Literature of the Holocaust
maintained by Al Filreis
From: "The Real Oskar Schindler"
by Herbert SteinhouseSaturday Night, April 1994
THE article that follows is, so far as we can determine, not only the earliest reportage on Oskar Schindler but the only account that includes direct contemporary interviews with Schindler himself, as well as with the accountant Itzhak Stern.
The story of Schindler and Stern, the central figures in Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List, became known to the world at large primarily through Thomas Keneally's 1982 novel Schindler's Ark. Keneally, an Australian, never met Schindler, who died in 1974, but thirteen years ago in Los Angeles he did meet one of the more than 1,000 Jews whom Schindler had saved from the gas chambers. This chance encounter set him off on his research. Although Keneally's book about the opportunistic Nazi businessman who ended up redeeming himself at the vortex of the Holocaust was factual, he decided to call it a novel because of the imagined or "re-created" dialogue that he felt was necessary to the narrative.
Unknown to Keneally or Spielberg, another writer--a Canadian-- had stumbled on the Schindler story nearly forty-six years ago. Herbert Steinhouse, a Montreal-born journalist, novelist, and broadcaster, flew with the RCAF during the war and afterwards became an information officer for the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). While stationed in Paris, he signed on with Reuters but in 1949 jumped to the CBC as its Paris bureau chief.
It was a few months earlier, in Munich, that he first met Schindler. He had already fallen in with some of the Holocaust survivors Schindler had saved--the so called Schindlerjuden--and they had begun telling him some of their stories. Given his stint at UNRRA, Steinhouse was suspicious of "good German" tales, but he was sufficiently intrigued this time to begin looking for independent verification.
Steinhouse was led to Schindler himself by two Polish Jews who had decided that their rescuer's security and best hope for the future lay in maximum publicity for his remarkable wartime story. This was especially so since be was still classified as a "former Nazi," which severely limited his chances of emigrating to most countries. "Schindler charmed me as he did everyone," Steinhouse recalls. "Our wives also hit it off. We dined together and drank together. He talked, I made notes."
The story continued to strike Steinhouse as "far-fetched," but he found more and more corroboration both in survivors' recollections and in underground and resistance files. Finally, after a half-dozen sessions with Itzhak Stern, who was his principal source, four interviews with Schindler, and professional pictures taken by a close friend (now deceased) named Al Taylor, Steinhouse set to work and wrote his exclusive in the form of a magazine article which he dispatched to his New York agent.
The agent couldn't place it. Steinhouse, who is now seventy-two and retired in Montreal, recalls various reasons for its rejection: reflecting his own initial scepticism, magazines didn't want another story on a "good German"; the Holocaust was thought to have grown wearying to readers; magazine editors were trying to give their publications an optimistic look ahead into the fifties, not a bleak rearward gaze to the wretched forties. Consequently, Herbert Steinhouse's account Of Oskar Schindler has gone on sitting unread in his files for most of half a century. Though somewhat shortened, it is now being published for the first time in Saturday Night, a publication to which the I writer was once a contributor on international affairs. Ironically, he may even have offered the magazine his article on Schindler at that time. In reading it you will want to remember that Steinhouse was writing about events that had reached their conclusion only four years earlier. It remains an important document for several reasons: for the corroboration it gives to the established record; for the further details and anecdotes not contained in either Keneally's novel or Spielberg's film; and, most importantly, for the direct and remarkable access it gives readers to Oskar Schindler himself.
It was from the accountant Itzhak Stem that I first heard of Oskar Schindler. They had met in Cracow in 1939. "I must admit now that I was intensely suspicious of Schindler for a long time," Stern confided, beginning his story. "I suffered greatly under the Nazis. I lost my mother in Auschwitz quite early and I was very embittered."
At the end of 1939, Stern directed the accountancy section of a large Jewish-owned export-import firm, a position he had held since 1924. After the occupation of Poland in September, the head of each important Jewish business was replaced by a German trustee, or Treuhander, and Stern's new boss became a man named Herr Aue. The former owner, as was the requirement, became an employee, the firm became German, and Aryan workers were brought in to replace many of the Jews.
