SCHINDLER DURING THE SECOND
I knew the people who
worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like
-- Oskar Schindler
Nazis seized power in Germany, unlike the Communists in Russia, they did
not completely abolish private enterprise. Hitler, who viewed life in
terms of a pseudo-Darwinist "struggle of survival," believed that the
"captains of industry" were at the top of their professions because they had demonstrated the
greatest ability and ruthlessness. As a result, the Nazis not only preserved elements of the private sector but used those elements to the advantage of the Nazi state.
During the Second World War, private businessmen like Oskar
Schindler operated factories in Nazi-occupied Poland, exploiting
both Polish labor and Jewish slave labor for the benefit of both
the German war machine and (not coincidentally) the factory
Arriving in Krakow during the first week of the Second World War,
Schindler quickly won the friendship of key officers in both the
SS (Nazi elite) and the Wehrmacht (German army). He won their
friendship by his unusually personable manner and by his
seemingly inexhaustible supply of desired goods: cognac, cigars,
coffee, and women. Most of these items Schindler obtained from
the thriving black market in Krakow.
True to his roots in the old Habsburg Empire, Schindler knew how
to make a bribe seem like an act of friendship. His friends in
high places would assure Schindler a steady flow of army
contracts. Now Schindler had to locate a factory to produce the
For this he turned to the Jews.
THE POLISH JEWS
When the Second World War began in 1939, three and a half million
Jews lived in Poland, fully ten percent of the population. Krakow
was home to 56,000 Jews, a size equal to that of the entire
Jewish population of Italy. The majority of the Polish Jews were
utterly impoverished, as were the Poles. But the relatively few
wealthy Jews, and the omnipresent Jewish store on the corner,
gave rise to the generalization that the Jews were "rich." At the
same time, however, the Jews were identified with communism,
although most of the Polish Jews were Orthodox and far removed
from the atheist world of communism.
Under the fairly benevolent rule of the Austrians before the
First World War, Krakow had developed a reputation as a "liberal"
city. The Jews were allowed to pursue their lives with more
freedom than in the Russian and Prussian (German) controlled
regions of Poland. The Krakow Jews were mostly middle class and
had lived in Krakow since the early 14th century. They began
speaking Polish (as opposed to Yiddish or Hebrew) in the early
19th century. In 1867, Emperor Franz Josef ascended the throne in
Vienna, and the Jews were permitted to live outside the ghetto
for the first time. The local Polish and German middle classes
bitterly protested this relative freedom given to their economic
The Jews of Krakow lived mostly in Kasmierz, a suburb of the
city named for 'Kasmierz the Great,' the 14th century Polish king
who had invited German Jews to Poland at the time of great
pogroms (or outbursts of anti-Jewish violence) in the German
lands. Kasmierz built the Krakow suburb for which he was named,
and, more significantly, he issued a charter which protected
Jewish "liberties." In sharp contrast to the abattoir it became,
Poland was originally a haven for Jews.
In November 1939, one month into the brutal occupation that would
last five years, the Nazis issued a decree demanding that all
Jews over the age of nine wear a blue and white armband
emblazoned with the Star of David. Thus, the first step in the
destruction of the Jews had been taken.
In Poland, the Nazis quickly expropriated Jewish businesses.
Through a process termed "Aryanization," Jewish property was sold
to "Aryans" (i.e., Germans) for a considerably reduced price. The
Jews, of course, had no right to protest this virtual
In this manner, Schindler located a formerly Jewish-owned factory
on the outskirts of Krakow, which, after retooling, would produce
enamel pots and pans and, later, in 1941, munitions. Through the
good graces of his high ranking friends and with the usual
bribes, Schindler won lucrative contracts to supply his
kitchenware to the German army.
The name of Schindler's factory was Deutsche Email Fabrik, or
Emalia. The building still stands and is occupied by another
factory. Since the film, it has become a tourist mecca, to the
bewilderment of local Poles who see it as just another soot
covered building in a soot covered city.
Having found a Jewish factory, Schindler next located the capital
necessary to purchase it and to get operations underway. His key
contact was a Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern (played by Ben
Kingsley in the film).
