'A witness to the truth' tells brave story of Schindler, who tricked Nazis

December 30, 1993|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

"I hate the word 'survivor,' " Leopold Page says. "That word is for someone who has survived a car crash, a plane crash. I am more than a survivor. I am a witness to the truth."

The truth that Mr. Page and his wife, Mila, witnessed -- and survived -- was the Holocaust, the Nazi genocide that killed 6 million European Jews during the World War II.

But there is another truth as well, and one that Leopold Page was responsible for bringing to the world. It is about one man, Oskar Schindler, who cheated the Nazis of some 1,100 victims -- Leopold and Mila among them -- and whose story has been retold by director Steven Spielberg in his new film, "Schindler's List."

On a recent Tuesday the Pages journeyed from their home in Los Angeles to San Francisco for a special benefit screening of the film for the Holocaust Center of Northern California. Before the screening, they came to the center to talk about their lives, the film and, most of all, about Mr. Schindler.

"He was our hero, our savior," Mila Page says.

"I think heroism is a strange expression," Leopold interjects. "Much of what a hero does is spur-of-the-moment. Schindler lived by his instincts. He realized the danger of the situation, but he did what he did."

What Mr. Schindler did was one of the most miraculous episodes in a horrific time. A Nazi party member and industrialist, Mr. Schindler bribed Nazi officials in occupied Poland, "purchasing" the lives of 1,100 Jews who worked at his enamelware factory in Krakow and saving them from almost certain extermination in the death camp at Auschwitz.

"He was a modern Noah," Leopold says. "He saved individuals, husbands and wives and their children, families. It was like the [Talmudic] saying, 'To save one life is to save the whole world.' "

"Why did he do it?" Leopold asks rhetorically. "I think he felt a moral responsibility to do something. He called us his children. In 1944, he was a wealthy man. He could have taken the money and gone to Switzerland. But instead, he gambled his life and all of his money to save us."

The Pages see "Schindler's List" as both a chronicle of Mr. Schindler's deeds and a broader historical record of the Holocaust itself.

In Mr. Spielberg's film -- an adaptation of Australian author

Thomas Keneally's 1980 book of the same title -- Mr. Schindler (portrayed by actor Liam Neeson) would seem to have been the unlikeliest of heroes. A man of many vices and suspect morality, he is slowly transformed by the atrocities he encounters into a figure of transcendent humanity.

The film is at once a harrowing depiction of the horrors of the Holocaust and Mr. Schindler's moral transformation. There are scenes of unspeakable brutality and inhumanity -- from the Nazis' random, almost capricious killings of individuals to a terrifying depiction of the elimination of the Krakow ghetto. But they're countered by others that outline Mr. Schindler's gradual conversion from a vacuous hustler who had initially "hired" the Jews because they were a cheaper labor force than non-Jewish Poles into a man who put his life and fortune on the line for Jews who ultimately made their way onto his "list."

"This is not an entertainment movie," Leopold says. "It is a document. The names of the people [in the movie] and their testimony are real. This is a lesson in history and a warning for future generations.

"The first time I saw the film, I was crying. Remembering everything is very painful. But it is important that people see what it was like. It was the biggest period of inhumanity that ever happened."

"Schindler's List" is the culmination of a pledge that Leopold made to Mr. Schindler in the 1940s, to tell his story to the world.

That pledge began to come to fruition when Leopold first met Mr. Keneally in 1980. The author was on his way back to Australia when his briefcase was damaged during a stay in Los Angeles. He stopped by a leather-goods store owned by the Pages to have it repaired (the Pages had immigrated to Los Angeles from Germany in 1947).

Talking to the author, Leopold convinced Mr. Keneally that Mr. Schindler's story deserved to be told and agreed to provide a list of contacts and information for a book. That book became "Schindler's List," which was published in 1982.

Later that year, after the two had appeared on the "Today" show, they were contacted by MCA, which secured the rights to a film to be directed by Mr. Spielberg. The Pages subsequently acted as consultants for the film during its production in Poland.

Mr. Keneally's book was dedicated "to the memory of Oskar Schindler, and to Leopold Pfefferberg, who by zeal and persistence caused this book to be written."

Leopold was born Poldek Pfefferberg in Krakow in 1913. As a lieutenant in the Polish Army, he fought the Germans when they invaded that country in 1939.

"I was captured after three weeks' fighting," he says. "But I escaped and went to my mother's house in Krakow. One day, in November 1939, a man knocked on the door, and I thought it was the Gestapo."

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