Aue's behaviour was inconsistent and immediately aroused Stern's curiosity. Although he had begun Aryanizing the firm and firing the Jewish workers in accordance with his instructions, he nevertheless left the discharged employees' names on the social-insurance registry, thus enabling them to maintain their all-important workers' identity cards. As well, Aue secretly gave these hungry men money. Such exemplary behaviour could only impress the Jews and astonish the wary and cautious Stern. Only at the end of the war was Stern to learn that Aue had been Jewish himself, that his own father was murdered in Auschwitz in 1942, and that the Polish he pretended to speak so poorly actually was his native tongue.
Not knowing all this, Stern had no reason to trust Aue. Certainly he could not understand the man's presumption when, only a few days after having taken charge of the export-import firm, Aue brought in an old friend who had just arrived in Cracow to see Stern saying, quite casually, "You know, Stem, you can have confidence in my friend Schindler." Stern exchanged courtesies with the visitor, and answered his questions with care.
"I did not know what he wanted and I was frightened," Stern continued. "Until December 1, we Polish Jews had been left more or less alone. They had Aryanized the factories, of course. And if a German asked you a question in the street it was compulsory for you to precede your answer with I am a Jew....' But it was only on December 1 that we had to begin wearing the Star of David. It was just as the situation had begun to grow worse for the Jews, when the Sword of Damocles was already over our heads, that I had this meeting with Oskar Schindler.
"He wanted to know what land of Jew I was. He asked me many questions, like was I a Zionist or assimilated or what have you. I told him what everyone knew, that I was vice president of the Jewish Agency for Western Poland and a member of the Zionist Central Committee. Then he thanked me politely and went away."
On December 3, Schindler paid another visit to Stern, this time at night and to his home. They talked chiefly of literature, Stern remembers, and Schindler revealed an unusual interest in the great Yiddish writers. And then suddenly, over some tea, Schindler remarked: "I hear that there will be a raid on all remaining Jewish property tomorrow." Recognizing the intended warning, Stem later passed the word around and effectively saved many friends from the most ruthless "control" the Germans had thus far carried out. Schindler, he realized, had been attempting to encourage his confidence, although he could still not fathom why.
Oskar Schindler, a Sudeten industrialist, had come to Cracow from his native town of Zwittau, just across what had been a border a few months earlier. Unlike most of the carpetbaggers who joyously rushed into prostrate Poland to gobble up the nation's production, he received a factory not from an expropriated Jew but from the Court of Commercial Claims. A small concern devoted to the manufacture of enamel-ware, it had lain idle and in bankruptcy for many years. In the winter of 1939-1940 he began operations with 4,000 square metres of floor space and a hundred workers, of whom seven were Jewish. Soon he managed to bring in Stern as his accountant.
Production started with a rush, for Schindler was a shrewd and tireless worker, and labour--by now semi-slave--was as plentiful and as cheap as in any industrialist's fondest dream. During the first year the labour force expanded to 300, including 150 Jews. By the end of 1942, the factory had grown to 45,000 square metres and employed almost 800 men and women. The Jewish workers, of whom there were now 370, all came from the Cracow ghetto the Germans had created. "It had become a tremendous advantage," says Stem, "to be able to leave the ghetto in the daytime and work in a German factory."
Relations between Schindler and the Jewish workers began and continued on a circumspect plane. In these early days he had little contact with all save the few who, like Stern, worked in the offices. But comparing their lot with that of the Jews trapped in the ghetto, from which deportations had by now begun, or even with those who slaved for other Germans in neighbouring factories, Schindler's Jewish workers grew to appreciate their position. Although they could not understand the reasons, they recognized that Herr Direktor was somehow protecting them. An air of quasi-security grew in the factory and the men soon sought permission to bring in families and friends to share in their comparative haven.
Word spread among Cracow’s Jews that Schindler's factory was the place to work. And, although the workers did not know it, Schindler helped his Jewish employees by falsifying the, factory records. Old people were recorded as being twenty years younger; children were listed as adults. Lawyers, doctors, and engineers were registered as metalworkers, mechanics, and draughtsmen--all trades considered essential to war production. Countless lives were saved in this manner as the workers were protected from the extermination commissions that periodically scrutinized Schindler’s records.
