Oskar Schindler (Born 28, April 1908 - Died 9, October 1974)
If you saw a dog being crushed under a car, wouldn't you help him?
Immortalised in what many people consider to be Steven Spielberg's masterpiece; Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler has been portrayed as hero of his times and champion of an oppressed race. In the midst of the WWII Nazi occupation of Poland, Oskar Schindler, rich German owner of an Enamel factory, slowly and surreptitiously created a haven for his workers, Jewish in the majority, he built an oasis of humanity in the ocean of humiliation and genocide. Through his kind deeds and sacrifices he kept over a thousand employees safe from the fickle temperament of the Judenfrei operation.
The story of this strange and compelling man dawns at the beginning of the 20th century in the hills of Moravia, Austria. Oskar was born as the only son to Hans Schindler and his long suffering wife Louisa, and as the only sibling to his sister Elfriede.
"Hans Schindler was the sort of husband who drives a woman to religion"*
The Schindler family was Catholic even though many times Frau Schindler was the only one to remember this. Hans Schindler could never be said to have led a sinless life, a pattern that was to be reflected in his son.
Herr Schindler lead a German speaking household at all times but culturally always declared himself Austrian, when Moravia became part of the Czechoslovakia he took it with grace and changed his life style little. Much research has been poured into trying to establish a point or incident in the young Schindler's life that can lay the basis for his later actions. Maybe it was his friendship with the young children of the Rabbi who lived next door, or his defence of a Jewish child from a bully. But these comparisons usually fall through after a little thought; maybe he did stop a bully, but he would have done the same for any child regardless of their origins or maybe he would have walked by minding his own business.
His friendship with the children next door seems to be nothing more than that, childhood friendship. This in itself can cause speculation, but then we give way to speculation about the speculation about the speculation. Oskar rarely had a clear mission in life, much less so in his childhood.
Zwiattu, Oskar's hometown, has been described "as a small coal-dusted city in the southern reaches of the mountain range known as Jeseniks"*. Due to its large German speaking community a small German grammar school was maintained there; . this was where Oskar would attend and complete the Realgymnasium Course (dedicated to training engineers - mechanical, civil and mining - to take advantage of the landscape of the region), Oskar was sent here principally because his father owned a small farm machinery plant and the course was ideal to prepare his heir for the business.
As an adolescent Oskar Schindler seemed to have only one thing on his mind. A born mechanic (seemly inherited from his father) he developed a passion for motorbikes, an obsession fueled by his father with the gift of a 250cc Moto-Guzzi in spring of 1928. This motorbike was one of four in existence on the continent outside of Italy and Schindler used it well. He entered a few competitions that summer, and sparing the details he came in first place against some European champions. He was well on the way with a career in motor racing had it not been for two factors: love and money. A stereotypical phrase only because the two are usually enough to make even the most determined soul wander off course.
Whilst Oskar was racing through the Austrian hills, the family business was not fairing too well and the better part of his meagre payslip (he was a junior tractor salesman) was going back into the business, this left little money for the expenses a professional career in racing would require. As for love? that summer at a party Oskar met a somewhat reserved girl from the neighbouring town, Alt Moletein, and became quite besotted by her. Maybe it was the strong resemblance to his mother that he found attractive, I do not know; what I do know is that after a courtship of only six weeks, and a month before his twentieth birthday, Oskar had married Emilie Schindler.
Neither Oskar nor Emilie's respective fathers approved of the marriage; Herr Schindler objected because his own marriage had been under similarly uneasy circumstances and didn't want him to repeat the same mistakes. Emilie's, on the other hand, father objected because he doubted that Oskar would settle down and provide for his only daughter; and he was right, for Oskar never did settle down as such but he always provided for Emilie against all odds.
"He spent his evenings talking to girls neither nunlike or gracious"*
After the marriage Schindler took Emilie to live in a small apartment in Zwiattu and settled there for a short while before completing his military service in the Czechoslovak Army where he found he abhorred military life - merely because of its discomfort. When he returned home it was only to neglect Emilie and patronise cafes and bars, never failing to attract the ladies.
In 1935 his family business went bankrupt and his father left both his wife and the family home and took his own lodgings. His father's treachery would haunt Oskar for years to come, from this a deep wedge was driven between father and son, they would not speak fore many years to come. Alone in his anger, Oskar never did see the resemblance between his own marriage and the one he detested his father for breaking.
