Grassroots Commentary

Oskar Schindler Remembered

Bill Franklin · Oct. 14, 2013

Oskar Schindler could well be called an accidental hero. A petty scoundrel, a chronically unfaithful husband, and consistently unsuccessful in every business venture he undertook, something happened to him while he lived in German-occupied Poland during World War II. Whatever it was, it briefly redeemed his flawed life until the end of the war, when he resumed being the pre-war Schindler. His momentary transformation redeemed the lives of 1,200 Jews, one of whom made it his mission to tell Schindler’s story to the world.

Lasts week was the 39th anniversary of Oskar Schindler’s death.

He was born in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia where German was the lingua franca. Expelled from secondary school for forging his report card, Schindler was allowed to reenroll and graduate. He married and pursued several vocational trades. His personal life was as unremarkable as his business life – several arrests for public drunkenness and an affair with a school friend who bore him a daughter and son. He was always in debt.

Hitler’s invasion of Poland was bad news for Polish business owners but good news for German carpetbaggers eager to appropriate their companies and properties. Schindler arrived in Krakow, Poland the month following the invasion and acquired the rights to an enamelware factory, complete with inventory and workforce – the latter mostly Jewish slaves who, according to Nazi provisional law, could not be paid.

Beginning with about 45,000 sq. ft. of production space and a hundred workers, Schindler scaled up operations to almost 500,000 sq. ft. and 800 workers half of whom were Jews. The nearby Krakow Jewish ghetto would in time provide all of the workers that Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik would need, helped by Itzhak Stern, Schindler’s Jewish accountant and manager who doubled as his workforce recruiter.

Schindler lived lavishly in Krakow in an apartment appropriated from a Jewish family. Mila Pfefferberg, one of Schindler’s Jewish workers, redecorated it to his tastes. Her husband, Poldek, also a worker, would become Schindler’s chief scrounger among the Jewish black market for bribe merchandise. Poldek would also become his patron’s lifelong friend and the person determined that the world would know Schindler’s one bright shining moment. With Schindler’s wife Emilie remaining in Czechoslovakia, he was able to have active extramarital affairs with his Polish secretary and with a woman who merchandised the company’s products.

Itzhak Stern was initially circumspect about his German employer. But Schindler treated his workers as well as possible under wartime circumstances. In time workers pressed Stern to let their families join them in the factory labor force, which not only got them out of the ghetto during working hours, but also made them less likely to be deported to death camps as was happening to those who were unemployed.

Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik in time became a sought-after haven among the ghetto Jews, and Schindler helped his workers by doctoring the worker records to show the youngest as older workers and the oldest as younger in order to fool periodic German inspections. Trained professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, musicians, and professors – were shown in the records as pre-war blue-collar laborers and tradesmen. Trade skills, essential to the war effort, shielded them from extermination.

Had they known, it might have alarmed Schindler’s Jews that their charming boss spent his evenings socializing with German officers and political technocrats to curry their influence and burnish his. He grew popular among the Krakow Nazis, greasing those with influence to help him sell products to the German war machine while corrupting them with bribes. The factory door swung from morning to evening as Wehrmacht, SS, and civilian bureaucrats visited Schindler to booze and trade. Claiming he knew how to get Jews to work harder than other carpetbaggers, the Germans were not suspicious of the growing Jewish workforce at Emaillewaren-Fabrik.

In March 1943 the Germans launched a horrific liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Hundreds were killed as they were relocated to a nearby concentration camp, Plaszow, or to Auschwitz for extermination of the sick, young, and elderly. Schindler’s connections allowed him to learn of the German ghetto plans in advance. Therefore, he kept his workers at the factory, out of harm’s way during the initial sweep. But he couldn’t keep them out of the Plaszow labor camp. Conditions were awful and many workers suffered and died.

Learning that other Polish labor camps in the region were being shut down and their inmates were being shipped west to death camps, it was obvious that the same fate was inevitable for Plaszow. Stern and other leading Jews persuaded Schindler to lean on his contacts in the German military war materiel command structure and get Plaszow converted from its current mission as a uniform repair work camp to a war materiel work camp. A high-ranking German general got behind the idea allowing Plaszow to escape closure and making its inmates essential workers in the war effort.

The Plaszow camp commander was Hauptsturmfuhrer (Captain) Amon Goeth, a sadistic killer who shot camp inmates for recreation. The conversion of the camp to an essential materiel work camp had elevated Goeth’s status in the command ranks, and Schindler’s influence among generals elevated his status with Goeth. The original plan was to move all local essential factories into Plaszow. But Schindler’s charm, bribes, and diplomatic wrangling allowed him to persuade Goeth to let him build a sub-camp for his Jews so they wouldn’t have as far to walk and could begin the work day earlier. The sub-camp, completed near Emaillewaren-Fabrik at company expense, allowed Schindler to house his workers as well as house 450 additional ones from nearby factories whose owners held anti-fascist views similar to Schindler’s. With a sub-camp sufficiently distant from Plaszow, it became possible to smuggle food and medicine into the barracks without Goeth ever suspecting the true motive for constructing it.

By the spring of 1944 the Germans were soundly losing the war on the Eastern Front. All Polish camps were ordered closed including Plaszow. Inmates were to be shipped west to certain death. Schindler had to call upon all of his skills in negotiating, bribing, charming, begging, and even some threatening to prevent a human tragedy – at least among his workers. Protesting that his ability to “win the war” on the industrial front was being hamstrung by German liquidation orders, he asked to relocate his factory south of Poland in Sudeten Czechoslovakia where it would be out of the path of the retreating Germans and advancing Russians.

