About Oskar Schindler

Poldek Pfefferberg (Leopold Page) and Oskar Schindler

(from the Bonus Features on the DVD)

For years the world took little note of Oskar Schindler.  Although film documentaries were made of his life, Schindlers’ story was mainly kept alive in the memories of the Schindlerjuden, who took turns supporting the post-war bankrupt businessman in his declining years.  Schindler had been dead for six years when a broken briefcase and an Australian credit card lifted him from the shadows of history.

In October 1980, Australian novelist Thomas Keneally brought his briefcase into a Beverly Hills luggage shop owned by a man name Leopold Page.  Years before, as Poldek Pfefferberg, Page had been one of the workers on Schindler’s list.  During their 20-minute wait for telephone approval of Keneally’s credit card transaction, Page told the author the entire story.  He had recited it many times to various writers and producers over the years, but in Keneally he finally found a kindred spirit.

Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in the small industrial town of Zwittau, in the Sudeten region, which was then part of the Austrian empire.  His father owned a farm machinery plant and Oskar was trained to be an engineer.  Although raised as a Catholic, Oskar was not religious and as a child played with his Jewish neighbors.

A racing enthusiast, Oskar built and raced his own motorcycle.  At the age of 20 he married Emilie, the quiet daughter of a farmer.  Soon after their marriage, he was called into military service.  Upon his release, he returned home and began working for his father.  But their factory fell victim to the depression of the 1930s and Oskar moved into a job as a sales manager for an electrical company.  He enjoyed his new career, the traveling, meeting new people – especially women.  To help him secure orders, he joined the local Nazi party.

schindler with nazi in krakowIn 1939, when Germany overran Poland, Oskar set out for Krakow to find his fortune in the very profitable business of war.  Through local Nazi connections, he took charge of a confiscated enamelware factory that made mess kits and field kitchenware for the German army.

Oskar settled quite comfortably into life in Krakow.  While his wife remained in Moravia, a series of mistresses kept him company.  He also prospered in Krakow, making the most from his friendships with district heads of various Nazi security forces and Amon Goeth, commandant of the nearby slave labor camp, Plaszow.  The contracts he obtained through Nazi connections brought him huge profits.  Oskar quickly learned how to work inside the corrupt and savage system the Nazis operated and knew how to manipulate it to his own good fortune.

His accountant, Itzhak Stern, encouraged him to employ Jewish workers and his personnel grew from 45 workers to over 250 as Army contracts poured in.  His affinity with the Nazi party waned as he continued to witness the sporadic raids and killings that the Jews of Krakow were subjected to.

march 1943 krakow liquidation

Most brutal was the Nazis’ liquidation of the Krakow Jewish quarter, where Schindler saw soldiers drag families from the apartments and shoot on anyone who resisted on sight.  The Nazis sheltered no one from witnessing these sidewalk executions, including a little Jewish girl dressed in a scarlet coat.  Watching these killings, Schindler realized that if they were content to commit their crimes in full view of children, then they must have planned to murder the witnesses as well.

Schindler then worked with Stern to protect as many Jews as possible.  The workforce at “Emalia”, as his factory became known, burgeoned triplefold, and whenever a work worker at Plaszow was put into direct peril, Schindler gave a black market item for their transfer.

When the Nazi “Final Solution” took another step and threatened Emalia itself, Schindler used his wealth to buy over 1,200 workers, moving them to the relative safety of Brinnlitz, where he and his workers waited out the war.

Everything Schindler possessed at the end of the war he lost.  He was penniless.  He never prospered again.

After the war, he and his wife immigrated to Argentina, where we took up farming.  After ten unsuccessful years, he abandoned Emilie and returned to Germany.  For the remainder of his life he was cared for by his “family”, the Schindlerjuden.

Yad Vashem holocaust memorialIn 1961, Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Museum complex, which commemorates the Holocaust, honored Schindler with a tree planted in his honor in the Avenue of the Righteous, dedicated to Gentiles (non-Jews) who helped Jews during the Nazis’ reign.  His wife, Emilie, was recently bestowed with that honor and the tree planted in his honor now also bears the name of his wife.

Schindler died in 1974.  According to his wishes, he was buried in Israel, in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

– originally posted April 20, 2008

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