At the same time, most of the workers did not know that Schindler spent his evenings entertaining many of the local SS and Wehrmacht officers, cultivating influential friends and strengthening his position wherever possible. His easy charm passed as candour, and his personality and seeming political reliability made him popular in Nazi social circles in Cracow.
Stern remained unimpressed by the air of security. They were all perched on a volcano’s edge, he knew. From behind his high book-keeper’s table he could see through the glass door of Schindler’s private office. "Almost everyday, from morning until evening, officials and other visitors came to the factory and made me nervous. Schindler used to keep pouring them vodka and joking with them. When they left he would ask me in, close the door, and then quietly tell me whatever they had come for. He used to tell them that he knew how to get work out of these Jews and that he wanted more brought in. That was how we managed to get in the families and relatives all the time and save them from deportation." Schindler never offered explanations and never revealed himself as a die-hard antifascist, but gradually Stern began to trust him.
SCHINDLER maintained personal links to "his Jews," each of whom worked in the factory’s office. One was Itzhak Stern’s brother, Dr. Nathan Stern, a man who is today a respected member of Poland’s small Jewish community. Magister Label Salpeter and Samuel Wulkan, both old ranking members of the Polish Zionist movement, were the other two. Together with Stern, they were part of a group that served as a link with the outside underground movement. And in this work they were soon joined by a man named Hildegeist, the former leader of the Socialist Workers’ Union in his native Austria, who, after three years in Buchenwald, had been taken on in the factory as an accountant. A factory worker, the engineer Pawlik, subsequently to reveal himself as an officer in the Polish underground, led these activities.
Schindler himself played no active role in all this, but his protection served to shelter the group. It is doubtful that these few men did effective resistance work, but he group did provide the Schindlerjuden with their first cohesiveness and a semblance of discipline that later was to prove useful.
While friends and parents in the ghetto were being murdered in the streets or were dying of disease or were being sent to nearby Auschwitz, daily life in the factory continued in this minor key until 1943. Then, on March 13, came all the orders to close the Cracow ghetto. All Jews were moved to the forced-labor camp of Plaszow, outside the city. Here, in a sprawling series of installations that included subordinate camps throughout the region, conditions even for the graduates of the terrible Cracow ghetto were shocking. The prisoners suffered and by the hundreds either died in camp or were moved to Auschwitz. The order to complete the extermination of Jewry had already been given and willing hands on all sides cooperated to carry out the command as efficiently and quickly as possible.
Stern along with Schindler’s other workers had also been moved to Plaszow from the ghetto but, like some 25,000 other inmates who inhabited the camp and worked outside, they continued spending their days in the factory. Falling deathly ill one day, Stern sent word to Schindler urgently pleading for help. Schindler came at once, bringing essential medicine, and continued his visits until Stern recovered. But what he had seen in Plaszow had chilled him.
Nor did he like the turn things had taken in his factory.
Increasingly helpless before the frenetic Jew-haters and Jew-destroyers, Schindler found that he could no longer joke easily with the German officials who came on inspections. The double game was becoming more difficult. Incidents happened more and more often. On one occasion, three SS men walked onto the factory floor without warning, arguing among themselves. "I tell you, the Jew is even lower than an animal," one was saying. Then, taking out his pistol, he ordered the nearest Jewish worker to leave his machine and pick up some sweepings from the floor. "Eat it," he barked, waving his gun. The shivering man choked down the mess. "You see what I mean," the SS man explained to his friends as they walked away. "They eat anything at all. Even an animal would never do that."
Another time, during an inspection by an official SS commission, the attention of the visitors was caught by the sight of the old Jew, Lamus, who was dragging himself across the factory courtyard in an utterly depressed state. The head of the commission asked why the man was so sad, and it was explained to him that Lamus had lost his wife and only child a few weeks earlier during the evacuation of the ghetto. Deeply touched, the commander reacted by ordering his adjutant to shoot the Jew "so that he might be reunited with his family in heaven," then he guffawed and the commission moved on. Schindler was left standing with Lamus and the adjutant.
"Slip your pants down to your ankles and start walking," the adjutant ordered Lamus. Dazed, the man did as he was told.
"You are interfering with all my discipline here," Schindler said desperately. The SS officer sneered.
"The morale of my workers will suffer. Production for der Vaterland will be affected." Schindler blurted out the words. The officer took out his gun.
"A bottle of schnapps if you don't shoot him", Schindler almost screamed, no longer thinking rationally.
"Stimmt!" To his astonishment, the man complied. Grinning, the officer put the gun away and strolled arm in arm with the shaken Schindler to the office to collect his bottle. And Lamus, trailing his pants along the ground, continued shuffling across the yard, waiting sickeningly for the bullet in his back that never came.
The increasing frequency of such incidents in the factory and the evil his eyes had seen at the Pfaszow camp probably were responsible for moving Schindler into a more active antifascist role. In the spring of 1943, he stopped worrying about the production of enamelware appliances for Wehrmacht barracks and began the conspiring, the string-pulling, the bribery, and the shrewd outguessing of Nazi officialdom that finally were to save so many lives. It is at this point that the real legend begins. For the next two years, Oskar Schindler's ever-present obsession was how to save the greatest number of Jews from the Auschwitz gas chamber only sixty kilometres from Cracow.
His first ambitious move was to attempt to help the starving, fearful prisoners at Plaszow. Other labour camps in Poland, such as Treblinka and Majdanek, had already been shut down and their inhabitants liquidated. Plaszow seemed doomed. At the prompting of Stern and the others in the "inner-office" circle, Schindler one evening managed to convince one of his drinking companions, General Schindler--no relative, but well placed as the chief of the war-equipment command in Poland--that Plaszow’s camp workshops would be ideally suited for serious war production. At that time they were being used only for the repair of uniforms. The general fell in with the idea and orders for wood and metal were given to the camp. As a result, Plaszow was officially transformed into a war-essential "concentration camp." And though conditions hardly improved, it came off the list of labour camps that were then being done away with. Temporarily at least, Auschwitz's fires were cheated of more fuel.
The move also put Schindler in well with Plazow's commander, the Hauptsturmfuhrer Amon Goeth, who, with the change, now found his status elevated to a new dignity. When Schindler requested that those Jews who continued to work in his factory be moved into their own sub-camp near the plant "to save time in getting to the job," Goeth complied. From then on, Schindler found that be could have food and medicine smuggled into the barracks with little danger. The guards, of course, were bribed, and Goeth never was to discover the true motives in Schindler's request.
Schindler began to take bigger risks. Interceding for Jews who were denounced for one "crime" or another was a dangerous habit in fascist eyes, but Schindler now started to do this almost regularly. "Stop killing my good workers," was his usual technique. "We've got a war to win. These things can always be settled later." The ruse succeeded often enough to save dozens of lives.
One August morning in 1943, Schindler played host to two surprise visitors who had been sent to him by the underground organization that the American Jewish welfare agency, the Joint Distribution Committee, then operated in occupied Europe. Satisfied that the men indeed had been sent by Dr. Rudolph Kastner, head of the secret JDC apparatus, who was at the time leading a shadowy existence in Budapest with a sizable price on his head, Schindler called for Stern. "Speak frankly to these men, Stern," he said. "Let them know what has been going on in Plaszow."
"We want a full report on the anti-Semitic persecutions," the visitors told Stern. "Write us a comprehensive report."
"Go ahead, urged Schindler. "They are Swiss. It is safe. You can rely on them. Sit down and write."
To Stern the risk was purposeless and foolhardy, and he flared up. Turning angrily to Schindler, he asked, "Schindler, tell me frankly, isn't this a provocation? It is most suspicious."
