by April N. Aberly
The purpose of this paper is to shed a different kind of light on who and how we consider a hero. I’ve tried to express what kind of a life and person Oskar Schindler was, and I ask you to evaluate yourself and decide if you could take the kind of risks Oskar Schindler did. As you learn about a man full of flaws just like the rest of us, I know that you too will appreciate the fact that an ordinary man can do extraordianry things.
What is a hero? In my book, a hero can be any number of things. A hero can be someone who loves and cares for you, someone you look up to, or maybe someone ordinary who does the extraordinary. Many people think of their favorite athlete or rockstar. Some may think of a famous speaker or activist. Whatever the case may be, most everyone has a hero. Oskar Schindler is a hero to over 6,000 Jews currently living across the United States and Europe (Hertling, 1997). Schindler was an ordinary man with extraordinary power that he used to save 1200 human lives during the Holocaust of World War II. The question arises : Who was Oskar Schindler the man? Where did he come from? More importantly, what was his motivation for saving so many Jews? Mainly, though, why is Schindler considered one of the greatest heroes of this century?
Oskar Schindler was born on April 28, 1908 in Zwitlau, which is now part of the present day Czech Republic. His father and mother, Hans and Louisa Schindler, were deeply religious. This resulted in a strong Catholic household for Schindler and his younger sister Elfriede Schindler. The Schindler family was one of the richest and most prominent in Zwitlau and elsewhere. This was due to the success of their family owned machinery business (“Schindler’s List,” 1995).
Schindler himself was a very tall and handsome man. Needless to say, he was adored by all the young women. His fancy, though, fell for a beautiful young girl named Emily. After only six weeks of courtship, they were married. Sadly, after only a few months of marriage, Schindler began to heavily abuse alcohol. He also had several affairs resulting in two children out of wedlock. In 1929, during the Great Depression, the Schindler family business went bankrupt. At this time, Schindler’s father left his mother, and she died soon after. Finding himself jobless, Schindler sought work in nearby Poland as a machinery salesmen (“Schindler’s List,” 1995).
The picture being painted of Schindler is not exactly one of high class and morals. Indeed, Schindler was an alcoholic and a womanizer. This leads many to think, how can this man be considered a hero? What would possess him, with all of his power and money, to risk his own life to save the lives of thousands of people he has never met? How did he do it? It was no easy task.
The saving of the first Schindler Jews began in 1939, when he came to Krakow in the wake of the German invasion. In Krakow, he took over two previously Jewish owned companies that dealt with the manufacture and sales of enamel kitchenware products. In one of the businesses, however, Schindler was merely a trustee. Looking more for his own power, he opened up a small enamel shop right outside of Krakow near the Jewish ghetto. Here, he employed mostly Jewish workers. This in turn saved them from being deported to labor camps. Then in 1942, Schindler found out through some of his workers that many of the local Krakow Jews were being sent to the brutal Plazow labor camp. This is where Schindler’s connections with the German government were so useful. Using his know how, he convinced the S. S. and the Armaments Administration, who had set up the Plazow labor camp, to set up a portion of the camp in his factory. They agreed, and Schindler took even those unfit and unqualified for work. In turn, he spared 900 Jewish lives from this one action (Paldiel, 1982).
Then in October of 1944, this time with the approach of the Russian army, Schindler used his connections to receive permission to reestablish his once defunct business as an armament production company in Bruunlitz. After some negotiating with S.S. officials, he was allowed to take with him some Jewish workers form Zalocie. Schindler then succeeded in transferring over 700 Jews from the Grossrosen camp, and another 300 women form Auschwitz. Once in Brunnlitz, these workers were given the best food, clothing, shelter, and medical care that Schindler could afford.
After this successful operation in Brunnlitz, Schindler received word that a train of evacuated Jews from the Golezow camp were stranded in the nearby city of Svitavy. As he had done twice before, Schindler pulled some strings at the top and got permission from German officials to take his workers to the nearby station to rescue the stranded. Once at the station, they forced the doors open to the rail car and removed some 100 half frozen Jews. Schindler’s wife Emile did her best to nurse the ill back to health. Those that did not survive were given a proper Jewish burial paid for by Schindler (Paldiel, 1982). Schindler spent infinite amounts of money not only paying for the upkeep of his workers, but paying the government. Schindler was arrested two times while trying to complete his saving operations. Each time, though, he found a new excuse, or paid a little more money. He risked his life, as well as his family’s lives, to save a race of people he never even knew.
In all of this the question still remains, why? Why did he do it? The answer is that there is no answer. Schindler would never comment on what he did. He never truly gave an answer as to why he did what he did. Ludwik Feigenbaum gave the best description of Schindler that made sense of his actions. “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. Another survivor, Johnathan Dresner suggests, ” He was an adventurer. He was like an actor who always wanted to be center stage. He got into a play and he could not get out of it” (“Schindler’s List,” 1995).
No matter what anyone believes, the story of Schindler touched me. I think to myself, would I have the courage to give up my life for a bunch of strangers? Would I give up all of my comforts and riches with nothing in return? I am a bit bewildered by the story. I wish that I knew exactly why he did the things he did. Yet as the old saying goes, “Some things are better left unsaid.” I think that is what Schindler believed. He saw no reason to give a why. I think that is why he is a hero. He did not want all the pomp and circumstance. He did not want the hero status. I think he saw no reason to brag about what he had done. Schindler knew what it meant to himself and those that he saved, and that is all that mattered. Saving those lives was his return for giving up all he had. He died without much fanfare. He was bankrupt and his last few years were rough. He gave up everything he owned, literally. Yet it did not matter. He gave an unselfish love, of sorts, to the Jews. Schindler is indeed a hero for many reasons. Most importantly, he helped to save a race of human beings, just like you and me.