Shortly after, the next year, his mother - frail and tired - passed away. By this time Oskar was sporting the Sudeten German Party swastika emblem. His reasons behind the affiliation were always clear: he was a salesman and the salesman who went to a conference with an influential director sporting the party emblem got the order, he was not happy with the new regime on a basic level, he thought it would not work and that the tactics employed were too brutal, but he never was openly outspoken and these opinions seem to have been mild objections more than all out hatred. Through a few chance meetings he soon found himself under the employment of the Abwehr military intelligence office. Using his position as a salesman and magnetic charm he made various trips into Poland to report back about the movements the Polish Army were going to make. It was during these trips that he found Krakow, the place that would be come his home and the basis of his "Emalia"**.
"Hello, I'm a Jew"
Late in October 1939, the Germans had been in Krakow for just over a month. The conquering heroes were cruel and vindictive. Over seven edicts had been passed regarding the behaviour and actions of the Jewish population (such as forcing them to carry a identity badge with a distinctive yellow stripe or to announcing "I am a Jew" before introducing themselves), many Jewish employees had been fired, abuse and humiliation by the soldiers was not uncommon and a long spell in prison was all to easy to find. It was to a grey and depressed Krakow that Schindler moved, but sensing an opportunity to supply the wartime needs he had no doubts about the transition. Making use of his contacts and his natural ability to charm people within weeks he was planning his business. Having acquired the recently vacated apartment of a Jewish family and already boasting a new Polish mistress, Ingrid, and a dashing young secretary whom he also took up with, he set about trying to acquire a large bankrupt factory on the northern industrial side of the city. With the help of a young Jewish accountant who would later become his accomplice and life long friend, Itzhak Stern,
he had soon taken the factory under his possession and with a staff of mostly Polish employees was soon turning out a number of pots and pans that rivalled even the oldest enamel factories in Poland.
"Economic war on the Jews? Why not!"
Outside of Schindler’s corporate empire things for the Jewish population of Krakow were steadily getting worse, random shootings and torture were becoming part of daily life; reduced to living in the few houses that the Germans would give them, they had been stripped of almost all of their rights. On March the 3rd 1941 a final edict was posted. The old part of the city, mostly populated by poor working class Poles, was to be vacated and re occupied by the entire Jewish community of Krakow. The date to move into to the Ghetto was the 20th of March, all Jews must report there or face prison or execution. The feeling among the community was mixed, some feared that it was merely a containment center for ease of liquidation when the time came but all regardless expressed some relief in the fact that it would mean the end of the insults, the beatings and the bulling. They could build a self contained community within the walls of their ghetto and wait for the storm to pass.
Unfortunately, this was not an economically viable option since within the very same edict it was ordained that from the same deadline Jewish workers would no longer be able to receive any wages or pay for their work, a direct fee would be paid to the a division of the SS. This coupled with the fact that they sometimes disappeared and were constantly being detained on the way to work by the occupying soldiers to do any one of a thousand tasks, brought a hesitation to hiring Jewish workers.
In order to try and ease the blow of the new edict Itzhak Stern started to make desperate pleads to Schindler and Julius Madritsch, fellow Krakow factory owner, to employ more Jews, to fit them in wherever they could. Hesitant at first Schindler conceded mainly because the labour was cheaper than on the open market when employing the native Poles. Stern’s objectives were to give the Jewish Town economic standing, in the idea that a community which provided such valuable workers would be shielded from the worst. By the end of spring the DEF was almost entirely staffed by Jewish workers.
That spring was also when Oskar would visit Zwittau for the first time in years. Staying with Emilie he tried to convince her to move to Krakow and give up her apartment in the city, but unsurprisingly she was hesitant. Basking in his newfound wealth and at his aunt’s urging he went to visit his father, maybe to flaunt his success but surely in a desire to see the man who he loved so deeply but could never forgive. Old and sick Hans Schindler was a shadow of the laughing father he had tried so hard to be. God knows what changed in Schindler but when he left for Krakow there was a tenuous bridge between the father and son.
"These Jews will eat anything, not even an animal would do that"
Over the next year Stern along with Schindler slowly built up their Jewish workforce from a mere 300 to nearly 900 workers, all of which were Jewish. To avoid suspicion or closure Schindler played the social scene he so loved, he was considered within the Nazi circles of Krakow to be a safe bet, a tireless capitalist that only cared about his business. On the floor of the factory itself things were slightly different, Schindler himself had little contact with the workers, apart from a few who were involved in management. The Jews of Schindler (Schindlerjuden) knew that somehow the Herr Direktor was protecting them and that it was safe to request their families be brought to work within the Emalia. A careful secret between Stern and Schindler was that they had begun to falsify factory records, the children were listed as adults and elderly workers were listed as twenty years younger, this helped protect Jews from the examinations periodically carried out to eliminate "un-essential" workers.
