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Oskar Schindler: your guide to his life and legacy

Historian Roger Moorhouse explores the life of Oskar Schindler, a businessman who rescued more than 1,000 Jews during the Second World War

Published: April 28, 2022 at 5:47 pm

Disclaimer: please note that this article is from a podcast transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity

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By any measure, Oskar Schindler was a remarkable and complex man. His saving of some 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust, places him in rarefied company, and has seen him rightly lauded as a hero, and to those whom he helped save as something like a God. Yet his action is all the more remarkable when one considers his background.

Unscrupulous and opportunistic, Schindler was a playboy and adulterer, and a member of the Nazi Party. In fact, his career bore all the hallmarks of a low-level Nazi functionary: he had served German military intelligence in the run-up to the outbreak of war in 1939, and thereafter he had enriched himself considerably at the expense of Jewish-owned industries in Kraków, in occupied Poland. And yet, rather than continue along that unedifying path, Schindler reconsidered, and then – at considerable risk and cost to himself – worked tirelessly to save Jews from extermination in the deathly machinery of the Holocaust. It is this duality that makes Schindler’s story so fascinating and perhaps relatable. He was no pure soul, no pious, saintly figure. He was thoroughly flawed – a rogue and a scoundrel – and yet he found the moral strength to do what he did.

Who was Oskar Schindler?

Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in Zwittau, a small town in northern Moravia, in Austria-Hungary. His was a regular, middle-class upbringing, nominally Catholic, with a devoted mother and a rather rogueish father. The young Oskar was bright, certainly, but no bookish scholar; indeed given that he forged a school report as a youth, it appears he might have inherited more than a little of his father’s rather rakish nature.

In 1918, when Schindler was still young, his world would have been rocked by the collapse of Austria-Hungary at the end of the First World War. The Schindler family found themselves citizens – and members of a German minority, known as Sudeten Germans – in the newly established Czechoslovak state. Schindler was not initially troubled by such events. He was a keen motorcycle racer – owning a Moto Guzzi, which was rare in pre-war Czechoslovakia – and in 1927 he met Emelie Pelzl, whom he married the following year.

Schindler's early life

As a young man, Schindler went through a number of jobs, and spent time in the Czechoslovak army. However throughout the 1930s, Schindler had constant money troubles and struggled to hold down a job for any length of time. He liked a drink and was arrested twice in this period for drunken misdemeanours. He also had a number of affairs and fathered two children by one of his mistresses in the early 1930s. He confessed to his wife that he was “by nature, a sybarite”: a lover of pleasure.

Schindler had shown little interest in politics up until this point, but the heightened tensions of the 1930s – with the Depression hitting Czechoslovakia hard and with a dynamic and aggressive Germany just across the border – began to change that. He started to identify more strongly as a Sudeten German, and joined the separatist Sudeten German Party in 1935. The following year, he started working as an informant – a paid informant, significantly – of German military intelligence, the Abwehr, giving low-level information on Czech troop movements and so on. This would develop into one of the most significant influences and relationships of his life.

It has been suggested that Schindler became a primary agent of German intelligence services

In the years that followed, it has been suggested that Schindler became a primary agent of German intelligence services. Some believe he was closely involved in the German clandestine operations that began the war in September 1939 – the Gleiwitz Incident and the attack on the Jablunka Pass (the suggestion is sometimes made, for instance, that Schindler procured the Polish army uniforms that the Germans used for their border provocations against the Poles that summer). This is possible, but his involvement is nonetheless disputed, and may simply be an exaggeration of comparatively low-level espionage activity. It is notable, for instance, that the Gestapo considered Schindler to be merely a “confidante” of the Abwehr at this time, rather than an agent.

