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Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List popularized the true story of a German businessman who manipulated his Nazi connections and spent his personal fortune to save some 1,200 Jewish prisoners from certain death during the Holocaust. But few know that those lists were made possible by a secret strategy designed by...
Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List popularized the true story of a German businessman who manipulated his Nazi connections and spent his personal fortune to save some 1,200 Jewish prisoners from certain death during the Holocaust. But few know that those lists were made possible by a secret strategy designed by a young Polish Jew at the Płaszow concentration camp. Mietek Pemper’s compelling and moving memoir tells the true story of how Schindler’s list really came to pass.
Pemper was born in 1920 into a lively and cultivated Jewish family for whom everything changed in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. Evicted from their home, they were forced into the Krakow ghetto and, later, into the nearby camp of Płaszow where Pemper’s knowledge of the German language was put to use by the sadistic camp commandant Amon Goth. Forced to work as Goth’s personal stenographer from March 1943 to September 1944—an exceptional job for a Jewish prisoner—Pemper soon realized that he could use his position as the commandant’s private secretary to familiarize himself with the inner workings of the Nazi bureaucracy and exploit the system to his fellow detainees’ advantage. Once he gained access to classified documents, Pemper was able to pass on secret information for Schindler to compile his famous lists. After the war, Pemper was the key witness of the prosecution in the 1946 trial against Goth and several other SS officers. The Road to Rescue stands as a historically authentic testimony of one man’s unparalleled courage, wit, defiance, and bittersweet victory over the Nazi regime.
This is a suspenseful account of how Metek Pemper, the Jewish secretary to Amon Göth, the commandant of Plaszow concentration camp, saved not just his own life but that of his family and other inmates, finally giving the damning testimony that helped convict Göth of war crimes. Steven Spielberg drew from the stories of Pemper and his friend Izak Stern for his movie Schindler's List(based on Thomas Keneally's book Schindler's List) but omitted Pemper's character from the film. After being made secretary to the commandant, Pemper lived in constant fear, but collected information and ensured that the camp would continue to operate. Some Jews were kept alive by Pemper providing fabricated figures to persuade high command that the camp was vital to the war effort. A bookish young man with a gift for languages and guile, Pemper was "the only witness who could give a complete and accurate overview" of Schindler's operation. Pemper's book is careful and sad, telling of both triumph and the inability to get over the grief. Illus. (Oct.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
From the middle ages to the partitions of Poland, my native city of Kraków was a European metropolis and the capital of the great Polish-Lithuanian empire. Beginning in about the thirteenth century, Jews were already settling in Kraków.
I was born in 1920 and lived almost forty years in this architecturally and historically important city on the Vistula. When I was liberated from the camp, I had just turned twenty-five. After my mother's death in 1958, my father and I moved to Augsburg, Germany, where my brother had already gone immediately after the war. My family was long established in Kraków. Only my paternal grandmother was from Breslau (today, Wroclaw), and that's why her children and grandchildren all spoke both Polish and German at home. It was unusual to grow up bilingual in Kraków, but it seemed quite normal in our house. For me, being bilingual opened a window onto the world, and right up to the present I've always felt equally at home in the cultures of the Poles, the Germans, and the Jews. Even as a little boy, I knew that just as some people were blond and others brunette, some big and others small, there were also different languages, different religions, and different cultures.
In Poland after the First World War, there was a powerful return to Slavic traditions. This was due to Poland's newly won independence from the powers that had partitioned her in years gone by. Austria, Russia, and Prussia. That's why I was named Mieczyslaw. It means "he who won fame with his sword," although in my whole life I've never had a sword in my hand, nor ever wanted to. In Polish, my first name gets shortened to Mietek and that's what my friends and relatives call me to this day. If a Jewish family in the early twentieth century did not give its children biblical names, it indicated a high degree of assimilation. My father's cousin was named Egmont; you can't get any more German than that. So I passed my early years in two cultural spheres-Polish on the one hand, German on the other-both integrated within Judaism.
