My history hero: Simon Reeve chooses Oskar Schindler (1908–74)

Simon Reeve, author, presenter and documentary-maker, chooses chooses a man who saved hundreds of Jews in the Second World War

Oskar Schindler, who prevented hundreds of Jews from being murdered in the Holocaust

Oskar Schindler: in profile

Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist (born in what is now the Czech Republic), Nazi Party member and former Abwehr spy who saved as many as 1,200 Jews from almost certain death during the Holocaust. His story was immortalised in the novel Schindler’s Ark (1982) and the spin-off Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List (1993). On his death he was buried on Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the only former Nazi Party member to be honoured in this way.

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When did you first hear about Schindler?

It was when I was about 13. Schindler’s Ark [by Thomas Kenneally] was one of our set books at school and it made an enormous impact on me. Our English teacher put it down, saying: “This just might change your lives.” In a way it did because it was such an extraordinary story.

What kind of person was he?

He was a hugely complicated but extraordinary man – an incredible hero at the same time as being a drunkard and a philanderer. That duality of character only serves to make him a more interesting figure. Good people can do bad things just as bad people can do good things.

What made Schindler a hero?

Saving more than a thousand Jewish people from the gas chambers. He found them work in his factories in occupied Poland, and Bohemia and Moravia [present-day Czech Republic], ensuring their survival with the help of his contacts and by paying Nazi officials ever bigger bribes. This is someone who lived at a time of horror and navigated the darkest of waters to save hundreds people.

What was his finest hour?

The wartime years when he realised that he wasn’t doing enough to save Jews, decided to do more – and went on to save all those lives. He wasn’t doing so from the safety of a neutral country, he was doing so from the heart of darkness: German opponents of the Nazi regime were carted off too. Schindler showed just what a difference one person can make, and that is partly why I admire him so much. We might not be able to save the world, but one thing is better than bloody nothing.

This is someone who lived at a time of horror and navigated the darkest of waters to save hundreds people

Is there anything you don’t particularly admire about Schindler?

There’s nothing I don’t admire about him. Yes, we can criticise his philandering in his early life, but let us not forget that he risked his own neck to save others.

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

None whatsoever – I live at a time of such comparative comfort and have done nothing that could ever hold a light to his life’s achievements. But he has helped me to see things on my travels in a different light.

If you could meet Oskar Schindler what would you ask him?

I’d love to have known if there was ever a point when Schindler thought that he was on the verge of being rumbled – if he was waiting for the knock on the door. Or was his self-confidence and the lure of the booze powerful enough to make him think he would be okay?

Simon Reeve was talking to York Membery. Reeve has presented acclaimed travel documentaries for the BBC and is the author of Step by Step (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019). His show relating his travel adventures tours the UK in 2020.

LISTEN AGAIN: In Radio 4’s Great Lives, guests choose inspirational figures

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This article was first published in the Christmas 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine