Oskar Schindler was an industrialist and businessman who, despite having been a member of the Nazi Party, saved the lives of around 1,200 Jewish people from being deported to Auschwitz by employing them in his factories. His story was originally told in the 1982 novel, Schindler’s Ark, but is best known by the 1993 film, Schindler’s List.
Whilst initially motivated by profit, Schindler learned to see through Nazi ideology and recognised the misery the Jews were being subjected to. Using his position, Schindler’s initiative, courage and dedication to saving the lives of his Jewish employees made him a hero. The combined relatives of the Jewish survivors he saved has been cited at 7,000 descendants, but could be closer to 8,000 or 9,000 across America, Europe and Israel.
Here we explore more about Oskar Schindler’s life.
Oskar Schindler was born on 28 April 1908 in Svitavy (Zwittau) in Austria-Hungary. After graduating from technical school, he took further courses at several trade schools before working for his father’s agricultural equipment company.
Schindler married Emilie Pelzl in 1928, and following a series of jobs, joined the Czechoslovak army for 18 months. After this he had a period of unemployment before working for a bank for several years.
A spy for the Abwehr
Despite little previous interest in politics, the tensions of the 1930s and the impact of the Depression in Czechoslovakia meant Schindler increasingly identified as a Sudeten German. He joined the separatist Sudeten German Party, and in 1936 started working as a paid informant for the Abwehr – Nazi Germany’s military intelligence service. His tasks included giving low-level information on Czech troop movements, military installations and railways, and recruiting other Czech spies ahead of Nazi Germany’s planned invasion.
Schindler was arrested by the Czech government for espionage in July 1938 but released in October as a political prisoner under the terms of the Munich Agreement. A month later, he applied for membership of the Nazi Party and was accepted in 1939. That same year he was promoted to second in command of his Abwehr unit and moved to Kraków following Germany’s invasion and subsequent occupation of Poland.
Although there is debate about the extent of Schindler’s involvement, the Gestapo considered Schindler to be merely a ‘confidante’ of the Abwehr rather than an agent. Whatever his precise role, Schindler benefitted hugely from his Abwehr connections and found a wealth of opportunities in German-occupied Poland, continuing to work for the Abwehr until Autumn 1940 while enjoying a lavish lifestyle and pursuing extramarital affairs.
The Emalia factory
German policy in occupied Poland at the start of the war included the forced confiscation of Jewish-owned businesses, which were often placed under German control. This process suited Schindler who was looking for the chance to resume his former business career, and he started to acquire various different businesses.
New German regulations also meant businesses could employ Jews for a fraction of the cost of non-Jews. In November 1939, Schindler was introduced to Itzhak Stern, an accountant for a fellow Abwehr agent who had taken over Stern’s formerly Jewish-owned workplace. They discussed a Jewish-owned enamelware manufacturing company – Rekord Ltd – that Schindler was thinking of acquiring.
Stern advised that rather than running the company as a trusteeship, Schindler should buy or lease the business to give him more freedom from Nazi dictates – including the freedom to hire more Jews. At the time (and with the horrors of the Holocaust yet to fully begin), for Schindler, this cost effective benefit to his business as well as its money-making potential outweighed any concerns for the Jewish population.
Schindler formalised a lease agreement on the factory on 15 January 1940, renaming it Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik Oskar Schindler (German Enamelware Factory) – nicknamed ‘Emalia’. Using his connections, Schindler was able to obtain contracts to produce enamel items for the German army.
The Kraków ghetto
In August 1940, a decree required all Kraków Jews to leave the city within a fortnight. Only those with jobs directly related to the German war effort could stay. The fact his factory was seen as essential to the German war effort enabled Schindler to protect his Jewish workers more than other businesses, yet increasingly, Schindler had to give Nazi officials ever larger bribes and black market luxury items to keep his workers (‘Schindlerjuden’ – ‘Schindler Jews’) safe.
The Kraków ghetto was established in October 1941, when all 15,000 remaining Jews in Kraków were ordered to relocate to the run-down suburb of Podgórze (previously inhabited by 3,000 people) and sealed in. Any Jews found beyond the walls without official permission – and anyone caught assisting them – were sentenced to death
Conditions in the ghetto were cramped and unsanitary and most Jews were forced to work for German businesses, both within and beyond the ghetto walls, including Schindler’s enamel factory.
