suitcase was the legal property of his widow and so now belongs to Rosenberg as her heir.
Yad Vashem says Schindler’s significant relationship was actually with his lover – who took the suitcase and whose sons later donated it to Yad Vashem.
Earlier this month, a judge heard Yad Vashem’s version of the affair. Dr. Haim Gertner, the director of Yad Vashem’s archives division, described how Schindler and Staehr met in 1970 in Israel. They both had come as tourists.
“A very close friendship developed between them,” Gertner said. “Oskar also developed a good relationship with her husband, Dr. Heinrich Staehr, and he immediately became one of his doctors.”
This triangle, Oskar Schindler and the Staehrs, lasted for the next four years until his death. He was like one of the family and had a special room in their house, wrote Gertner in his affidavit. “It seems that in the last years of his life, Ami was the most important figure,” he added.
One of Dr. Staehr’s patients, 80-year-old Anneliese Kelm, told the court: “Schindler visited the Staehrs a number of times a week in their luxurious home, because he liked it there. And of course, also because of his relations with Mrs. Staehr. For Dr. Staehr, these visits were not completely without problems, even though his [intimate relations] with Mrs. Staehr had ended.”
Kelm said Dr. Staehr slept in a small room, and Schindler would sleep with Mrs. Staehr in the marital bed. She said the doctor complained to her that this bothered him greatly.
“He was disgusted by this feeling, so he was happy when the two of them, in other words Oskar Schindler and Mrs. Staehr, would go on trips alone,” said Kelm.
The court also received 20-year-old testimony from former Supreme Court Justice Moshe Beisky, a Holocaust survivor who was saved by Schindler. Beisky later headed the committee that decides who should belong to the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
Besiky had said Schindler was a skirt chaser and his marriage failed very shortly after the shenanigans began. As for Emilie, Beisky said: “Most of the time he was not with her. She knew very well he had other women.”
Yad Vashem named both Oskar and Emilie Schindler Righteous Among the Nations in 1993.
After the war, Schindler and his wife were broke and emigrated to Argentina. They launched businesses there that floundered. Oskar abandoned Emilie and she remained alone in Argentina. The Schindlers did not have any children.
“During most of the Holocaust period and the time he acted to save Jews, the couple lived separately from each other,” states the Yad Vashem defense brief. The relationship between the two is described as “shaky” from the beginning, and it was no secret he had two children with other women while he was still married to Emilie, even before the war.
To strengthen the case that the suitcase and documents belonged to Oskar and not his widow, Yad Vashem had to distinguish between his efforts to rescue Jews and hers. “Emilie Schindler was involved only in part of Oskar’s rescue activities . The prevailing opinion today among the vast majority of historians is that it was Oskar Schindler who initiated the rescue operation,” Yad Vashem wrote to the court.
The two lived separately for the last two decades of Oskar Schindler’s life; in a 17-year stretch they didn’t see each other once, said Yad Vashem's Gertner.
“It seems that as far as Oskar was concerned ... being married to Emilie was just a formal matter. In practice, the couple had no real relationship,” wrote Gertner. The split seems to have been mutual, with Emilie refusing to have any direct contact with Oskar.
The defense showed the court excerpts of interviews given by Emilie where she harshly criticized her husband. “He’s half crazy. Worthless. He can go to hell. He was an idiot,” she said. In one interview she told about her feelings after visiting his grave at Mount Zion in Jerusalem: “Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
As Gertner puts it, “Emilie did not immediately hear about Oskar’s death and was not involved in publishing mourning notices or arranging the funeral – something that shows that even the people around Oskar understood there was no longer a real connection.”
Rosenberg entered the picture in 1990, when she conducted a research project on Jewish immigrants to Argentina. She got to hear Emilie Schindler’s story.
“Her story fascinated me. This is a fascinating woman who saved thousands of Jews,” Rosenberg told Haaretz last year, adding that when she went to Emilie Schindler’s home, she was amazed to find Emilie living alone in poverty save for her dogs and cats.
