In January of 1933, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime rose to power in Germany, and began a twelve year rampage against all people whom they believed to be an alien threat to their “superior” German race. The most inferior people, they claimed, were the Jews. In 1933, approximately nine million Jews lived in the 21 countries that fell under German rule during World War II. In 1945, upon the war’s end, only three million Jews remained, which means that through systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored genocide, the Nazis succeeded in murdering six million Jews between 1933 and 1945. The Jews were not the only Nazi target during these years: the Roma (Gypsies), the physically and mentally disabled, some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others), political dissidents, and homosexuals were also victims of Nazi tyranny.
Oskar Schindler lived during this period, when challenging political authority meant risking one’s own life. Schindler did not immediately challenge the Nazi regime – he had, in fact, applied to be a member of the Nazi Party – however, for many reasons, his ideology shifted, and he made the decision to risk his life to save as many Jews as he could. Upon the end of the war, Schindler, with help from colleagues, friends, and his wife Emilie, succeeded in saving the lives of 1200 Jews.
Far from Sainthood
Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in Sudentenland, the former southeastern region of Germany, which is part of the Czech Republic today. He was raised Catholic, and became a wealthy businessman and factory owner. In no way did his upbringing prime him for the humanitarian sacrifices he was to make during World War II. In his autobiography he said himself, “Far from being a saint, I have, as a reckless human being, made more mistakes and am more flawed than those who walk through life with supposedly unblemished morals. But because of this I was able to maintain and defend what Albert Schweitzer called ‘regard for the human being.’”
Schindler’s “regard for the human being” led him to do everything he possibly could to help Jews evade the terror of the Nazis during World War II. At the time, Schindler was running an enamelware factory that supplied the Nazi army using Jewish slave labor. However, not long after the war began, his consciousness shifted, and he used the guise of slave labor to take in as many Jews as he could, making the Nazis believe he needed them for their work, but actually creating a refuge from concentration and extermination camps. Throughout this period, Schindler and Emilie risked arrest and execution and spent their life’s savings to provide a safe haven for approximately 1200 Jewish workers from Krakow, Poland.
Holocaust scholar, Louis Bülow, articulates Schindler’s flaws, while simultaneously celebrating Schindler’s compassionate, courageous successes: “To 1200 Jews a womanizing, heavy-drinking, German-Catholic industrialist and Nazi Party member named Oskar Schindler was all that stood between them and death at the hands of the Nazis…. Today there are more than 8,500 descendants of his Jews living in the US, Europe and Israel.” Schindler’s imperfections make him no less of a champion for humanity, and serve to demonstrate how a quite ordinary man holds the potential to achieve quite extraordinary feats.
There is one particular fault that often gets misrepresented, which Schindler took extra effort to correct in his autobiography: “…I have to correct something I deem important: I was not a high party member. I did not even have a Party card, only an application card.” The fact that Schindler was not an official member of the Nazi Party does not negate his initial intention to join the Nazis. However, his sensitivity towards the matter indicates that he was not proud of his participation in the Party, and wishes not to be associated in any false light.
He was, however, able to use his connection to the Party to his benefit while hiding and caring for “his Jews,” as he called them. He worked in a small office of the defense department of the Wehrmacht, the united armed forces of Germany during the war, and after he left, he took advantage of his position to acquire food, medicine and other resources for his Jews. He was also able to exploit his position within the Wehrmacht whenever his odd behaviors roused suspicion amongst other Wehrmacht officers. There were even officers who, though unaware of his secret mission to help Jews evade the Nazis, were like-minded enough to aid him in his mischievous endeavors:
“I was arrested three times by the Gestapo (1942, 43, 44). Usually, I was denounced for fraternizing with Jews and Poles. The last arrest was particularly serious because it was about a continuous bribery of an SS Commander and the sum was above two hundred thousand zloty [Polish currency]. In this pinch I was helped by the Wehrmacht officers who were my friends. (These officers were partly anti-Nazis or at least opponents of the SS and its methods).”
