I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.

-- Oskar Schindler

When the 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 owners.

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 desired goods.

For this he turned to the 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 competitors.

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 confiscation.

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 course."

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

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 rescue.


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 beings.

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?"


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 tactic.

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 treated humanely."


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 camp.

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.


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 ghetto police).

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 death.

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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