- Why ?
did he do it ? Why did he spend something like 4 million German marks
keeping his Jews out of the death camps - an enormous sum of money for
those times ? Why did he risk his life to rescue his Jews in the shadow of
Samaritan actions, brotherly love ...? Oskar Schindler does not exactly
fit the description of guardian angel very well! We think we know what
goodness looks like. It looks like Gandhi, skinny in his loincloth, or
Mother Teresa, unostentatious in her nun's habit. Goodness does not drink,
womanize, wear big Nazi-badges ...
No one will ever know exactly what made this complex man do what no German
had the courage to do. A large part of the fascination of Schindler is
that not even those who admire him most can figure out his motives. But Oskar Schindler rose to the highest level of humanity, walked through the
bloody mud of the Holocaust without soiling his soul, his compassion, his
respect for human life - and gave his Jews a second chance at life.
He miraculously managed to do it and pulled it off by using the very same
talents that made him a war profiteer - his flair for presentation,
bribery, and grand gestures.
Oskar Schindler was a sentimentalist who loved the simplicity of doing
good. A man full of flaws like the rest of us. An ordinary man who
even in the worst of circumstances did extraordinary things, matched by no
one. The unlikeliest of all role models who started by earning millions as
a war profiteer and ended by spending his last pfennig and risking his
life to save his 1300 Schindlerjews.
Oskar Schindler not only saved their lives - he saved our faith in
In his acclaimed international bestseller Schindler's Ark, the author
Thomas Keneally tells us, that one of the most common sentiments of the
Schindlerjews is still:"I don't know why he did it ..." Keneally
drops a hint in his description of Oskar Schindler's childhood, a strong
Catholic household and deeply religious parents. The nearest neighbors
were a Jewish Rabbi family, and the two sons were Oskar's closest friends
Steven Spielberg, who turned the novel into a seven Academy Award-winning
film, Schindler's List, pointed out in an interview in Der Spiegel, that
Oskar Schindler simply was 'ein guter Mensch', whose sheer humanity forced
him to take extremely great personal risks to save the Schindlerjews.
A decade before Schindler's
List made it to the top of Hollywood's A-list Jon Blair, producer and
director, made Schindler, an 80-minute documentary for
Britain's Thames Television about Oskar Schindler's life. In 1983 it won
the British Academy Award for best documentary. But the film left few
clues as to why Schindler devoted his fortunes and future to saving the
lives of his Jews. Blair later told:"Oskar, this big man with a big
heart and big connections, loved to be loved and needed. But I always felt
it was a weakness in my film that I couldn't explain Schindler's
motivation, and Spielberg told me the same about his - it seems impossible
to crack that enigma .."
Irving Glovin, Schindler's attorney and friend, met Oskar in 1963 and
bought the rights to the story and film in 1980. He later recalled
Schindler not only with affection, but with great admiration:"He
drank, yes, he drank. He liked women. He bribed. But he bribed for a good
purpose. All of these things worked. If he were not this kind of person he
probably wouldn't have succeeded. Whatever it took to save a life he did.
He worked the system extraordinarily well. He was a true human being in
the best sense of the word .. His actions in those circumstances were
absolutely extraordinary and I know of no one who has matched them."
Schindler's wife, Emilie Schindler, recalls Oskar this way in A Memoir
Where Light And Shadow Meet:"In spite of his flaws, Oskar had a
big heart and was always ready to help whoever was in need. He was
affable, kind, extremely generous and charitable, but at the same time,
not mature at all .."
In a 1964 interview, standing in front of his dingy apartment Am
Hauptbahn No. 4 in Frankfurt Am Main, West Germany, Oskar Schindler for
once commented on what he did:
persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror
emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish
stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years
'41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With
people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to
help them. There was no choice."
Schindler survivor, Murray Pantirer, set up a construction firm after the
war and has by now dedicated 25 streets in New Jersey to Oskar Schindler's
memory. Through all the years the big question always remained: Why? What
prompted Schindler to act as he did, at tremendous risk to himself ?
Pantirer thinks he got the answer:
came to my house once, and I put a bottle of cognac in front of him, and
he finished it in one sitting. When his eyes were flickering - he wasn't
drunk - I said this is the time to ask him the question 'why' ? His answer
was 'I was a Nazi, and I believed that the Germans were doing wrong ...
when they started killing innocent people - and it didn't mean anything to
me that they were Jewish, to me they were just human beings, menschen - I
decided I am going to work against them and I am going to save as many as
I can'. And I think that Oskar told the truth, because that's the way he
asked, Schindler told that his metamorphosis during the war was sparked by
the shocking immensity of the Final Solution. In his own words: "I
hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of Nazism. I just
couldn't stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had
to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That's all there is to it.
Really, nothing more."
Oskar Schindler was isolated and rejected by his fellow citizens after
World War II. His clear indictment of German war criminals in the trials
after the war nourished the hatred that many felt for him. He was
persecuted, he was sworn at on the streets, and stones were thrown at him.
He was an irritating reminder to everyone that it had after all been
possible to do something against the Nazis. It was said that he was their
bad conscience - the conscience of all those who had known something but
Twenty years after the war, Moshe Bejski, a Schindlerjew and later a
Supreme Court justice in Israel, asked Schindler why he did it ? Schindler
replied, "I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people,
you have to behave towards them like human beings."
