Survivor who spread word of Schindlers list dies at 87

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LOS ANGELES — Holocaust survivor Leopold Page, whose crusade got the story of death camp rescuer Oskar Schindler made into a book and a movie, died last Friday at 87.

For four decades, Page cornered every writer who entered his Beverly Hills, Calif., leather goods store to tell the story of German industrialist Schindler, who saved Page's life and that of 1,200 other Jews during World War II.

"Were it not for Leopold Page, Oskar Schindler would only be known by those survivors of the Shoah whom he saved and by scholars and historians," said Steven Spielberg, whom Page convinced to direct "Schindler's List."

Born Leopold Pfefferberg in Krakow, Poland, and addressed by friends as "Poldek," Page was a physical education instructor who served as an officer in the Polish army when World War II broke out. He was wounded and captured, interned first in the Krakow Ghetto and then in the nearby Plaszow concentration camp.

He and his wife Mila were saved from the nearby Auschwitz death camp by Schindler, who put them and other Jews to work in his enamel factory, shielding them from the Nazi extermination program.

Liberated at the end of the war, Page came to the United States and opened his leather goods shop. His real mission, however, was to let the world know of Schindler's extraordinary deeds.

His determination paid off when Australian author Thomas Keneally wandered into Page's store on a hot summer day in 1980 to buy a briefcase.

While waiting for Keneally's credit card to clear, Page told the Schindler story.

Keneally was impressed, but said he couldn't write the story because he was only 3 when World War II started, knew little about Jews and, as an Australian Catholic, had learned little about the Holocaust.

"I got angry," Page recalled later, "and told him that those were three reasons why he should write the book."

Keneally warmed to Page's legendary, at times maddening, persistence, and "Schindler's List" was published in 1982, becoming an international best seller. Keneally dedicated the book to Schindler and to Page, "who by zeal and persistence caused this book to be written."

The next to get the full "Page treatment" was filmmaker Spielberg. He, too, was impressed, but said he would need another 10 years to reach the mental maturity needed for the project.

"Schindler's List," the movie, was completed 10 years after Page's initial meeting with Spielberg.

At the 1993 Academy Awards presentation, Spielberg publicly credited Page as the catalyst for the film.

"I was jittery," Page recalled, "because I had promised Spielberg 10 years earlier that if he made 'Schindler's List,' he would get an Oscar for Oskar.

"When they announced that Spielberg had won as best director, I jumped so high, and when he talked about Mila and me, we were crying," Page said. "When they said that 'Schindler's List' was the best picture, everybody cried."

When the picture became an international phenomenon, Page became a celebrity in his own right. He was interviewed by Larry King on CNN and profiled by ABC anchorman Peter Jennings as "Person of the Week."

He also became a sought-after speaker before civic, military and religious groups, but he enjoyed talking most to schoolchildren.

When a reporter once described Page as a Holocaust survivor, he protested, saying, "I'm not a survivor, I am a witness to the truth."

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent