Oskar Schindler - The Riddle of An Enigma


Oskar Schindler is the epitome of an enigma. Opportunistic and altruistic, ruthless and rakish, compassionate and brave beyond belief. His extraordinary story is explored in Steven Spielberg's much vaunted film, Schindler's List.


      Strange Beginnings:  

   Given the diasporic history of the Jewish race, along with the emblems of the menorah and the Star of David, perhaps they could assimilate the symbol of the suitcase as a totem for their long history of perpetual movement. And if they did, then the story of how Schindler's List came to be a film would have a fitting motif.

      Because Australian author, Thomas Kenneally, would never have even heard of this story had it not been for a determined leathergoods stockist by the name of Poldek Pfefferberg, who, in his Californian luggage store, for 30 years, under the Americanised name of Leopold Page, had regaled every writer, producer and dreammaker who'd ever ventured into his shop with the story of how he was a "Schindlerjude" - a Polish Jew rescued from certain death by the outrageous acts of Oskar Schindler.

      It was 1980 when Kenneally met Pfefferberg; it was 1982 when he wrote his "docu-novel" Schindler's Ark, and it took another 11 years for Steven Spielberg to release his über film, Schindler's List.

      So, what inspired a suitcase purveyor, an Australian novelist, and a Hollywood movie making icon to engage in bringing this project to life? Who is Oskar Schindler, and what does he represent to us today?

      Who Is Oskar Schindler?   


     Well, history can provide some of the facts. Schindler was, by all accounts, a bon vivant, a privileged member of a hyper class who, after the loss of his father's fortune, was for some while regarded as a failure.

      As a member of the privileged classes, he was mostly able to cover the tracks of his losses and excesses, and, as an all-round good time guy, maintained an element of charm that papered over most of the cracks of his misdemeanours. We know that he married Emilie at the tender age of 19, and that he rapidly engaged himself in extra-marital affairs. As a somewhat sad postscript to the Schindler saga, Emilie herself noted with no small amount of wryness, "The Jews he saved, me he abandoned." And therein lies the rub. Anyone who wants to canonise Schindler is going to have to deal fulsomely with his many failures, foibles and inconsistencies.

      Oskar Schindler was a difficult, vacillant, irascible man who was over self-aggrandising, loved the society of society, always took the easy road, and fast-tracked himself by ingratiation into the auspices of the powerful and the wealthy. His most original gift seems to be rebellion - and perhaps this is what laid the grounds for his outrageous acts of redemption.

      Certainly the traditional notions of "good" or "evil" are almost useless in trying to define Schindler and his motivations. He simply is not so easily categorised, and it is perhaps this very quality that provides such fascination.

      Background History:  

      Born on April 28th, 1908, in Zwittau, now known as Zvitava in Czechoslovakia, Schindler's family life was one of privilege and Catholic piety. Oskar and his sister Elfriede were raised with a sense of puritanical propriety by their parents, Hans and Louisa. At the failure of his business, in 1935, Hans abandoned Louisa, who died not long after.

      Ironically, while growing up, two of Oskar's closest childhood friends were sons of the local Rabbi, an ironic footnote that may go some way to explaining his extraordinary actions in later life.

      Faced with the grim realities of the depression years, an opportunistic Schindler joined the Nazi Party, at the time an astute business decision that many Sudeten Germans made. As Thomas Kenneally notes, "All things being equal, when you went in to see a German company manager wearing the (Henlein or Nazi) badge, you got the order."

      In 1938, Schindler joined the Abwehr - the German Military Intelligence Unit, and became a highly prized performer. With his debonair qualities and easy rapport with people, he garnered much information about Poland's abilities to defend herself against invasion.

      His capacity to flatter and pander to the whims and foibles of the power brokers and decision makers increased his fortunes significantly, and he was well entrenched in Gestapo circles by the time of Germany's invasion of Poland. His steady flow of bribes and black market treats afforded him with favour sufficient for him to leave Emilie in Zwittau and take over a Jewish family's apartment in Crakow. He used the same method of appropriation to acquire a formerly Jewish enamel pan factory, Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, or Emalia.

