Remembered as the subject of the 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark and 1993 film Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler is famous for saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust, despite being a member of the Nazi Party. Schindler knew the consequences of his actions if he were caught, yet he persevered by spending his entire fortune on bribes and black-market purchases to save the lives of so many people.
Oskar Schindler was born on 28th April 1908 in Moravia, Austria-Hungary (now the Czech Republic). His father, Johann “Hans” Schindler, owned a farm machinery business, which he expected his son to work for after completing his schooling. Schindler worked with his father for three years but quit after marrying Emilie Pelzl (1907-2001) in 1928, despite living with his parents for another seven years.
Over the next two years, Schindler worked several jobs, including a brief stint in the Czech army as a lance corporal in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the 31st Army. After 18 months, Schindler left the army to work at Moravian Electrotechnic, which promptly went bankrupt, leaving him jobless for a year. Schindler’s father’s businesses also folded, so he took a job with the Jaroslav Šimek Bank of Prague.
During the early 1930s, Schindler had an affair with Aurelie Schlegel, an old school friend. She bore two children, Emily (1933) and Oskar (1935), although Schindler claimed Oskar was not his. Around this time, Schindler also developed a drinking problem, resulting in several arrests for public drunkenness. His father was also an alcoholic and abandoned Schindler’s mother shortly before her death in 1935.
In 1935, Schindler joined the Sudeten German Party, a major pro-Nazi force in Czechoslovakia. Despite his nationality, the Nazi Party employed Schindler as a spy for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence service. Based in Breslau, Poland, Schindler collected information on railways and the military. He also recruited other spies in Czechoslovakia in preparation for an invasion of the country by Nazi Germany. Schindler was caught by the Czech government in 1938 and imprisoned, where he claimed he only took the job for the money to pay the debts accrued by his drinking problem.
After Schindler’s release as a political prisoner under the terms of the Munich Agreement, which aimed to prevent Germany from invading Czechoslovakia, Schindler became a member of the Nazi Party. He continued to work for the Abwehr and moved to Ostrava on the Czech-Polish border with his wife, who did not leave him despite his earlier affair. Schindler continued to conduct spy work, which helped Nazi Germany invade Czechoslovakia regardless of the Agreement. He was also instrumental in the invasion of Poland in 1939, which marked the beginning of the Second World War.
In October 1939, Schindler temporarily moved to Kraków on Abwehr business. Abwehr agent Josef “Sepp” Aue introduced him to Itzhak Stern (1901-69), his Jewish accountant. Sepp had taken over Stern’s Jewish firm when Jews were banned from owning places of business and homes and stripped of their rights. Schindler asked Stern to look over the accounts of a Jewish enamelware factory he intended to acquire. Stern advised him to buy it outright rather than through the Haupttreuhandstelle Ost (Main Trustee Office for the East), giving him more control about the running of the factory, for instance, the freedom to hire Jews.
Schindler followed Stern’s advice and purchased Rekord Ltd in November 1939, which he promptly renamed Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (German Enamelware Factory). Over time, the company became known by the shorter name, Emalia. Schindler hired 250 Polish staff, only seven of whom were Jews. Much later, the number of staff increased to 1,750 workers, including one thousand Jews. Initially, the increase of Jews coincided with Schindler’s desire to earn money. Jews were cheaper to hire because the Nazi regime controlled their wages.
Life for the Jewish population in Poland became increasingly dangerous in 1940. Schindler felt concerned not just for his business, but for his employees as well. To protect his Jewish workers, Schindler listed his factory as a business essential to the war effort. This allowed his employees to claim exemptions from Nazi projects. Schindler even hired women, children and the disabled as essential workers.
On 1st August 1940, all Jews in Kraków were ordered to leave the city. Fortunately, those with essential jobs were allowed to stay, including Schindler’s workers. Of the 80,000 Jews in Kraków, only 15,000 remained by 1941. Unfortunately, those that stayed were forced to live in Kraków Ghetto, an area surrounded by barbed wire and tombstone-like walls. Aware of the unsanitary conditions of the ghetto, Schindler gradually expanded his factory to include a clinic, shop, kitchen and dining room for his workers. Using his connection with the Abwehr, Schindler smuggled in many items on the black market to improve the lives of the Jewish people in his care.
In 1941, the Nazis began transporting Jews to the Bełżec extermination camp in Poland, where they were murdered. Fortunately, due to their work at Emalia, Schindler’s Jews were saved from such a fate. In 1943, Schindler heard the Nazi party planned to liquidate the ghetto in Kraków and move the Jews to the Płaszów concentration camp. Fearing for his workers, Schindler arranged for them to stay at the factory to protect them from harm.
On 13th March 1943, all of Schindler’s workers avoided the horrors of the camp liquidation. Witnessing the event, Schindler felt appalled by the Nazi party and decided to save the lives of as many Jewish people as he could. He watched in horror as Jews were marched the two miles to the new camp, while those deemed unfit to work were shot in the streets. Those who reached the camp lived in fear of SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth (1908-46), who shot inmates at random every day.
Schindler could not hide his workers in the factory forever, so bribed Göth to let him open a subcamp at Emalia. After much flattery and money, Göth agreed, and Schindler opened his factory as a home to all his workers and 450 Jews from neighbouring factories. Safe from the threat of execution, Schindler’s Jews could observe religious practices and eat the food Schindler purchased on the black market.
Towards the end of 1943, Schindler received word from the Jewish resistance movement by Zionist leaders in Budapest, Hungary. They asked him to spy and report on the Nazi Party members who mistreated the Jews and deliver money from the Jewish Agency for Israel to the Jewish underground.
