The 1982 publication of Keneally’s Schindler’s List sparked a discussion in the media and in the public on the ambivalence of the story’s hero, Oskar Schindler. Who was that man? A rowdy, a playboy, a skirtchaser, an intelligence agent, a Nazi – but also a man who saved 1,200 human lives during the holocaust.
Oskar Schindler’s story began in Svitavy, a Sudeten township known for its multi-ethnicity. Though not entirely without problems, the coexistence of Germans, Czechs and Jews had worked in a positive mutuality until the Nazis came to power in the 1930s. Symptomatically, the Schindlers lived in the same street as a local Jewish rabbi and young Oskar grew up and used to play with his children. This may be a clue to Schindler’s motives that finally led to his wartime decision to save his factory workers from certain death they would have faced in occupied Poland’s concentration camps.
Oskar Schindler was born on 28 April 1908 in no. 24 of the then Jihlavska, today Policska street. His father, Hans Schindler, was a small entrepreneur and his wife’s name was Frantiska. Having finished the compulsory basic school (1915-1920), he enrolled in the town’s most prestigious school, the realschule, or technical secondary school. In 1924, he was expelled for counterfeiting school documents. It was then that he was nicknamed Schindler – gauner, or crooked Schindler, for the first time. He loved women, easy lifestyle and fast bikes. His intractable nature and conflicts with the law led to a break with his father and employer.
On one of his business trips, Schindler made acquaintance of Emilia Pelzl, a lovely girl from Stary Maletin near Svitavy. His personal charm enchanted her and she agreed to marry him despite parental disapproval on 8 March 1928. But the happy married life was not destined to last and went to the dogs despite Emilia’s playing an important role in Oskar’s critical decisions, like his engagement for the prisoners at Brnenec. However, let us proceed in order.
During the difficult 1930s, the time of a disastrous crisis, Schindler tried to start own business – in vain. He resumed his old ways that required high income. No wonder he let himself get hired by the Abwehr, Germany’s intelligence service, and continued to work for them until 1935. He was involved into espionage against Czechoslovakia and Poland making high-profile contacts and waking the attention of Czechoslovak intelligence that finally led to his arrest at the Ungar (today, Slavia) hotel in Svitavy’s main square on 18 July 1938. Following interrogations at Brno, Schindler was sentenced to jail without suspension, but came out on general pardon that followed the Munich Treaty. He and his wife Emilia moved to Moravian Ostrava.
On 17 October 1939, following the Nazi invasion of Poland, Schindler came to Krakow to take over a small Jewish factory in trusteeship. Using his personal relations and the capital left behind by the former Jewish owners, he began to employ Polish workers. Before long, military contracts came in and Schindler’s D.E.F (Deutsche Emailenwaren Fabrik) began to prosper.
Since 1940 the number of Jewish employees started to grow, soon reaching 150 and more. Schindler’s factory gained a reputation of a refuge among the Jewish staff because they were treated here like humans and even allowed to pray. Schindler’s friendship with former Jewish entrepreneurs played an important role because they introduced him to the black market practices. Corruption in business gained on importance. Schindler became a sought for party celebrity, owned several flats, and was increasingly wealthy. He enjoyed protection from influential friends and from the Abwehr, which gave him the power to resist pressure from the Gestapo that arrested him several times only to set him free after friendly intercessions, which were not quite selfless, of course.
The rumour of being better off at Schindler’s factory began to spread about. Schindler was approached by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee based in Budapest and met a courier from Budapest. He granted a nice sum of money to the resistance movement in Krakow, passed on correspondence and allowed the courier to take pictures in Krakow.
Early in June 1942, the SS raided the Jewish ghetto for the first time taking 7,000 to the extermination camp at Belzec and killing them there. Brutality of the action had deep impact on the behaviour of Oskar Schindler who now decided to try and support Jewish prisoners. He built a dormitory next to the factory area for his workers to save them from the dangers of the ghetto. But the end of the ghetto was drawing near as the new camp project was nearing completion at Krakow’s suburb of Plaszow.
In February 1943, Amon Goeth arrived at Krakow to complete the eradication the ghetto and relocate all the Jews to the new camp designed to accommodate 25,000. Being a pragmatic, Schindler made friends with Goeth and spent many hours partying with him. From Goeth he found out the exact doomsday date for the ghetto. The action was carefully planned by the Nazis and the ghetto ceased to exist in a brutal attack on 13 March 1943. However, Schindler kept his workers in the factory for three days in a row and brought them to the camp only when the raid was over. A new problem emerged.
