Margot Schlesinger dies at 99; survived Holocaust because of ‘Schindler’s List’
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Margot Schlesinger greeted the births of each of her three children, eight grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren with love, gratitude and just a touch of glee.
“Each one that is born,” she’d say, “is my revenge against Hitler.”
In a grand and final rebuke to Hitler, Mrs. Schlesinger lived to be 99 and a half years old. She died Feb. 7 at the Park Plaza retirement community on the North Side.
She was a member of the dwindling group of people who survived the Holocaust because they were on Schindler’s List. And Mrs. Schlesinger was one of the last of that group, known as the “Schindlerjuden,” in the Chicago area, according to her daughters Aline Yolkut, Sabine Himmelfarb and Regine Schlesinger Meisel.
In 1994, director Steven Spielberg won the Academy Award for “Best Picture” for his movie about World War II industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved an estimated 1,200 Jewish factory workers from the Nazis.
Mrs. Schlesinger was born in Germany, the fifth of six children of Yakov and Sabine Wind. She grew into a vivacious, elegant young woman with dancing eyes.
In 1938, when her father was arrested on Kristallnacht — the “Night of Broken Glass” when Jews were attacked across Germany — “She charmed one of the guards into letting him go,” said Regine Schlesinger Meisel, a WBBM radio news anchor.
By 1939, Mrs. Schlesinger’s four brothers and a sister had fled Germany, heading to the United States, Shanghai and Palestine.
She had a visa to go to England but didn’t want to leave her parents. German officials expelled the Winds to Poland. Without papers, they were “stateless Jews,” Regine Schlesinger Meisel said.
She was keeping company with another man, but Chaskel Schlesinger saw her in the city of Tarnow and fell in love.
“The first time he saw her on the street,” their daughter said, “he said, ‘If that other one doesn’t marry her, I will.’ ”
As deportation rumors swirled in mid-1942, Margot urged her mother and father to go into hiding with her. But they told her they were old, and their future was in God’s hands.
Later, when she returned for them, she found their apartment empty, “sealed with Gestapo tape, and her parents were gone,” her daughter said.
She married Chaskel a month later.
She credited her survival to near-misses, lucky breaks and miracles — like one that occurred on the day an SS officer demanded Mrs. Schlesinger’s papers. She had none.
“You’re coming with us,” the officer said.
Her husband spoke up, telling her, “Why don’t you show your other papers?” And he handed his own documents to the Nazi. Without glancing at them, the officer allowed her to stay.
“Had that Nazi read the papers,” Aline Yolkut said, “they both would have been shot on the spot.”
In 1944, Mrs. Schlesinger was among about 300 of Schindler’s female workers who mistakenly were sent to Auschwitz.
“She saw the tall chimney stacks, and she thought, ‘Thank God, at least I’ll be the only one to die. My brothers and sister will survive the war,’ ” said Regine Schlesinger Meisel.
Before Schindler was able to get the women back, Margot Schlesinger survived a selection process by Josef Mengele, the SS physician, who had sent her to the line for execution. Despite her terror at looking into the face of the Nazis’ “Angel of Death,” she addressed Mengele.
“I got very frightened and very pale, and I said, ‘I’m young, I can still work,’ ” she told the USC Shoah Foundation. “So there was another doctor, and he said, ‘Let her go back.’ ’’
“He could have shot her,” Regine Schlesinger Meisel said.
“No one ever walked out of Auschwitz except for this group of Schindlerjuden,” said Aline Yolkut.
Mrs. Schlesinger spoke of never forgetting her relief when the women workers were returned to Schindler’s custody: “He said to us, ‘You’re safe here with us. There’s no more shooting.’ And you can imagine how we felt.”
She also never forgot the kindness of his wife, Emilie Schindler. When a worker was dying of cancer, “Mrs. Schindler took her in to her quarters there, and she spoon-fed her farina,” she said.
Mrs. Schlesinger said in her Shoah Foundation testimony that she saved the life of a woman she met at Auschwitz, a fiance of her cousin, by asking to have the woman’s name added to Schindler’s List.
“She lived through the war, and she has a son and a daughter,” Mrs. Schlesinger said.
“We’ve been at each other’s weddings and bar mitzvahs,” Regine Schlesinger Meisel said.
Mrs. Schlesinger broke down as she described seeing children being separated from their parents at the Plaszow forced-labor camp. Spielberg’s movie featured a similar scene:
“There was a big truck, and the truck came and took all the children away. And they were singing a lullaby on the loudspeaker — ‘Good evening, good night’ — in German, of course. ‘If God wants you to, you [will be] waking again.’
“I was so lucky I didn’t have children. I would have committed suicide.”
After being liberated, she said, “Our stomachs were so shrunken that we couldn’t eat normal food for a long time.”
Her husband sold bolts of fabric he’d hidden under his old home to help fund their emigration first to France and eventually to Chicago, where he worked as a cutter at Kuppenheimer suits.
Mrs. Schlesinger was active with Congregation Ezras Israel and worked as an election judge.
She lived in her own home in West Rogers Park until she was 95. For a long time, she belonged to a choir that sang songs like “My Yiddishe Momme.” When the group had plans to perform at a seniors home, she told her children, “Tomorrow, we’re going to sing for the old people.”
She was 93 at the time.
Mrs. Schlesinger was a fabulous cook and baker who made ethereal apple strudel flavored with marmalade and ground nuts, her daughters said, and also a delicious mocha nut torte.
She and her husband spoke about the Holocaust to school and civic groups. After his death in 1999, she continued her public speaking until about five years ago.
Outgoing to the end, she often took 20 minutes to enter the Park Plaza dining room because she’d stop to chat with everyone along the way.
Services have been held.
Mrs. Schlesinger described her life philosophy this way: “Everybody’s born as a human being. . . . There’s no place in the world for bigotry and for race-hating.”
She also said, “They should watch their government very much and the people who they vote for.”