According to Stern's postwar recollection, he immediately
recognized that Schindler was that rare item in Nazi-occupied
Poland: The "good" German. When Schindler commented that it must
be hard to be a priest during times like these, when life did not
have "the value of a pack of cigarettes," Stern seized the moment
to recite the Talmudic verse: "He who saves one life, it is as if
he has saved the entire world." Schindler replied, "Of course, of
Keneally writes, "Itzhak, rightly or wrongly, always believed
that it was at that moment that he had dropped the right seed in
The influence of Itzhak Stern is of decisive importance in
understanding Schindler's evolution from war-profiteer to rescuer
of Jews. When Stern was buried in 1969, Schindler stood at the
graveside, crying like a child.
Stern was the first person to inform Schindler that Jewish slave
labor cost less than Polish labor. Schindler, with an eye towards
a profit, recognized the advantage of Jewish labor. Thus began
his relationship with the Jews. He would be Herr Direktor, they
would be his employees. He would always have a kind word for
them. In the end, he would save many of them from annihilation.
The first indication that Schindler was of a different breed came
on December 3, 1939. He whispered less than ambiguous words into
Stern's ear: "Tomorrow, it's going to start. Jozefa and Izaaka
Streets are going to know all about it." Talk like this was
highly dangerous. Coming from a German, it was bewildering.
Jozefa and Izaaka Streets were located in Kazimierz, the Jewish
quarter. Here, the SS staged a terror-filled Aktion or "strike"
the next day, beating, humiliating, robbing, and killing Jews in
a seemingly haphazard manner.
Schindler had taken a first step, however tenuous, towards
To get the ball rolling, Stern introduced Schindler to a group of
wealthy Krakow Jews. These Jews had managed to retain their
wealth despite the Nazis' best efforts to seize it. With few
options, these Jews invested their capital in Schindler's
factory, but with the provision that they would work in the
factory and, apparently, be spared the uncertain future (which,
in the film, Schindler bluntly and indeed cruelly cites in order
to strengthen his bargaining position).
Schindler, who arrived in Krakow with little more than his
natural panache and the swastika on his lapel, had acquired a
Jewish factory, Jewish capital, Jewish labor, and Jewish
expertise, all with very little if any personal investment.
"You have done well here," Emilie tells her husband (in the film)
when she arrives in Krakow for a short visit. "Always before
there was something missing," he says, explaining his lack of
financial success prior to September 1, 1939. "Luck?" she asks
naively. "No," he replies. "War."
Schindler was the quintessential war-profiteer. Initially, he was
able to overlook the dehumanized condition of the Jews under Nazi
rule. He was interested in profit, and he was not above
exploiting the Jews to this end.
Spielberg's film focuses on Schindler's evolving relationship
with the Jews. A central theme emerges: In the pursuit of profit,
Schindler becomes dependent on the Jews for their
expertise--particularly, it seems, on Itzhak Stern--and as he
becomes dependent upon the Jews, Schindler begins to know them as
human beings. They appear to be quite different from the Nazi
propaganda's depiction of Jews as "vermin" and as "rats."
Schindler has a financial investment in his Jewish workers, but
at the same time he develops an investment in them as human
Twenty years after the war, with the benefit of hindsight,
Schindler explained his rescue of Jews this way: "I knew the
people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to
behave towards them like human beings."
On another occasion, Schindler described his behavior
differently: "There was no choice. If you saw a dog going to be
crushed under a car, wouldn't you help him?"
THE KRAKOW GHETTO
On March 3, 1941, the Nazis established a Jewish ghetto--an area
into which Jews were segregated--in Podgorze, a suburb of Krakow
across the Vistula River. A wall was constructed to enclose the
ghetto, and the Jews watched ominously as the wall was shaped in
the form of Jewish grave stones. The ghetto comprised three
hundred and twenty apartment buildings into which a Jewish
population of about seventeen thousand was crammed. The rest of
the Jews in Krakow had already been expelled to the neighboring
countryside. The overcrowding in the ghetto was severe, as
families were forced to live together in cramped apartments. This
contributed significantly to Jewish demoralization, a key German
Fearing for the safety of the Jews, Stern implored Schindler to
hire more Jewish workers. Schindler agreed.
When the Jewish workers arrived at his factory, Schindler told
them, much to their astonishment: "You'll be safe working here.
If you work here, then you'll live through the war."
One of the remarkable witnesses to the horror of the Krakow
ghetto was a Polish Catholic, Tadeusz Pankiewicz (pronounced
Ta-de-ush Pan-ke-ie-vitsch). Pankiewicz managed to keep his
pharmacy operating in the Krakow ghetto presumably because the
Germans feared the outbreak of typhus and believed that a modicum
of medicines administered to the ghetto inhabitants would keep
the disease at a distance. Ironically, the German fear of
disease was one of the few weapons available to the Jews.