Life carried on in this low key manner until 1943. On March the 13th orders to close the Krakow Ghetto were received and all inhabitants were to be moved to the concentration camp of Plazow. Plazow was set on the outskirts of Krakow in a sprawling installation to accommodate for all the satellite camps in the region whose workers were also transferred. By the hundreds the Jews of the camp started to die, conditions were sub-human made worse by the daily exportations to the death camp of Auschwitz, a mere sixty kilometres away.
Herr Direktor made many visits to the camp, either to wine and dine the kommandant Amon Goeth and convince him to stop killing his workers or to visit Stern who was continually ill due to the vast range of epidemics that circulated around the camp. Maybe he could have ignored it prehaps he could have carried on and hoped for the best, but the extreme brutality was affecting his factory, as well as slowly rendering his work force useless the SS and the higher officials were beginning to take liberties within the factory grounds themselves.
An extract from an article published by Herbert Stienhouse might help to put the situation into perspective.
"...Another time, during an inspection by an official SS commission, the attention of the visitors was caught by the sight of the old Jew, Lamus, who was dragging himself across the factory courtyard in an utterly depressed state. The head of the commission asked why the man was so sad, and it was explained to him that Lamus had lost his wife and only child a few weeks earlier during the evacuation of the ghetto. Deeply touched, the commander reacted by ordering his adjutant to shoot the Jew "so that he might be reunited with his family in heaven," then he guffawed and the commission moved on. Schindler was left standing with Lamus and the adjutant.
"Slip your pants down to your ankles and start walking," the adjutant ordered Lamus. Dazed, the man did as he was told.
"You are interfering with all my discipline here," Schindler said desperately. The SS officer sneered.
"The morale of my workers will suffer. Production for der Vaterland will be affected." Schindler blurted out the words. The officer took out his gun.
"A bottle of schnapps if you don't shoot him", Schindler almost screamed, no longer thinking rationally.
To his astonishment, the man complied. Grinning, the officer put the gun away and strolled arm in arm with the shaken Schindler to the office to collect his bottle. And Lamus, trailing his pants along the ground, continued shuffling across the yard, waiting sickeningly for the bullet in his back that never came."
"Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire"
This seemed to be the turning point for Oskar, rather than subtly protecting the race of condemned people he began to actively save them. Now with Emilie living in Krakow he began to use all of his talents and charm to procure as many "workers" as he could, no longer with any care for the actual production of the factory.
On the basis of mere namesake, with no relation, he petitioned General Schindler a high ranking army official that the camp's workshops would be ideal for army production instead of mere pots and pans and uniforms. He was seconded by commandant Goeth who thought it was a perfect opportunity to further his career. With this approval he convinced Goeth that his workers would be more productive if they were moved into their own sub-camp nearer the factory. With the new camp he could smuggle food and medicine into the camp with ease, a fact Amon Goeth never found out about. He would now openly stop the sporadic killings without a second thought, with shouts of "We have a war to win" or "Stop killing my workers" he managed to save dozens of lives.
1943 turned in 1944
and the occupation was weakening on the Eastern Front
, the liquidation
of the Jews came in earnest, all the camps were being emptied and the population exterminated
. Schindler held no hopes for another stroke of luck
, so he played what would be on of his boldest moves. After months of bribery, cajoling and fighting, after spending most of his personal fortune he received authorisation to move his force of 900 workers from Krakow to a factory in Brnenec
in his native Moravia. It nearly went without a hitch save the fact that one train was diverted to the Gross-Rosen
camp nearby witch was holding the last remaining Jews of the area and another was diverted to Auschwitz
. Luckily Schindler intervened and within a few months he had got all of his workers safely into the new installation. By this time Schindler’s factory had begun producing shells and bomb
parts for the war effort. These parts expertly turned out and beautifully crafted were only worth as much as the production cost, not one single shell that was produced under the DEF's roof worked.
Meanwhile Schindler was now calling the Gestapo
and requesting straight out that any intercepted Jewish fugitives be sent to him "in the interest of continued war production"
. in this manner over a hundred people were sent to Schindler’s factory.