Escorted by the SS every day, the Jewish workers were exposed to SS jack booting on the way, oftentimes being late to work. Schindler decided to build his own camp for his workers, the Schindlerjuden, that finally – at considerable bribing cost – emerged at Zablocie not far from his factory. Schindler kept employing Jews recommended to him by a circle of close friends. One important name of the circle was Issac Stern who invented a method of mollifying Goeth’s brutality by supplying him with quality alcohol.
Meanwhile, the eastern front was coming closer. Panic among the Nazis was growing until it was finally decided to speed up the eradicating process of the different camps, including Plaszow, and of their involuntary inhabitants. Schindler’s factory and the camp at Zablocie were shut down and the workers were moved to Plaszow. Schindler was confronted with the question what to do next. He could opt between leaving the prisoners alone and fleeing to a safe haven in some neutral country, and between the almost impasse plan to move factory and workers further inland. Against all expectations, he chose the latter.
In a hurry, he began to compile the rumoured Schindler’s List of some 700 male and 300 female names of workers to be readied for transit to another destination. He chose Brnenec (Brünnlitz), a small village near Svitavy. He built a camp belonging to the Groß-Rosen concentration camp area at the former Löw-Beer textile factory site. The List features forge professions and ages of the imprisoned to keep families together where possible despite several incidents that happened. The transfer resulted in separate transports of men (via Groß Rosen) and women (via Oswiecim) to Brnenec.
After arrival, men had to sleep on bare floor because the camp had not been completed. Working hours were 11 hours a day and strict order was in place. Interestingly, Schindler’s wife Emilia came to Brnenec to help take care of the prisoners. One question that remains open is what was manufactured at the camp of Brnenec. Probably parts of anti-aircraft cartridges, but some rumours said that Schindler bought the products on the black market to resell as his own. The Brnenec camp could hardly be considered a paradise. What is beyond doubt is that Schindler and a group of confident prisoners tried to make life more bearable to the Jews.
Another evidence of this is the transport of Jewish prisoners admitted to Schindler’s camp from Holesov in January 1945. They were some 100 half-frozen persons left on a train at the station of Svitavy. Despite Emilia’s effort and assistance from other prisoners, probably 16 people died and were buried in a mass grave at Nemecka Bela near Brnenec.
Early in May 1945, Schindler prepared to flee before the fast approaching Russian army. He enjoyed support from his prisoners several of whom joined him to witness all he did to save Jewish captives from certain death. They gave him a golden ring with “Thank you” engraved on it as he prepared to leave. On 9 May 1945, Schindler left Brnenec for the US occupation zone accompanied by a group of prisoners and his wife Emilia. Following American interrogations and presenting witness by the Jews, he and his wife were set free to go west.
The Brnenec camp was freed by the Red Army on 9 May 1945, and the former slaves returned to Poland. The camp was finally dissolved on 25 May 1945 by Russian repatriation committee.
After the war, Oskar Schindler tried to build himself a new existence first in Germany and later in Argentina. Both attempts flopped. Leaving Emilia behind in Argentina, he returned to Germany with the support of his Jews. He became addicted to alcohol spending all the money provided him by his Jews.
He was awarded a modest pension too small to buy him his daily doze of booze and cigarettes. He earned a number of international awards, e.g. the Pope Paul VI’s silver cross. His merits were acknowledged by Simon Wiesenthal, the Nazi hunter, as well as by the Jews who proclaimed him Righteous among the Nations and honoured him by letting him plant an olive tree in Jerusalem’s Alley of the Righteous. Young Israelis know his name from school.
Schindler died on 9 October 1974 and was buried in the graveyard on Jerusalem’s Mount of Zion. A marker of honour in the Jewish Memorial at Jerusalem says: “We thank God for making him ours”. The story of Schindler’s life inspired Australian author Thomas Keneally to write “Schindler’s Ark” (1982), a novel that served as script for Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” in 1994. A memorial tablet was unveiled opposite his birth house at Svitavy on the occasion of the movie’s preview, saying in Czech and German: “To the unforgettable saviour of 1,200 lives of persecuted Jews.”