In contrast to many Jews in Kraków, both my parents and my grandparents were assimilated in their habits and dress. Nevertheless, my family was observant and strongly rooted in their faith. During the First World War, my father even made a solemn vow to donate a Torah scroll if he survived. And he kept his promise. After 1945, one of the few Torah scrolls not defiled by the Nazis was returned to us. I don't know if it was the one my father had donated, but I brought it along when I moved to Germany, and it is now in a synagogue in Hamburg, where my brother Stefan's family lives.
My parents, Jakob and Regina, were married in 1918 after my father was discharged from the Austrian Army and had returned to Kraków. During the First World War, his experiences with his German comrades at the front had been positive. One of my mother's brothers had also served in the Austrian Army and liked to tell about a certain sector of the front and the German units stationed there. To him, they were "no-nonsense, forthright comrades." He liked to refer to them as "honest Michels." Later, after 1933, when my family discussed Hitler, we were of course worried about political developments in Germany, but we were incapable of imagining their devastating consequences. When we talked about Germany, we considered the situation something of an aberration that would soon be over. Herr von Papen is said to have made a similar remark. We were all convinced that what was going on at the moment in Germany must surely be connected to unemployment or to the economic crisis or perhaps even to the lost war. Incidentally, while not one German general committed suicide after the First World War, Albert Ballin, a Jewish ship owner from Hamburg and an advisor to Wilhelm II on naval matters, took his own life because he could not accept the German defeat.
I was rather delicate as a child and prone to illness. I also seemed to have taken hold of things the wrong way. I mean that literally, for I am left-handed-something that was regarded as a genuine handicap in those days. Even the simple act of shaking hands with a visitor caused me problems. My family and my teachers went to great lengths to correct my "handicap" by a program of systematic reconditioning. So I learned to suppress my spontaneity in favor of cautious deliberation. My interests also clearly set me apart from the majority of my classmates. Instead of playing soccer, I began to learn the violin when I was barely seven years old. But despite good progress, I gave up music lessons after a few years in favor of reading, my real passion. I was especially interested in books about history, first in biographies and later in primary sources as well. Thus, at a relatively young age, I was fascinated by historical events and their connection to politics.
On Saturdays, my father took me to the synagogue. On the High Holy Days I accompanied him to small prayer houses where rabbis from surrounding towns prayed with their Kraków congregants. This experience gave me a broader perspective on Judaism. I recall one rabbi by the name of Lipschitz from Wielopole, east of Kraków, who read aloud from the prayer book. In a whisper, I asked my father if the rabbi didn't know the prayers by heart. I must have been about ten years old at the time, and even I had already memorized some of them. Of course the rabbi knew the prayers by heart. He probably even knew half the entire book by heart, my father replied, but he didn't want to make anyone feel ashamed who didn't. That was the reason he read from the open prayer book, so the others wouldn't feel inferior. To this day, I think about his exquisite tact and modesty.
During my early years, we lived with my paternal grandfather at 3 Wegierska Street in the neighborhood of Podgórze. My grandfather and father dealt in agricultural products and my grandfather was even called upon as an expert witness on matters concerning legumes and grains. My father purchased rye and wheat flour by the wagonload from the area surrounding Posen (today, Poznan) and sold it to bakers in and around Kraków. His office was always in our apartment, for he conducted business through trucking companies and needed only a small space for bookkeeping.
When I was seven, we moved to a larger apartment building right next to the parish church of St. Joseph. Our new apartment at I Parkowa Street, only a few steps from my grandfather's house, was not far from a large park, and our building stood almost directly on the market square of Podgórze. Podgórze means "lower mountain" and this quarter of Kraków is located on the opposite bank of the Vistula. If you stand with your back to the church, you see the market square in front of you. To the right was the beginning of the ghetto that was set up in 1941. There was also a Jewish-owned chocolate factory there. Most of the families in our apartment building were gentiles. Besides us there were only three other Jewish families. At school, too, there were only a few Jews in my class, and almost all my friends were gentiles. I liked my school. Learning was easy for me, and later on in high school, I built up the German collection of the library. For a short time, starting in about 1936, I even edited the school newspaper.
