Oskar Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi who went to Krakow to make money after Hitler invaded Poland. Instead, he spent until the end of the war saving lives -- including Stella Müller-Madej's.
Stella Müller-Madej's book cover shows her family in Krakow's ghetto
Stella Müller-Madej survived the Krakow Ghetto and the Plaszow and Auschwitz concentration camps. She was a witness to unspeakable cruelty. But she was one of the lucky ones: she was one of the 1,100 "Schindler Jews" Oskar Schindler saved.
Her path to Schindler's factory, where she spent the last nine months before the end of the war in relative safety, was long and winding. That road traveled through the Krakow ghetto and two concentration camps, Plaszow and Auschwitz, where she miraculously escaped death many times.
She was 9-years-old and carefree when the war broke out. When it ended, she was 15 and couldn't remember what freedom was like.
"It was very difficult for me to get used to civilization again," she said.
After the war, she decided to use writing as a tool to help her adjust to her new life, and tell about her past ordeal. It was a decision she made after seeing a movie about the war with her father. The depiction of the conditions shocked her.
"After what I went through, the bugs everywhere, the dirt, the muck, hunger and murder all around -- yet this film was somehow so sanitized," she said. "There was, in the film, the prisoners in the striped prison garb and the terrible roar of the camp guards. For me, who was convinced every day that I would be destroyed, the film was unacceptable.
He saved 1,100 Jews
She couldn't understand the reaction of the public. One person would be sobbing, while at the same time, another would make comments such as: "That's nonsense. That could never have happened."
She decided that from then on, it was her duty as a survivor to commemorate all of those that were mistreated, shot, hanged and gassed before her eyes.
"I won't let myself forget that these people who perished without any reason deserved to be remembered," she said.
A new biography
Now she has written a biography -- the only one by a "Schindler Jew." In it, she relates how she, her parents and her brother came to be on "Schindler's list" by accident.
"We heard about some German who had people in a camp at his factory who were better off, not mistreated, and didn't have to go hungry," she said. "That was almost impossible to believe in our camp in Plaszow, that someone like that could have existed."
Her uncle used a connection to get her family on the list. Soon after, they were able to move to Schindler's factory in Bohemia where they, and hundreds of others, lived out the war in relative safety and comfort.
View in the office of Oscar Schindler's office in the original building of the "Emalia" factory in Krakow
At the end of the war, those who survived under Schindler's protection gave him a gold ring on which were engraved a sentence from the Talmud: "Whoever saves one life saves the entire world."
"We were surprised by every hour that we survived, because we all knew that we had been condemned to death, whether from gassing or being shot," she said. "We had no claim on life."
In light of the near limitless gratitude felt by those Jews who Schindler saved, it is understandable why none of them accepted the later controversies that emerged about Schilder's motives and even behavior.
"For my biological life, I thank my parents," she said. "But for my life I thank Oskar Schindler. Even the most devout Jews thank Schindler instead of God to this day."
Müller-Madej says she does not feel that today's young Germans are guilty because of the actions of their fathers and grandfathers, although coming to terms with the country took a long time. It does worry her that some young people, including many outside of Germany, see Hitler's regime and its symbol, the swastika, as worthy of admiration.
"Sixty years after the war there isn't enough being done to teach young people the extent of the immeasurable suffering that was caused in the name of this symbol," she said.