A court in Jerusalem will hear a case next month regarding the contested ownership of a suitcase that belonged to Oskar Schindler, the subject of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 megahit Schindler’s List. The suitcase contained many of Schindler’s personal papers, including the original list of Jews he rescued from the Holocaust by demanding the right to employ them at a Nazi-seized factory he managed in Krakow. It has been at the Yad Vashem World Center for Holocaust Research since 1999, and its value is believed to be in the millions.
The years-long legal battle was instigated by Erika Rosenberg, an Argentine woman and legal heir of Emilie Schindler, Oskar’s late widow. Rosenberg became close to Emilie in the 1990s, and remained so until her death in 2001. Rosenberg wrote a biography about Emilie in 1996 that strove to edit the established historical narrative on Schindler to reflect her considerable involvement in her husband’s mission. Yad Vashem itself agrees — Emilie Schindler was named one of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1993, thirty years after Oskar was honored with the title. Rosenberg’s suit argues that the suitcase is rightfully part of Emilie’s estate, and by extension a portion of Rosenberg’s inheritance.
Yad Vashem and Rosenberg both offer complimentary narratives to justify their claims to the suitcase, recently detailed in a longform piece about the dispute in Haaretz. Emilie Schindler remained legally married to Oskar until the end of his life in 1974 by which time they were long estranged. The couple moved together to Argentina after the war, but Oskar moved back to Germany in 1957 and lived out the rest of his life with his lover Ami Staehr. It was Staehr who uncovered the suitcase in 1999 in the attic of the home they’d shared. Understanding the items therein to be historically significant, she allegedly gave it to the German investigative newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung, who in turn donated the treasure to Yad Vashem. In Yad Vashem’s telling, Oskar had gifted his personal effects to Staehr while still alive.
But Rosenberg’s version stresses that this gift was not codified in writing, and the estate is rightfully Emilie’s. The suit argues that Emilie felt abandoned by both her husband and the historical record, which she felt elbowed her out of the story that celebrated her husband. Rosenberg’s case argues that Stuttgarter Zeitung had no right to donate the suitcase, which amounted essentially to “smuggling” it out of the country to Israel. Rosenberg’s camp denies that her battle is financially motivated, saying instead that she feels responsible to seek justice because of her bond with Emilie. The two women indeed shared a close relationship in Argentina — Rosenberg was named Emilie’s legal heir, and is reported to have paid for Emilie’s 2001 burial in Germany — but Yad Vashem sees their bond as one guided by opportunism and exploitation.
Besides probing the legal intricacies of estate law, this case gets to the heart of the public’s relationship to history. While importance to the historical record may not be specifically codified into precedent law, it certainly casts such debates in a different light. The dispute over Schindler’s suitcase is one of many instances of contested artifacts across the world and the trajectories of how these spats play out is hardly uniform.
One such high-profile analogy — plundered artwork during the Nazi era — has been invoked by some Rosenberg supporters. The issue of war plunder — endemic in Nazi Germany — has been written into international law, but is difficult to execute in real-world circumstances. Still, when prior ownership and lineage can be proven, public opinion and courts have so overwhelmingly favored restitution that it’s practically a foregone conclusion. As a result, publicly displayed artwork being transferred from museums to heirs of the one-time private owners is not uncommon.
But I’d argue that equating plundered art with the Schindler suitcase is disingenuous. The restitution of property seized from Jews during the Holocaust isn’t popular because people are so passionately dedicated to estate law, but rather because it is an act of justice in contrition for genocide. In other words, the moral appeal of art restitution lies not in our desire to galvanize individuals, but in our desire to collectively condemn evil. In this light, the suitcase seems better poised to serve humanity’s conscience at Yad Vashem than with Rosenberg. (While it’s unknown what Rosenberg would do with the suitcase if she wins her case, personal items from Oskar Schindler’s estate have previously fetched exorbitant sums from private collectors at auction.)
Ultimately, I know very little about transnational estate law, and broad-sweeping analogies are certainly poorly equipped to deduce the righteousness of any given case of individuals playing tug-of-war with institutions purporting to serve the public interest. But it’s tough to convince me that the wishes of one dead person supercede such an obvious public good, unless the acquisition entailed systemic abuse of human rights. Today, Schindler’s briefcase is serving posterity as a historical resource and public symbol of righteous resistance. Isn’t that justice?