The legal battle over Schindler’s list

The battle between Yad Vashem, which received the original Oskar Schindler’s list from his mistress vs. Prof. Martha Rosenberg, who claims to be Schindler’s only legal heir, is revealing fascinating details.

By Zvi Harel


An Argentine history professor, the daughter of German Jews who emigrated prior to World War II, is suing Yad Vashem, claiming that Oskar Schidler’s widow left her the rights to valuable documents currently on display at Israel’s Holocaust Memorial.

Emilie Schindler and Professor Martha Rosenberg – Photo: AP

Far from the eyes of the public, in a narrow hall in the Jerusalem District Court, two people, neither of whom are alive, are mentioned constantly: Oskar and Emilie Schindler — recognized as Righteous Among the Nations for their heroic rescue of 1,200 Jews during World War II.

The global exposure of the Schindler’s deeds came thanks to Steven Spielberg’s prizewinning film “Schindler’s List,” which came out in 1993 and was based on the book “Schindler’s Ark” by Thomas Keneally.

The loaded legal case reached the Jerusalem District Court after Professor Martha (Erika) Rosenberg filed a lawsuit against the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in 2003.

Rosenberg, 65, a history lecturer, is a resident of Buenos Aires and for years served as a lecturer with Argentina’s Foreign Ministry. Via her attorney, Naor Yair Maman, Rosenberg is asking the Israeli court to rule that she owns the intellectual property rights to thousands of documents in Yad Vashem that were removed from the Schindler house in a suitcase by his mistress, Annemarie (Ami) Staehr.

After Schindler died, the suitcase made its circuitous way to Yad Vashem. Aside from its historical value, the contents of the suitcase are also worth a considerable amount of money. For example, three years ago one of four copies of Schindler’s list, which features the names of 801 workers that he saved, was put up for auction in New York. The managers of the auction site set the opening bid at $3 million.

‘I saved her from loneliness’

The complicated affair cannot be understood without looking into Schindler’s romantic relationship with two of his lovers: one, his legal wife, Emilie Plazel (CHK); and the other, his mistress, Ami Staehr, a German woman he met in 1970 on one of his visits to Israel, four years before he died. Yad Vashem wants to use the love triangle to show that Schindler’s relationship with his wife was fairly rocky.

Oskar Schindler and Emilie Pelzl married in 1928, when they were both 20. In 1949, four years after the war, financial woes forced the couple to emigrate to Argentina. In 1957 Schindler returned to Germany. Although he died relatively young, at age 66, his wife lived to be 94. At the end of 2001 she returned to Germany to be buried in her homeland.

Rosenberg is not a blood relation of Emilie Schindler, but claims to be her legal heir, based on a will from 1997. She also claims that in 1976, two years after Schindler died, Emilie was recognized as her late husband’s sole heir. According to Rosenberg, Emilie “in sound mind and body” granted her — in writing — all the rights to the suitcase and its contents as well as exclusive intellectual property rights to it.

As early as 1990, three years before Spielberg’s famous movie was released, Rosenberg published the first edition of a biography of Emilie Schindler and her forgotten role in the story of the rescue of “Schindler’s Jews.” As the years went by, the two women grew closer. They would meet once a week and Rosenberg even helped Emilie financially and cared for her.

In an affidavit Rosenberg submitted to the court — her key testimony — she says that she was astonished to discover that Emilie Schindler was living in Buenos Aires Province “in poverty and loneliness” (her words) in a small house that had been provided to her by the Jewish charity group B’nai B’rith.

Rosenberg elaborates on a long list of initiatives she took to improve Emilie’s life, including securing her a monthly stipend from Germany of 500 deutsche marks (about $1,000 at the time of Emilie’s death in 2001). Rosenberg says that as the daughter of German Jews who emigrated to Argentina before the war, “I found a common language with Emilie and bit by bit, we started to connect and later became friends. Aside from the professional matter, as the descendant of a family that was killed in the Holocaust, I felt a special devotion in the relationship that came into being with a person who was a full partner in the rescue of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust.”

When it comes to Emily’s part in saving “Schindler’s Jews,” Rosenberg quotes statements by the late Supreme Court Justice Dr. Moshe Bejski, who was himself among the Jews the Schindlers saved and who served as chairman of the Righteous Commission, the official body entrusted with conferring the Righteous Among the Nations status to gentiles who saved Jews, when Oskar Schindler made his first visit to Israel.

“The matter of the people of [the work camp adjacent to Auschwitz] always calls to my mind the image of Mrs. Schindler walking through the factory, followed by two guys carrying buckets of porridge that she’d cooked herself. And you really need a heart of gold to care for them,” Bejski said.

