Home‎ > ‎Specific Individuals‎ > ‎

Oskar Schindler and His Heroic Acts of WWII (Fall 2012)

            The story of Oskar Schindler is very complex and can be seen from multiple angles.  He started out as an unsuccessful businessman simply looking for his next business opportunity, hoping to recover from multiple failed ventures.  As time went on, and as relationships were built, Schindler’s agenda was changed entirely.  The desire for profit and power quickly was trumped by his realization of basic human rights and equality.  This histropedia entry will highlight Oskar Schindler’s entire journey from his birth in Austria-Hungary to his death in Germany and his final resting spot in Jerusalem.  He was a man that sacrificed whatever was necessary, including his own personal safety, for more than 1000 Jewish holocaust survivors, all of which owe him the utmost gratitude. 

Early Life – Pre WWII
            Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in Zwittau, Austria-Hungary, which is now known as the Czech Republic.  He had a relatively normal childhood; his mother was a homemaker and his father was a factory owner.  The thing most interesting about his childhood was that he actually was great friends with two sons of a rabbi that lived near his home as a child.  Perhaps it could be said that his exposure to Jewish people and seeing them for people rather than monsters at a young age is one of the factors that drive him to help them in the future.  Although Schindler was a Catholic, it has been noted that he was never truly a devout Christian.  Religion was something that was never of great importance to him.  This indifference to religion surely played a role in his courageous acts on behalf of the Jewish people later in life.  

            As a young man, Schindler often worked for his father in the factories he owned.  This experience in the factories taught him a lot about how to manage them and to lead a group of employees, as he observed his father.  However, when Oskar Schindler married Emilie Pelzl in 1928, this was created a rift in his and his father’s relationship and he eventually stopped working for him and ended up becoming a sales manager for an electric company.  Schindler’s entire life was filled with failed business ventures and it seemed that he could never really catch a break.  Part of this was due to the fact that the worldwide Great Depression was also unfortunately occurring at the same time.  Schindler moved around from job to job and investment to investment but never could get anything substantial going.  This is why, when Hitler and his Nazi regime were starting to form, he, like many other poor men from the area, decided to join.  

            In all reality, Schindler was a perfect choice for an SS officer.  He was charismatic and friendly and, because of this, quickly became somewhat powerful in the Nazi community.  One of the biggest factors contributing to his eventual success in saving over a thousand Jews from certain death in the concentration camps later on came when he was recruited by the “Abwehr.”  The Abwehr was a German intelligence organization that “dealt exclusively with human intelligence” (Abwehr Wiki).  Because of his likability and great interaction with people, he was seen as a prime candidate for this position.  He did not disappoint Germany in these efforts and he was able to obtain a lot of Polish information to benefit Germany.  His success in this endeavor did not go unnoticed and would perpetuate him to a relatively high ranking officer when his duties were needed in the concentration camps during the Holocaust and WWII.

Schindler’s Factory - During WWII
            After Hitler invaded Poland, the event that sparked the Holocaust and the Second World War, Schindler, never one to stray from a potential way to profit, took ownership of a bankrupt enamelware factory in Krakow, Poland.  In this endeavor, he partnered up with Itzhak Stern, a German-Jewish accountant.  Schindler decided to use Jewish employees who lived in Polish ghettos at the time since this was before the mass extermination of the Jews was set to take place.  The main reason for using Jewish workers was that they were a great source of “cheap, reliable labor” (Oskar Schindler Biography).  Clearly, this is a beneficial asset for any businessman, however he would soon find out that this choice to make a little more money would prove to be his most defining and set him up to create the legacy we know today.

            During the war, while Hitler’s “final solution” plan was being put into action, Oskar Schindler’s factory was stationed near Plaszow labor camp, one of the most deadly concentration camps there was.  What made it so hard to survive there was the commander of the entire camp, Amon Goeth who was one of the most brutal Nazis in the entire regime.  In the movie, Schindler’s List (1993) that is entirely based on Oskar Schindler and his story of how he saved so many Jews, one of the most impactful scenes in modern film portrays Amon Goeth and his sheer disregard for human life.  In this scene, and as history proves, Goeth aims a sniper rifle out his bedroom window and shoots at Jewish workers as if they are clay pigeons and he is simply practicing his aim.  Once Schindler was exposed to this atrocity firsthand, it was most likely around this time that he realized something needed to be done.

            In 1942, many of Schindler’s workers were supposed to be sent to the death camps to be exterminated.  Because he had formed relationships with these workers and was able to see them not simply as Jews, but as mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters, he knew it was up to him to save them.  As stated earlier, Schindler’s charisma and camaraderie with the other SS officers is probably one of the factors that ended up saving so many Jews.  He constantly bargained with officers to make sure that his workers would be safe.

