Oskar Schindler

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Oskar Schindler (April 28, 1908 - October 9, 1974) was a Sudeten German industrialist who saved his Jewish factory workers from death during the Holocaust. As many as 1,300 Schindlerjuden were saved through his protection while working in his enamelware and munitions factories located in Poland and what is now the Czech Republic. During World War II, millions of Jews died in Nazi death camps such as Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, but Schindler's Jews miraculously survived.

Today there are more than 7,000 descendants of the Schindler-Jews (Schindlerjuden) living in the United States and Europe with many in Israel. Oskar Schindler spent everything he owned to protect and save "his" Jews, dying penniless. Among today's Jewish population his name is synonymous with courage, and he is known as a hero who saved hundreds of Jews from Hitler's gas chambers.

It may be that no one will ever know exactly what motivated this complex man to do what he did. He stood as a protector and savior in a world of indifference. Part of the fascination of this man is that not even those closest to him knew what motivated him. What is known is that he rose to the highest level of humanity, risking his life time and again for a people it seemed the world had either turned against or abandoned.

Schindler utilized the same qualities that made him a war profiteer - his flair for presentation, bribery, and grand gestures - to save thousands of lives. Irving Glovin, Schindler's attorney and friend, met Oskar in 1963. He later recalled Schindler not only with affection, but with great admiration: "He drank, yes, he drank. He liked women. He bribed. But he bribed for a good purpose. All of these things worked. If he were not this kind of person he probably wouldn't have succeeded. Whatever it took to save a life he did. He worked the system extraordinarily well. He was a true human being in the best sense of the word." [1]

In a 1964 interview in Frankfurt, West Germany, Oscar Schindler simply said, "I had to help them. There was no choice." A person of compassion and decency simply has no choice when confronted with evil.


Contents

Personal life

Oskar Schindler was born on April 28, 1908 in Zwittau-Brinnlitz, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now Svitavy, Czech Republic). He was born into a wealthy Catholic business family, though in the 1930s they went bankrupt during the Great Depression. As a teenager, Schindler joined the Nazi Party.

When Oskar was 27 years old, his parents, Hans and Louisa, divorced. Oskar had an older sister, Elfriede, to whom he was very close.

Emilie Schindler

Emilie Schindler was born on October 22, 1907, into the Pelzl family, in the city of Alt Moletein, a village in the German-populated border region of what was then The Republic of Czechoslovakia. She met Oscar Schindler when he came to her father's farmhouse selling electric motors. After a courtship of six weeks, they were married on March 6, 1928, in an inn on the outskirts of Zwittau, Oscar's hometown. Emilie worked at her husband's side throughout the war and is remembered fondly by the Schindler-Jews for her sacrifice and compassion.

During World War II

Oskar Schindler has come to be known as a man who outwitted Hitler and the Nazis to save more Jews from extermination than any other person during World War II. Schindler, in the guise of an opportunistic businessman, spent millions during the war bribing and paying off the SS, eventually even risking his life to rescue the Jewish people.

Those he protected and saved came to be known as Schindlerjuden, or "Schindler's Jews." Through the course of the war, Schindler came to view these people as his children, even requesting burial in Israel when the time came, in order to be near them. At one point in the war, when it became evident that the Russian Army was advancing toward Poland, the Nazis began to close down concentration camps and murder their inhabitants in the most horrific ways imaginable. Schindler responded by compiling a list of his workers deemed "essential to the war effort" and was authorized to move them to a new factory, remaining under his protection. There were 1,100 workers on this "list of life," otherwise known as "Schindler's List."

At war's end, as the liberating army drew near, Schindler's Jews drafted a letter requesting safe passage and assistance for Schindler and his traveling party, which stated in part,

"we may claim with assertiveness that we owe our lives solely to the efforts of Director Schindler and his humane treatment of his workers." [2]

Beginnings

Once the occupation of Poland began in September of 1939, the head of every Jewish business was replaced by a German trustee, or Treuhander; it was required that the former owner become an employee. It was required that each firm become German, and Aryan workers were brought in to replace many of the Jews.

Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten industrialist, had come to Krakow from his native town of Zwittau, just across what had only recently been a border. Unlike most who rushed into Poland to take advantage of the new laws of ownership, he received a factory not from an expropriated Jew but from the Court of Commercial Claims. Schindler's new factory was a small business which manufactured enamel-ware and had lain idle and in bankruptcy for many years. In the winter of 1939-1940 he began operations with 4,000 square meters of floor space and a hundred workers, seven of whom were Jewish. Soon he managed to bring in Itzhak Stern, whom he'd met through a mutual friend, as his accountant.

During the first year, Schindler expanded his labor force to 300, of whom 150 were Jews. By the end of 1942, the factory had been expanded 45,000 square meters and employed nearly 800 men and women. The 370 Jewish workers employed by that time all came from the Krakow Ghetto, one of the five main ghettos created by the Nazis in the General Government, during their occupation of Poland. "It had become a tremendous advantage," reported Stern, "to be able to leave the ghetto in the daytime and work in a German factory." [3]

Although Schindler's workers did not understand why, they recognized that "Herr Direktor" was somehow protecting them from the deportations which had begun in the ghetto. As the sense of security grew in the factory, workers soon began seeking permission to bring in families and friends to what had become their refuge. Word spread throughout the ghetto of the benevolence of this man, Schindler.

Unbeknown to the workers, Schindler falsified the factory's records; old people recorded as being 20 years younger, children listed as adults. Jewish lawyers, doctors, and engineers - considered a threat to the Nazis - were listed as tradesmen such as metalworkers, mechanics, and draftsmen, thus "essential to the war effort." This method saved the lives of countless workers from extermination.

During this time, Schindler spent his evenings entertaining many of the local SS and Wehrmacht officers, cultivating friendships with the influential and strengthening his position among the Germans. A charming and charismatic man, he became both popular and trusted in Krakow's Nazi social circles.

The factory's air of security did not bring the same peace to Itzak Stern that it did to most of the workers on the factory floor. From his high bookkeeper's perch he had a view into Schindler's private office. He saw the nearly daily goings-on, the officials and other visitors that Schindler entertained. Stern reported that watched him pour vodka after vodka as he joked with them. After they left, Schindler would call Stern into his office and quietly tell him the reason for their visit.

Deportation of Jews from the Kraków Ghetto, March 1943

Stern reported: "He used to tell them that he knew how to get work out of these Jews and that he wanted more brought in. That was how we managed to get in the families and relatives all the time and save them from deportation." [4]

An "inner-office" circle formed; a group of Jewish workers close to Schindler, including Stern and his brother Nathan, along with Label Salpeter and Samuel Wulkan, (both ranking members of the Polish Zionist movement) were part of a group that served as a link with the outside underground movement. They were soon joined by a man named Hildegeist, the former leader of the Socialist Workers’ Union in his native Austria, who, after suffering three years in Buchenwald, had been taken on in the factory as an accountant. Pawlik, a factory engineer and an officer in the Polish underground, led these activities. Schindler himself did not play an active role in this group, but he sheltered them through his protection policies. It is not known how much this small group benefited the resistance movement, they did provide the Schindlerjuden (Schindler's Jews) a sense of unity and strength, as well as a sense of discipline, which would prove useful as time went on.

After observing a 1942 raid on the Ghetto, Schindler increasingly used all of his skills to protect his Schindlerjuden. He went out of his way to take care of the Jews who worked at DEF, often calling on his legendary charm and ingratiating manner to help his workers get out of difficult situations. Once, says author Eric Silver in The Book of the Just, "Two Gestapo men came to his office and demanded that he hand over a family of five who had bought forged Polish identity papers. Three hours after they walked in," Schindler said, "two drunk Gestapo men reeled out of my office without their prisoners and without the incriminating documents they had demanded." Schindler also reportedly began to smuggle children out of the ghetto, delivering them to Polish nuns, who either hid them from the Nazis or claimed they were Christian orphans.

Plaszow

Płaszów concentration camp

On March 13, 1943, the order came to close the Krakow Ghetto. Eight thousand Jews deemed able to work were transported to the Plaszow labor camp. Those deemed unfit for work - some 2,000 Jews - were killed in the streets of the ghetto. Any remaining were sent to die in Auschwitz.