Pankiewicz wrote of Schindler's factory, "The Jews there were
THE JUDENRAT AND THE GHETTO POLICE
One of the first directives the Nazis issued was for the
establishment of a Judenrat, or a Jewish Council. This was the
device the Nazis utilized for governing the ghetto. When the
Nazis issued a decree, the Judenrat implemented it. The Nazis
established a Judenrat in all the Jewish localities in Poland,
and its role during the German occupation is controversial in the
extreme. Some view it as a traitorous extension of the Nazi
machinery of death, while others believe the Judenrat did its
best to alleviate Jewish suffering in an impossible situation.
In Krakow, the Judenrat, initially comprising twenty-four eminent
members of the prewar Jewish leadership, was located in the main
police station under the supervision of the Gestapo.
The director of the Judenrat in Krakow was Dr. Arthur Rosenzweig,
a lawyer with an impeccable reputation. At the time of the first
deportation of Krakow Jews in June 1942, Rosenzweig refused to do
the Nazis' bidding, and as a result he and his family were placed
on the transport to the Belzec death camp. The Germans
subsequently found a compliant Judenrat director, David Gutter.
The Germans also created a ghetto police force, the so-called
"OD" or "Ordnungsdienst," meaning "the service for keeping
order." The commander of the ghetto police was Symcha Spira, a
classic psychopath whom the Germans dressed up in an immaculate
uniform festooned with all sorts of ridiculous insignia. Spira
carried out the Nazi orders blindly and with ruthless zeal.
As portrayed in the film, the Jewish police were distinguished by
their coats buttoned to the neck and by their truncheons which
they swung ruthlessly. In the futile effort to save their own
lives and the lives of their families, the Jewish police assisted
the Nazis in rounding up Ghetto Jews for deportation. Not all of
the Jewish police were scoundrels. When the Krakow ghetto was
"liquidated" in March 1943, two policemen defied German orders
and helped Jewish mothers smuggle their children into the Plaszow
The Judenrat members and Jewish police were ultimately murdered
by the Nazis, who wanted no witnesses. The Judenrat and the "OD"
had earned the privilege of being the last to die.
THE CHILD IN RED
In June 1942, Schindler inadvertently witnessed an Aktion in the
Krakow ghetto. The Aktionen were Nazi "strikes" on the ghetto to
round up Jews for deportation to the death camps. They were
meticulously planned and usually the Nazis were assisted by their
foreign collaborators (Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian)
and by local collaborators (Polish "blue" police and Jewish
At the time, Schindler and his mistress were out for a pleasant
horseback ride on a hilltop when the macabre Aktion opened
directly below them. Astonished by the Nazi ferocity, Schindler's
eye was drawn to a little girl clad in red who, alone, stood out
from the mass of Jews being herded to the trains and to their
In Spielberg's otherwise black and white film, this child's coat
appears in red, making her stand out all the more. The important
question is: Why?
Many years later, with a certitude perhaps bolstered by distance,
Schindler looked back on this Aktion and said, "Beyond this day,
no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now
resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system."
The Jews who were deemed "essential workers" for the German war
effort, including the Jews who worked for Schindler, were
temporarily spared deportation.
In the early years of the Second World War, the Germans waged a
fierce debate among themselves regarding the fate of the
"essential worker"-Jews. Hitler and the hard-core Nazis wanted to
destroy all of the Jews, but the less ideological Nazis, with
many German businessmen as their allies, argued that it was
impractical to murder a people whose labor was absolutely
essential to the war effort (and to their own profits).
Ironically, there were some SS officers who also chimed in on
behalf of the "essential-workers." If all of the Jews were
destroyed and the camps liquidated, the SS rightly feared they
would have nothing to do in occupied-Poland and would be sent to
fight on the Russian Front. Much to the relief of the German
industrialists, the SS, and, not least, the Jews, Hitler
begrudgingly agreed to spare the Jewish "essential workers," but
only for the time being. As SS leader Heinrich Himmler noted in
September 1942, "One day even these Jews must disappear, in
accordance with the Fuehrer's wish."
On March 13, 1943, at the time of the final "liquidation" of the
Krakow ghetto, the Jewish "essential workers" in Krakow were sent
to the labor camp at Plaszow. It was constructed just outside of
Krakow on the grounds of two uprooted Jewish cemeteries. Jewish
tombstones were used as pavement slabs by the Germans.
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