You probably don’t know Oliwia Dabrowska by name, but she was the center of one of Hollywood cinema’s most famous and moving scenes when she was only 3 years old: she played the iconic “red coat girl” in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning masterpiece Schindler’s List.
Now, that little girl is all grown up — and making a big difference helping refugees fleeing Ukraine.
The “read coat girl” in Schindler’s List
Schindler’s List, a 1993 drama directed by Steven Spielberg, tells the story of Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), a German industrialist who helps save the lives of Polish Jews during the Holocaust.
It remains perhaps the most famous and acclaimed film about the Holocaust, winning 7 Academy Awards including Best Picture. In its uncompromising depiction of the atrocities of the Holocaust it contains many striking and heartbreaking scenes.
But perhaps the most famous is the scene in which Schindler watches a young girl in a red coat walk through a Kraków ghetto amidst a mass liquidation by SS forces.
The film is almost entirely in black-and-white, except for the red in the girl’s coat, forcing us to focus on this one child the way Schindler does.
The symbolic significance of this moment has been discussed by critics and audiences. To Schindler, she represents the innocence of the Jewish people, ultimately moving him to save as many lives as he can. In a later moment, he sees the girl has been killed, recognizing her by her coat, devastating him.
To Spielberg, the girl was also a commentary on the initial inactive response to the Holocaust by world leaders, a symbolic “red flag.”
“SS were taking everybody, but somehow were ignoring this 6-year-old child walking down the street wearing the brightest color,” he told NBC News. “And yet she wasn’t being seen. And to me that meant that the people — Roosevelt and Eisenhower and probably Stalin and Churchill — knew about the Holocaust. It was a well-kept secret, and [they] did nothing to stop it.”
“Red coat girl” today: Helping Ukrainian refugees
The scene also holds a special, deep meaning for the actress who played the young girl.
Oliwia Dabrowska is now 32 years old, and last month she evoked her most famous movie role to raise awareness for an important cause.
She shared a photo of the red coat girl on Instagram, this time edited yellow and blue to represent the flag of Ukraine.
“She was always the symbol of hope,” Dabrowska wrote. “Let her be it again.”
But it’s more than a symbolic gesture: Dabrowska has been on the Polish border, doing important work to help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine.
The ongoing invasion by Russian forces has forced 10 million Ukrainians to flee from their homes, and with so many people fleeing to other countries citizens face many challenges at the border.
Dabrowska has been volunteering at the Polish-Ukrainian border with her mother, aiding refugees entering the country, while encouraging her online followers to donate much-needed supplies.
“We need your help here at the Polish-Ukrainian border,” she wrote. “Every little bit helps.”
By helping the refugees, Dabrowska has put herself closer to danger, but it has only motivated her to help further.
“Today Russia bombed Yavoriv,” Dabrowska wrote. “Only 20 kilometers from Poland. So close! I’m scared, but that only motivates me more to help refugees.”
Dabrowska’s actions reflect the spirit of Schindler’s List, the idea that even in the worst atrocities kind people will step up and do the right thing, and that even the smallest actions can lead to a world of difference to struggling people.
And, like Oskar Schindler, Dabrowska was particularly moved after seeing how children were affected by the crisis. She saw a Ukrainian mother with two kids trying to get to a far-off city near the German border.
“Usually we transport refugees in our area, but this time we couldn’t just say ‘no’. They were desperate to get to their sister. Those kids…my God, I can barely hold back my tears.”
“I can’t tell you everything I saw there, because I don’t have [right] words in my mind… Nobody, who have never seen this, can’t imagine this nightmare in eyes of those people.”
Dabrowska thanked people for their support but was modest about her actions, saying that she was “just a cog in the machine” amidst many volunteers helping at the border.
Still, it’s inspiring to see the “red coat girl” all grown up and still inspiring the world.
One of the most famous lines in Schindler’s List is “whoever saves one life saves the world entire,” and Dabrowska has clearly taken that lesson to heart all these decades later. By helping save even a few people, a person can make an enormous difference in the world.
Thank you to Oliwia Dabrowska for helping Ukrainian refugees — nearly 30 years after Schindler’s List, you’re still inspiring hope.