A sprawling series of installations existed in Plaszow, including subordinate camps throughout the region. The conditions were shocking, even to those who had already suffered life in the ghetto. Deaths occurred by the hundreds, including many children and women who died of typhus, starvation and executions. Many were moved to Auschwitz as the order was given to complete the extermination of the Jews was being carried out quickly and efficiently.

Schindler’s workers had also been moved to Plaszow from the ghetto but were able to continue going to the factory each day. Stern, falling extremely sick one day, sent word to Schindler asking for his help. Schindler came immediately with essential medicine, and continued his visits daily until Stern was well. However, the life he had seen inside Plaszow had a serious effect on him and his determination to save the Jews became more serious than ever.

It became harder for Schindler to relate so casually with the German officials who came to his factory, as he witnessed their hatred becoming stronger and their actions towards the workers more despicable. His double game was becoming more difficult. Disturbing incidents occurred more often. At this point he began to take a more active antifascist role.

Beginning in the spring of 1943 and continuing for the next two years, Oskar Schindler lived a life of bribery, conspiracy, and string-pulling, constantly attempting to outguess the Nazi authorities. Knowing his life was as at-risk as the Jews he protected, he nonetheless seemed obsessed with saving as many Jews from the gas chambers as possible.

The Treblinka and Majdanek camps had already been shut down and their inhabitants murdered. The same fate certainly seemed to be in line for Plaszow. Schindler was determined to save as many of the Plaszow Jews from this fate as possible.

A scheme that he devised, along with his "inner-office" circle, was to have his factory transformed from a uniform-repair factory to an enamelware factory, thus raising its status into a "war-essential" camp. Though the conditions of the camp improved only slightly, it was taken off the list of labor camps that were to be done away with.

This transition allowed Schindler a relationship with Plaszow's commander, the infamous Amon Goeth, who, because of the change of the status of the camp, found his status elevated to a new dignity.

Schindler recommended to Goeth that the Jews working in his factory be moved into their own sub-camp near the plant "to save time in getting to the job," and Goeth complied. From that point on, Schindler was able to have food and medicine smuggled into the barracks with little danger. The guards were bribed, and Goeth apparently never understood Schindler's true motive was to help and protect his Jews.

The killing of Jews in Plazow was rampant, as was "punishment" for minor or imagined transgressions. Schindler's method to protect his people was what became his standard comment; "Stop killing my good workers. We've got a war to win. These things can always be settled later." Dozens of lives were saved through this stratagem, with the SS never seeming to catch on.

In August of 1943 two men visited Schindler unexpectedly. They had been sent by the Va'adat Ezrah Vehatzalah (Vaada), (Aid and Rescue Committee), a part of the American Jewish welfare agency operating in Europe under Dr. Rudolph Kastner. Kastner, at the time, was living in Budapest with a price on his head, and working to rescue Hungarian Jews by his own methods of collaboration (bribery) with Adolf Eichmann.

Schindler instructed Itzhak Stern to "Speak frankly to these men. Let them know what has been going on in Plaszow." The visitors instructed him to write a full and comprehensive report on anti-Semitic persecution. Further prodded by Schindler to cooperate, Stern, though wary of the men's identities, obeyed Schindler. He proceeded to write everything he could think of, mentioning names of both the living and the dead. He did not know it at the time, but his long letter was widely circulated throughout the world. Subsequently, the underground brought him responding letters from America and Palestine, from relatives who had been comforted to know the fates of their loved ones, as supplied by Stern's report.

The majority of Schindler's Jews survived life at Plaszow, though a few of the weaker perished. Schindler and his "inner-office" circle continued in their efforts, though with the passage of time and changes of attitude, theirs had become fearful lives of deception. Following Stalingrad and the invasion of Italy, the SS men were no longer as easy-going as they had been, nonetheless, Schindler continued to entertain them in order to keep things under control.

