Oskar Schindler was born into a German family in the Czech Sudetenland on 28 April 1908. He joined the Nazi Party at the age of 30, following the absorption of the Sudetenland into the Third Reich. Nearly forty years after his death, he is remembered as a ‘good Nazi’ who saved an estimated 1,200 Polish Jews from almost certain death in concentration camps during World War Two. His posthumous fame is largely due to the 1993 blockbuster film Schindler’s List.
The Emalia Factory
An enterprising businessman, Oskar Schindler recognised the lucrative opportunities that war could present and took over an enamelware factory in Krakow in the autumn of 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. This was within the Generalgouvernement area of Poland, where hundreds of thousands of Jews were forcibly resettled by occupying Nazi forces. Officially named the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, his factory became more commonly known as Emalia.
Anti-Semitic feeling and action in Poland escalated swiftly following the Nazi invasion. Mass shootings were carried out throughout the country and those Jews who survived the exodus from their homes were crowded into sealed ghettoes. Although Schindler remained a member of the Nazi Party, he became increasingly opposed to the violent persecution of Jews and by late 1942, 370 Jews from the Krakow ghetto were among the workers employed in his factory.
Besides enamelware, Schindler’s factory also manufactured ammunitions. As ammunitions were vital to the German war effort, Schindler argued that the Jews employed in Emalia were indispensable if high production levels were to be maintained, thus preventing their deportation to labour and extermination camps. He protected his workers while the Krakow ghetto was liquidated in March 1943 by allowing them to remain in the factory overnight and subsequently established his own sub-camp, so they would not be subjected to harsh forced labour in nearby Plaszow.
By late 1944 at least 1,000 Jews were working for Schindler, in relatively humane conditions compared to the deprivation of other labour camps. As one of his workers later reflected, ‘…we were hungry, but not starving. We were cold, but not freezing. We had fear, but we were not beaten.’ With the advance of Soviet troops from the East, however, the evacuation of all Jews in the Krakow-Plaszow area was ordered. Over 20,000 people were sent to extermination centres, but Schindler obtained permission to relocate his workers to another factory in Brünnlitz, back in the Sudetenland. Several versions of the now famous list were drafted that named over 1,000 Jews who would continue working for him at this location. They were diverted en route, however, to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen.
Upon hearing of the diversions, Schindler intervened to secure the release of his workers and succeeded in bringing the majority of them back to Brünnlitz, where they survived for the rest of the war. This was largely achieved through bribery and significant personal expense, which was typical of the way Schindler had operated throughout his time in Poland. Those whom he saved are known collectively as the Schindlerjuden.
Oskar Schindler lived in South America for several years after the war, but returned to Germany after permanently separating from his wife Emilie. Throughout their marriage he had regularly entertained mistresses and he had a lifelong reputation as womanizer and heavy drinker. With several failed businesses behind him, Schindler was supported in his later years by donations from many of the Schindlerjuden. He died on 9 October 1974 and his body was interred in Jerusalem’s Catholic cemetery.
The story of how he saved over 1,000 Jews from the horrors of the concentration camps became popularized in the Oscar-winning film Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel. According to the end of the film, there were less than 4,000 Jews left alive in Poland in the early 1990s, but the descendants of the Schindlerjuden numbered over 6,000 at this time – a staggering testament to the enormity of Schindler’s actions.
Oskar and Emilie Schindler were both honoured by Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial to and museum of the Holocaust, as ‘Righteous Among the Nations’. The emotive final sequence of Schindler’s List depicts those who were saved by Schindler and their relatives placing stones on his grave. Emilie Schindler died in 2001.