Poldek Pfefferberg, another Schindlerjew, recalled how Schindler in 1944
was a very wealthy man, a multimillionaire:"He could have taken the
money and gone to Switzerland ... he could have bought Beverly
Hills. But instead, he gambled his life and all of his money to save us
..." When Pfefferberg asked him the same question 'WHY' ?
Schindler answered, "There was no choice. If you saw a dog going to
be crushed under a car, wouldn't you help him?"
Even on the days when the air was black with the ashes from bodies on
fire, there was hope in Crakow because Oskar Schindler was there. Helen
Beck, a Schindler survivor, recalls:"We gave up many times, but
he always lifted our spirits ... Schindler tried to help people however he
could. That is what we remember."
Rena Ferber - today Rena Finder - was only 10 years old when the Nazis
invaded Poland. She was saved by Oskar Schindler and later
recalled:"He was a gambler, who loved living on the edge. He loved
outsmarting the SS. I would not be alive today if it wasn't for Oskar
Schindler. To us he was our God, our Father, our protector."
Roman Ferber's name also was on 'Schindler's List'. He was one of the
youngest 'Schindlerjews' and later told how Oskar Schindler underwent a
transformation when he witnessed the sadism of the Nazis and gave up
everything to save as many lives as he could. "I thank God for Oskar
Schindler. If not for him, I would not be here and not have any family."
As an 11-year-old boy, Zev Kedem was another Schindlerjew, whose life was
miraculously saved by Schindler. Only an operator like Oskar Schindler
could have pulled off this effort, Kedem says: "If he was a virtuous,
honest guy, no one in a corrupt, greedy system like the SS would accept
him .. In a weird world that celebrated death, he recognized the Jews as
humans. Schindler used the corrups ways, creativity and ingenuity against
the monster machine dedicated to death."
Schindler is credited with many acts of kindness, small and large. Abraham
Zuckerman spent five of his teenage years in Nazi kz camps. He later
recalled Oskar Schindler this way:"There were SS guards but he would
say 'Good morning' to you. He was a chain smoker and he´d throw the
cigarette on the floor after only two puffs, because he knew the workers
would pick it up after him. To me he was an angel. Because of him I was
treated like a human being. And because of him I survived .."
Abraham Zuckerman recalled how Oskar Schindler got 300 Schindler-women
released from the deathcamp Auschwitz - during World War 2 the only
shipment out of Auschwitz, where the Nazis murdered 2-3 million people.
"What people don't understand about Oskar is the power of the man,
his strength, his determination. Everything he did he did to save the Jews.
Can you imagine what power it took for him to pull out from Auschwitz 300
people ? At Auschwitz, there was only one way you got out, we used to say.
Through the chimney! Understand ? Nobody ever got out of Auschwitz. But
Schindler got out 300 ....! "
One day the 300
Schindler-women were routed on a train to Auschwitz by a mistake. Certain
death awaited. A Schindler survivor, Anna Duklauer Perl, later recalled:'I
knew something had gone terribly wrong .. they cut our hair real short and
sent us to the shower. Our only hope was Schindler would find us.'
The Schindler-women were being herded off toward the showers. They did not
know whether this was going to be water or gas. Then they heard a voice: 'What
are you doing with these people ? These are my people.' Schindler! He had
come to rescue them, bribing the Nazis to retrieve the women on his list
and bring them back. And the women were released.
When they returned to his factory, weak, hungry, frostbitten, less than
human, Schindler met them in the courtyard. They never forgot the sight of
Schindler standing in the doorway. And they never forgot his raspy voice
when he - surrounded by SS guards - gave them an unforgettable guarantee:
'Now you are finally with me, you are safe now. Don't be afraid of
anything. You don't have to worry anymore.'
Jonathan Dresner was one of the Schindlerjews, and his mother and sister
were among the 300 Schindler-women, Schindler got out of Auschwitz. "That
was something nobody else did," Dresner later recalled,
"Schindler was an adventurer. He was like an actor who always wanted
to be centre stage."
Another Schindler survivor, Ludwik Feigenbaum, gave this description of
Schindler:"I don't know what his motives were, even though I knew him
very well. I asked him and I never got a clear answer and the film doesn't
make it clear, either. But I don't give a damn. What's important is that
he saved our lives .."
Still some questioned Schindler's motives. Stanislaw Dobrowolski, member
of the Polish underground committee during World War 2, had a scathing
opinion of Oskar Schindler. He argued that Schindler only saved his Jews
because he was convinced that the Nazis would lose the war.
But Poldek Pfefferberg, a Schindler-Jew who spent 40 years trying to drum
up interest in the Schindler-Story, had no doubt about the nobility of Schindler's
motives. He insisted that Oskar Schindler began helping Jews long before
the tide of war turned against the Nazis. 'He risked his life,'
Pfefferberg said. 'He was doing it from the first day.'
A similar assessment came from Irving Glovin, Schindler's attorney. 'The
man rose to an occasion,' Glovin said. 'Why the story is remarkable is
that he did something when it appeared that the Germans were winning, and
he did it over a long period of time, about four years, and he did it in
the worst area, Poland, and he did it openly ... He did it for strangers.'
Oskar Schindler earned the everlasting gratitude of his Schindlerjews. No
matter why, no matter that he was an alcoholic and a
shameless womanisor of the worst sort, no matter that he was no saint and
left his wife - what matters to his Jews is that he surfaced from the
chaos of madness and risked everything for them. And generations will
remember him for what he did. No matter how many businesses Schindler
failed in, he was a success in life ..