Schindler moved cautiously, aware of the watchful eyes of those in charge. He increased the bribes to the guards and continued to have food and medicine smuggled in. As time went on, thousands of Jews in the camp perished, but the Schindlerjuden held on remarkably well.

Brnenec - Sudetenland

The German retreat on the Eastern Front began in early 1944 and by the spring was in full swing. Soon the order came to empty Plaszow and its sub-camps. This meant a move to Auschwitz and its extermination facilities. Oskar Schindler had prepared ahead of time for this day, and when word came, he began putting his plan into action.

Schindler worked desperately, visiting his drinking companions and his connections in military and industrial circles in both Krakow and in Warsaw. He used all his influence, his charm and bribery in order to get authorization for his plan. He boarded a train for Berlin and saw those he believed could back him. In the end, he received permission to move a force of 700 men and 300 women from the Plaszow camp into a factory at Brnenec in his native Sudetenland. He succeeded in giving his thousand Jews - of the 25,000 at Plaszow - a miraculous reprieve.

The first lot of 100 Jews left Plaszow in July 1944 and arrived safely at their new quarters in Czechoslovakia. However, a subsequent train was diverted unexpectedly and Schindler's Jews ended up at the concentration camp of Gross-Rosen, where many were beaten, tortured and humiliated. Schindler intervened, and had them brought to Brnenec. By November of that year, all 1,000 Schindlerjuden had made it safely to their new factory in Schindler's hometown. They remained there until the spring of 1945 when liberation came.

Schindler's factory at Brněnec, photo 2004

The new factory's purpose was to produce parts for V2 rockets. The reality was that the small output produced in nearly a year of production was intentionally defective.

Word spread of Brnenec; Jews escaping the transport to Auschwitz and other eastern camps arrived at the camp. No questions were asked as they were given shelter and incorporated into the workforce. It is reported that Schindler even requested of the Gestapo to send him all intercepted Jewish fugitives: "in the interest of continued war production." [5] Additional Jews from Holland, Belgium and Hungary joined the group, which eventually reached nearly 1,300 in number.

Schindler's Jews, by now weakened both physically and psychologically, were extremely dependent upon him. Both his sacrifice and his compassion had become obvious. He spent all his personal money on their welfare, even trading his wife's jewelry for schnapps with which to bribe the many SS investigators, as well as for clothing, medicine and food. He had set up a secret hospital with stolen and black-market medical equipment in order to fight epidemics and strengthen his weakened people.

The factory began to produce false rubber stamps, military travel documents, and the official papers needed to protect the delivery of food bought illegally. In preparation for the unknown future, Nazi uniforms and guns were collected and hidden, as were ammunition and hand grenades. Tension grew with the risks they knew they were taking. However, it is reported that Schindler was able to maintain a sense of equilibrium which consoled and gave hope to those around him.

Schindler considered his workers "his children" and protected them as a mother lion protects her cubs. He had been given a beautifully furnished villa that overlooked the valley where the village lay. Instead of occupying it, Schindler and his wife stayed in small sleeping quarters in the factory, in the event of a night raid by the SS.

Schindler not only protected the Jews, but respected their customs and supported their practice. Religious holidays were observed clandestinely with extra black-market food brought in. Those who died were secretly buried with full rites despite the Nazi demand that their corpses be burned. Though their lives were miserable, Oskar and Emilie Schindler did their best to honor their dignity.

The train

One of the most captivating tales repeated about Oskar Schindler involves the story of a train. It is told that near the end of the war, Schindler received a phone call one night from the train station asking him to accept a load of Jews. Two rail cars had been loaded with nearly 100 sick Jewish men. These men had been locked into the cars ten days prior, when the train had been sent from Auschwitz with orders to take them to whatever factory would accept them. Factory after factory rejected them; by the time Schindler got the call, the doors had been frozen shut due to temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit. Schindler ordered the train sent to his factory immediately.

With locks frozen, the rail cars were opened with axes and acetylene torches. The men inside were frozen stiff, 13 of them dead, but the others were clinging to life. The following days and nights occupied the Schindlers and a number of workers who tended tirelessly to the frozen and starved men. The factory guards had been bribed not to speak a word to the SS commandant, as a room in the factory was emptied and turned into an infirmary. Food, medicine and warmth helped all but 3 of the sick men regain their health. Throughout the length of their recovery, the secret was kept in order to save them from being shot as invalids. Once healthy, they joined the factory's workforce.