Schindler’s mission was not easy, and caused him much personal sacrifice. But Schindler let nothing stop him, and refused to abandon “his Jews” until the war came to a conclusive end. Schindler was certainly not a saint, but he was a great, benevolent man. Leon Leyson, the youngest survivor from Schindler’s factory, sums up Schindler’s virtue in one sentence with quote by Joseph Campbell “A hero is an ordinary human being who does the best of things in the worst of times.”
Schindler’s Transformational Shift
There does not seem to be one miraculous instant that caused Schindler to change his mind – to become wholly disillusioned with the Nazi agenda, to recognize the cruel inhumanity of the Holocaust, and to begin to take action towards saving innocent lives. Nevertheless, in his autobiography Schindler reflects upon various experiences that likely influenced his decision to turn his factory into a safe haven.
One such experience was witnessing the massacre of hundreds of children:
“During a Sunday outing to a friend who lived in a newly built house on a mountain behind the ghetto I was the unwilling witness of the mass execution of hundreds of children inside the ghetto and their being carted away…I was outside of the ghetto walls, less than 60 meters away from the massacre, This…was an important moment of my inner transformation.”
He also reflects upon subtler, but lasting, influences:
“…together with friends I was hiding Jews who were trying to get to the border in the trunk of my car, so that the poor, fleeing people could avoid the tortures of the Security and Border Police. I’m not sure what the cause was for these acts of mine. Whether it was my disgust with the SS or an inner obligation toward my Jewish schoolmates and friends of my youth, with whom I had spent the fabulous years of adolescence. Probably it was the latter.”
Of course, Schindler’s change of behavior was not a passive act. He had to work through habitual patterns of thinking, and rely on friends who were also experiencing the same revulsion and defiance against Germany’s established authority:
“The political problems of the war years had forced me under extreme pressure away from my inner ambivalence. I had to work through the tendency, which had been inculcated by my education, to obey [and] to honor the laws and commands of others. I had to suppress this impulse entirely, accept nothing without critique and only rely on the sense of my own judgment, my own humanity and compassion. What helped me work through such conflicts were friends who thought like me, and the immense suffering of the persecuted people who were everyday before my eyes.”
Compassion, Danger, and Great Personal Expense
The atrocities and sacrifices Schindler experienced were like none he could have imagined. From feeding and clothing an over-populated factory to others sexual exploiting his workers to physical combat, strife was varied and constant.
Though Schindler had turned his factory into a safe, habitable environment, most of the Jews staying there still worked for him. In fact, their work was an essential part of their safety. The Nazis knew of his factory, and actually relied upon his services to supply their army. Of course Schindler did not want to assist the Nazis in any capacity, but he and his Jews would have been killed had their operations been discovered. So, Schindler had to make sure his factory appeared to function in the same way it always had – through Jewish slave labor. But of course, the Jews who were safe inside its barriers could not bear the notion that their family members remained beyond the factory borders, unarmed in harm’s way. They begged Schindler to take them in too, and make it seem as though he needed more workers. To this request, he gave in:
“I gave in to the pleas of my Jews to save their parents and family members from deportation and to employ them in my factory even though they were unable to work. I gave in to the pleas to [accept] two to three hundred new workers when, in fact, our production schedule gave us no possibility of using them. Therefore, for the years 1942-1944, about 200 Jews in my camp were unable to work.”
The increasing number of laborers and the excessive requests for food and supplies roused suspicion amongst the Nazis. Schindler had to quell their skepticism, and he usually did so through alcohol and other gifts. But there came a time when these distractions were not enough to keep the Nazis at bay, and Schindler resorted to much more painful diversion:
“Who could understand the inner conflict I suffered when little by little I had to sacrifice a dozen women for the orgies of the SS [the Nazi defense corps] “Super-men” because my gifts of alcohol and presents had already lost their persuasive power? Half of the women were fully conscious of their task, even though they only knew little bits and pieces of my mission. The suffering I had to go through was certainly not jealousy; it was disgust with myself, with my actions, with throwing pearls before swine. The saying that the end justifies the means was only a weak consolation.”