Liquidation of the Kraków ghetto
From May 1942, the Nazi’s began shifting their policy away from exploiting Jews to plans to exterminate them, implementing systematic deportations from the ghetto to surrounding concentration camps.
By February 1943, Schindler’s primary useful relationship was with the SS Untersturmführer Amon Göth, the commandant of a new labour camp at Płaszów, just south of the Kraków ghetto. Göth had a reputation as a sadist who shot inmates of the camp at random, yet Schindler forged a functioning relationship with Göth to protect his Jewish employees.
Göth had been tasked with overseeing the ‘liquidation’ of the Kraków ghetto. On 13-14 March 1943, the Nazis sent around 2,000 Jews who were able to work to Płaszów labour camp – those considered unfit for work (around 2-3,000 Jews) were murdered in the ghetto’s streets or deported to Auschwitz.
What changed Schindler’s mind?
Aware that ordinary people were being deported to their deaths, Schindler became willing to compromise himself to help his Jewish employees. Following the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto, Schindler convinced Nazi personnel that he needed Jewish labour for his factory, sometimes paying huge sums of his own money to the Nazis as bribes to allow this.
In 1943, the SS re-developed Płaszów into a new concentration camp. Initially Göth’s plan was that all the factories, including Schindler’s, should be moved inside the camp gates. However, Schindler used his status, bribery and charm to convince Göth to allow him to build a sub-camp at his enamel factory to house his workers, plus 450 Jews from other nearby factories.
Schindler’s attempt at helping his Jewish workers led to numerous investigations by the SS, resulting in three separate arrests. However, the German authorities were never able to provide sufficient grounds to charge him, and using his charm and bribery, Schindler walked free each time.
In 1944, the Nazis relocated the Jews who worked in the Emalia factory to the Płaszów camp. As the Red Army drew near, the SS ordered the camp to start to be wound up, and began evacuating prisoners westward to Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camps.
To care for his employees, Schindler relocated to Moravia in Czechoslovakia, and in October 1944 was granted permission to relocate his enamel-works to Brünnlitz camp, this time as an armaments factory for the war effort. Schindler drew up a list (the inspiration for the film Schindler’s List) containing the names of 1,200 Jewish workers employed at his factory that needed to be transferred to his new business, and was authorised to take them with him – saving them from transfers to the concentration camps.
The new factory produced few if any useful artillery shells, and when officials questioned its low output, Schindler bought finished goods on the black market and resold them as his own. Rations provided by the SS were insufficient, so Schindler spent much of his time in Kraków obtaining food for his workers. His wife Emilie remained in Brünnlitz, surreptitiously obtaining additional rations and caring for the workers’ health.
When the Red Army liberated the camp in spring 1945, Schindler left his factory and relocated to Germany with Emilie.
After the war
As a member of the Nazi Party and the Abwehr, Schindler risked being arrested as a war criminal, so several of his Jewish workers prepared a statement that he could present attesting to his role in saving Jewish lives. He was also given a ring, made using gold from dental-work taken out of the mouth of Schindlerjude Simon Jeret. The ring was inscribed ‘Whoever saves one life saves the world entire’.
By this point, Schindler had spent his entire fortune on bribes and black market purchases of supplies for his workers. Virtually destitute, he was reduced to receiving assistance from Jewish organisations.
In 1949 the Schindlers emigrated to Argentina. After their separation in 1957, Oskar returned to Germany, where a series of unsuccessful business ventures led to his bankruptcy in 1963. Not long after he suffered a heart attack.
Schindler ultimately died of liver failure on 9 October 1974 aged 66. He was buried according to his wish in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Although he died relatively unknown, his grave now has stones placed on it from visitors of the Jewish faith in a sign of respect.
Schindler had remained in contact with many of the Jews he had met during the war, attending celebrations and dividing his time between Germany and Israel. He was lauded as a hero and received many awards including an honour on the ‘Avenue of the Righteous’ and the German Order of Merit in 1966. Yet it was only in 1993 that his part in the war was more widely recognised, when the Schindlers were awarded a ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ title.
Oskar Schindler had looked an improbable candidate to become a wartime saviour, yet his remarkable life touched many other lives – not only the 1,200 Jews he saved from almost certain extermination but also their thousands of descendants.