Oskar Schindler, the man credited with saving thousands of Jews from death and torture during World War II was a sentimentalist who loved the simplicity of doing good. A man full of flaws, he was the unlikeliest of all role models who started out by earning millions as a war profiteer and ended by spending his last penny and risking his life to save others.
The Man of Evolution
Oskar Schindler was born on April 28, 1908 at Zwittau/Moravia. His middle-class Catholic family belonged to the German-speaking community in the Sudetenland. The young Schindler attended German grammar school and later studied engineering. He was expected to take charge of the family farm-machinery plant.
Schindler’s schoolmates and childhood neighbours were Jews, but he did not develop any lasting friendship with any of them. Like most of the German-speaking youths of the Sudetenland, he subscribed to Konrad Henlein’s Sudeten German Party and, after the German annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938, became a formal member of the Nazi party.
Shortly after the outbreak of war in September 1939, Schindler showed up in occupied Cracow, the ancient city and home to some 60,000 Jews and seat of the German occupation administration. Like any German entrepreneur, Schindler hoped to capitalise on the misfortunes of the subjugated country. Naturally shrewd, Schindler appeared at first to make something of himself in Cracow.
In October 1939, he took over a run-down enamelware factory that had previously belonged to a Jew. As a result of some deftly-executed negotiations with the help of a Polish-Jewish accountant, Isaak Stern, Schindler began to build himself a fortune producing kitchenware for the German army. After only three months it had employed some 250 Polish workers, among them seven Jews. By the end of 1942, it had expanded into a mammoth enamel and ammunitions production plant, occupying some 45,000 square meters and employing almost 800 men and women. Of these, 370 were Jews from the Cracow ghetto, which the Germans had established after they entered the city.
A hedonist and gambler by nature, Schindler loved the good life and was seen entertaining high ranking SS-officers, and philandering with beautiful Polish women. But despite his playboy image, what set him apart from other war-profiteers, was his humane treatment of his workers, especially the Jews. Schindler never developed any ideologically motivated resistance against the Nazi regime. However, his growing revulsion at the senseless brutality of the Nazi persecution of the helpless Jewish population brought about a change in his attitude. Money and profits began to take second place in his desire to rescue as many of his Jews as he could from the clutches of the Nazi executioners. In the long run, in his efforts to bring his Jewish workers safely through the war, he was not only prepared to squander all his money but also to put his own life on the line.
Schindler used the privileged status his plant enjoyed as a “business essential to the war effort” as accorded him by the Military Armaments Inspectorate in occupied Poland to great effect. This not only qualified him to obtain lucrative military contracts, but also enabled him to draw on Jewish workers who were under the jurisdiction of the SS. When his Jewish employees were threatened with deportation to Auschwitz by the SS he could claim exemptions for them, arguing that their removal would seriously hamper his efforts to keep up production essential to the war effort. He falsified the records, listing children, housewives, and lawyers as expert mechanics and metalworkers, and, in general, covering up as much as he could for unqualified or temporarily incapacitated workers.
Even when the Gestapo arrested him several times and interrogated him on charges of irregularities and of favoring Jews, Schindler would not desist. In 1943, at the invitation of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, he undertook a highly risky journey to Budapest, where he met with two representatives of Hungarian Jewry. He reported to them about the desperate plight of the Jews in Poland and discussed possible ways of relief.
In March 1943, when the Cracow ghetto was being liquidated, and all the remaining Jews were being moved to the forced-labor camp of Plaszow, outside Cracow. Schindler asked SS-Haupsturmführer Amon Goeth, the brutal camp commandant and a personal drinking companion, to allow him to set up a special sub-camp for his own Jewish workers at the factory site in Zablocie. There he was better able to look after the Jews better, augmenting their below-subsistence diet with food bought on the black market with his own money. The factory compound was declared out of bounds for the SS guards who kept watch over the sub-camp.
In late 1944, when Plaszow and all its sub-camps had to be evacuated in face of the Russian advance, most of the camp inmates, totaling more than 20,000 men, women, and children, were sent to extermination camps. On receiving the order to evacuate, Schindler, who had approached the appropriate section in the Supreme Command of the Army (OKW), managed to obtain official authorization to continue production in a factory that he and his wife had set up in Brünnlitz, in their native Sudetenland. The entire work force from Zablocie-to which were furtively added many new names from the Plaszow camp-was supposed to move to the new factory site. However, instead of being brought to Brünnlitz, the 800 men-among them 700 Jews-and the 300 women on Schindler’s list were diverted to Gross-Rosen and to Auschwitz, respectively.
When he learned what had happened, Schindler at first managed to secure the release of the men from the Gross-Rosen camp. He then proceeded to send his personal German secretary to Auschwitz to negotiate the release of the women. The latter managed to obtain the release of the Jewish women by promising to pay the Gestapo 7 DM daily pro capita. This is the only recorded case in the history of the extermination camp that such a large group of people were allowed to leave alive while the gas chambers were still in operation.
In the final days of the war, just before the entry of the Russian army into Moravia, Schindler managed to smuggle himself back into Germany, into Allied-controlled territory. He was by now penniless. Jewish relief organizations and groups of survivors supported him over the years. When Schindler visited Israel in 1961, the first of seventeen visits, he was treated to a warm welcome from 220 enthusiastic survivors. Schindler continued to live partly in Israel and partly in Germany. After his death in Hildesheim, Germany, in October 1974, his benefactors brought his remains to Israel to be laid to eternal rest in the Protestant Cemetery of Jerusalem. His wife, Emilie Schindler passed away on October 5, 2001 and is buried in Germany.
Lessons In Career Leadership
All leaders must develop a sense of compassion. Oskar Schindler’s exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. He was an opportunist who saw the light and rebelled against the evil all around him. Schindler is a man of convincing honesty and outstanding charm. When he laughs, it is a boyish and hearty laugh, one that all his listeners enjoy to the full. “It’s the personality more than anything else that saved us,” one of his survivors once remarked.