The new factory now boasted a small hospital with stolen and black-market medicine where Emilie Schindler kept watch day and night. Whilst Oskar himself went on long trips in search of supplies. The couple, never united in marriage now united in compassion began to live at the factory in fear that a night-time raid would catch them unaware. The daring single handed rescue of Emilie Schindler of a train full of half frozen Jews on the way to Auschwitz is nearly the stuff of legend. For days the couple worked to revive the starving, dying people, a portion of the factory was vacated for the purpose of saving the souls of the walking skeletons. Thirteen had died before arrival, whilst under the Schindler's care only three more out of the hundred died. This was to be one of the last exploits of Oskar Schindler for his "children". On May the 9th, 1945 the Russian troops marched in and within hours Herr and Frau Schindler along with a few close friends from the factory had fled only to re-appear months later inside the Austrian US controlled zone.
"Let us help him as he helped our brethen"
Soon after Oscar moved to Munich for a short stay, penniless and tattered he Emilie stayed with the Rosner brothers, musicians and Schindlerjuden. It was in Munich were he confided his dreams of becoming an Argentinean farmer, to breed nutria, a petition from the Rosner bothers to the Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish worldwide disaster fund with whom Oskar had been in sporadic contact with during the war, granted him a payment of 15,000 dollars and issued a reference that summarises everything beautifully.
The American Joint distribution Committee has thoroughly investigated the wartime and occupation activities of Mr Schindler. We recommend wholeheartedly that all organisations and individuals contacted by Mr Schindler do their upmost to help him, in recognition of his outstanding service...
Under the guise of operating a Nazi labour factory first in Poland and then in Sundetenland, Mr Schindler managed to take in as employees and protect Jewish men and women destined for death in Auschwitz or other infamous concentration camps, "Schindler's camp in Brinnlitz" witness have told the Joint Distribution Committee, "was the only camp in the Nazi-occupied territories where a Jew was never killed, or even beaten, but was always treated as a human being." Now that he is about to begin his life anew, let us help him as once he helped our brethren.
When he sailed for Argentina, he took with him half a dozen families of his workers, paying their passages where he could. He settled on a farm in the Buenos Aires region for nearly ten years. These ten years were not easy for Oskar or Emilie, the nutria breeding proved a fiasco and they went bankrupt in 1957. The Schindler's moved into a house provided by the B'nai B'rith in San Vicente while Oskar worked as a sales representative for a short time. Unfortunately, restless, within the year he left for Germany. He was never to live with Emilie again.
"They were my children"
Based in a humble adobe in Frankfurt he pursed capital to acquire a cement works factory, he ended up receiving funds once again from the Jewish Distribution Committee and loans from a number of Schindlerjuden who had profited after the war. By 1961 Oskar once again found himself insolvent, his factory crippled by a series of harsh winters and maybe in part to Oskar’s unstable character.
Upon hearing of his troubles Oskar was invited to Israel by his "children" where he was received by a mob a people including the children of the survivors, he began to spend his time between Germany and Israel, a pattern he would lead the rest of his life.
On his fifty-third birthday he unveiled a plaque to his honour in the Park of
Heroes, ten days later he was declared a Righteous Person and was invited to plant a carob tree in the Avenue of the Righteous.
A note here to say that Julius Madritsch, who I mentioned at the beginning, is also honoured in the Avenue for feeding and protecting his workers as best he could, and nearby stands Raimund Titsch, Madritsch's supervisor.
In 1966 the German government finally acknowledged him officially and awarded him the Cross of Merit but it was not until 1968 that the Ministry of Finance gave him a pension of 200 Marks a month.
As he entered his sixth decade Oskar gave testimony about the war crimes he saw perpetrated and testified against many of the officials from Krakow.
He also took up a position with the German Friends of the Hebrew University, raising funds. As he entered the last years of his life Oskar still lived and drank as young man, he found the love a German woman called Annemarie who he had met in Jerusalem, he lived with her until his death on October the 9th 1974.
One of Oskar Schindler's last wishes was to be buried in Jerusalem , a month would pass to acquire all the paperwork and permissions but finally he was buried in the Catholic cemetery of the old city.
*Thomas Keneally - Schindler's Ark -ISBN 0-340-33501-7.
** The nickname given by the workers to the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (DEF), Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
Kudos to Apatrix for I have blatantly stolen his layout from his writeup under Emilie Schindler.
I have relied heavily on the book Schindler's Ark for details and quotes because of its nature and subject it is by far the richest source of information readily available.
"The Real Oskar Schindler" by Herbert Steinhouse
Go and do a google search on "Oskar Schindler" and read the essays