“The mistresses problem”

Bejski also described an incident that demonstrated the Schindler’s courage, when they rescued a large group of Jews who were on their way to a death camp. “The prisoners were traveling in the freezing cold, without food or water, and after seven days of travel two railway cars arrived. Oskar and Emilie convinced the S.S. commander to hand over the prisoners, explaining that they needed more hands in the factory. Schindler and his wife transferred the 107 survivors to the factory, where they cared for them with devotion until they regained their strength.”

According to Rosenberg, various entities spread false stories about the Schindlers being divorced. “All those rumors were wrong and hurt Emilie very much. It should be noted that Emilie got pregnant with Oscar’s child in 1947, but had a miscarriage,” she said.

Rosenberg also says that during the trial, she discovered documents relating to the Schindlers’ private lives, “which peep into their bedroom. But I find it inappropriate and disrespectful to go into the couple’s private lives, and that issue should not be part of the dispute over the rights to the suitcase.”

Rosenberg is aware of Oskar Schindler’s weakness for women, but argues that it has no pertinence to her case: “Despite the mistresses problem, which was an inseparable part of Oscar’s life, everyone knew that the wife of his youth, Emily, was and would stay his only wife. Oskar even gave Emilie power of attorney to handle all his affairs when he left Argentina. Oskar didn’t return to Germany of his own free will; he was forced to. He returned to Germany in an attempt to receive compensation for his factory during the Holocaust. For years, Emilie was forced to pay off his many debts.”

Yad Vashem is convinced that it has a number of factual and legal arguments that are sufficient to defeat Rosenberg’s lawsuit. The institution thinks that the documents’ rightful place is at the public’s disposal, since they are being preserved in appropriate conditions at the museum and the list is “displayed for the millions of visitors to the museum and accessible to researchers from all over the world.”

Yad Vashem also said in its response that “we oppose selling off documents from the Holocaust. Yad Vashem has legal possession of these documents, and has always acted publicly, with transparency.”

The defense statement for Yad Vashem argues that Rosenberg “is portraying herself as someone who is working altruistically to fulfill ‘Emilie Schindler’s will,’ supposedly. But the truth is that this lawsuit is nothing more than greed on the part of the plaintiff.”

The Yad Vashem Authority also argues that Rosenberg has nothing to do with Emilie Schindler’s will. According to Yad Vashem, the fact that Emilie Schindler took no legal action whatsoever regarding the suitcase in the 25 years after her husband’s death indicates that she had no interest in it and “acted in this matter for the first time in 1999, [two years before her death], apparently at the encouragement of the plaintiff.”

An important piece of evidence for the defense comes from director of the Yad Vashem Archives Division, Dr. Haim Gertner. In his sworn statement to the court, Gertner provides a window into the relationship that developed between Oskar Schindler and his mistress, Staehr. According to Gertner, Schindler also developed warm relations with Ami’s husband, a doctor, and as time went on and Schindler’s health started to decline, his mistress’s husband became one of his own doctors. Schindler, who visited the couple frequently, even had his own room in their house. “Apparently, in his last years, Ami was the most important figure in Oskar Schindler’s life,” he said.

Gertner says that Schindler gave the suitcase and its contents to Ami before he died, and a newspaper article published in Germany in 1999 by Ami’s son and daughter-in-law says the same thing. The archives director also reveals that when Oskar and Emilie were first married, “he fathered two children [with other women], before World War II. Oskar and Emilie lived apart for the last 17 years of his life, and never saw each other once during that time.”

Gertner adds that the rift between the couple was mutual and that Emilie had said harsh things about Oskar in the media, calling him “half-mad” and saying she “didn’t feel a thing” when she visited his grave in Jerusalem.

Gertner says that the mistress kept the suitcase legally until she died in 1985. Her two children sent it to a German newspaper, which published the story of the suitcase in 1999. The case’s next stop was at the German federal archives, so the documents could be copied. Emilie also received copies of them, which Rosenberg used to compile her book. After the archive completed its work, the suitcase was returned to the newspaper, which gave it to Yad Vashem.

In June, another discussion was held as part of the preliminary proceedings, before the evidentiary stage, when Rosenberg will take the stand. Among other things, the court asked whether there was a need to have the inheritance order made out to the benefit of Emilie Schindler in Germany confirmed in Israel. The attorney for Yad Vashem argued that Schindler had two children by mistresses, the inheritance order needed to be confirmed in Israel. Rosenberg’s lawyer Maman, on the other hand, argued that such confirmation was not required under German law.

Two District Court judges who have dealt with the case have sent both sides to end the fraught case through a judge-mediator, the first of whom was Supreme Court Justice (ret.) Theodore Or, whose mediation failed.

In the most recent meeting, a second mediator was named: Supreme Court Justice (ret.) Yaakov Turkel, who has not yet met with the litigants. In any case, it appears that any compromise will involve a payout.


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