Schindler’s List

schindler's list
Oskar Schindler (seated) with Leo Pfefferberg, the man who recounted his story to Thomas Keneally

The 1993 film Schindler’s List depicts Oskar Schindler, a German-speaking Czechoslovakian businessman and Nazi Party member. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, Schindler sheltered and protected around 1,200 Jewish employees from persecution, deportation and extermination. His story was recognised

Pfefferberg and Keneally

The story of Oskar Schindler has been known to Jews for three generations but 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 Thomas Keneally, an award-winning Australian writer.

In 1980, Keneally 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, whose actions had saved Pfefferberg’s life.

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 sold well in both Europe and the United States.

Schindler’s List

Almost immediately, Schindler’s Ark was touted for adaptation into film. Hollywood director Steven Spielberg was first invited to take up the task in 1983. Raised as an Orthodox Jew and acutely aware of the Holocaust, Spielberg was fascinated by the story. He was unsure if he possessed the maturity, experience and gravitas for such an important film, however, so declined.

After spending ten years trying to convince other directors to take on the project, Spielberg 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. It is through Schindler’s List

that millions of people became broadly aware of Oskar Schindler and his involvement in saving Jewish lives during the Holocaust.

Schindler’s background

Oscar Schindler was born in 1908 in Moravia, Czechoslovakia, an area later occupied by the Nazis shortly before World War II. His family was strongly Catholic, though 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 member of the NSDAP or Nazi Party in 1939, and for a time worked as an agent for the Abwehr, a secret information-gathering agency.

After the war broke out, Schindler moved to Nazi-occupied Poland and obtained control of a Krakow enamelware factory that 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.

DEF in Krakow

By 1943, Schindler’s Krakow factory (Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik or DEF) was a successful manufacturing firm that employed more than 1,000 Jews and other civilians.

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. He frequently dined or caroused with high-ranking SS officers and offered them gifts and bribes. In return, these officers granted Schindler’s factory 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, coupled with the inexpensiveness of forced Jewish labour, made Schindler a very wealthy man.

A safe haven

Though Schindler had supported the Nazis in the 1930s, the violence in Krakow troubled him. Schindler took steps to protect his employees from disease, starvation or violence. His 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 (a contribution 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 came to appreciate being under his protection. They began referring to themselves as Schindlerjuden (‘Schindler Jews’).

Schindler’s business activities and treatment of his Jewish employees 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.

Relocation to Brunnlitz

In 1943, Schindler became acquainted with an SS captain, Amon Goeth, the commandant of a labour camp in nearby Plaszow. Goeth was known for his brutal mistreatment and summary execution of Jewish inmates, though Schindler remained on friendly terms with him.

In 1944, Goeth received orders to relocate all Krakow Jews to concentration camps. At this point, Schindler was able to bribe Goeth to secure the evacuation of his own workforce. They were relocated to a labour camp, Brunnlitz, near Schindler’s hometown.

The Schindlerjuden remained in Brunnlitz for the duration of the war until they were liberated by Russian soldiers in May 1945.

After the war

After the war, Schindler failed at most things he attempted. He abandoned his wife and emigrated to South America, where he started several businesses, all of which failed. At several times, Schindler received financial assistance from the Jews he had protected during the Holocaust.

Schindler eventually returned to Germany, where he died bankrupt in 1974. After his death, he 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.

“To many ‘Schindlerjuden’, Schindler was a god-like figure. They overlooked Schindler’s human failings and continually searched for ways to help their flawed hero maintain some semblance of a normal life, first in Germany and later in Argentina. They helped him financially and looked for ways to honour him and tell the world about his unique efforts to save them during the Holocaust. When faced with Schindler’s shortcomings, particularly after the war, many would explain that it was these character flaws that made him so effective during the Holocaust… Some would simply shrug off talk about his drinking and womanising and say ‘Oh, that’s just Oskar’.”
David Crowe, historian


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.

Citation information
Title: “The story behind Schindler’s List”
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: August 17, 2020
Date accessed: February 21, 2024
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