Schindler in turn became angry at Stem's sudden mistrust. "Write!" he ordered. Stern had little choice. He wrote everything he could think of, mentioned names of those living and those dead, and penned the long letter that, years later, he discovered had been circulated widely and helped to settle uncertainties in the hearts of the prisoners' relatives scattered around the world outside Europe. And when the underground subsequently brought him answering letters from America and Palestine, any doubts he still might have had of the integrity or judgment of Oskar Schindler vanished.
Life in the Schindler factory went on.
Some of the less hardy men and women died, but the majority continued doggedly at their machines, turning out enamelware for the German army. Schindler and his "inner-office" circle had become taut and apprehensive, wondering just how long they could continue their game of deception. Schindler himself still entertained the local officers but, with the change of tide that followed Stalingrad and the invasion of Italy, tempers were often out of control. A stroke of a pen could send the Jewish workers to Auschwitz and Schindler along with them. The group moved cautiously, increased the bribes to the guards at the camp and the factory, and, with Schindler's smuggled food and medicines, fought for survival. The year 1943 became 1944. Daily, life ended for thousands of Polish Jews. But the Schindlerjuden, to their own surprise, found themselves still alive.
By the spring of 1944, the German retreat on the Eastern Front was on in earnest. Plaszow and all its sub-camps were ordered emptied. Schindler and his workers had no illusions about what a move to another concentration camp implied. The time had come for Oskar Schindler to play his trump card, a daring gamble that he had devised beforehand.
He went to work on all his drinking companions, on his connections in military and industrial circles in Cracow and in Warsaw. He bribed, cajoled, pleaded, working desperately against time and fighting what everyone assured him was a lost cause. He got on a train and saw people in Berlin. And he persisted until someone, somewhere in the hierarchy, perhaps impatient to end the seemingly trifling business, finally gave him the authorization to move a force of 700 men and 300 women from the Plaszow camp into a factory at Brnenec in his native Sudetenland. Most of the other 25,000 men, women, and children at Plaszow were sent to Auschwitz, there to find the same end that several million other Jews had already discovered. But out of the vast calamity, and through the stubborn efforts of one man, a thousand Jews were saved temporarily. One thousand half-starved, sick, and almost broken human beings had had a death sentence commuted by a miraculous reprieve.
The move from the Polish factory to the new quarters in Czechoslovakia, it turned out, was not uneventful. One lot of a hundred did go out directly in July, 1944, and arrived at Brnenec safely. Others, however, found their train diverted without warning to the concentration camp of Gross-Rosen, where many were beaten and tortured and where all were forced to stand in even files in the great courtyard, doing absolutely nothing but putting on and taking off their caps in unison all day long. At length Schindler once more proved successful at pulling strings. By early November all of the Schindlerjuden were again united in their new camp.
And until liberation in the spring of 1945 they continued to outwit the Nazis at the dangerous game of remaining alive. Ostensibly the new factory was producing parts for V2 bombs, but, actually, the output during those ten months between July and May was absolutely nil.
Jews escaping from the transports then evacuating Auschwitz and the other easternmost camps ahead of the oncoming Russians found haven with no questions asked. Schindler even brazenly requested the Gestapo to send him all intercepted Jewish fugitives: "in the interest," he said, "of continued war production." A hundred additional people were saved in this way, including Jews from Belgium, Holland, and Hungary. "His children" reached the number of 1,098: 801 men and 297 women.
The Schindlerjuden by now depended on him completely and were fearful in his absence. His compassion and sacrifice were unstinting. He spent every bit of money still left in his possession, and traded his wife's jewellery as well, for food, clothing, and medicine, and for schnapps with which to bribe the many SS investigators. He furnished a secret hospital with stolen and black-market medical equipment, fought epidemics, and once made a 300-mile trip himself carrying two enormous flasks filled with Polish vodka and bringing them back full of desperately needed medicine. His wife, Emilie, cooked and cared for the sick and earned her own reputation and praise.
In the factory some of the men began turning out false rubber stamps, military travel documents, and the special official papers needed to protect the delivery of food bought illicitly. Nazi uniforms and guns were collected and hidden, along with ammunition and hand grenades, as all eventualities were prepared for. The risks mounted and the tension grew. Schindler, however, seems to have maintained an equilibrium throughout this period that was virtually unshakable. "Perhaps I had become fatalistic," he says now. "Or perhaps I was just afraid of the danger that would come once the men began to lose hope and acted rashly. I had to keep them full of optimism."