Many rural Jews who had only briefly attended public schools didn't speak Polish well. The language of their daily lives was Yiddish, the language of their religion Hebrew. That was one of the causes of anti-Semitic prejudice. The Poles felt insulted when country Jews didn't speak good Polish, and they often made fun of them. I am very grateful that I was exposed to hardly any prejudice from my Polish classmates or my high school teachers.
Still, there was widespread anti-Semitism throughout Poland. The fires of prejudice were fanned especially by the Catholic Church. But that wasn't the only institution that propagated racism. Anti-Semitism was the glue holding together a new kind of Polish nationalism, increasingly in evidence after the death of the "gentle" dictator Marshall Jósef Pilsudski in 1935. The historian Saul Friedländer goes so far as to call anti-Semitism the point of "national cohesion" at this time. After Pilsudski's death, there were riots at the universities, especially in Lwów and Warsaw, but also in Kraków. Fortunately, this virulent anti-Semitism did not affect me directly until I began to attend university.
Because I did very well on my university qualifying exams in May 1938, I was given permission to pursue my studies at two universities simultaneously. I don't say that to boast, but my early successes in learning are a possible explanation for the fact that later, in the ghetto and especially in the camp, I was able to understand and correctly assess certain political developments. But I don't want to get ahead of myself. Until the decree that closed all Polish universities in 1939, I studied law at the Jagiellonian University and at the same time business administration and accounting at the Academy of Economics. The latter was on Sienkiewicza Street in the part of Kraków with the most modern and elegant houses. After 1939, the owners were driven from their homes as it became the favorite place for the German occupiers to set up their quarters. Although some classes continued to be held underground during the entire occupation, they were only for Polish students, not for Jews. I was not able to complete my master's degree until after the war.
In the fall of 1938, the president of the Jagiellonian University ordered that Jewish students sit only on certain benches in the lecture halls. In protest, we remained standing during our lectures. A rule was immediately promulgated that students were forbidden to stand during classes. They wanted to force us to sit on the "Jewish benches." Not that these benches were badly located-in the back of the hall, for instance. But for us, it was a matter of principle. We regarded the rule as blatant discrimination, an attempt to introduce into Poland the Nuremberg laws that had already been in force in Germany since 1935, legalizing the exclusion of Jews. Moreover, once the "Jewish benches" had been adopted, students from other institutions-from the School of Mines, for instance, which had no Jewish students enrolled-would come to the Jagiellonian University so as not to miss out on the fun of seeing Jews being humiliated. My fellow Jewish students and I were disciplined and had a warning recorded in our transcripts because we had "disobeyed the directive of the university president." This incident led me to adopt a more distanced attitude toward the Poles. I realized how fragile and superficial the veneer of coexistence can be. For the first time, I became aware that my native country didn't really want me, a Jew, to live there.
Until 1944, I still possessed a copy of my transcript with the disciplinary entry. I always carried it with me, along with my other papers, in the ghetto and later in the camp as well. That proved to be a mistake. I should have hidden it. For when we were transported by cattle car from the concentration camp Plaszów to Brünnlitz in October 1944, the transport was routed via the Gross Rosen camp, where we had to surrender all our possessions and clothes, and that's when I lost my transcript as well.