Whatever Schindler’s precise role in September 1939, he would find a wealth of opportunities in German-occupied Poland in the months that followed, and he would benefit hugely from that connection to the Abwehr. German policy in occupied Poland in those early months of the war centred on two main objectives: firstly, eliminating any sources of possible resistance, and secondly, marginalising and disenfranchising Polish Jews. In that second process, an important component was the forced confiscation of Jewish-owned businesses – many of which were then placed under German control to continue trading. Finding himself in the southern city of Kraków in October 1939, Schindler was soon looking for opportunities by which he could resurrect his former business career – and that confiscation process suited him perfectly.

By the middle of 1940, Oskar Schindler had exploited his Abwehr contacts and good reputation sufficiently well that he was the owner of three businesses in Kraków – a glassware factory and two enamel factories; one of which was the bankrupt “Rekord” factory on Lipowa street, which Schindler would resurrect and rename as the Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik – the German Enamelwares Factory. He would benefit from a slew of orders from the German military; for mess tins, cartridge cases and, later, fuses.

Initially, the majority of Schindler’s employees across his three factories were non-Jewish Poles. However, given that – according to the new German regulations – Jews could be employed for a fraction of the cost of non-Jews, the proportion of Jewish employees increased rapidly. At this point, of course, Schindler was employing Jews not out of altruism, but because doing so was cost effective. Although at this stage there had been numerous abuses and atrocities, the Holocaust was yet to begin, so for Schindler the business benefits easily outweighed any growing humanitarian concerns. This, however, would change.

Why did Schindler change his mind?

One waypoint in that shift in Schindler’s thinking was the brutal deportation from the Kraków ghetto, which was carried out in May and June of 1942. The ghetto had been established in 1941, when all remaining Jews in Kraków were ordered to the run-down, industrial suburb of Podgórze, south of the river Vistula. That October, the ghetto was sealed, and the order was given that any Jews found beyond the walls without official permission, and any Poles caught assisting them, would be sentenced to death. The 20,000 or so Jews that lived in the ghetto were housed in cramped, unsanitary conditions, and forced to work for German businesses within and beyond the ghetto walls. One of the latter, of course, being Schindler’s enamel factory in the nearby suburb of Zabłocie.

The shift from an exploitative policy towards the Jews to an exterminatory one took place over the winter of 1941–42, and was expressed by the Nazis – privately at least – at the Wannsee conference, in Berlin, in January 1942, where the possible mechanics of the Holocaust were put on record for the first time. Though the policy was still to evolve fully, the result would be the systematic, wholesale extermination of Europe’s Jews in purpose-built killing centres, such as Treblinka, Bełźec and Auschwitz-Birkenau. This process accelerated in the spring and summer of 1942, and was necessarily preceded by the clearing, or partial clearing, of many of the ghettos of occupied Poland.

The Kraków ghetto was subjected to a large-scale deportation in June 1942, when some 11,000 Jews – those that the Germans tended to call “useless mouths”, as they were the elderly, the unwell and those otherwise unable to work – were deported to their deaths at Bełzec. It was around this time that Schindler’s attitude towards the Jews who worked for him began to shift. In truth, he had never shared the virulent anti-Semitism of many of his fellows; it is said that he had had Jewish friends as a youth, and – of course – living in the Sudetenland in the 1930s, he had avoided much of the blood-thirsty anti-Semitic propaganda that was then common across the border.

As he would later say in an interview, he helped his Jewish workers because 'what the Germans were doing to them was wrong'

There were other reasons for the shift, however. For one thing, Schindler had already fallen foul of the Gestapo by the summer of 1942, having been arrested and accused of “fraternising” with Jews after kissing some female members of his workforce during a birthday celebration. To some extent, it may be that he saw protecting “his” Jews as an act of resistance against the petty, racist interventions of the Gestapo. But, more than anything else, perhaps, the shift was motivated by simple humanitarian concerns: his knowledge that ordinary people were being deported to their deaths. As he would later say in an interview, he helped his Jewish workers because “what the Germans were doing to them was wrong.” Whatever the precise reasoning, already in 1942, he was willing to compromise himself to help his Jewish employees: during the June 1942 deportation, for instance, he personally intervened to retrieve 14 of his workers who had already been loaded onto a deportation train. He assuaged the objections of his German superiors using charm and bribery. And this was how Schindler would proceed; he would be arrested by the Gestapo twice more, and would spend vast sums of his own money in bribes – including BMW cars and over $200,000 – to secure his release and to be able to keep, and feed, his workforce.

