The story of Oskar Schindler has been known to Jews for three generations – but it was revealed to the rest of the world comparatively late, more than four decades after the end of World War II. The man who gave it wider exposure was Australian Thomas Keneally, an award-winning writer. In 1980 Keneally, while visiting the United States, called into a Los Angeles store to inquire about buying a briefcase. The store’s owner was Poldek Pfefferberg. After discovering Keneally was a writer, Pfefferberg recounted his own story as a Holocaust survivor in Nazi-occupied Poland. He convinced Keneally to write a book about Oskar Schindler, the Czechoslovak-born industrialist and Nazi Party member whose actions had saved Pfefferberg’s life – along with the lives of around 1,200 other Jews. Intrigued by the story, Keneally spent a year researching and writing about Schindler. In 1982 he published Schindler’s Ark, a novel based on the story of Schindler, Pfefferberg and his fellow survivors. Schindler’s Ark went on to win a Booker Prize and sell well in both Europe and the United States.
A film version of Schindler’s Ark was suggested almost immediately. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg was invited to direct a film adaptation of Keneally’s book in 1983. Spielberg – who was raised as an Orthodox Jew and was therefore acutely aware of the Holocaust and its impact – was fascinated by the story. Spielberg, however, was unsure if he possessed the maturity, experience and gravitas to direct such an important film (back then he was known for action and sci-fi movies like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T.). After spending ten years trying to convince other directors to take on the project, Spielberg finally relented and directed it himself. The entire three-hour movie was shot inside 12 weeks in original locations in Poland, particularly Krakow and Auschwitz. Schindler’s List was released in 1993 to enormous public and critical acclaim. It was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director.
Oscar Schindler was born in 1908 in Moravia, Czechoslovakia, an area later occupied by the Nazis shortly before World War II. Though his family was Catholic, as a boy Schindler had several Jewish friends. Schindler’s life before the war was unremarkable: he tried several jobs and business ventures but none proved successful. He became a Nazi Party member in 1939 and for a time worked as an agent for the Abwehr, a secret information-gathering agency. After war broke out, Schindler moved to Nazi-occupied Poland and obtained control of a Krakow enamelware factory, which had been seized from its Jewish owners. With the assistance of SS officers, Schindler recruited a small workforce from detainees in the nearby Jewish ghetto.
By 1943 Schindler’s factory, Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (or DEF) employed more than 1,000 Jews. Schindler left the organisation and financial management of the factory to Jewish accountants, such as Itzhak Stern, but he nevertheless played a critical role in its success. Schindler frequently dined or caroused with high-ranking SS officers and offered them gifts and bribes; in return, they granted Schindler’s factory large and lucrative contracts to provide goods to the SS and German military. By the end of 1943, DEF was supplying the SS with mess kits, equipment and uniforms. These transactions made Schindler a very wealthy man.
Though he had supported the Nazis in the 1930s, the unrestrained violence in Krakow troubled Schindler. He took steps to protect his employees from disease, starvation or violence. Schindler’s employees were provided with extra food and clothing; while Schindler’s wife, Emilie, supported his efforts by smuggling food and setting up a secret medical clinic (her contribution is not highlighted in Spielberg’s film). Later Schindler was able to remove SS guards from the floor of his factory. On at least two occasions he extracted Jewish workers from the clutches of the SS, saving them from torture or execution. Those who worked for Schindler soon came to appreciate that he was protecting them; they began to refer to themselves as Schindlerjuden (‘Schindler Jews’).
David Crowe, historian
Schindler’s protective treatment was potentially dangerous and he occasionally found himself in difficulty. He was arrested three times for trading on the black market, but was able to use bribery and his powerful SS connections to extract himself from trouble. In 1943 Schindler became acquainted with an SS captain, Amon Goth, the commandant of a labour camp in nearby Plaszow. In 1944 Goth received orders to relocate all Krakow Jews to concentration camps. Schindler organised the relocation of his own workforce to the Czech town of Brinnlitz, after bribing Goth. The Schindlerjuden remained for the duration of the war until they were liberated by Russian soldiers in May 1945.
Schindler’s List offers a representation not just of Schindler’s actions, but also his conflicted values and motives. At first, Schindler was only concerned with making money: he used his Nazi Party membership to obtain cheap Jewish labour, government contracts for his factory, even a confiscated Jewish apartment for his residence. But as the war progressed and the arbitrary murder of Jews escalated, Schindler took a greater interest in the welfare of his employees. “I knew the people who worked for me,” he said years later. “When you know people, you have to behave toward them like human beings.” Schindler was a witness to the Krakow ghetto massacre in March 1943, an event that seems to increase his concern with the protection of Jewish workers.
After the war, Schindler failed at most things he attempted. He abandoned his wife and emigrated to South America; he launched several attempts at starting a business, all of which failed. At several times Schindler received financial assistance from the Jews he had protected during the Holocaust. He eventually returned to Germany, where he died bankrupt in 1974. After his death, Schindler was buried in a Catholic cemetery in Mount Zion, Jerusalem. The state of Israel granted him the title ‘Righteous among the Nations’, an honour given to non-Jews who protected or sheltered Jews during the Holocaust.
1. The movie Schindler’s List portrays the actions of a Czech-born Nazi, Oskar Schindler, during the Holocaust.
2. Schindler formed social contacts with high-ranking Nazis and used these to advance his business interests.
3. He obtained an enamelware factory in Krakow, Poland, and profited from the forced labour of 1,200 Jewish Poles.
4. Schindler protected his employees by providing them with necessities and sheltering them from the SS.
5. Toward the end of the war, he spent a fortune to have them relocated to the relative safety of his Czech homeland.