It’s one of the most evocative images of 1990s cinema and indeed Steven Spielberg’s celebrated filmography. In Schindler’s List, a movie otherwise shot entirely in black and white, a young girl can be seen hiding from the Nazis wearing a bright red coat. But the actress who played her was left traumatized the first time she watched it herself.
Olivia Dabrowska had been warned not to watch the historical epic until she was 18 by its legendary director. However, the Polish native gave into temptation seven years too early, a decision she later admitted she instantly regretted. Here’s a look at how the red coat girl was left scarred for life by the movie that cemented her place in Hollywood history.
The idea to make a film based on real-life WWII hero Oskar Schindler was first proposed by Poldek Pfefferberg way back in 1963. But it only came to fruition 30 years later when Steven Spielberg developed an interest. The director was initially skeptical about taking on a movie focusing on the Holocaust. However, he eventually decided to commit to the project.
Schindler’s List is adapted from Thomas Keneally’s historical fictional novel Schindler’s Ark. It’s the story of the titular Sudeten-German businessman who rescues over 1,000 Holocaust refugees after giving them jobs in his factory empire. And Irishman Liam Neeson took the role of bringing the leading character back to life.
The real Schindler spent the whole of his life savings either bribing SS officials not to execute his workers or buying black market supplies. He and wife Emilie later relocated to West Germany and then Argentina where he went bankrupt. He then passed away in the German town of Hildesheim in 1974 aged 66.
Schindler’s List received its world premiere in Washington, D.C. in November 1993 and went on to become both a critical and commercial success. It grossed $322 million at the box office, recouping its budget more than 15 times over. And it’s since attained a status as one of the finest movies not only of the 1990s, but of all time.
Impressively, it also won seven Oscars including Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and the highly coveted Best Picture. And Liam Neeson didn’t go unnoticed either – he picked up a Best Actor nod at the same ceremony. Furthermore, he also received nominations in the same category at both the Golden Globes and BAFTAs.
Unusually, for a major Hollywood picture, Schinder’s List was shot entirely in black and white in the Polish city of Krakow. Indeed, despite reservations from Tom Pollock, the Universal chairman, Spielberg was allowed to approach the film more like a documentary. He also vetoed any plans to release the movie in color on VHS.
Spielberg was helped with his mission by the stunning cinematography of Janusz Kaminski. The Polish native’s main aim was to give the movie a timeless quality so that viewers in the future would have little clue as to when it was first shot. And for his part, he took lots of inspiration from the Italian neorealism and German Expressionism movements.
This bold stylistic decision meant that one particular shot stood out more than any other – the only moment of color. And Spielberg ensured that this rare departure from the film’s monochrome palette had an emotional impact too. We are, of course, referring to the girl in the red coat.
The youngster is first seen on screen when Schindler spots her hiding from the Nazis in the midst of a ghetto massacre. Tragically, we soon learn that the girl in question didn’t escape with her life. Indeed, the business magnate later spots that same red coat in a pile of bodies that have been dumped in a wagon.
Thankfully, the young girl didn’t die entirely in vain. And it’s the utterly devastating sight of her corpse that ultimately inspires Schindler to embark on his rescue mission. Subsequently, more than 1,000 refugees, the majority of whom are from a Polish-Jewish background, are saved from certain death.
What you may not know is that there really was a girl in a red coat – in fact, there were several. In The Trial of Adolf Eichmann, a PBS documentary about the war criminal, there’s an interview with former Assistant Prosecutor Gavriel Bach. He recalls asking Auschwitz survivor Dr. Martin Földi about his experience of the harrowing train station selection process.
Földi discussed how he and his son were torn apart from his wife and daughter. The latter wore a red coat which later allowed his son to find her when he, too, became separated from his father by an SS officer. Heartbreakingly, the doctor never saw any of his family members ever again.
Understandably, Földi’s statement profoundly affected Bach. The future Supreme Court Judge had a young daughter of his own at the time who had also just started wearing a red coat. Bach admitted in the documentary that whenever he sees a girl sporting a similar item of clothing, his heart starts to beat far more rapidly.
However, this isn’t the only red coat girl who some claim to be an inspiration for the movie. One particular user of the genealogy site Geni.com claims that her father’s cousin also bore a strong similarity to the character. They wrote, “Gittel was the daughter of Dawid Chill and Ewa, [who] both perished. In order to save their daughter and themselves, Dawid and Ewa escaped to the countryside, but have left Gittel with her uncle Idek in [the] Krakow ghetto, where Idek was the doctor…”
The Geni.com site user continued, “Being with a four-year-old daughter could have made troubles when hiding in the countryside. The little girl, who really used to wear a red coat, was famous in the ghetto in hiding from the Germans, but eventually she was discovered and exterminated in the liquidation of the ghetto on March 13, 1943.”
But there’s also another real life “red coat girl” whose story thankfully had a less tragic ending. Indeed, Roma Ligocka became famous for the red coat she wore while living in the Krakow Ghetto as a youngster. Ligocka later wrote about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor in her autobiography.
In fact, Ligocka has several affiliations with the showbiz world herself. She is the cousin of Oscar-winning film director Roman Polanski. And following her graduation from the Academy of Fine Arts in her hometown, she went on to enjoy success working as a set designer for various film, TV and theater productions.
