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Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)



Born Carmen Koppel in Vienna. Her father, Emil, was an opera loving grain merchant who named her after the lead character in Bizet’s opera ‘Carmen’. Her mother was Frieda.

She hated the name and went throughout her life with the nickname Mimi – after the character in ‘La Boheme’.

She went to the University of Vienna to study philology (languages) and she was fluent in German.

To help her take notes in lectures, Mimi took a secretarial course, learning typing and shorthand. “My mother insisted I learn something useful.

But she met curtain maker Josef Weismann. They got married and she abandoned her university course. They had one son, Sascha.

Josef’s factory was in Krakow, Poland, so the family moved there.

And then the Nazis invaded Poland. She managed to get baby out to her mother – who fled with Sascha to Hungary.

But Mimi and Josef were trapped in the Krakow Ghetto. He was killed whilst trying to escape from it.

In March 1943, the Nazis destroyed the ghetto, killing over 2,000 Jews. Mimi’s life was spared as they realised she had secretarial skills. She was sent to Plaszow Concentration Camp.

There she was put to work in the administrative offices.

Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler (courtesy of The Jewish Foundation for the Righteous)

Near to Plaszow Camp, German businessman Oskar Schindler had his enamelware factory. It had recently been converted to produce ammunition. Schindler was a Nazi member and former intelligence officer who was high ranked in the SS. He saw the opportunity to have free labour from the inmates of the camp and bribed the camp Commandant Amon Goth to allow this to happen.

This was organised by Goth’s personal secretary Mietek Pemper – who Mimi was answerable to in her office.

The Jewish workers had to walk two and a half hours to the factory – and the same distance at the end of the day. Schindler complained they were exhausted.

So Pemper told him it was no longer feasible for him to have the workers walking to the factory.

So, Schindler decided to build a new factory to make arms in Brunnlitz in the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia. He required labour for it and using bribes, asked Goth for some of his prisoners. They would have to stay in specially built barracks and would not be returning to the concentration camp.

Mietek Pemper compiled a list of 400 Jews to be sent to the new factory (all of whom had already worked for Schindler) and ordered Mimi to type the list up. But she noticed there were four gaps, so she added the names of three friends with whom she shared a bunk – and herself.

She admitted at the time she had never heard of Oskar Schindler – it was just a way to get out of the camp.

Mimi's photograph
Mimi’s photograph (courtesy of The Economist)

She realised if she put Mimi Koppel (her maiden name – which she answered to in the camp), Pemper would be suspicious, so she named herself Carmen Weismann (her formal married name). She put the added names near the bottom of the list where they were less likely to be noticed.

And she was put on the train to Brunnlitz (now known as Brnenec).

There was a scare when the train was diverted to Auschwitz, but Schindler pulled a few strings and got it sent to the factory.

And of course it was there that Schindler saved these Jews. “He was no angel. He was an SS man…a member of the highest ranks”. Nevertheless, he was appalled by the way the Jews had been treated and was determined to do his bit to save them.

Mimi worked in the factory office. She didn’t have a lot to do with Schindler, but he always said “hello” and treated everybody with respect. “He was charming, outgoing and he didn’t treat us like scum.

She noted that Schindler made a fortune during the war and spent every penny saving Jews.

However,she felt it wasn’t just his humanity. He was, “playing both sides of the table” (i.e., hedging his bets). If the Nazis won the war he was seen to be on their side, and if they lost, he could be seen to be on the side of the Jews. (This proved to be the case. His business collapsed after the war and he relied on Jewish donations to fund his lifestyle).

At the end of the war, when liberated, she was reunited with her son Sascha.

She emigrated to Morocco, where she met hotel director Albert Reinhard and they married in 1947. They were to have one daughter, Lucienne.

That same year they moved to New York, where they were to live for over 50 years.

In 1955, when visiting her father in Vienna, Mimi walked past a coffee house where groups of people were drinking and chatting outside. Suddenly a large man jumped up from his seat shouting “Mimi, Mimi”, and he ran up to her and hugged her. It was Oskar Schindler who had been having coffee with some of the people he had saved.

It was the only time Mimi and Schindler ever met, after the war.

Schindler's List
Schindler’s List (courtesy of Allstar-Cinetext-Universal)

The novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally won the Booker Prize in 1982. The Steven Spielberg film of the book, renamed ‘Schindler’s List’ came out in 1993 and won 7 Oscars. Mimi admitted she found it hard to read the book or watch the film.

Her daughter Lucienne died of an illness in 2000, aged just 49.

Her husband Albert died in 2002. With no reason to stay in New York, she decided to emigrate to Israel to join Sascha who was by now Professor of Sociology at Tel Aviv University. She was 92.

It was during Mimi’s interview with the Jewish Resettlement Agency that her story came out. She landed in Israel a national hero and remained so until her death.

And yet, she felt she deserved no credit. She said she had only saved four lives – her own and her three friends – and had not altered Schindler’s list in any other way.

Sascha believed that her new-found celebrity status put the spark back into her and added 15 years to her life.

She met Steven Spielberg at a charity dinner. After a long conversation, he asked a favour. He was doing a tour of American cities, raising money for an oral history of the Holocaust. He asked Mimi to accompany him. She turned him down. Both the travel and publicity were too much for her.

Schindler is estimated to have saved 1200 Jews. He died in 1974 and was inaugurated into the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ at Yad Vashem memorial near Jerusalem – an honour given to gentiles who helped Jews during the Holocaust.

Mimi moved into a nursing home for her last few years. She was the home’s Bridge Champion, loved surfing the internet and continued to play the stock exchange.

RIP – Rescued Imprisoned People

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