“The persecution of Jews in the General Government in Polish territory gradually worsened in its cruelty. In 1939 and 1940 they were forced to wear the Star of David and were herded together and confined in ghettos. In 1941 and 1942 this unadulterated sadism was fully revealed. And then a thinking man, who had overcome his inner-cowardice had to help. There was no other choice.”
– Oskar Schindler, in 1964.
Oskar Schindler, a former Nazi, who saved the lives of over 1,000 Jews during World War II died on today’s date in 1974. He was 66 years old at the time. There is the moment in the 1993 Academy Award winning film “Schindler’s List” wherein Oskar Schindler confronts his main business assistant, Yitzak Stern about the danger he has been put into by his factory becoming known as a “haven”. In war people get killed he yells.
“What do you want me to do about it?!”
“Nothing. I’m just talking.” Stern replies. Schindler thinks for a moment, and then takes out a slip of paper on which he has the name of a couple whose daughter has just begged him to give them refuge.
“Perlman. Husband and wife.” he says almost in resignation. He then takes off his watch and hands it to Stern, clearly to be used as a bribe for someone.
“Have Goldberg bring them over.”
This has always been for me, the moment in the film wherein Schindler, when faced with a conscious choice for the first time, just finds himself doing the right thing. I realize of course that this is a film, and this scene may be a sort of compilation of several separate events. Still, I believe that this scene must be an accurate representation (if not a correct factual record) of the point or points in time when this “thinking man” did indeed overcome his “inner-cowardice” and made his choice.
Oskar Schindler: An Unlikely Hero
That is what the website for the American Holocaust Memorial Museum, from which I got the quotation at the top of this posting calls him. And I have found in researching the man’s pre-war life, that never have truer words been spoken. For there is virtually nothing in Oskar Schindler’s resume’ prior to 1943 that indicates that he would ever risk either his money or his personal safety on behalf of anyone or anything other than Oskar Schindler.
He was born on April 28, 1908 in Zwittau, Moravia, which was then part of Austria-Hungary. Schindler’s was a German family; his father was Johann “Hans” Schindler who owned a farm machinery business. Schindler was a decent enough student, but was expelled from his technical school in 1924 for forging his report card. He did graduate later, but eschewed taking an exam that would have enabled him to attend a University in favor of taking
courses in several trades. He was now a citizen of the Czech Republic and served for a time in the Czech Army. Oskar (above, driving with his father, circa 1929) had by now developed a taste for fine living and alcohol, being arrested twice for public drunkenness in the early 30’s. He joined the Sudeten German Party (a separatist group wanting to join with Germany) in 1935. In 1936, he became a spy for the Abwehr, the intelligence service of Nazi Germany in 1936. In this shadowy job, he reported on Czech troop movements for the Nazis. He was arrested by the Czech government in 1938 for espionage. He had been chronically in debt, and told the Czech police that he had spied for the Nazis because he needed the money. But by this time, the Nazis had completed their dirty Munich agreement with Britain, and had annexed Schindler’s part of the Czech Republic to Germany, so Schindler was released. He became a member of the Nazi Party in early 1939.
Schindler Becomes a Savior
So there he was: a corrupt man, in the heart of a corrupt system, in which he had plenty of military and civilian political contacts. Oskar Schindler loved the good life, he loved drinking, he was an avid womanizer, and he wanted money and influence. And he wasn’t especially fussy about how he obtained that. So he delved into that corrupt system to purchase the Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik (German Enamelware Factory). With the help of his Jewish accountant, Itzak Stern, and what must have been a enormous degree of personal magnetism, he was able to bribe and black market his way into a fortune. At Stern’s advice, he purchased Jewish workers because they were cheaper than Poles. And this ultimately put him into contact with his workers, and their plight of trying to survive in a system which was designed to murder them all. The rest as they say, is history.
(Above – Schindler center, with the SS, circa 1942) It is not my purpose here to simply re-hash information which you already have. My purpose here has always been to tell facets of history of which you may not be aware. Most of you have already seen the film “Schindler’s List”, so I will not attempt to re-tell the events of the film. At some point in time, this corrupt man overcame his “inner cowardice” and turned all of that knowledge of how to bilk the corrupt system, and that great personal magnetism towards the salvation of his workers. Schindler, who was never very much good at legitimate work went completely broke in the process. The film, as far as I can tell, gets the story right. The spirit of the man, the people he worked with, both good and bad are all presented faithfully. Most of the details are correct as well. The character of Schindler (Liam Neeson) is well and accurately presented, as is the character of Itzak Stern (Ben Kingsley), although his character is a composite of three men. The actual “List” of people Schindler was to save was not actually compiled by Schindler himself. And there was at least some amount of bribery on the part of the man who actually assembled the list, one Marcel Goldberg. But Schindler’s guideline that “his people” should be on it was followed, and he did indeed save them at huge personal risk and expense, as the film shows.
After the War…
After the war, Oskar Schindler was unable to find any personal financial success at all. He and his wife Emilie, who had worked tirelessly alongside Oskar on behalf of his workers were given a written statement from the workers attesting to his efforts on to save their lives. They were able to reach the American lines at the town of Lenora. They then traveled to Passau, where an American Jewish officer helped them get a train to Switzerland. After the war ended they moved to Bavaria, in Southern Germany in 1945.
But he had spent virtually his entire fortune saving his workers. Destitute, he relied on donations from his former workers to get by. In 1948 he pursued a claim for reimbursement for his wartime expenses, but was awarded a mere fifteen thousand dollars for expenses which he estimated had been over one million dollars. He moved to Argentina for a time with his wife, but several business ventures there failed. He separated from his wife and returned to Germany in 1958. He declared bankruptcy in 1963. Relying on donations from “Schindler Jews” from all over the world, he remained in contact with many of his former workers. He died on today’s date in 1974. Having been declared a member of “the Righteous Among Nations” (inscribed in Hebrew on his grave) in 1963, he was buried in Jerusalem on Mt. Zion, the only member of the Nazi Party to be so honored. The German inscription on his grave reads “The Unforgettable Lifesaver of 1200 Persecuted Jews.”
Oskar Schindler = http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Schindler,_Oskar.jpg
Schindler in 1929 = http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=10005787&MediaId=3174
Schindler with the S.S. = http://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-features/special-focus/oskar-schindler
Dir. by Steven Spielberg, Universal Pictures, 1993.