By early 1943, Schindler’s primary relationship was no longer with the Kraków Gestapo, and was instead with the SS Untersturmführer Amon Göth. Göth – so memorably played in the 1993 film Schindler’s List by Ralph Fiennes – was an Austrian, of solid, middle-class background, who had been enthused by Nazism and had joined the Nazi party in 1931 and the SS by 1932. By 1942, Göth had fallen into the circle of Odilo Globocnik – SS commander in Lublin – and so had become acquainted with the workings of the death camps of Bełźec, Sobibór and Treblinka. Unfazed, he progressed through the ranks, and was appointed commandant of the newly-established labour camp at Płaszów – just to the south of the Kraków ghetto – in February 1943.

One of Göth’s first tasks was to oversee the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto, in March 1943, an action that was carried out with almost indescribable brutality. In the process, around 2,000 Jews – those able to work – were taken to Płaszów camp, and a further 3,000 were deported to Auschwitz for extermination. Around 2,000 were simply killed out of hand by the Germans in the streets of the ghetto. Unlike in the film, Schindler almost certainly did not witness the murderous violence first hand, although he definitely knew about it and indeed told his workers to remain in his factory for the duration, in an attempt to keep them safe.

Göth was no less brutal in his role as commandant of Płaszów, and had a reputation for random killings of workers. Most memorably perhaps, it was said that his choice of headwear indicated his mood. If he was wearing his field cap, the workers were relatively safe; if he put on his officer’s cap, they were rather more wary. If he donned his Tyrolean hat, however, the Płaszów workers knew to keep out of his way. It has been estimated that some 10,000 people were murdered during Göth’s reign at Płaszów. As one survivor of the camp recalled: “When you saw Göth, you saw death.”

Despite such horrors, Schindler needed to forge some sort of functioning relationship with Göth if he was to be able to protect his Jewish employees from harm. In doing so, he utilised every tool available to him; his charm and guile, and, of course, his willingness to drink and dine with the commandant – to indulge that sybaritic lifestyle that he so loved (except this time, it was for a higher purpose). In this way, he was able to persuade Göth that the war effort was best served by establishing a small subcamp of Płaszów next to his factory, so that his labourers did not have to travel so far to work. He would also be able to treat and feed his workers well, and protect them from the murderous caprice of Göth and his henchmen.

Did Schindler really write a list?

In 1944, Schindler compiled his first “list” – a list of those workers that he intended to save from deportation and death at the hands of the Germans. For the following two years of the war, he would lie, bribe and cajole – anything that was necessary to preserve them from harm. Not only charming Göth, but also travelling to Berlin to berate and persuade some higher-ups there. He even travelled on a clandestine mission to Budapest, to meet representatives of a Jewish aid agency, to inform them about the conditions being endured by those Jews remaining in Poland.

After 18 months of this perilous balancing act, relief of sorts came in the autumn of 1944, when two events signalled the end of a fragile status quo. Firstly, the impending approach of the Red Army meant that Płaszów camp was ordered to be wound up. That August, while an ever-smaller contingent of prisoners dismantled the camp buildings and disposed of the bodies of the dead, a succession of rail transports departed from the camp, bound for the gas chambers of Auschwitz. A month later, in September, Göth himself was removed from his position in charge of Płaszów, being arrested by the SS on charges of corruption and the violation of concentration camp regulations.

It would have been easy, perhaps, for Schindler to abandon his workforce at this point; to wind up his factory, as ordered, and leave his workers to their fate, among the thousands of others that would be caught up in the maelstrom of the closing months of the war. But, if that was ever a temptation, he resisted it, and instead petitioned the German authorities to be permitted to move his factory, and its workforce, to the comparative safety of Brünnlitz in Moravia, not far from his hometown, again citing concerns for the war effort as his logic. Permission granted, he was authorised by the SS to take some 1,100 workers with him, and the evacuation began in the middle of October 1944.