From the partitions of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century right up to the end of the First World War, the ancient Polish coronation city of Kraków belonged-with occasional interruptions-to the Danube Monarchy of the Habsburgs. Its inhabitants were under the influence of Austro-German culture and liberalism. Among Kraków's idiosyncrasies are the many Renaissance inscriptions in Latin found in inner courtyards, on churches, and on old walls, admonishing passers-by and exhorting them to reflection. On Grodzka Street, below the royal palace, there's a small church that stands at a slight angle to the roadway. During my youth, it was a Lutheran church and it had one of these inscriptions. Since at the time I hadn't yet learned Latin in school, I had to translate the phrase with the help of a dictionary: Frustra vivit, qui nemini prodest-"He who helps no one lives without purpose (in vain)." I've never been able to forget that inscription. Especially during the war, its significance for me was enormous, since there were so few people who selflessly helped persecuted Jews. But those few rescuers evinced a high degree of goodness and humanity. Another inscription that was meaningful to me was located inside the Kraków municipal administration building: Praestantibus viris negligere virtutem concessum non est-"Men standing before others (leaders, those at the forefront) must not neglect (forget) courage (fortitude, morality)." Thus I understood early on that a person who, by his own actions or through the influence of others, is in a privileged position, is not at liberty to simply carry out his tasks mechanically.
This venerable old city of Kraków was declared by the Nazis in 1939 to be urdeutsch-originally and essentially German-and as a consequence was hardly bombed at all during the war. Only occasional bombs fell near the train station, and even then not onto the building itself. Later, Kraków also became a hub of supply lines between the Reich and the troops on the eastern front. It thus proved advantageous to have preserved the modern university clinics in order to care for German casualties. The Kraków-Plaszów station had long been located southeast of the city. At the beginning of 1943, the complex was greatly expanded. Who could have foreseen in 1939 that from 1943 on, the Nazis would intern us in a forced labor camp not far from this train station?
In contrast to Kraków, Hitler ordered Warsaw to be leveled. The city was considered a "nest of resistance," a "symbol of Polishness." The western part of the country was absorbed into the German Reich. The Nazis declared the middle section-including Kraków and Warsaw-a Polish Generalgouvernement and the eastern part was annexed by the Soviet Union until 1941. At first, the German jurist Dr. Hans Frank had the title "Generalgouverneur for the occupied Polish districts." However, this designation disappeared after a few weeks and only the name Generalgouvernement remained. As his residence and administrative offices, Frank chose the venerable Wawel Castle, once the home of the Polish kings. The stately Wawel overlooks Kraków like a patron saint. Under the German occupation, flying hundreds of Nazi flags, it became the threatening Krakauer Burg-the Kraków Castle. At first, extraordinarily high spirits prevailed among the occupiers. That changed only when the German front was broken through at Stalingrad and Kursk in early 1943. Until then, the Nazis apparently thought Russia was on the verge of collapse.
The Germans introduced into Poland the distinction between Reichsdeutsche, German citizens of the Reich, and Volksdeutsche, ethnic Germans from beyond its borders. I recall my revered Latin teacher and the principal of my high school, Edward Türschmid. As a Polish patriot, he did not want his name entered in the Volksliste, the list of ethnic Germans created by the occupiers immediately after the invasion. Whoever could prove German ancestry was entitled, as a Volksdeutscher, to certain professional advantages and subjected to fewer restrictions in daily life. Principal Türschmid wanted to remain a Pole; that wish alone was considered an affront to the German occupiers. Türschmid was not allowed to continue teaching and had to put up with harassment and special privations. After the war, he helped me get new copies of my qualifying exams and wrote another recommendation, as he had in 1938, that I receive special permission to study at two universities simultaneously.
Because of the increased need for housing in the capital of the Generalgouvernement, the Jews were to be expelled from the city. This didn't happen from one day to the next, but gradually.
Excerpted from THE ROAD TO RESCUE by MIETEK PEMPER Copyright © 2005 by Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg. Excerpted by permission.
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1. Pemper states that it is imperative to stick only to the facts of the past, saying, “Even the tiniest details must be correct, for any imprecision threatens the credibility of the entire narrative.” Schindler’s List, the novel and the movie, were fictionalized versions of this history, in which the roles of Izak Stern and Mietek Pemper are combined into one character role. Do you think it is justified to fictionalize these historical events for dramatic purposes? Do you think there is a place for both fiction and nonfiction about the Holocaust?
