Thanks to Steven Spielberg, the story of Oskar Schindler and the twelve hundred Jews he saved during World War II is well known. But not many people know that the factory where he employed them still stands. It is in the village of Brněnec, north of the Czech Republic’s second city of Brno, and for many years it has stood derelict. There has been a lot of talk of saving the building and turning it into a museum and memorial, and the latest initiative comes from members of the Low-Beer family, who owned the factory until 1938 when they had to flee the Nazis. They have just set up a foundation and are working with the local community to bring the building back to life. Last week, Daniel Low-Beer was in the Czech Republic and he spoke to David Vaughan.
“It’s not just a derelict factory. First of all, it belonged to my family until 1938.”
What was it making?
“It was one of the few factories that went from raw wool right through to the end fabric. So it made woollen goods. But it was lost in 1938, and we’ve come back eighty years later to be involved.”
When you say it was lost in 1938, you mean it was taken away by the Nazis.
“We were forced to flee – our family – to flee for our lives and were scattered throughout the world. When you look at the Low-Beers, their home was this one part of Czechoslovakia – Moravia – where they had made their livelihoods, their factories, their culture, and now they live throughout the world, but not in this place.”
And they were a very successful industrialist family.
“Yes. They were very successful, and they saw that place as their home, which I think allowed them to express themselves fully as Czech, as Jewish and as European. You see it in the houses they built and some of the leading factories.
“And then there is this factory which had its own history during the war, as it became Schindler’s Ark, which people know through the film Schindler’s List by Spielberg. It’s one of the few places where Jews were not exterminated. It was a concentration camp, but they were saved – and saved in large numbers thanks to the activity of Oskar and Emilie Schindler.
“You see a derelict factory now, but really the aim is to bring back that building to a museum, to really show the story of what happened. The second aim is to tell a history of the last 150 years through our family factory. At the same time, it’s an important building for the local population, so we also want this to create activities that will benefit the local population and region.”
Because of the fate of your family and the fact that they had to leave, you grew up as an Englishman. I should imagine that there are all sorts of logistical problems in trying to get this project off the ground, working with people here. How are you going about it?
“Firstly, for me it renews the partnership that we had with the village and the population. We have a very good team there. We know the factory, we know a lot of the local politics and we’ve created the beginning of that partnership again between the family and the local population.”
So they have been enthusiastic…
“They have been much more than enthusiastic. They’re the ones who have also developed many of the plans to save the building. They are doing a lot of the work at the moment in rebuilding the staircase, supporting the roofs and preventing the building from collapsing – and also negotiating a lot of the local issues that are needed for this project. But we also bring the family story back into that place. We very much want Schindler’s Ark to be seen as a home for different collections, for telling different stories: telling the story of Oskar and Emilie Schindler, telling the story of the film, telling the story also of the German, Czech, Jewish population in that region.”
At what stage are you in terms of fundraising and getting it off the ground?
“We have two objectives. The first is to save the buildings and then to rebuild the Ark. The first stage we are doing now is to consolidate the buildings, because they will collapse within the next six to twelve months unless something is done. The second thing we’ve done is to open quite transparent and open consultation on how it should be used as a home for this story, as a real ark for the story of Oskar and Emilie Schindler, for the story of our factory and for the other associated stories that make it such an important historical place. We’ve published that, and it’s open now for consultation, and we’re talking to different partners to see how it can be best developed.”
Everybody knows the story of Oskar and Emilie Schindler because of Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark and the Spielberg film Schindler’s List. Are you involving either of them in the project?
“We have groups of people we are beginning to start partnerships with. So, we’ve started with the Shoah Foundation, which has collected the direct interviews with the Schindler Jews. Certainly we would also like to work with Spielberg, because the centre of this should be showing the film and continuing the memory of the film, so that schoolchildren can see it in the place where it occurred. We’re doing this step by step. We’re also working with the community here. We certainly have further steps to bring in the partners to help develop that site.”
Why is this all still relevant and important all these decades later?
“History is always relevant to the present, and this is an incredibly important and unique story from the Second World War. It’s central to the Jewish history of this region, it’s central to the story of Czechoslovakia and it’s also a very central piece in European history, right in the centre of Europe.”