IT is the most iconic and affecting scene in a film replete with such scenes: the little three-year-old girl in the red coat obliviously meandering the streets as all hell is breaking loose, witnessed by Liam Neeson’s handsome Oskar Schindler and his mistress out horseriding, overlooking the liquidation of the Cracow ghetto in Poland, writes Noel Pearson.
Director Steven Spielberg’s genius in this scene was to implant forever in the viewer’s mind, at least mine, the individual story: what happened to the millions of girls in red coats?
The auteur’s singular use of colour in the otherwise black-and-white film evoking the scores of documentary films we have all seen of the Holocaust brings the enormous scale of tragic evil down to the human story of the now stateless Jewish child seeking shelter as her people are fated to slaughter all around her. Spielberg says his use of colour symbolised the red flag of the Jewish genocide, now well known to the world but ignored by Britain and the US. It made me wonder about the millions of stories of those murdered and those who survived, many of whose stories are now known and many of whom are just bodies in the piles of the anonymous dead.
This is how Thomas Keneally wrote the scene in his 1982 Booker Award-winning historical fiction, Schindler’s Ark:
“Oskar and Ingrid turned their horses, crossed a deserted avenue, and after a few metres, rode out onto a limestone platform facing directly down Krakusa. In its closer reaches, this street was not as hectic as Wegierska. A line of women and children, not so long, was being led away toward Piwna Street. A guard walked in front, another strolled behind. There was an imbalance in the line: far more children than the few women in it could themselves have borne. At the rear, dawdling, was a toddler, boy or girl, dressed in a small scarlet coat and cap.
“… behind the departing column of women and children, to which the scarlet toddler placed a meandering period, SS teams with dogs worked north along either side of the street.
“They rampaged through the fetid apartments; as a symptom of their rush, a suitcase flew from a second-story window and split open on the sidewalk. And, running before the dogs, the men and women and children who had hidden in attics or closets, inside drawerless dressers, the evaders of the first wave of search, jolted out onto the pavement, yelling and gasping in terror of the Doberman pinschers. Everything seemed speeded-up, difficult for the viewers on the hill to track. Those who had emerged were shot where they stood on the sidewalk, flying out over the gutters at the impact of the bullets, gushing blood into the drains.
“While the scarlet child stopped in her column and turned to watch, they shot the woman in the neck, and one of them, when the boy slid down the wall whimpering, jammed a boot down on his head as if to hold it still and put the barrel against the back of the neck – the recommended SS stance – and fired.
“Oskar looked again for the small red girl. She had stopped and turned and seen the boot descend. A gap had already widened between her and the next to last in the column. Again the SS guard corrected her drift fraternally, nudged her back into line. Herr Schindler could not see why he did not bludgeon her with his rifle butt, since at the other end of Krakusa Street, mercy had been cancelled.”
In the film Schindler learns the fate of the girl in the red coat. But for all the dead there were also survivors who made their way out of Europe during and after the war, finding new homes and new citizenship in North America, Britain and Australia. Thus they rebuilt their lives and their communities.
I said the girl in the red coat was by then stateless. Of course she was. She was no longer a citizen of Poland, as so many others were no longer citizens of Hungary and the other charnel houses of eastern Europe that once were their homes.
These states lost their right to call these victims of Nazi genocide their own citizens. I mean this not in the sense of international law or the domestic law of these nations. The law is not my concern here, rather it is the moral repudiation of the state’s responsibility to its own citizens, to protect and secure them in their human dignity, regardless of Nazi genocidaires having seized that state.
Erica Strausz was born a stateless girl in 1943: born into a nation that would be rid of her and her people. She is another story among millions. Her son is to be challenged in the High Court, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, on the basis that he is in breach of section 44 of the Constitution of Australia.
It is alleged he is a dual citizen of Hungary by virtue of his mother, one of the Hungarian Jews who survived the death camps.
This challenge is an obscenity and a great shame to the Australian nation that earned Erica Strausz’s citizenship, by giving her and her family the protection and security they lost in Hungary. You see, I’m interested in the idea not just of the citizen earning her place in the nation but the more important idea of the nation earning her love, fealty and trust.
It is not the distress to the son that is so disgusting to me, it is that his mother should be forced to witness yet again the antisemitism from which she fled, animating this challenge to her son’s election to the seat of Kooyong.
Paul Oosting, national director of GetUp, of all people, put it best this week when he said: “The challenge against Josh Frydenberg on the grounds of dual citizenship is beyond offensive and we condemn it. No one should be denied a place in parliament because their family was forced to flee the Holocaust.”
Oosting himself made false claims when he justified GetUp’s campaign against the Treasurer in the May 18 election on the basis that he had supported Peter Dutton’s tilt at the prime ministership. Jon Faine put paid to this nonsense in his now famous demolition of Oosting.
Section 44 is part of our constitutional law but it has been used for mundane and miserable politicking. The truth is the politics of section 44 in recent years has been trivial and the worst kind of “gotcha” politics. If you can’t beat your opponent at the ballot box, then find some technicality about a forebear.
But the case of Erica Strausz’s son is no mere technicality, though that is how the law will ultimately deal with it. Rather it is a horrific reminder of the antisemitism that drove this girl and her family from Hungary into the arms of Australia, and how this evil virus is still evident today in the political machinations of the denialist right and the casual anti-Israel bigotry of too much of the campus left.
Noel Pearson is a director of Cape York Partnership and co-chairman of Good to Great Schools Australia. This column was originally published in The Australian.