            The most defining moment of his legacy came when the Nazi regime called for the entire liquidation of the Plaszow camp.  When Schindler was informed that all of the camp and his factory workers would be sent to Auschwitz and other death camps of the sort, he made his most prominent bargain with Amon Goeth.  He requested that he and all of his workers be relocated to a different factory in Brunnlitz, Czechoslovakia to manufacture bullets and other army equipment for the Nazis.  Goeth complied and asked Schindler to make up a list of the workers he wanted to take with him.  This list of over a thousand Jewish workers is where the phrase “Schindler’s List” originates.  Schindler poured every single penny that he had into the efforts of saving as many Jews as he could.  Finally, when the war came to an end, Schindler simply let all of his workers know that they were safe and left quietly.  In 1945, a letter written by Itzhak Stern states Schindler’s legacy in the simplest of terms: “we owe our lives solely to the efforts of Director Schindler and his humane treatment of his workers” (Stern).  In a time where humane treatment was a forgotten concept, Oskar Schindler truly rose to the occasion and became a hero for Jewish people everywhere.

            After the war, Shindler and his wife Emilie fled West in order to make sure he would not be captured by the liberating forces considering he still was a member of the Nazi party.  Interestingly enough, Schindler’s life after the war was nearly identical to the life he had experienced before the war.  Again, he had a lot of failed business ventures including, according to a 1994 New York Times article, a “nutria farm in Argentina,” and a “cement factory in Frankfurt.”  Although the world would not know about his profound impact on the Jewish people until later in time, a bankrupt Schindler, who sacrificed being a rich man to save as many Jews as possible, was sustained by numerous Jewish organizations until the day he died.  Although Schindler died at the relatively young age of 66 (his wife went on to be 93), per his request, he was buried in Jerusalem at a catholic cemetery on Mount Zion.  Around 500 of his Jewish workers who he saved were present at his funeral in order to commemorate the man that sacrificed so much to give them the chance to survive.  Although his story was not very well known until Steven Speilberg’s “best picture” winning film, Schindler’s List, was released, it is clear that Oskar Schindler’s legacy will live on and he remains one of the most important men in Jewish history.

Connection to Historical Forces
            The two historical forces that are directly related to the story of Oskar Schindler are Economics and Personal Identities.  I believe that the two of these, in this case, go hand in hand because money was ultimately the largest force that allowed Schindler to be put in the position that he was.  All throughout his life, Schindler was always trying (and usually failing) to make a profit and his factory in Krakow was no different.  He lived in a time where economic conditions were less than favorable, largely due to the end of WWI and the period between the two wars.  The most notable part of this aspect of the story is the intense change that happened somewhere inside of Oskar Schindler once he saw the types of atrocities the Jewish people were being subjected to.  His endeavors started as simply a means for profit and to gain economic stability but were quickly converted into a blatant disinterest in making money as long as he could provide security and basic human rights for such an innocent group of people.  Simply put, Schindler was bestowed a great deal of trust and power by the Nazi regime and, with that power, he was given choices.  Unfortunately, not many were as courageous as him but he did everything he could with the resources he was given.  The most unique part about Schindler’s journey through the Holocaust was how he was able to save so many Jews while still being an upstanding citizen of the Nazi regime.  Everything he did had to be in line with the Nazi protocol and his agenda was always kept a secret.  Overall, the desire for money and all of Schindler’s failed business ventures are insignificant to the success and determination he showed in the face of adversity during WWII and the Holocaust.

  1. "Abwehr." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Oct. 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abwehr>.
  2. Bulow, Louis. "Oscar Schindler - His List of Life." The Oscar Schindler Story. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Nov. 2012. <http://www.oskarschindler.com/index.htm>.
  3. Jones, Ray. "The Economic Puzzle of Oskar Schindler: Amenity Potential and Rational Choice." The American Journal of Econois and Sociology 57.1 (1998): 3-26. JSTOR. Web. 5 Dec. 2012. <http://http://www.jstor.org/stable/3487418>.
  4. "Oskar Schindler Biography." Oskar Schindler Biography. Notable Biographies, n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2012. <http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ro-Sc/Schindler-Oskar.html>.
  5. "Oskar Schindler." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Dec. 2012. Web. 28 Nov. 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Schindler>.
  6. Rice, James P. "What Schindler Did After WWII." New York Times 2 Mar. 1994: n. pag. Web. 4 Dec. 2012.
  7. Stern, Isaak. Letter. 8 May 1945. MS. Bruennlitz, Czech Republic.