Oskar Schindler, a slick and self-indulging saint, spares lives amidst Nazi atrocities

April 9, 2013

In 1980, the Australian novelist Thomas Keneally went shopping for a briefcase in a Beverly Hills, Calif., luggage store. The store’s owner, Leopold Pfefferberg, was one of about 1,300 mainly Polish Jews whose lives had been spared during World War II by the heroic efforts of Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler.

It was a fateful meeting: After years of attempting to interest a writer in doing a full-length treatment of Schindler’s story, Pfefferberg finally found a receptive ear.

Keneally went on to interview 50 Schindlerjuden in America, Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Israel and West Germany. With Pfefferberg, he visited European locations frequented by Schindler and the people protected during the war. Keneally’s researches and other efforts went on to inform the 1982 book Schindler’s Ark, which was published in American under a title well known to moviegoers: Schindler’s List.

The book is categorized by its author as a novel, and Keneally admits to having made “reasonable constructs of conversations of which Oskar and others have left only the briefest record.“ However, it reads as a work as journalism, with speculation and extrapolation on certain matters clearly labeled as such by Keneally.

I recently read an American volume of Schindler’s List and found it to be an incredibly moving tale. (This was no surprise; Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film adaptation of Keneally, which I watched last summer, had a similar effect upon me.)

A paradox lies at the heart of this book. In his inimitable fashion, Schindler merrily wined, dined and bribed Nazis as part of a determined effort to spare the lives of about 1,300 workers and their families at his kitchenware and munitions plants in the ancient Polish city of Cracow and, later, the rural Czechoslovakian outpost of Brinnlitz. To find this story inspiring, as I do, is simultaneously to embrace and to deny the backdrop to this feat: The six million European Jews cruelly murdered by Hitler and his armies.

Keneally tries at times to grapple with this dilemma, but he has no more power to solve it than any other mortal. The number of Jews Schindler saved is paltry compared to the many, many communities the Nazis incinerated. In that context, how can Schindler’s achievement seem anything other than a failure? Yet without that context, which minimizes the very accomplishment, it’s impossible to understand just how extraordinary Schindler’s deeds were.

Perhaps the best way to approach this conundrum is suggested near the beginning of Schindler’s List when the protagonist meets Itzhak Stern, the Jewish accountant who served as an informal and invaluable advisor. Schindler, a habitual womanizer and bon vivant, had aspirations of being an intellectual.

Oskar, who wrongly fancied himself a philosopher, had found an expert. The scholar himself, Stern, whom some thought a pedant, found Oskar’s understanding shallow, a mind genial by nature but without much conceptual deftness. Not that Stern was about to complain. An ill-assorted friendship was firmly established. So that Stern found himself drawing an analogy, as Oskar’s own father had, from previous empires and giving his own reasons why Adolf Hitler could not succeed.

The opinion slipped out before Stern could withdraw it. The other Jews in the office bowed their heads and stared fixedly at their worksheets. Schindler did not seem disturbed.

Near the end of their talk, Oskar did say something that had novelty. In times like these, he said, it must be hard for the churches to go on telling people that their Heavenly Father cared about the death of even a single sparrow. He’d hate to be a priest, Herr Schindler said, in an era like this, when life did not have the value of a pack of cigarettes. Stern agreed but suggested, in the spirit of the discussion, that the Biblical reference Herr Schindler had made could be summed up by a Talmudic verse which said that he who saves the life of one man saves the entire world.

“Of course, of course,” said Oskar Schindler.

Itzhak, rightly or wrongly, always believed that it was at that moment that he had dropped the right seed in the furrow.

In its fashion, the book itself represents the entire tragedy of the Holocaust. Because the Schindlerjuden were drawn from a broad cross-spectrum of Polish Jewry, Keneally’s tales of the survivors and their murdered relatives, friends and neighbors show a wide variety of Nazi oppression. One tale that stands out concerns Max Redlicht, a gangster and one of many Cracow Jews brought into a 14th-century synagogue and ordered to spit upon a Torah — a holy Hebraic scroll comprising what Christians call the Old Testament.

Unlike every other person present, Redlicht — a thoroughly secular man, and far from a sacred one — refused to obey the order. “They shot him first,” Keneally writes, “and then shot the rest anyway and set fire to the place, making a shell of the oldest of all Polish synagogues.”

Because Keneally unflinchingly documents many different facets of Nazi cruelty, Schindler’s List serves as an excellent introduction to the Holocaust, an episode of which I suspect many non-Jews have only a hazy awareness.

During this period, Schindler made a fortune manufacturing kitchenware for Nazi soldiers. He lived comfortably during the war, thanks in no small part to his ability to sell and barter goods on the black market. Schindler’s pots and pans bought fine food and liquor and other luxuries, including jewelry, all of which he enjoyed. But the industrialist spread these goods liberally among German officials, many of whom presumably perished in the course of the war and the ensuing trials.

Within minutes of the armistice officially taking hold, Schindler fled his last wartime factory with his long-suffering wife and eight former Jewish prisoner-laborers. Within hours, Oskar — who was Czech by birth, German by culture — lost the diamonds he had hoped would buy him and his companions at least some measure of safety and comfort.

The book’s central figure remains something of a mystery; Keneally never determined what, other than an innate spirit of individuality and an aversion to the Nazis’ cruelty, prompted Schindler to subvert the so-called Final Solution at great risk to his own life.

As mentioned above, he spent much of his fortune in this endeavor; somewhat sadly, Schindler never achieved as much success after the war as he had during it.

Still, what Schindler accomplished in those tumultuous years was more significant than what most people do over their lives. As Keneally conveys in this clearly written and important book, his example is one that all women and men should strive to emulate in troubled times.

One Response to “Oskar Schindler, a slick and self-indulging saint, spares lives amidst Nazi atrocities”

  1. Kiersten Says:

    I could not resist commenting. Perfectly written!

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