At 3½ years old, Oliwia Dabrowska only needed a single scene to inspire hope, embody despair and forever vault herself into cinematic history.
“I thought that, because of this symbol, I could speak to more people, I could involve more people — people who don’t know me as me, but they know I played this little girl in the red coat,” she told The Washington Post from her home in Krakow, Poland.
The movie about Nazi businessman Oskar Schindler, who secretly saved some 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factory, was shot almost entirely in black-and-white. One exception: As Schindler watches atop a hill while Nazis liquidate the Krakow Ghetto, a girl in red stands out amid the monochrome grayscale, seemingly unnoticed and unbothered as she ambles through the horrific violence erupting all around her.
Dabrowska never expected war to break out, so Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine stunned her into inaction for three or four days. When she emerged from the fog, fear followed, she said, until a conversation with a friend in the United States steeled her and gave her courage.
“I decided to change my fear into action, into helping people,” she told The Post.
Dabrowska asked her mother, who unlike Dabrowska has a car and a driver’s license, whether she would go with her to volunteer at the Ukrainian border roughly 130 miles from Krakow. She agreed.
There, they spent weeks ferrying about 100 refugees — mostly families — from the border to various Polish cities. The United Nations estimates that more than 2.8 million Ukrainians have so far sought safe haven in Poland. (Over 5 million have fled in total, according to the U.N.)
Their work meant not only driving refugees from the border to the interior of Poland, but also connecting them with Polish citizens willing to take them in, Dabrowska said. Early in the invasion before the government had created a system to handle refugees, Dabrowska checked many of the Facebook groups she follows for people offering housing.
Ukrainians had swarmed the border, resulting in a three- or four-day wait to cross into Poland, Dabrowska said. But, she added, it wasn’t chaotic or even loud. Thousands of people, exhausted and heartbroken, quietly waited their turn to escape their war-torn homeland. One of them stood out: a boy who, so exhausted from traveling and waiting, started vomiting. He barely reacted.
“He was very quiet, and his eyes were so big and lost,” Dabrowska said. “Every child there has big lost eyes.”
She thought of her 3½-year-old self, or rather, the character she played.
“There were and still are a lot of children,” Dabrowska said, “and I saw this little girl in the red coat in every child.”
Helping displaced people has often meant reacting to unforeseeable situations, like when she learned of an insulin shortage, which led her to connect a donor wanting to help diabetic refugees with a fellow volunteer who is a pharmacist. In one case, Dabrowska took in an 18-year-old mother and her son as she sought a more permanent place for them. In another, she traveled to Lviv, in western Ukraine, to pick up a dog that had been left behind earlier in the war. Another volunteer fostered the pet until they could take it to its owner in Berlin.
“I remember every single person, every single story. And all of those stories are very, very tragic and horrible,” Dabrowska told The Post, “and I don’t think I will forget them in my life — ever.”
Over the past couple of weeks, Dabrowska’s role has shifted. While she still occasionally transports Ukrainians, she more often delivers aid packages to the border, handles logistics and raises money for the two organizations she volunteers for. It’s not as compelling as shepherding refugees to safety, but she said it’s important for her to embrace the unique opportunity of being the “girl in the red coat” — a platform only she can use to drum up cash to help those fleeing war with virtually nothing.
Before the invasion, Dabrowska was a self-employed copywriter. She still squeezes in jobs for clients because she doesn’t want to lose them. But that work has taken a back seat to her wartime volunteerism. She’ll keep up with the aid work for the foreseeable future, she said. Even if the war ends tomorrow, millions of Ukrainians will need homes, jobs, and schools for their children.
“There is no more important thing than helping refugees,” Dabrowska said. “This is my biggest purpose now.”
When the war started, “Schindler’s List” didn’t spring to mind, Dabrowska said. Other than the occasional journalist calling on significant anniversaries of the film’s release, it hasn’t affected her daily life much — she’s “just a normal person with a regular life.” In 2013, the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, she told the Guardian she was “horrified” when she watched the film as an 11-year-old and regretted not heeding Spielberg’s advice to wait until she was an adult and could “grow up into the film.”
“I was ashamed of being in the movie and really angry with my mother and father when they told anyone about my part,” she told the newspaper. But when she re-watched it at 18, she had a change of heart: “I had been part of something I could be proud of.”
A couple of weeks into the war, her friend Adam Babb created an artistic adaptation of a still image from the movie — Dabrowska’s 3½-year-old self draped in her famous coat. Except in Babb’s version, it is no longer red but dappled in the blue of the Ukrainian flag. Behind her, Polish Jews look to her as Nazis corral and guard them.
Dabrowska leaned into the connection, writing a caption for her friend’s artwork.
“She was always the symbol of hope. Let her be it again.”
The little girl shows up once more in “Schindler’s List” as the title character talks with the Nazi SS officer charged with exhuming and burning the bodies of those murdered during the ghetto liquidation. As carts filled with bodies roll toward a mass pyre, Schindler spots the girl among the dead. Again, the red of her coat is the only color in an otherwise black-and-white scene.
Dabrowska said she feels a strong connection to that girl, that it wasn’t just a role and that she’s not just a character on a screen. The connection remains, one that allows her to tap into what the girl symbolizes: the power for change, innocence and hope — hope that injustice can inspire even powerful insiders like Schindler to do good. Those are all things she wants to make real for Ukrainian refugees.
“She died in the movie,” Dabrowska said, “but she lives within me.”