      The Stern Factor: 

His business now acquired, Schindler was on the lookout for growth capital, and he turned to Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern for assistance on that score. It was Stern who advised him that a Jewish labour force would be cheaper than a Polish one, so Schindler used his influence to permit him to obtain a Jewish work crew.

      At this time, there seems little evidence of any particularly altruistic motives for Schindler. Indeed, in the face of Hitler's promises to combat communism, he may have felt even some elements of sympathy for at least aspects of the Fuehrer's cause. Certainly it appears to be mostly a practical motivation to re-establish himself in business at the lowest possible price. Given his Gestapo contacts and glowing service record to the Abwehr, he was indeed rewarded with some very attractive contracts and orders.

      Stern's post-war recollections of meeting Schindler were that he immediately recognised Schindler as "a good German." They struck up a fairly immediate dialogue, although both came from vastly different backgrounds. Stern recalls Schindler lamenting that it must be hard to be a priest during times like these, when life did not have "the value of a packet of cigarettes," Stern responded by reciting the Talmud: "He who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the entire world." Schindler apparently replied, "Of course, of course." However brusque and mindless this statement was on Schindler's part, to his dying day, it was, in Stern's mind, the genesis of Oskar's new life as a saviour.

      Schindler's point of view is somewhat more prosaic. "I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings."

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           Certainly, he was a well liked, if somewhat lascivious boss. He was courteous, direct and appreciative, even if he was also prone to temper outbursts that could have stripped paper from the walls.

      For a brief period of time, all was relatively quiet. Schindler's connections kept orders in and trouble out. But those same connections informed him of the terrible winds of change blowing in Poland. For Stern, this came as an ominous whisper one day from Oskar, "Tomorrow, it's going to start. Jozefa and Izaaka Streets are going to know all about it."

      And true enough, the next day, the SS blitzed through the streets of the Jewish quarter in a terrifying "Aktion" - killing, beating and seizing citizens at random. While Schindler did nothing directly as a result of this Aktion, it may have been an event which set in motion some of his ensuing resolve.

      Stern and Schindler continued to work at the fortunes of the factory. Through Stern, Schindler acquired funds from the few remaining wealthy Jewish families to finance his project, in return for which Stern shrewdly negotiated a place for each of the financiers in the workforce.

      And apparently, his efforts were just in time. In March of 1941, 17,000 Jews were herded into Podgorze and walled into a ghetto. As a particularly sick piece of symbolism, the ghetto wall was shaped like Jewish grave stones. The gross overcrowding resulted in the threat of disease outbreaks and abject humiliation. Stern begged Schindler to hire more workers, to which he agreed, amazing the new recruits with his assurance that as workers in his factory, they would live through the war. There is no doubt that by this point, Schindler had taken a stand, which was to increase in personal risk incrementally over the ensuing years.

      A Turning Point:

      In his own words, his decisions were galvanised when he accidentally witnessed another horrific aktion, the one signified in Schindler's List by the little girl in red. In recollection he said, "Beyond this day, no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system."

      With the ghettos now being cleared by deportations to death camps, Schindler was determined that his own workers would not suffer the same destiny. This required him to have them classified as "essential workers" and therefore exempt from transportation. However, even this classification was losing its potency. March 13, 1943, saw other Crakovian Jews being sent to the labour camp of Plaszow where the notorious commandant in charge was Amon Goeth.

      A Polish pharmacist who lived in the Crakow ghetto, Tadeusz Pankiewicz wrote, in his book, The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy, "The nightmare began. Like apparitions in a horror novel, they [the Jews] moved with faltering steps, carrying all their possessions on their weary backs, as heavy as the tragic burden of the fate they were facing."

