A new biography by an Iowa author details the long life of a woman who was just eight when the Nazis invaded her home country of Poland and she endured two concentration camps before being placed on the famed Schindler’s List.
Celina Karp Biniaz didn’t talk about her Holocaust experience until the movie directed by Steven Spielberg came out in 1993. Biniaz says, “Oskar Schindler gave me my life, but Steven Spielberg gave me my voice.” Author Bill Friedricks, a history professor emeritus at Simpson College, says Biniaz spent part of her teen years in Iowa.
“She came to Iowa in 1947. Her uncle brought her here after the war,” Friedricks says. “She lived in Des Moines for one year, she attended North High School, she got a full ride scholarship to Grinnell (College) and spent four years there and then moved to the East Coast.” For his book, “Saved By Schindler: The Life of Celina Karp Biniaz,” Friedricks says he conducted multiple interviews with her via phone and Zoom during the pandemic, before finally meeting her in person.
He says it was hard to keep his emotions in check while listening to stories of slave labor camps, and later, her time at Auschwitz, where she lived in constant fear, witnessing unspeakable horrors. “Celina would frequently tell me during our conversations that she was reliving her past, she was remembering things she had long forgotten, which was both good and bad, I suppose,” Friedricks says. “It was a pleasure getting to know her and I really have great admiration for her and like her a lot but it was a little bit hard to stay detached with these difficult topics.”
When he was first approached to write this biography, Friedricks says he was involved in other projects and wanted to put it off a few years, but was told given the woman’s age, it needed to be now. “As Holocaust survivors continue to pass away, it’s important that we continue to remember what happened and be sure that anything like the Holocaust does not happen again,” Friedricks says. “The most compelling thing to me about Celina’s story was the aftermath and how she was able to put the Holocaust behind her and move forward with her life.”
Biniaz is now 91 and “lived the American Dream,” according to Friedricks. After earning a master’s degree in education, she found her calling as a teacher of children with special needs, she got married, had children of her own, and eventually settled in southern California. Friedricks says he first encountered Biniaz in 2017 when she gave a talk in West Des Moines about her experiences.
“She really emphasizes forgiveness, resilience, and that it’s important to let go of hatred, which she learned to do,” Friedricks says. “It was a nun in Germany, who tutored her in English and German, who really taught her that, ‘not all Germans are ogres,’ these are Celina’s words, and that it was important for her to move on, and Celina was able to let go of that bitterness.” This is Friedricks’ tenth book and it’s available through North Liberty-based Ice Cube Press.