Failing to persuade officials in Krakow and Warsaw, he took a train and his proposal to Berlin. There he worked connections in the German command hierarchy. Possibly because the German High Command was so distracted by its collapsing war machine, someone with sufficient authority gave Schindler orders to transfer a thousand workers out of Plaszow to a new plant location no doubt believing it was a fool’s errand. Except for these select few, all others were loaded into locked trains and sent 30 miles west to Auschwitz and the certain death that millions had found there.

Four months following the D-Day invasion, Schindler began preparing his famous list helped by Goeth’s secretary, Mietek Pemper. A list of 1,200 Jews was compiled, 1,000 of whom were Schindlerjugen – Schlinder’s Jews – plus 200 from a nearby textile factory owned by another sympathetic German. German bureaucracy and arcane logistics caused a train that left on October 15, 1944 with all male inmates to be rerouted to a Polish concentration camp. There the inmates remained a week before being sent to the new plant location. Another train with females was sent to Auchwitz where they were in daily danger of being gassed. Schindler dispatched his secretary with black market bribes of food, goods, and diamonds to secure their release. It would be November before all Schindlerjuden were united in Czechoslovakia.

The region in which the new plant was located was in German hands and German officers were in and out daily. While the purpose of the factory was to make German war munitions, it made nothing. When the factory’s paltry output came to the attention of German officials, Schindler spent his dwindling resources to buy munitions on the open market and fobbed them off as his own. Until the war ended, Schindler and his Jews were in daily danger.

The war ended in May 1945 and Schindler and his Jews heard Churchill announce it via a radio on the factory floor. All area German troops fled west to escape the advancing Russians, who arrived two days after war’s end. Schindler also escaped west with his wife and a small company of Jews who went with him to corroborate his story when he surrendered to the Allies. Months afer leaving Czechoslovakia the Schindler party surfaced in Austria in Allied hands.

The Schindlerjuden adjusted to post-war life and scattered throughout Europe, with those who could returning to Poland. For Schindler, the transition to post-war life was difficult. He was penniless and a former German employer of slave labor. Moreover, he informed on his former army drinking companions and industrialists who had abused their Jews, making him a pariah among Germans who might have been inclined to help him.

Schindler’s main source of financial help became the Jews he had saved. Individual Jews and a post-war Jewish organization provided the charity he needed to emigrate to Argentina with his wife. There he attempted to farm and raise animals for their fur. But as had happened so often before the war, his attempts at business were failures. In 1957 Schindler left his wife for the final time. She continued living in Argentina and he returned to Germany. Yet, they remained married, never divorcing, although they would not see each other again. When he died, they had been married for 46 years.

Schindler’s economic fortunes were no better once back in Germany, now booming in its post-war years. Several businesses failed as did his health, suffering a heart attack in 1964. He was reduced to living off of handouts from his appreciative Jewish survivors – the Schindlerjuden – now scattered throughout the world. The post-war Israeli government, settled almost two decades in its ancestral homeland, declared Oskar Schindler “Righteous Among the Nations” and after he died, the government paid to have his body reinterred in a Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Despite the fame among the Jews for his efforts during the war, Schindler’s exploits were relatively unknown among the non-Jewish world. Poldek Pfefferberg made several attempts to have film producers turn the Schindler story into a motion picture. He had no success, since there was little post-war interest in “good German” stories.

Mila and Poldek Pfefferberg emigrated to California where he established a luggage shop. Quite by accident in 1980 an Australian author, Thomas Keneally, stopped in the shop as he returned home from a European trip. Pfefferberg regaled Keneally with the Oskar Schindler story, giving him copies of papers he had compiled to preserve the details. Keneally did his own research, interviewed survivors, and satisfied that the story was true, decided to write a fictionalized account of it so that he could put it in the form of a novel with dialog. It was published in 1982 under the title Schlinder’s Ark. In the US the book title was Schindler’s List. Steven Spielberg acquired the screen rights and produced the Academy Award-winning motion picture Schindler’s List. The film was released in November 1993 – 20 years ago next month.

In the final months before his death 39 years ago this week, Schindler had stayed with friends in their house in Hildesheim, Lower Saxony. A suitcase containing papers and photos remained after his death. In 2000 it passed into the hands of a Stuttgart couple who were relatives of Schindler’s Hildesheim friends. The suitcase was discovered to contain the original Schindler’s list on Emaillewaren-Fabrik letterhead with the names of the 1,200 Schindlerjuden.

Another list was drawn up by Schindler a month before the war ended. He used it to persuade the Czechoslovakian SS that the names on the list were vital to the war effort. The job listed next to each name was fictitious.

In 2009, among the work papers of Thomas Keneally on file in the State Library of New South Wales, was found a faded carbon copy of a Schindler’s list. It was in the document file Poldek Pfefferberg gave Keneally as background for the Schindler story. Thirteen pages long, this list contains 801 names and is dated April 18, 1945. It is Schindler’s Czechoslovakian list or a copy of it.

Two other copies of Schindler’s list are known to exist, one in a private collector’s hands. It had been kept by Itzhak Stern, the Jewish factory manager shown typing it in the film, Schindler’s List.

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