      By now, Schindler's essential workers were living in the relative safety of a sub-camp within the factory itself. No doubt kept by Oskar's famous methods of bribery and flattery, they enjoyed a reprieve as other ghetto dwellers met their fate beyond miserable train rides to Auschwitz- Birkenau and Treblinka.

      Desperate Measures:

      Schindler was becoming increasingly reckless in his defence of the Schindlerjuden. He insisted that Nazi guards were not permitted in his compound, and he abandoned the comfort of his apartment to sleep in his office to ensure no overnight raids by the Gestapo. Also, his efforts to protect his workers were becoming a greater expense than the profit he was necessarily deriving from his business. At a time when other camp dwellers were surviving on around 900 calories, Schindler's workers were receiving about 2000 calories. As food shortages continued, Oskar spent vast sums of his own money purchasing wholesome food on the black market.

      His protective measures were at times flagrant. Old workers who would normally have been sent off as non-essential were registered as 20 years younger than they were, children were likewise re-aged to become adult essentials.

      However, by September 1944, with the Soviet Army marching on to Crakow, the Nazis insisted on closing Schindler's sub-camp and moving his workers to Plaszow. This camp was a cruel and brutal place, its pathways paved with Jewish tombstones. But even here, Schindler's influence held good. He had established a rapport with the avaricious Goeth that meant that his former workers were afforded a notably better standard of life than other inmates. By October of 1944, Plaszow itself was to be "liquidated" - ultimately heading towards Hitler's "final solution." With no doubt of the implications of that for his Schindlerjuden, Oskar bribed Goeth to allow him to set up a munitions factory in Brunnlitz, Czechoslovakia, and established his famous list of essential workers who would help him help the Fuehrer make "secret weapons."  

   More than a thousand names were on Schindler's list. It is one of Oskar's great prides that not a single item that was manufactured there was ever able to be put to valuable military use!

      The Schindlerjuden lived and worked at Brunnlitz for around seven months when in May 1945, a sole Red Army horseman arrived at camp to liberate the inmates. As a Jew himself, he is reported to have said, "I don't know where you ought to go. Don't go east --that much I can tell you. But don't go west either. They don't like us anywhere." Schindler's response was to gather his workers up, and, in the recollections of Schindlerjude, Murray Pantirer, quietly say "My children, you are saved. Germany has lost the war."


      The Perils of Peace:

      But if the Schindlerjuden were at last safe, the power shift put Oskar's and Emilie's lives in great and immediate peril. Gathering to protect their protector, eight Schindlerjuden oversaw their flee, disguised in prison clothes and carrying a letter in Hebrew that described their heroic efforts. In poignant tribute of their gratitude and respect, his former charges had melted down their gold fillings to craft a ring with the now immortal inscription, "He who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the entire world." Now it was the turn of the rescuer to be rescued.

      The return of peace times were problematic to Schindler in a way that war never was. Conventions, rules and routines were the conditions that Oskar found difficult to tolerate. After unsuccessfully mounting an attempt to produce a film, he took money from a compensation payout on his factory and immigrated to Argentina with Emilie and a few of his workers to buy a farm. His agrarian pursuits bored him and he failed dismally within them, eventually resulting in his bankruptcy in 1957.

      In 1958, a dejected Schindler went to West Germany, where he sold his return ticket and abandoned both Emilie and his Argentinean mistress, who, in one of life's great ironies went on to become firm friends. For Schindler however, his existence in a pokey rented apartment in Frankfurt put him, in the words of one Schindlerjude who was keeping an eye on him, in a state of "discouragement, loneliness, disillusion."

      Lost Soul's Redemption:

      He never overcame his wastrel ways - or his enormous appetites. He was largely financially sponsored by his Schindlerjuden, although not without some frustration on their part. One of them, Mosche Beiski said, "If we sent him three thousand to four thousand dollars, he spent it in two or three weeks. Then he phoned to say he didn't have a penny."