War's end

The arrival of the Russians on May 9 put an end to the constant nightmare. Once he was certain that his workers were out of danger, Schindler, along with his wife and several of his closest friends from among his workers discreetly disappeared, armed only with a letter from his workers attesting to his role in saving them. For years he had dealt with the Nazis and maneuvered the saving of countless lives. However, as the Russian troops approached, he understood that they might be more than happy to shoot the owner of a German slave-labor factory without question. Several months later the small group surfaced in Austria's U.S. Zone.

After the war

Oskar Schindler's grave.

By the end of the war, Schindler had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers. A Sudeten German had no future in Czechoslovakia. Virtually destitute, he moved briefly to Regensburg, Germany and later Munich, but discovered that he no longer loved Germany as he once did. Unable to prosper in postwar Germany, he was reduced to receiving assistance from Jewish organizations and care packages sent him from America by some of the Schindlerjuden. He lived as did many of the "Jewish Displaced Persons" in the country, on food rations.

During this time, Schindler provided to the American government detailed documentation on his old drinking companions, owners of other slave factories and on the Nazi authorities with whom he had wined and dined during the war years.

In 1948 the Schindlers emigrated to Argentina. In 1957 he returned to West Germany, leaving his wife in South America, never to see her again. He attempted several businesses, none succeeding.

In 1971 Oskar moved to live with friends in Hildesheim, Germany. He died in Hildesheim on October 9, 1974, at the age of 66. At the time, his wartime exploits had still not been widely described, although they were recognized in Israel where Oskar Schindler was declared a Righteous Gentile and where his remains, transported from Frankfurt, were buried in a cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

No one really knows what Schindler's motives were. However, he was quoted as saying "I knew the people who worked for me… When you know people, you have to behave toward them like human beings." [6]

The writer Herbert Steinhouse, who interviewed Schindler in 1948 at the behest of some of the surviving Schindlerjuden, said

Oskar Schindler's exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him. The inference may be disappointingly simple, especially for all amateur psychoanalysts who would prefer the deeper and more mysterious motive that may, it is true, still lie unprobed and unappreciated. But an hour with Oskar Schindler encourages belief in the simple answer.

Schindler commemorated

In 1963, Oskar Schindler was honored at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the Holocaust as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, only the third Christian so recognized. He was given an honor to plant a tree at the Avenue of the Righteous.

Schindler's story, retold by Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, was the basis for Tom Keneally's book Schindler's Ark (the novel was later renamed Schindler's List), which was adapted into the 1993 movie Schindler's List by Steven Spielberg. In the film, he is played by Liam Neeson. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Notes

  1. The Auschwitz Memorial Website. Why Did He Do It? Retrieved February 1, 2008.
  2. The Auschwitz Memorial Website. Schindler's Letter Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  3. Herbert Steinhouse. April 1994. The Real Oskar Schindler University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  4. Steinhouse, Herbert. April 1994. The Real Oskar Schindler University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  5. Steinhouse The Real Oskar Schindler. Retrieved January 31, 2008.
  6. David M. Crowe. 2004. Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind The List. (Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2004)

Resources

  • The Official Oscar Schindler Website. Emilie Schinder. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  • The Auschwitz Memorial Website. Schindler. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  • Steinhouse, Herbert. April 1994. The Real Oskar Schindler University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved January 30, 2008.
  • Crowe, David M. Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind The List. Philadelphia: Westview Press, 2004. ISBN 081333375X
  • Keneally, Thomas. Schindler's Ark. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982. ISBN 0340335017. Republished as Schindler's List in 1993. ISBN 0671880314
  • Willner, Charles Willner and Lucille Fisher. Holocaust testimony of Charles Willner: transcript of audiotaped interview. Melrose Park, PA, Gratz College Holocaust Oral History Archive, 1981. OCLC 35776407

External links

All Links Retrieved January 30, 2008.

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