Ligocka actually met Steven Spielberg when the director received the German Order of Merit in Berlin. The writer/designer was also in attendance at the ceremony as a representative of the Krakow Ghetto survivors. And after striking up a conversation, Ligocka apparently told the director, “I am the girl in the red coat.”
According to Ligocka, Spielberg was amazed that the red coat girl actually existed in real life. He then asked the Holocaust survivor, “Why didn’t I find you?” Meanwhile, Ligocka told The Irish Times, “It may be that someone told him about me. Or perhaps I was not the only girl in the ghetto with a red coat.”
However, Spielberg has never officially attributed the character known as Red Genie to a real life person. In fact, he claims that the only non-black and white moment in the entire film has a much deeper meaning. It was intended to convey the fact that the Holocaust was allowed to happen by the wider world.
Indeed, according to The Huffington Post, the director once said, “America and Russia and England all knew about the Holocaust when it was happening. And yet we did nothing about it. We didn’t assign any of our forces to stopping the march toward death, the inexorable march toward death.”
Spielberg then continued, “It was a large bloodstain, primary red color on everyone’s radar, but no one did anything about it. And that’s why I wanted to bring the color red in.” And this wasn’t the only time that the celebrated director expanded on the reasoning behind his color choices.
In 2018 Spielberg gave an interview to NBC’s Lester Holt to mark the 25th anniversary of Schindler’s List. And he was once again asked about the significance of the red coat girl. The director replied, “In [Thomas Keneally’s] book, Schindler couldn’t get over the fact that a little girl was walking during the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto.”
Spielberg added, “While everyone was being put on trucks or shot in the street, one little girl in a red, red coat was being ignored by the SS. To me, that meant that Roosevelt and Eisenhower – and probably Stalin and Churchill – knew about the Holocaust… and did nothing to stop it. It was almost as though the Holocaust itself was wearing red.”
Despite Spielberg’s explanation, the girl in red’s true meaning continues to be a source of debate. Andre H. Caron, a professor at the Universite de Montreal, also has a theory about the use of red. Indeed, he once pondered whether the color represented “innocence, hope or the red blood of the Jewish people being sacrificed in the horror of the Holocaust.”
So who was the girl who performed such a vital role in Steven Spielberg’s dramatization half a century later? Well, the role went to Polish native Oliwia Dabrowska, who was just three years old at the time. However, it’s fair to say that the actress wasn’t initially enamored with the attention she subsequently received.
Indeed, at the age of 23, Dabrowska gave an exclusive interview to daily newspaper The Times about her relationship with the Oscar-winning film. And she revealed that she didn’t exactly shout about her role from the rooftops following its release in 1993. In fact, she actually came to resent it.
Dabrowska told the British publication, “I was ashamed of being in the movie.” And she didn’t like it when her parents brought up the subject, either. Indeed, she went on to admit that she often became “angry” whenever her proud father and mother would talk about their daughter’s highly significant acting role.
Dabrowska also wasn’t too keen about the presumption that just by appearing in Schindler’s List she’d become an expert on its tough subject matter. She continued, “People said, ‘It must be so important to you, you must know so much about the Holocaust.’ I was frustrated by it all.”
In fact, the early response to Dabrowska’s acting debut left her so frustrated that she tried to keep it quiet whenever she could. Sadly for her, the world wide web happened. She told The Times, “I kept it secret for a long, long time, though at high school people got to know on the internet.”
Of course, being so young at the time she filmed her memorable scene, Dabrowska didn’t actually see herself on screen for several years. In fact, had she listened to Steven Spielberg’s wise advice, she wouldn’t have done so until she was 18. However, at the age of 11 she decided to break the promise she made to the Hollywood filmmaker.
And she soon regretted ignoring the director’s wise words. Indeed, the horrors of the Holocaust depicted so graphically on screen traumatized a young Dabrowska. She told The Times, “It was too horrible. I could not understand much, but I was sure that I didn’t want to watch [it] ever again in my life.”
Understandably, one scene involving Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth particularly disturbed Dabrowska. In the harrowing shot, the SS officer shoots at both women and children at random from his window. Fiennes’ terrifying performance received a BAFTA and nominations at both the Golden Globes and Oscars.
Thankfully, Dabrowska is now able to see Schindler’s List in a new light. Indeed, despite swearing to never view the movie in its entirety again, the Polish native relented when she turned 18 years old, the age that Spielberg had advised her to first watch the WWII tale.
And this time around, Dabrowska was able to acknowledge how truly important both the movie and her brief but memorable appearance was. She told The Times, “I realized I had been part of something I could be proud of. Spielberg was right: I had to grow up to watch the film.”
Dabrowska was speaking in the same year that the 20th anniversary of Schindler’s List was celebrated with a DVD and Blu-ray re-release. She also posed for a picture for The Times to accompany her revealing interview. And, of course, what else could she wear for the photo other than a red coat?
Following her Schindler’s List cameo, Dabroswka made similar blink and you’ll miss it appearances in several Polish productions. These included 1994 TV movie Spis cudzoloznic, 1996 crime drama Street Games and The Seventh Room, a biography of German nun Saint Edith Stein. Meanwhile, the latter was the last time that she appeared on screen.
But although she hasn’t graced any films or TV shows since the mid-1990s, Dabrowska hasn’t given up acting entirely. Indeed, she continues to show off her talents as a thespian in her downtime. But after studying a degree in library science, she decided to pursue a day job in the publishing industry.