‘Schindler’s List’ survivor hosts two September events in the Des Moines area

Second Chance: My Story

Valley High School (West Des Moines) — Sunday, Sept. 10 at 2 p.m.

When Memories Unfold: A Luncheon with Celina

The Caspe Terrace (33158 Ute Ave, Waukee) — Tuesday, Sept. 12 at 11:30 a.m.

Celina Karp Biniaz, August 2017 — photo provided by the Iowa Jewish Historical Society

One of the last survivors of Schindler’s List, Celina Karp Biniaz, will be in West Des Moines for two events hosted by the Iowa Jewish Historical Society on Sept. 10 and 12.

Biniaz will share her story of survival and the wisdom she gained after living in Iowa and elsewhere. Biniaz went from living a comfortable, middle-class childhood with her parents Irvin and Phyllis Karp in a diverse neighborhood in Krakow, Poland, to being forced into a Jewish ghetto and later one of the most infamous Nazi death camps, Auschwitz. After the war, her family relocated to Iowa.

With her visit, Biniaz will remind people why they must “Never Forget” — a phrase often associate with the Holocaust — as those who ignore history are doomed to repeat past atrocities or create new ones.

“Celina was only 8 when the Germans invaded Poland and she and her family were forced into a ghetto and then forced-labor camps and only 13 when her name and that of her parents were added to Schindler’s list,” Sandi Yoder, director of the Iowa Jewish Historical Society, said. “I think all ages can learn a lot from Celina’s experiences and the life she built after the war.”

Biniaz is one of the last living survivors from the real life Schindler’s List, the story that served as the basis for a best-selling novel, Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982), and the Academy Award-winning film Schindler’s List (1993) directed by Steven Spielberg. Spielberg went on to found the Shoah Foundation in order to preserve the testimonies of survivors and others who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. (Biniaz filmed a personal testimony for the foundation.)

Oskar Schindler was an unlikely hero to the over 1,200 Jews whose lives were saved through his efforts. A Czech-German industrialist who started his business ventures as a black marketer, he became wealthy through his association with the Nazi Party and his connections to its leaders. With the invasion of Poland, Schindler later acquired a factory producing enamelware and munitions for the German military front, one that operated by Jewish labor. Many historians argue that Schindler’s attitude toward putting profit over human life changed after seeing the violence of Nazi death squads murdering Jews in Krakow.

Professors Richard L. Rubenstein and John K. Roth, authors of Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and its Legacy (1987), made the following assessment: “Insofar as the tactics targeted productive laborers, Schindler found them utterly counterproductive to the war effort. More than that, this wasting of human life struck him as profoundly morally wrong. Deciding that he could intercede from within the German system itself, Schindler negotiated a daring series of bargains.”

Schindler drew up a list containing the names of close to 1,300 men and women who worked under his employ. With the help of his wife, Emilie, they helped to protect the people who became known as Schindlerjuden, or “Schindler Jews.” He spent the fortune he created during the war in order to protect these workers from being sent to concentration camps and almost certain death, through bribery and other means. While some question Schindler’s intentions, Rubenstein and Roth noted: “If his initial purpose was to keep healthy the labor he needed to sustain his factory’s productivity, before the war ended, Schindler’s obsessions was more fundamental. He was determined that the hundreds of workers in his care would survive and have a future.”

Phyllis (L) and Irvin Karp and Celina Karp Biniaz (R) in front of a tree planted in Schindler’s honor in the Avenue of the Righteous at the Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel in 1989. Irvin and Phyllis were celebrating their 60th anniversary. — photo provided by the Iowa Jewish Historical Society

By being on that “list of life,” Biniaz and her parents lived to tell their story. The family immigrated to the U.S. in 1947. In 1948, Biniaz graduated from Des Moines’ North High School (where she was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1994). She graduated from Grinnell College in 1952. Her parents lived in Des Moines for the rest of their lives. Irvin passed away in 1995 and Phyllis in 1997.

“Celina’s story is part of the world’s history,” Yoder said. “Her story connects Iowans to local, national and international events that have shaped and will continue to shape our state’s and our country’s future. Understanding history and learning from it lays the groundwork for building strong, resilient communities, strengthens connections and commitment to each other, builds understanding of multiple perspectives and helps craft better solutions for today’s challenges.”

Biniaz’s story, along with those of countless others, have been preserved by the Iowa Jewish Historical Society (IJHS). As part of the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines, the historical society (33158 Ute Ave, Waukee) was established in 1996. It has served as the primary organization preserving the history of the Jewish people in the Hawkeye State and sharing that history with visitors and researchers from across the nation.

“The IJHS’ collection, exhibits, programs, and publications are the keys for preserving and understanding the history and contributions Jewish Iowans have made to the cultural and economic growth and development of Iowa, the U.S. and the world, and, as such, the IJHS fulfills a unique role. No other organization in Iowa has this as their central mission,” Yoder said.

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Biniaz has been involved with the historical society’s museum since its founding over 20 years ago. For the 1998 traveling exhibit Unpacking on the Prairie: Jewish Women in the Midwest Since 1855, a joint effort between the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest and the Minnesota Historical Society, the IJHS worked with the State Historical Society of Iowa to develop a companion exhibit entitled Unpacking: The Iowa Story.

“Both exhibits were on display at the State Historical Society of Iowa Museum,” Yoder said. “Celina loaned the IJHS her ‘Schindler Cup,’ a small enamelware cup that was used by her family while they worked in Schindler’s factory. After the exhibit ended, Celina donated the Schindler Cup to the IJHS.”

The first event, titled Second Chance: My Story, will be hosted at the Staplin Performing Arts Center at Valley West High School in West Des Moines (3650 Woodland Ave). This occasion is open to the public (first come, first serve seating) and will take place on Sept. 10 at 2 p.m. (with the doors opening at 1:30). The second event, When Memories Unfold: A Luncheon with Celina, will be hosted at Caspe Terrace on Sept. 12 at 11:30 a.m. Biniaz will recite poetry she composed based on her experiences. Seating is limited, but tickets are still available, and reservations must be made by Sept. 1.

“I believe that Celina’s story is an important one for people of all backgrounds and beliefs,” Yoder said. “In times like these, it is critical that we listen to each other and we learn from the atrocities of the past.”

Visit the Jewish Federation of Greater Des Moines’ website for more information.