Even then, Schindler’s worries were not yet at an end. Given the SS regulation that all inmates moving between camps were to spend a time in quarantine, his female inmates found themselves in Auschwitz, while the men were sent to the camp at Gross Rosen in nearby Silesia. In the chaos of those final months of the war, it would have been easy for them all to have been incorporated, unnoticed, into the prisoner ranks of both camps, were it not for Schindler again engaging with the SS authorities on their behalf, offering bribes and diamonds, and an enhanced day rate for his future use of the prisoners, on condition that they were released only to him. The camp at Brunnlitz produced little of value, but it served to preserve the lives of its workers until their liberation at the hands of the Red Army in the spring of 1945, by which time Schindler was fleeing westwards with his wife, arriving in Germany in the autumn.

What happened to Oskar Schindler after the war?

Schindler’s post-war career essentially mirrored that of his pre-war ventures; business failures and penury seemed to be his constant companions. In 1948 he attempted to claim restitution from Jewish charities for the expenses incurred in helping his Jewish workers survive; he received a meagre $15,000. The following year, he emigrated to Argentina where he tried his hand at chicken farming. But, a decade later, bankruptcy forced him back to Germany again, where not long after, he suffered a heart attack.

Oskar Schindler with children in Tel-Aviv
Oskar Schindler, who saved many Jewish lives during the Nazi Holocaust in Germany, talks to Israeli children in Tel-Aviv, c1963. (Photo by Getty Images)

How did Schindler die?

Throughout his post-war tribulations, he was supported by those he had saved – remaining in contact with them, attending celebrations, being supported by their financial donations, and dividing his time between Germany and Israel, where he was lauded as a hero. He died in October 1974, in Hildesheim, Germany, and was buried – according to his wish – in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, the only former Nazi Party member to be honoured in this way. He was also named Righteous among the Nations in 1993.

What is Schindler’s legacy?

It seems rather commonplace to say that Oskar Schindler led a remarkable life. Few of us will ever experience anything like what he did, or touch so many lives. His legacy, of course, is the 1,100 or so Jews that he saved from almost certain extermination through his guile, passion and determination. His precise motives were never satisfactorily examined, but we can surmise that he did so primarily out of a profound humanitarian instinct, alloyed with a dislike of the SS and Gestapo, and a fierce independent streak.

His is a story of a man who was clearly deeply flawed, but had not totally lost his moral compass

What is most remarkable is the stark duality of Schindler’s life. He was no saint. He was a womaniser, a dilletante and a bankrupt – a sybarite, by his own admission. His early life and career appeared to mirror almost precisely those of so many countless minor Nazi functionaries in the run-up to the war; the profiteering, the exploitation, the easy amoral rise through the ranks. Moreover, in the years after the war, he reverted to type – to a rather chaotic, hand-to-mouth existence, dogged by business failures, infidelities and bankruptcy. At heart, then, his is a story of a man who was clearly deeply flawed, but had not totally lost his moral compass. He may have been a rake and a scoundrel – and in many ways a failure – but he was wise enough to know that the German extermination of the Jews was fundamentally wrong, and – more than that – it had to be resisted.

The final word on this most remarkable story goes to Schindler’s former wife, Emilie, who summed up his life with lapidary simplicity: “he did nothing remarkable before the war, and nothing remarkable after it. He was fortunate therefore that in the short fierce era between 1939 and 1945 he met people who summoned forth his deeper talents.”

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Roger Moorhouse is a historian and author specialising in modern German and Central European history

Authors

Roger Moorhouse. (By hyattstudios.co.uk)
Roger MoorhouseHistorian and author

Roger Moorhouse is a historian specialising in modern German and Central European history, especially Nazi Germany and Poland during WW2.

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