2. In Pemper’s words: “I’ve often wondered what would have happened if there had been no war and no Nazi ideology with its racist mania. Göth would probably not have become a mass murderer, nor Schindler a saver of lives. It was only the extraordinary circumstances of war and the immense power granted to individual men that revealed the nature of these men to such an impressive and terrifying degree.” Do you agree that such extreme circumstances and unusual opportunities for power reveal the underlying character of a person?
3. After killing someone, Göth would also kill the person’s entire family. Pemper states that this made him realize he could never give up or make the smallest mistake. Yet he also took great risks to help save people. How did he reconcile these risks?
4. Pemper says that Amon Göth was an intelligent man. Why do you think Göth allowed Pemper to work not only as a translator but also as his secretary, and in an office where he had access to many confidential documents?
5. As Pemper mentions, Jewish victims have been criticized for not engaging in more resistance against the Nazis. Acts of violent resistance did occur and had enormous symbolic importance even though they were met with “horrific reprisals” from the Nazis. Pemper chose to avoid violence and practiced what he called “intelligent resistance,” finding ways to deceive the Nazis and to manipulate the situation to try to help people survive. What do you think of these two forms of resistance under these extreme circumstances?
6. Consider the understated tone of Pemper’s writing. Does his controlled, matter-of-fact telling of the story convey the power of his experience effectively?
7. Pemper is careful not to idealize Oskar Schindler but insists that Schindler’s foibles are irrelevant compared to what he did to save lives. Do you agree with this assessment? Is Pemper fair to Schindler? Is he too generous to him? How might Schindler’s “foibles” have helped him in his project to save as many Jewish people as he could?
8. Pemper quotes the Holocaust survivor Ruth Kluger as saying, “Only despair gives us courage, while hope makes cowards of us all.” How does this relate to Pemper’s experience in the camps? Did his acceptance of the inevitability of his own death gave him the coolheadedness and calm to see and act on the opportunities to save others? Or was he motivated by hope?
9. Recall SS officer Dworschak’s refusal to kill a young woman and child (pages 106—108). How did this event affect Pemper? Can one decent act in the midst of a totally inhumane environment have a larger meaning?
10. Why did Pemper write this book? What are his readers meant to take from it?
Posted December 15, 2009
Over a million Jews were slaughtered every day and burned like wood or buried like banana peels. Oskar Schindler prevented the killing of a lot of Jews, mortal human beings just like you or me. This story was not as depressing as other holocaust novels because it tells about people who worked together secretly for the common good instead of dwelling over how miserable they were the whole time. However, it was sort of difficult to follow because Mietek Pemper uses a lot of German terms for things- really long words that all look alike and mean different things. Still, I got the underlying meaning. One line wraps it up nicely, "Only despair gives us courage, while hope makes cowards of us all." This actually is from another book, but Pemper quotes Ruth Kluger, the author, because that sentence outlines the bravery of those people; the people who risked their lives to save other Jewish victims. They were certain that if they didn't do anything, they would die, and if they did something, there was a chance that they could live. What was there to lose? They could work to death, starve, be tortured, get sick, get shot, or survive and help others survive at the same time.
What I think Mietek Pemper was trying to communicate when he wrote this book is if the opportunity comes up, you should help out other people. For example, the author of this book was like a secretary or an assistant to the head of a consentration camp. This position allowed him to read classified documents which contained information that became the basis of Schindler's list. Without Pemper, Schindler's rescues would have been impossible. This means hat Pemper took the opportunity he received to help somebody who had the resources to let Jews escape their certain death. He took a chance and ended up being the thing that made rescue for Jews possible. From this true story, I was moved by Pemper's persistence in helping his fellow victims by putting himself in constant danger every moment of his life. He aws always around doing something for Amon Goth, a man who liked to look out the window or go for a walk and randomly shoot his prisoners.
Posted May 19, 2009
No text was provided for this review.