“It was a small house with no furniture. She barely made ends meet. The phone and electricity bills and taxes weren’t paid because she didn’t have any money.”
The two women eventually became close and produced a series of books by Rosenberg documenting Emilie’s story. In the ensuing years – in the books and press interviews – Emilie criticized her husband. “He simply left me and I had to pay his debts,” she said in 1999. “He didn’t behave well, but I don’t want to talk about it.”
Rosenberg said she took care of Emilie and helped her financially when no one else stood by her. She said that in 2001, when Emilie felt she was about to die, she asked to be buried in Germany. “She was very ill. I organized everything for her, including her burial, which I paid for myself,” Rosenberg said.
‘The Jews have taken the suitcase’
In Rosenberg’s version of the story, as stated in her affidavit, the fact that Emilie did not help organize Oskar’s funeral actually reflects the ongoing injustice she has suffered.
“For many years [Emilie] felt neglected and forgotten, despite her important part with Oskar in saving Jews,” Rosenberg said. “Not a single one of the Schindler survivors or people from Yad Vashem bothered to tell [Emilie] – who lived alone in Argentina – about Oskar’s death in 1974,” she said.
Emilie only learned of his death when she received a letter from her niece, who had read about it in the newspaper.
“Emilie was hurt to the depths of her soul when she learned that Schindler’s coffin was flown to Israel without consulting her, and even more, without inviting her,” Rosenberg said. “Even the death announcement didn’t mention the widow Schindler.”
Rosenberg doesn’t deny that the relationship was less than ideal, but “despite the problem of the mistresses, which it seems was an inseparable part of his life, everyone knew that the wife of his youth, Emilie, would remain his only wife.” She said Schindler left Argentina and his wife behind because he had no other choice, and only returned to Germany to rescue his finances.
Yad Vashem sees the two women’s relationship in a different light. “We checked in Argentina and discovered that these stories are not accurate,” said Yad Vashem spokeswoman Iris Rosenberg last year. “Emilie Schindler received financial support from Jewish organizations like B’nai B’rith, which looked after her.”
As the Yad Vashem spokeswoman put it, “Erika Rosenberg used Emilie Schindler’s name. She pushed away the people who were around her and charged money for interviews with her.”
The legal dispute centers around the history of the suitcase before it arrived in Jerusalem. One version of the story is provided by Emilie Rosenberg. She says that in 1974, after Schindler’s death in October, Staehr took the key to his Frankfurt apartment, entered “without anyone noticing” and “smuggled” the suitcase full of documents to her home in the city of Hildesheim.
For a quarter century, the documents remained in the attic. The entire time, Emilie did not know about the suitcase. Staehr died in 1984 and her husband died a decade later. After their deaths, their sons found the suitcase and gave it to the Stuttgarter Zeitung, which published a huge scoop with selected excerpts in October 1999.
The person who brought this treasure trove to Yad Vashem was German journalist Ulrich Sahm, who lives in Jerusalem and was a correspondent for the Stuttgarter Zeitung. Sahm told Haaretz last year that the papers, which included copies of Schindler’s original list, lay around his home for a few days after they arrived in Israel.
“It’s too bad that I didn’t know then that each of them was worth several million,” he said with a smile. After a few days he delivered the material to Yad Vashem.
In Rosenberg’s version of events, the German newspaper smuggled Schindler’s suitcase to Israel under the widow’s nose. Rosenberg claims that Emilie, who became ill because of the incident, said to her, “This is a huge injustice. I saved Jews, together with my husband, and now the Jews have taken the suitcase away from me. You must demand it, even after my death.”
Yad Vashem rejects Rosenberg’s version outright and depicts her as someone trying to make money out of her connection with Emilie Schindler. The defense brief calls it “an incomparably opportunistic, cynical and exploitative attempt to get rich by leveraging the relationship with Emilie – an attempt that must be condemned and rejected out of hand, both in the legal sense and the moral sense.”
The court will continue its deliberations at the end of the month.