She was a singular splash of colour in a film shot entirely in sombre black and white.

She is glimpsed but briefly during the horrific scenes depicting Nazi atrocities in the Kraków ghetto in March, 1943.

There she runs, alone, past the SS soldiers as they murder indiscriminately, seemingly untouched.

Finally, she runs into an apartment block and hides under a bed.

The last we see of her, her body lies lifeless on a cart, about to be dumped on a corpse fire.

In the film she was played by actress Oliwia Dabrowska, who was just three years old at the time. Spielberg made her promise not to watch the film until she was eighteen and old enough to understand it.

But she broke her promise when she was eleven. She now says that watching the movie at such a young age traumatized her; she vowed then that she’d never watch it again and was angry at her parents for allowing her to play the role.

It was only when she grew up that she realized Spielberg was right; she had been part of something she could be truly proud. The girl in red had a pivotal role in perhaps the greatest Holocaust movie in history.

But who was the girl in red? Was she a real person?

The Australian author Thomas Kenneally, when writing the book on which the movie is based, mentions her but briefly in his descriptions of the Dresner family, with whom she lived for a short time. Although her appearance in the book was fleeting, Spielberg’s genius made her role profound.

Many people believe her real name was Roma Liebling and that she was born in the Krakov ghetto on 13 November, 1938. Other Jews who lived there during the war say they remember her and her signature red coat.

photo: Mgieuka

Unlike the girl in Spielberg’s film, Roma survived the war. She even later returned to Krakow to study painting and scenic design in the Academy of Fine Arts and worked with considerable success in theatre, film, and television as a set designer.

In 1965, she and her husband, Jan Biczycki, left Communist Poland and moved to Munich, where she continued to work in set design.

As Roman Ligocka, she wrote a book about surviving the Holocaust called “The Girl in the Red Coat”. Ironically, she is also director Roman Polanski’s cousin. Polanski went on to make another great holocaust movie – “The Pianist”.

But not everyone agrees that Ligocka was the inspiration behind the girl in red. A family in Herzliya in Israel claim that she was one of their relatives, Genia-Gittel Chill.

They say that when her parents escaped Krakov she was left behind with her uncle, Idek Schindel, a doctor in the ghetto hospital.

Sadly, like the girl in the movie, she died in the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in March 1943, when she was only four years old.

Whatever her real name, Spielberg has said the role of ‘the girl in red’ in the film was to symbolize how the West knew what was happening in Europe, yet failed to act. Like the only splash of colour in a black and white film, the Holocaust was impossible to ignore – yet the Americans and British did nothing to help European Jewry until it was too late.

Other critics note that her appearance is the point at which Schindler actually sees the truth for the first time. At a primal level she is the red riding hood of fairy tales, symbolizing innocence, pursued by the darkest predator of them all – other human beings.

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THERE WAS A REVOLVER in the middle of the table.

Marie did not know the other girl. She had blonde hair and china blue eyes and she would have been beautiful if not for the greyish stains under her eyes. She stared at Marie with the air of a beaten dog.

Rolf lit a cigarette and leaned against the windowsill. “She is a Jewess,” he said to Marie. “Can you believe it? They brought her here from the Poznan ghetto. A Jewess! Blonde hair and blue eyes and a Jew! I wonder what Julius Streicher would say?”

Marie looked at the girl, then at the gun.

“Her name is Rebecca,” Rolf said. “She is seventeen years old. She is my other housemaid. I hope you’re not jealous.”

“Why have you brought me here?”

The rumbling of distant artillery rattled the window- pane. “Can you hear that, Marie?”

“The Russians.”

“Yes, the Russians.” He looked out of the window. “They will be here any day. The army has lost its balls, they don’t want to fight any more. We should never have invaded Russia, it was der Führer’s one mistake. There’s just too many of the bastards.”

Marie could not take her eyes from the revolver.

“In an hour, I and a few brother officers shall be leaving here. Unfortunately, there is room for only one more passenger, and I am having much difficulty deciding who I shall take with me.” Well, that was not completely true. If they were going to rush ahead of the rest of the troops, they would require an “important prisoner” to escort “urgently” to Berlin. Two prisoners would be an unnecessary indulgence, when so many of his brother officers were so eager to leave. He returned his attention to the two girls. “Which one of you shall I take?”

“Why don’t you choose?” Marie said. “I am sure either of us will be prepared to make the sacrifice and stay behind.”

“I don’t think so. I care for you both too much to leave you to the mercy of the Russians. Who knows what they will do to you?”

His fingers drummed on the windowsill.

“So this is my idea,” he said.

Both girls looked at the revolver.


Colin Falconer

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