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Germany: Court May Decide Who Owns Schindler's 'List'

  • Roland Eggleston

Many people have seen the American film "Schindler's List," which tells the story of a German industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis in World War Two by giving them jobs in his factory. Today, a German court began hearing a claim by Oskar Schindler's widow against a newspaper for not giving her the suitcase in which Schindler kept the original list of those he had saved and other documents. RFE/RL's Munich correspondent Roland Eggleston reports the case might take same time to resolve.

Stuttgart, 26 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The lawsuit was brought by Oskar Schindler's 93-year-old widow Emilie, who now lives in Argentina.

Emilie Schindler is seeking 100,000 German marks (about $46,000) from a Stuttgart newspaper ("Stuttgarter Zeitung") because it did not give her the suitcase in which the private papers of her husband were found more than 20 years after his death in 1974.

Those papers included the original copy of a list that Schindler kept of names of Jews he had saved during World War Two by giving them work in a factory that he owned. The story was later made into an Oscar-winning film by director Steven Spielberg known as "Schindler's List."

Instead the newspaper eventually sent the suitcase and its documents to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and research center in Jerusalem.

Lawyers and court officials were reluctant to comment on the case today. They said a number of legal issues are involved which may be difficult to resolve. Some experts said it could be concluded on soon as this week or it could drag on for years.

One lawyer who did not wish to be identified said: "The main issue is whether Schindler's suitcase is part of his estate and whether its contents are protected by copyright."

He said that Schindler's widow argues as her husband's sole heiress she is the rightful owner and has the sole copyright to the contents -- but the newspaper disputes this.

The editor of the newspaper, Uwe Vorkoetter, said he did not doubt that Emilie Schindler was her husband's sole heiress, but he said the newspaper doubted whether the suitcase belonged to Schindler's estate because he had given it to someone else before he died.

Emilie Schindler disclosed many years ago that her marriage was not a happy one. She told interviewers that Schindler had many female friends and eventually left her for one of them. However, they did not divorce.

The suitcase containing the original copy of the list was not found until 1999 -- years after the film was made. It was found gathering dust in a house in the German city of Hildesheim. It was stowed there by Schindler's last female friend who cared for him before he died. It contained hundreds of letters, press clippings, photographs, plans of Schindler's factory where his Jewish laborers worked, and other material.

The finders, a married couple, took the suitcase to the Stuttgart newspaper, which published a series of six articles about the contents and the people who Schindler saved. The documents were also copied onto microfilm at the National Archive in Koblenz.

In October 1999 Emilie Schindler demanded that the suitcase and its contents be given to her on the grounds that she was the rightful heiress and had the copyright to the letters, photos, and other documents. Her lawyers contended that the newspaper had no right to publish articles about the contents without her permission and without payment.

Emilie Schindler obtained a court order against the newspaper and in November last year its offices were searched by court officials. They found nothing because the suitcase and its documents had been transferred to Israel.

Legal officials tell RFE/RL the case now under way in Stuttgart could raise many issues regarding copyright. They note that the suitcase contains letters written to Schindler and ask if these were also covered by the widow's copyright claim. They say there is also the question of whether Emilie Schindler would have been legally entitled to market the papers if the suitcase had been sent directly to her in Buenos Aires.

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