But two real frights did disturb his normal calm during the constant perils of these months. The first was when a group of workers, lost for some means of expressing their pent-up gratitude, foolishly told him that they had heard the illegal radio broadcast a promise to name a street in postwar Palestine "Oskar Schindler Strasse." For days he waited for the Gestapo to come around. When the hoax was finally admitted he could no longer laugh.
The other occurred during a visit from the local SS commandant. As was customary, the SS officer sat around Schindler's office drinking glass after glass of vodka and getting drunk rapidly. When he lurched perilously near an iron staircase leading to the basement, Schindler, suddenly yielding to temptation, made one of his rare unpremeditated acts. A slight push, a howl, and a dull thud from the bottom. But the man was not dead. Climbing back into the room with blood pouring from his scalp, he bellowed that Schindler had shot him. Cursing with rage, he flung over his shoulder as he ran out: "You will not live until any liberation, Schindler. Don't think you fool us. You belong in a concentration camp yourself, along with all your Jews!"
SCHINDLER understood "his children" and catered to their fears. Near the factory he had been given a beautifully furnished villa that overlooked the length of the valley where the small Czech village lay. But since the workers always dreaded the SS visits that might come late at night and spell their end, Oskar and Emilie Schindler never spent a single night at the villa, sleeping instead in a small room in the factory itself
When the Jewish workers died they were secretly buried with full rites despite Nazi rulings that their corpses be burned. Religious holidays were observed clandestinely and celebrated with extra rations of black-market food.
Perhaps the most absorbing of all the legends that Schindlerjuden on four continents repeat is one that graphically illustrates Schindler's self-adopted role of protector and saviour in the midst of general and amoral indifference. Just about the time the Nazi empire was crashing down, a phone call from the railway station late one evening asked Schindler whether he cared to accept delivery of two railway cars fall of near-frozen Jews. The cars had been frozen shut at a temperature of 5 F and contained almost a hundred sick men who had been locked inside for ten days, ever since the train had been sent off from Auschwitz ten days earlier with orders to deliver the human cargo to some willing factory. But, when informed of the condition of the prisoners, no factory manager would hear of receiving them. "We are not running a sanatorium!" was the usual word. Schindler, sickened by the news, ordered the train sent to his factory siding at once.
The train was awesome to behold. Ice had formed on the locks and the cars had to be opened with axes and acetylene torches. Inside, the miserable relics of human beings were stretched out, frozen stiff. Each had to be carried out like a carcass of frozen beef. Thirteen were unmistakably dead, but the others still breathed.
Throughout that night and for many days and nights following, Oskar and Emilie Schindler and a number of the then worked without halt on the frozen and starved skeletons. One large room in the factory was emptied for the purpose. Three more men died, but with the care, the warmth, the milk, and the medicine, the others gradually rallied. All this had been achieved surreptitiously, with the factory guards, as usual, receiving their bribes so as not to inform the SS commandant. The men's convalescence also had to be effected secretly lest they be shot as useless invalids. Later they became part of the factory labour force and joined the others in the motions of feigning war production.
Such was life at Brnenec until the arrival of the victorious Russians on May 9 put an end to the constant nightmare. The day before, Schindler had decided that they would have to get rid of the local SS commander just in case he suddenly remembered his drunken threat and got any desperate last-minute ideas. The task was not difficult, for the guards had already begun pouring out of town in panic. Unearthing their hidden weapons, a group slipped out of the factory late at night, found the SS officer drinking himself into oblivion in his room, and shot him from outside his window. In the early morning, once certain that his workers finally were out of danger and that all was in order to explain to the Russians, Schindler, Emilie, and several of his closest friends among the Jewish workers discreetly disappeared and were not heard from until they turned up, months later, deep in Austria's U.S. Zone. For the Nazis, he had known all the answers. But at the end he had decided that, as an owner of a German slave-labour factory, he would take no chances on Russian troops casually shooting him before asking for character references or his particular views on the fascist system.