Hertling, Victoria. “The Making of Schindler’s List.” April 4, 1995. http://www.unr.edu.80/chgps/makeschn.htm. (8 February 1997).
Paldiel, Mordecai. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler. 1982. “Schindler’s List.” 1995. http://members.aol.com/rockycd/obstacle.htm. (8 February 1997).
“Schindler’s List.” 1995. http://members.aol.com/rockycd/why.htm. (8 February 1997).
They knew that Adolf Hitler had repeatedly forecast the extermination of every Jew on German soil. They knew these details because they had read about them. They knew because the camps and the measures which led up to them had been prominently and proudly reported step by step in thousands of officially-inspired German media articles and posters according to the study, which is due to be published simultaneously in Britain and the US early next month and which was described as ground-breaking by Oxford University Press yesterday and already hailed by other historians.
The reports, in newspapers and magazines all over the country were phases in a public process of "desensitisation" which worked all too well, culminating in the killing of 6m Jews, says Robert Gellately. His book, Backing Hitler, is based on the first systematic analysis by a historian of surviving German newspaper and magazine archives since 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. The survey took hundreds of hours and yielded dozens of folders of photocopies, many of them from the 24 main newspapers and magazines of the period.
Its results, Professor Gellately says, destroy the claim - generally made by Germans after Berlin fell in 1945 and accepted by most historians - that they did not know about camp atrocities. He concludes by indicating that the only thing many Germans may not have known about was the use of industrial-scale gas chambers because, unusually, no media reports were allowed of this "final solution". However, by the end of the war camps were all over the country and many Germans worked in them.
Yesterday OUP said his study exposed "once and for all the substantial consent and active participation of large numbers of ordinary Germans". Its head of historical publishing, Ruth Parr, called it a landmark study of the terror. "He asks and answers some very difficult questions about how much the ordinary German people knew about the Nazi atrocities, and to what degree they supported them," she said.
A leading British-born Holocaust historian, Professor Michael Burleigh, said the book was "original and outstanding, genuinely important". Another authority on the camps, Professor Omer Bartov, of Brown University, Rhode Island, US, described Backing Hitler as "path-breaking - a crucial contribution to our understanding of the relationship between consent and coercion in modern dictatorship".
Conventional wisdom among post war historians has been that - as Lord Dahrendorf, ex-warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, says in his study Society and Democracy in Germany (1966) - "It is certainly true that most Germans 'did not know' about National Socialist crimes of violence; nothing precise, that is, because they did not ask any questions_." A common explanation among influential modern German historians, including Hans-Ulrich Thamer in his study Wooing and Violence (1986) is that the Nazis "seduced" an unwilling or passive public.
Gellately, professor in Holocaust history at Clark University, Massachusetts, offers a mass of detail to support the theme of an earlier work, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, which caused an international sensation in 1995. Goldhagen's theme was that "what the Nazis actually did was to unshackle and thereby activate Germans' pre-existing, pent-up anti-semitism".
Gellately began his inquiry after finding a press report -published as routine - of a woman reported to the Gestapo for "looking Jewish" and allegedly having sex with a neighbour. "For decades my generation had been told that so much of the terror had been carried out in complete secrecy," he writes.
His media trawl, with a research assistant, found that as early as 1933 local papers reported the killing of 12 prisoners by guards at Dachau, the first to be set up as a "model" concentration camp initially for communists. On May 23 the Dachauer Zeitung said the camp was Germany's most famous place and brought "new hope to the Dachau business world". By 1934 the main and widely read Nazi-owned paper Volkische Beobachter was reporting a widening of policy to other "political criminals" including Jews accused of race defilement. By 1936 communist prisoners were no longer mentioned: in a photo-essay in the SS paper Das Schwarze Korps emphasised the camps as places for "race defilers, rapists, sexual degenerates and habitual criminals".
This broadening mission, as Gellately calls it, was reflected in Volkische Beobachter photographs of "typical subhumans" including Jews with "deformed headshapes". For the first time their detention was said to be permanent. In January, 1937 Berliner Borsen Zeitung reported the SS chief Heinrich Himmler as announcing the need for "still more camps" for "those with hydrocephalus, cross-eyed, deformed half-Jews and a whole series of racially inferior types".
In November, 1938 the anti-Jewish pogrom on and after "the night of broken glass" was reported countrywide in papers as heroic. The propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, announced that the "final answer" to the Jewish problem would be by way of government de cree, according to Volkische Beobachter
In late 1939, the year war started, newspapers acting on government orders announced a post-8pm curfew on all Jews in case they "molest Aryan women". That November the first summary executions of "anti-socials" by police without trial were reported. Papers were told to report these clearly and forcefully. In March, 1941 the Hamburger Fremdenblatt reported the first mass auctions of posses sions of detained or killed Jews. Hamburg became the wartime clearing house and Gellately says at least 100,000 citizens bought at the auctions.
After this the focus switched. Most press reports about Jews were about those outside Germany. This was because the official but unpublicised final solution was being implemented. But enthusiastic denunciations by ordinary citizens of Jewish and other "internal enemies" continued to be copiously reported. Backing Hitler discusses 670 cases. By the end of the war Hitler was still getting 1,000 private letters a week, many of them denunciations.
Backing Hitler: Consent and Coercion in Nazi Germany (OUP, £19.99) will be published on March 8. Prof Gellately will talk about his research at the Wiener Library, London W1 at 6.30pm on March 6. For invitations ring Coleen Hatrick, OUP at 01865 267240.