Schindler’s will to protect his Jews gained such potency that he even exercised brute force, in addition to wealth, influence, and cunning skill, to overpower any offenders. He called such instances “acts of intervention”:
“Here are some of my very well-known acts of intervention. Judge for yourself. I slapped a Ukrainian SS man, who wanted to take away a bag of rolls from a Polish worker who was supposed to sell them to the camp commander. I slapped another one because he wanted to take away a kilo of butter that a worker had to keep for himself. Two SS watchmen were beaten up by me…because they had stolen twelve sewing machine heads from my Jewish workroom. I once had to throw an SS man brutally from the camp ambulance because he tried to interfere with a wounded Jewish girl that I was carrying in my arms. The Polish employee…who had been indicted for theft, I hit with a wine bottle over the head because I was so disgusted by his acts. Unfortunately, it broke, I mean the bottle broke. But it was the only way to bring such people to reason, as there was no police intervention possible. In Bruennlitz I had to throw an SS commander through a closed glass door because he wanted to interfere in my office. He had to run, chased by my dogs, through the entire factory to the great joy of the workers. A serious case in Bruennlitz brought me the criticism of a higher SS commander, who was very drunk and accused me of being on the side of the Jews. In order to distract the “hero” from this topic I flung him down the spiral staircase so that the German doctor had pains to patch him up.”
The end of the war… Schindler’s List
Due to Steven Spielberg’s silver screen rendition of Schindler’s work during the Holocaust, Schindler is most famous for his action near the end of World War II. At that time, Schindler persuaded the Nazis to allow him to open a factory in Brno near his home town, and requested that a list of several hundred particular Jewish workers be transferred to his factory, out of range of the concentration camps that were beginning to close by executing their remaining prisoners. Like the rest of his endeavors, Schindler and his comrades encountered obstacles along each step of their journey from Krakow to Brno (Bruennlitz, as quoted by Schindler). Nevertheless, they all reached Brno alive, and those on “Schindler’s list” survived in the Brno factory until officially liberated by the Russian army in 1945.
Schindler recalls the experience of their relocation in his autobiography:
“When the Russian [army] approached and Cracow had to let go of all industrial plants, my main struggle was to get permission to move my Jewish workers. We needed an official re-location permit. We had to wait for long, anxious weeks before I got the permission from Berlin, where I had been pulling every possible string. I got the permission to transport my people, whose names were on the crucial list. Finally, a few weeks later the families of my people were re-united.”
“After thirty-six hours, totally exhausted, we reached the American lines. There were hundreds of thousands of refugees and de-mobilized soldiers who had surrendered their weapons, hoping to be let through. We [only] managed to get through after the Rabbi of the American army had listened to our story with tears in his eyes.”
Schindler had an unyielding allegiance to “his Jews”; his attachment to them was not emotionless:
“Chaos and bureaucracy, envy and malevolence were obstacles that made the re-location of my Jews often seem illusory and brought me to the edge of despair. I reached my goal only with an iron will not to abandon my Jews, among whom I had made serious friends in the course of six years. I would not leave them to be sent to a crematorium in Auschwitz or anywhere else after having managed for years through extremely exhausting personal initiative to save them from the claws of the SS.”
Emilie Schindler, Oskar’s wife
Without the support of like-minded friends and his strong, compassionate wife, Emilie, Oskar Schindler could have buckled under the tremendous amount of pressure and fear wielded over him by the Nazis:
“Who would have dared to judge me after my dangerous Gestapo arrest if I had gone to Switzerland after all? I know a few of those who left and considered themselves pure and virtuous. Today they live far better than I do, but in the critical moment they gave in. Today these pure and virtuous folk are walking with high heads through life and once again they are manufacturing cables and airplane coolers. Would any of the wives of these gentlemen have been able to drive three hundred kilometers through extreme cold with a suitcase filled with liquor, too heavy to carry for a man, in order to exchange the alcohol for medication for Jewish skeletons, who had been robbed of their last life-spark by the German barbarians? For my wife this kind of willingness to help was self-evident. Whenever it was necessary to help human beings in greatest need she gave a damn about the danger and she had the courage to treat SS commanders as if they were domestics.”
