Ark of history: Schindler’s factory restored in his honour
British descendant of owner will turn dilapidated shell into museum to the man who saved 1,200 Jews
The factory building where Oskar Schindler’s Jews worked and slept still stands. So does his office, and the gates where the 1,200 people on his lifesaving list walked through in the autumn of 1944 in a desperate attempt to escape the Holocaust.
However, after being stripped by thieves of much of the wood and metal, the buildings were derelict and in danger of collapsing, an ignominious fate for a site that witnessed one of the most famous acts of human salvation of World War 2.
This was until the intervention of Daniel Low-Beer, a 49-year-old Englishman, a descendant of the original owners of the factory relinquished to the Nazis in 1938.
Back then it was a prosperous facility, producing high-quality textiles and making the Low-Beers, a Jewish family that had moved to the region in the 1840s, one of the richest and most prominent families in the area. Low-Beer, who works for the World Health Organisation in Geneva, runs the Ark Foundation that now owns the factory, which lies in the Czech village of Brněnec, about 225km north-east of Prague. The foundation intends to transform the factory from ramshackle ruin into Schindler’s Ark, a museum and cultural centre that will tell the remarkable story of Schindler, the history of the region and Jews who once lived there, and promote debate over issues such as racism and discrimination.
“It is very moving to be here and be part of the foundation that can tell this history,” he said from the dilapidated shell of the original building made famous by Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. “It is an opportunity to make a little piece of history here both in keeping an important memory alive and also working with the local population to improve their lives,” he said, referring to the jobs the new centre will bring.
Jewish workers had arrived at the Brněnec factory in late 1944. As the Red Army pushed westwards Schindler convinced Nazi officials and Amon Göth, the sadistic commandant of the Płaszów concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland, to allow his Jewish workforce to move south and west. Officially they were to produce munitions but in reality the move was to save them from the last and frenetic stages of the Holocaust.
The horrors of Nazism had earlier slammed into the lives of the Low-Beers. In 1938 the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia and the family, including Daniel’s father, faced with the anti-Semitic terror of Nazi rule, had to abandon their factory and their home. “My family had to flee for their lives in 1938,” said Daniel. “My father got out on his sister’s passport, listed as her son although she was only about 10 at the time and was at school in England. The factory was stolen by the Nazis and then stolen by Schindler, but he used it for good and saved 1,200 Jews.”
After the war the communists nationalised the factory but it returned to private hands in 1989. It soldiered on in the free market, producing seat covers for cars and airline blankets until giving up the economic ghost in 2010. Its doors were shut and the factory, and its history, were left to the elements.
In 2017 the Low-Beers received an invitation to return to the region from the local government of the city of Brno, which lies close to the factory. Sensing an opportunity to save the factory, Frantiek Olbert, who had been its general manager when it closed, approached Daniel. “We were not the owners but I didn’t want it to be destroyed, and I wanted something new,” he says. “We were trying to find a way to save it so we approached the Low-Beer family and Daniel came up with a plan.”
“The beauty of the buildings is that they still have many of the original features from 1938,” Low-Beer said. “The big turbine room where the Jews worked. The gates they came through. Oskar Schindler’s office building is the same. You still have the floor in the factory where the Jews lived. The Ark is still intact.”
– © The Sunday Telegraph