Emilie Schindler. Where Light and Shadow Meet: A Memoir. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996. xii + 162 pp. $22.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-393-04123-1.
Reviewed by L. M. Stallbaumer-Beishline (Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-German (August, 1998)
"To be Emilie again, simply Emilie," is one of Emilie Schindler's goals in writing a memoir about her life both with and without Oskar Schindler, whose life has been made famous by Steven Spielberg's cinematic version of Schindler's List. In addition, Emilie seeks to explain events as they "actually took place," to desanctify the heroic image of her husband, not out of bitterness but for the sake of "truth."
The story begins with Emilie's childhood in Bohemia, an innocence brought to an end with Oskar, whose marriage proposal provided an opportunity to leave behind a family life which was becoming oppressive. Once married, it did not take long for Emilie to learn her husband's many faults and attributes. Oskar Schindler was a generous and kind man, but his many infidelities, his immaturity, and his opportunistic, work-shy, hedonistic, self-indulgent lifestyle strained their relationship nearly from the beginning of their marriage. Discussing the war years, Emilie gives priority to topics related to Oskar's spying activities for the Abwehr and how it affected her, his acquisition of Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (DEF), their relations with Nazi officials, and their mutual efforts to save Jews working at DEF as well as at the munitions factory at Bruennlitz.
Emilie tries to correct misinformation from Spielberg's movie, Schindler's List, and to a far lesser extent Thomas Keneally's book by the same title. Among other things, Emilie claims that Oskar did not try to take advantage of Jewish slave labor and recalls that they were unaware that people bribed their way onto the list. In addition, we learn that Emilie took a more active role in caring for Jews at both DEF in Cracow, but especially at the munitions factory at Bruennlitz. Emilie lived in constant fear and terror knowing the dangers of aiding Jews, yet she was instrumental in obtaining the permit to establish the munitions factory. (The quartermaster general responsible for issuing permits for such undertakings turned out to be Emilie's childhood swimming teacher.) Emilie also secured additional food supplies for the Jewish workers, engaged in black market trading, and nursed Jews back to health who arrived at Bruennlitz on the verge of death.
The end of the war did not bring immediate safety for the Schindlers, and in Emilie's account, she displays more savvy and acumen than Oscar, who was in a "state of shock" (p. 103). For nearly five years, the Schindlers lived in Regensburg where Oskar resumed his pattern of infidelity and neglect. The Schindlers' 1949 move to Argentina was Oskar's idea, though Emilie welcomed a change of scenery. However, this move ultimately led to their permanent separation in the spring of 1957. Oskar, who returned to Germany to collect reparations for the loss of the Bruennlitz factory, virtually abandoned Emilie, leaving her with a financial debt largely brought on by his own irresponsible business deals. Emilie, who never saw her husband again, tells us how deeply hurt she was by his final act of negligence which stands in sharp contrast to the heroic images which viewers are left with in the final frames of Spielberg's movie. Several references are made to the movie in the memoir, in which Emilie's presence is anecdotal and misrepresented. Yet, despite its inaccuracies, Emilie applauds the "excellent film" (p. 143) which brought attention to her own efforts to help "Schindler's Jews."
A disappointing feature of Emilie Schindler's memoir is not how she exposes Oskar Schindler's flaws, but her failure to emerge fully out of the shadow cast by the legend surrounding her husband, and to be "simply Emilie." Most of the thoughts and feelings she reveals in some degree or another are privileged by Oskar Schindler's far-from-noble treatment of her and the legend of the List. So, for example, when Emilie is hospitalized for several months (either in 1941 or 1942), we learn about how Oskar neglected to visit her even once, prompting her to question their entire relationship. Yet we gain little additional insight into how this hospitalization affected her. (Compare this image to the film where Emilie leaves Oskar because of his unwillingness or inability to promise her fidelity.) Emilie was clearly a self-reliant, honest, and hard-working women, whose story is significant not solely because she was Mrs. Schindler, but because of her vast experiences which she downplays modestly. During her lifetime, Emilie has been part of the German minority in Czechoslovakia, a German woman living in Nazi-occupied Poland, and challenged with rebuilding her life from practically nothing after the most destructive war in the twentieth century. In short, the subject matter is largely defined by her life with Oskar Schindler. Still, the vignettes of their lives are woven together in an interesting and revealing manner.
Emilie Schindler's memoir provides a new dimension to the legend of Schindler's list, and it reminds readers that heroic accolades are problematical at best. After reading Thomas Keneally's book or viewing Steven Spielberg's movie, we are challenged by Emilie Schindler's memoir to reexamine our conception of heroes and heroism. Emilie does not deny the important role that she and her husband played in saving Jewish lives, but as she noted, they did what they had to in what proved to be a unique situation.
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L. M. Stallbaumer-Beishline. Review of Schindler, Emilie, Where Light and Shadow Meet: A Memoir.
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