Emilie Schindler wrote her own memoir, Where Light and Shadow Meet, in which she reflects upon her experiences during the Holocaust and World War II, as well as life after fleeing Europe. Her insights shed light on the position she and her husband were in as Jew-supporting Germans:
“Of course, not every German was a Nazi. I know because I lived within that hell. But the pressure to conform was intense, and very few dared to be themselves. Hitler had been very clear: ‘Whoever is with me will be able to live in a great Germany. But whoever is against me will find instant death. For those, there will be no reprieve; there will only be winners.’”
“Hitler’s rise marked the beginning of an indescribable tragedy: Kristallnacht, the concentration camps, the Nuremberg laws that forbade Jews to practice their professions, the death of millions and millions of human beings.”
“Dragged along by circumstances, Oskar and I became, to some extent, accomplices to what was going on. It is true that today I am proud of having worked together with my husband in the rescue of thirteen hundred Jews, but it fills me with anguish to think how small that number is compared with the number of victims who were sacrificed in the Nazi Holocaust.”
“I have experienced with my own flesh that ‘Love one another’ is not an empty phrase but a maxim worth living by, even in the worst of circumstances.”
A “Courageous, Decent, Brilliant” Man
Leon Leyson, or Little Leon, as he was often called, was thirteen years old when he entered Schindler’s factory with his father. He remembers Schindler’s fondness for him, how he gave him extra rations of food and new assignments when he was bored. But nearly thirty years later, upon meeting Oskar Schindler in Los Angeles with a group of Holocaust survivors, Leyson doubted whether Schindler would remember him. However, when he greeted Schindler, Schindler exclaimed, “I know who you are! You are little Leyson!”
Abraham Zuckerman, another survivor of Schindler’s list, recorded his memories of the war in a book called A Voice in the Chorus. His remembrance of Schindler illuminates the deeply benevolent nature of the man:
“Herr Schindler built decent barracks for his Jewish workers. He even smuggled his workers’ wives, parents, and children into the camp he ran. He would hide them until the Jewish Underground made it possible for them to escape Nazi-occupied territory. On the High Holidays, he saw to it that challah bread was distributed. When a Jewish worker died of illness at the camp, Herr Schindler even arranged for a Jewish burial service.”
“Many years later, after the war ended, I heard [Schindler] describe his feelings about the war this way: “I hated the brutality, the sadism and the insanity of Nazism. I just couldn’t stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That’s all there is to it. Really. Nothing more.”
“In all my life, I have never come face-to-face with a more courageous, decent, and brilliant man. It goes without saying that I owe my life to him…”
After the war, Schindler and Emilie fled from Europe and landed in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Schindler eventually moved back to Germany and died there, in Hildesheim, on October 9, 1974. His desire was that he be buried in Jerusalem, as he said: “My children are there…”
Oskar Schindler, Ich, Oskar Schindler: Die personlichen Aufzeichnungen Briefe und Dokumente, Ed. Erika Rosenberg, Trans. Dr. Kim Chernin (Munich: F.A. Herbig Verlagsbuchhandlung GmbH, 2000) 53.
Schindler, page not cited by translator.
Emilie Schindler and Erika Rosenberg, Where Light and Shadow Meet, Trans. Dolores M. Koch (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996) 29.
Schindler and Rosenberg 29.
Schindler and Rosenberg 29.
Schindler and Rosenberg 162.
Abraham Zuckerman, A Voice in the Chorus (Stamford: Longmeadow Press, 1991) 77.
Louis Bülow, “Schindler’s Legacy”.