By 1944, the Red Army of the Soviet Union was drawing near the borders of Poland. The Nazis began closing concentration camps and transporting their prisoners to Auschwitz, a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps. The Nazis also planned to close all factories not directly involved with war work. To ensure his factory would not close, Schindler began manufacturing anti-tank grenades and sent more bribes to Göth. Eventually, Göth allowed Schindler to keep his factory, although made him move it to Brünnlitz in the Sudetenland (now the Czech Republic).
A list of 1,200 names was drawn up of Schindler’s 1,000 Jewish workers and 200 labourers at the textile factory belonging to Austrian businessman Julius Madritsch (1906-84). Schindler gradually transported his workers and equipment to Brünnlitz. Around 700 men accidentally ended up in a different camp before Schindler could arrange for their train to be re-routed to the new factory. Similarly, 300 women arrived at Auschwitz, forcing Schindler to send bribes of black market goods, food and diamonds to secure their release.
The move, which took several weeks, plus the money spent on bribes, restricted the amount of food and health care resources for Schindler’s workers. Output at the factory was poor due to the insufficient rations, but Schindler avoided suspicion by obtaining goods on the black market and selling them as his own. Meanwhile, Schindler’s wife, Emilie, surreptitiously gathered food and medicine for the workers.
Determined to save more Jews, Schindler arranged the transfer of 3,000 Jewish women out of Auschwitz to small textiles plants in the Sudetenland. Whilst he had little control over how they were treated by those running the plants, it increased the women’s chances of avoiding the gas chambers and surviving the war.
In January 1945, Schindler received a trainload of 250 Jewish prisoners from another camp. The doors to the wagons were frozen shut and took hours to open with a soldering iron. Twelve people died during the wait, and the remaining 238 were too poorly to work. Had they arrived in Auschwitz, the Jews would have been shot or sent to the gas chambers. Instead, Emilie set up a makeshift hospital and tended to their needs for the remainder of the war.
Schindler and his workers lived in the hope that the Red Army would arrive to liberate the camps in Poland. Schindler continued to bribe SS officers to prevent his workers from being taken away from him due to their inability to work. Finally, on 7th May 1945, the radio in the factory played British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s (1874-1965) announcement that Germany had surrendered. The war in Europe was over.
Following the surrender of Germany, Schindler’s Jews (Schindlerjuden) were taken to safety. Their names and photographs are on display at the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, situated in Schindler’s original factory. Schindler, on the other hand, was far from safe. As a member of the Nazi Party and the Abwehr, he was at risk of arrest for war crimes. Itzhak Stern, who helped Schindler throughout the war, and several others wrote a letter detailing Schindler’s role in saving Jewish lives, which he could show to those trying to round up the war criminals.
Knowing the Soviets were unlikely to believe Schindler’s anti-Nazi actions, he and Emilie fled Poland until they reached American lines. In Passau, Germany, an American officer arranged transport to Switzerland. By this time, Schindler was destitute after spending all his money on bribes and the black market. Jewish organisations offered assistance, which Schindler reluctantly took. In 1948, he approached the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee with an estimated list of his expenditures at over $1,056,000 but only received $15,000 compensation.
Schindler and Emilie moved to Argentina in 1949 to try their luck raising chickens and coypu. Unfortunately, the business went bust in 1958, and Schindler returned to Germany alone to try to build a successful factory. While in Germany, Schindler received an invitation to visit Jerusalem. While there, a carob tree was planted in his honour on the Avenue of the Righteous. The Avenue honours non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Second World War.
In 1963, Schindler declared bankruptcy after a series of unsuccessful business ventures. The following year, he suffered a heart attack, which left him considerably weakened and less able to work. Fortunately, he remained in contact with several of his Schindlerjuden, who sent him donations as a thank you for saving their lives.
Oskar Schindler passed away from liver failure on 9th October 1974. His body was buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, making him the only former member of the Nazi Party to be honoured in this way. His gravestone features the Hebrew inscription “Righteous Among the Nations”, below which a German inscription reads “The Unforgettable Lifesaver of 1200 Persecuted Jews”.
Schindler and his wife were both awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations” by the State of Israel. A few other members of the Nazi Party also received the title for their actions to save Jews during the war. Karl Plagge (1887-1958) rescued Jews during the Holocaust in Lithuania, Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz (1904-73) helped resistance groups rescue 95% of Denmark’s Jewish population, Helmut Kleinicke (1907-79) saved Jews from Auschwitz, and Hans Walz (1883-1974) financed the emigration of Jews at the beginning of the war.
Schindler was one of the few members of the Nazi Party to turn against the regime and put his life on the line to save thousands of lives. His heroics are immortalised in the novel Schindler’s Ark written by Australian author Thomas Keneally (b.1935) in 1982. In 1993, Steven Spielberg (b. 1946) adapted the book into a film, Schindler’s List, starring Liam Neeson (b. 1952) as Schindler. The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning six for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Cinematography, and Best Art Direction.
A copy of the list Schindler compiled of his Jewish workers exists at the State Library of New South Wales, Australia. Notable people on the list include Itzhak Stern, portrayed by Ben Kingsley (b. 1943) in Schindler’s List; Poldek Pfefferberg (1913–2001) portrayed by Jonathan Sagall (b. 1959); Joseph Bau (1920-2002), an artist; and Ryszard Horowitz (b. 1939), a pioneer of special effects photography.