      In Jerusalem, in 1961, Adolf Eichmann a prominent SS officer was put on trial. Some of the Schindlerjuden sponsored Oskar to visit Israel at this time and the local press began to enquire about the acts of Schindler. Not all of the press were entirely sympathetic. One journalist probed his relationship with high ranking members of the SS and the German establishment. With typical Schindler irascibility, he wryly replied: "At that stage in history, it was rather difficult to discuss the fate of Jews with the chief rabbi of Jerusalem." Vintage Schindler - always at his best in the midst of a stoush. For the majority of the Jewish population however, there was no question about Schindler's influence for good, and a push was made to bestow upon him the title of Righteous Gentile.

      This honour arrived on the 28th of April, 1962. With many of his surviving workers attendant, he planted a carob tree on the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem. The medal presented to him bore the same Talmudic inscription that had reverberated around his life for the past 20 or so years.

      Honours and tributes aside, Schindler lived the remainder of his days miserable and unfulfilled. Undergoing the barbs of still-bitter Germans who accused him of "Jew loving," he found himself the centre of brawls and disparagement, and even, on occasion, under the gaze of a magistrate. There is no question that his involvement in the protection of his employees was the defining work of his life, and he could not reconcile himself to the post-war world. The influence of Itzhak Stern upon him was utterly profound, and when Stern was buried in 1969, it was reported that Schindler stood at the graveside, crying like an orphaned baby.

      Perhaps his only joy in this era was the couple of months each year from 1961 to 1974 when he would be brought to Israel and lavished with love, attention and recollections by the Schindlerjuden. Accompanied by a mistress and plied with good cognac, his birthday each year was a massive reunion where he would hold court, bestowing on his former employees all the hospitality he had once poured on Nazi officers to keep his workers safe. Of particular delight for him was seeing the children of the Schindlerjuden. Each one must have been such a reminder of the precious gift he had given their parents. One regular birthday guest remembers, "He asked every one of us who had children to send photos with name, birth date, and how much they weighed. He never asked for anything for himself - but always asked about the children."

      Vale Oskar:

      The last birthday party for Oskar was in April 1974. On October 9, at age sixty-six, he died of liver failure in Frankfurt. On the day of his burial in the Catholic cemetery at Mount Zion in Jerusalem, 500 Schindlerjuden stood in vigil.

For Emilie, her memories of this enigmatic man conflicted her greatly. She writes in her book, A Memoir Where Light And Shadow Meet about the strange experience of finally seeing his resting place in 1995:

"At last we meet again. I have received no answer, my dear; I do not know why you abandoned me. But what not even your death or my old age can change is that we are still married, this is how we are before God. I have forgiven you everything, everything."

      In some ways, Oskar Schindler may be seen as having been born just for his extraordinary wartime deeds. Certainly, he himself was at his most functional and alive during those harrowing years. Of the 1200 Jews that he saved, there are now almost countless descendants. Who knows the ultimate gift he has given to the world? His mercy may have caused a Nobel laureate to be born, a scientist, a philosopher, a teacher, a healer.

      This enigmatic man, visibly flawed, difficult, ready for a stoush, and hopelessly unfaithful, enacted almost breathtaking acts of courage and defiance that changed the world of so many.

      In attempting to understand the character of the man a little better, what could be more appropriate than sharing some of the comments by the Schindlerjuden themselves.

Mosche Bejski: "Schindler was a drunkard. Schindler was a womanizer. His relations with his wife were bad. He often had not one but several girlfriends. Everything he did put him in jeopardy. If Schindler had been a normal man, he would not have done what he did."

Helen Beck: "I will never forget the sight of Oskar Schindler standing in the doorway (at Brunnlitz). I will never forget his voice - `Don't worry, you are now with me.' We gave up many times, but he always lifted our spirits . . . Schindler tried to help people however he could. That is what we remember."

Abraham Zuckerman: "The movie didn't show all the little things he did; he came around and greeted you. I had food, protection, and hope."

Ludmilla Page: "To know the man was to love him. For us, he was a God."