Saved by Schindler: The Life of Celi­na Karp Biniaz 

  • Review
By – November 21, 2022

William B. Friedricks’s new biog­ra­phy of Celi­na Karp Bini­az reaf­firms that every Holo­caust sto­ry belongs to an indi­vid­ual and must be told. The ear­li­er part of the book relates how Celina’s rel­a­tive­ly assim­i­lat­ed Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Krakow, Poland was unpre­pared for Nazi occu­pa­tion. Through a series of events and human con­nec­tions, Celi­na and her par­ents even­tu­al­ly found their way out of the ghet­to and con­cen­tra­tion camps and onto the list of Ger­man indus­tri­al­ist Oskar Schindler. They sur­vived the war work­ing in his fac­to­ry and lat­er arrived in Des Moines, Iowa as refugees. At the same time she was try­ing to repress her trau­ma and blend into mid­dle-class Amer­i­can life, Celi­na expe­ri­enced both the com­forts and lim­i­ta­tions that came with being a pros­per­ous sub­ur­ban wife. All the while, Friedricks traces the facts of Celina’s jour­ney as well as her grad­ual aware­ness of her need to recov­er and inter­pret the past.

Celina’s sto­ry is not uncom­mon. Yet Friedricks’s metic­u­lous pre­sen­ta­tion of research renews a reader’s sense of dis­be­lief at such inhu­man­i­ty. And rather than ana­lyz­ing the com­plex­i­ties of Schindler’s char­ac­ter, the author focus­es on how life as his fac­to­ry work­er, though still ardu­ous and full of risk, seemed almost miraculous.

After the war, Celina’s des­ti­na­tion was Des Moines, a city with few Holo­caust sur­vivors and an only slight­ly larg­er Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. Even so, her fam­i­ly main­tained a Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, and she found many oppor­tu­ni­ties for friend­ship and aca­d­e­m­ic suc­cess. Even­tu­al­ly, she moved to New York, stud­ied at Colum­bia Teach­ers Col­lege, and met her future hus­band, a Per­sian man from a sec­u­lar Mus­lim fam­i­ly. Friedricks describes the post­war era in the Unit­ed States as one of eco­nom­ic suc­cess, but also of con­for­mi­ty and, for women, a return to pre­war gen­der roles.

While it was quite com­mon for Jew­ish refugees to keep silent about what they had under­gone in Europe, it was far less typ­i­cal for them to adopt Celina’s strat­e­gy of era­sure. She and her hus­band attend­ed a Uni­tar­i­an church, cel­e­brat­ed Christ­mas and East­er, and con­cealed Celina’s true iden­ti­ty from their chil­dren. Only lat­er, after gain­ing con­fi­dence in her new career as a teacher, did Celi­na come to terms with the truth and decide to edu­cate oth­ers. Friedricks notes with admi­ra­tion that this allowed her to put the Holo­caust behind her and move on with her life.” But the real­i­ty of the book actu­al­ly proves the oppo­site. Celi­na Karp Bini­az did not put the past behind her; she incor­po­rat­ed it into a fuller under­stand­ing of who she was.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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