Holocaust scholar and Schindler author donates his archives to Chapman University

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Ludmila Page,96, of Los Angeles, one of the last survivors from Schindler’s List, with her daughter Marie Knecht, sees her name on the list while viewing the Oskar Schindler Archive for the first time at Chapman University. Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times) (Los Angeles Times)

In spring 1993, historian David Crowe sat spellbound in a darkened theater, viewing the saga of a Holocaust hero who risked business ruin and his own personal safety to save the lives of some 1,200 Jews he’d hired at his Polish enamelware factories.

Steven Spielberg’s epic "Schindler’s List," depicting the exploits of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, tugged at Crowe’s heart with its stark black and white scenes recreating the terror of the ghettos in Krakow, Poland, during World War II.

Schindler had joined the Nazi party, but used his fortune to save his Jewish workers, creating lists of employees he said were invaluable while bartering and lavishing bribes on a ruthless work camp commander intent on sending them to a concentration camp.

The movie’s namesake would soon dominate Crowe’s life, moving him to devote seven and a half years to researching and writing what’s been called the definitive biography of Schindler.

Now, all of Crowe’s documents, interview transcripts and translations for "Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind ‘The List’ " will soon be available to students and scholars at Chapman University — courtesy of a transformative gift to the school, officials announced Thursday.

It is believed to be among the most complete collections of papers and archival materials on Schindler and his wife, Emilie, officials said.

"I had been searching for a home for these things and I thought some museums might be sort of snooty,” said Crowe, an emeritus professor of history at Elon University in North Carolina. “Unless you’re a scholar, they’re not going to let you come in and look at this stuff, thumb through the knowledge. Here, learning is welcomed and there’s the right space for it."

Marilyn Harran, director of Chapman’s Rodgers Center for Holocaust Education, remembers reading a message from Crowe offering his donation, then getting 19 boxes shipped via FedEx that included police records, photos and architectural sketches.

"I was stunned and very excited,” Harran said. “It’s an incredible milestone to receive a collection of this size, of this educational value. And what makes it so extraordinary is it will be accessible to those eager to study more."

Harran set about finding "a safe space for these treasures," choosing the Brandman Survivors Room inside the Sala and Aron Samueli Holocaust Memorial Library. Crowe got his first look at the 720-square-foot archival space at Thursday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony.

The climate-controlled room highlights the experiences of three Holocaust survivors who were on Schindler’s list — Leon Leyson and Leopold and Ludmilla Page — and is a combination work and reading space with the new archives separated by a glass wall. Harran plans to hire an archivist who will start in January, preparing the collection — valued at $250,000 — for use by students and researchers.

Crowe, 73, who’s also a Chapman presidential fellow, is a specialist in Russian and Chinese history, comfortable "with the old-fashioned way we research." For his 700-plus page tome published in 2004, he crisscrossed the globe, traveling to Israel and Argentina and making multiple stops in the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany on Schindler’s trail.

"This was pre email, but I prefer digging that way,” Crowe said. “Something is missing when you’re sitting in an armchair scrolling down the screen versus combing through dusty clippings in a prison that once was secret police headquarters. I have umpteenth pages of handwritten notes. Copious notes."

Crowe had never heard of Schindler before Spielberg’s film and later used his facility in eight languages, including French, German, Hebrew and Yiddish, to mine the rescuer’s background.

"His collection provides a real insight into how an eminent historian sifts through so much information to create a book," Harran said, adding that the material "shows us not just who Schindler saved but how he dealt with Nazi bureaucracy."

The donation, she said, will boost the library’s credentials and will build on long-term relationships the school has with several Holocaust survivors. "The greatest tribute we can offer them and the Schindlers is to continue to learn from their actions."

Harran stressed one more point.

"Dr. Crowe shows us that in a complex digital world, papers — documents — still matter,” she said. “In this election, you see people doing a lot of fact-checking to figure out what story they do or do not believe in. For his book, he did that too. And he understands that it’s part of our future to protect our past."