IN THE four years that followed, the Schindlerjuden regained their health and scattered to many countries. Some joined relatives in America, others found their way, legally or illegally, to Israel, France, and South America. A majority returned to Poland, but many of these drifted out again and began the life of Displaced Persons (DPs) in Germany's many UNRRA camps. Most inevitably lost touch with their good friend Oskar Schindler.
For him, everyday life became difficult and unsettled. A Sudeten German, he had no future in Czechoslovakia and at the same time could no longer stand the Germany he had once loved. For a time he tried living in Regensburg. Later he moved to Munich, depending heavily on Care parcels sent him from America by some of the Schindlerjuden, but too proud to plead for more help. Polish Jewish welfare organizations traced him, discovered him in want, and tried to bring some assistance even in the midst of all their own bitter postwar troubles. Ultimately the problem of effecting some sort of recompense was passed on to the Joint Distribution Committee.
He began to receive a full JDC ration of food and cigarettes, living like any Jewish DP in the country and being kept alive while a better solution was sought. He became as anti-German in his sentiments as any of the Jewish DPs who now became his only friends. And he proved useful to American authorities, and brought a heap of dangerous hostility upon his own head, by presenting the occupying power with the most detailed documentation on all his old drinking companions, on the vicious owners of the other slave factories that had stood near his, on all the rotten group he had wined and flattered while inwardly loathing in order to save the lives of helpless people.
Such is the Schindler story that a thousand people in many different countries today tell. The baffling question that remains is what actually made Oskar Schindler tick. It is doubtful whether any of the Schindlerjuden have yet discovered the real answer. One of them guesses that he was motivated largely by guilt, since it seems a safe assumption that, in order to have earned himself a factory in Poland and the trust of the Nazis, he must have been a member--perhaps an important one--of the Sudeten German Party, Czechoslovakia's prewar fascist movement. Another agrees with this hypothesis but refines it on the strength of a rumour. Schindler first parted company with the Nazis, says this theorist, when a young, hot-headed German storm trooper entered his house and savagely struck his wife, Emilie, in front of him during the 1938 march into the Sudetenland.
Inquiries in Czechoslovakia have produced many who knew him but more confusion than elucidation. One witness, Ifo Zwicker, not only was among the Jews whom Schindler saved but by a happy coincidence had lived for years in Zwittau, Schindler's birthplace and home town. Yet, after enthusiastically confirming the now familiar Schindler saga, Zwicker could only add, uncertainty: "As a Zwittau citizen I never would have considered him capable of all these wonderful deeds. Before the war, you know, everyone here called him Gauner [swindler or sharper]." But was the Gauner so disingenuous that he had become an antifascist because he knew the Nazis were doomed? Hardly the answer to explain a conversion in 1939 or 1940, or to account for a hundred serious risks of quick death.
The only possible conclusion seems that Oskar Schindler's exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him. The inference may be disappointingly simple, especially for all amateur psychoanalysts who would prefer the deeper and more mysterious motive that may, it is true, still lie unprobed and unappreciated. But an hour with Oskar Schindler encourages belief in the simple answer.
Today, at forty, Schindler is a man of convincing honesty and outstanding charm. Tall and erect, with broad shoulders and a powerful trunk, he usually has a cheerful smile on his strong face. His frank, greyblue eyes smile too, except when they tighten in distress as he talks of the past. Then his whole jaw juts out belligerently and his great fists are clutched and pounded in slow anger. When he laughs, it is a boyish and hearty laugh, one that all his listeners enjoy to the full. "It's the personality more than anything else that saved us," one of the group once remarked.
A few months ago, the continuous efforts being made by many people on his behalf finally bore fruit. After years of trying, the JDC received authorization for his permanent exit from Germany. The organization then presented him with a cash grant, a visa for Argentina, and a boat ticket, and helped him bring to an end the drifting confusion and poverty of the postwar years. Oskar and Emilie Schindler will board a boat in Genoa and sail towards their unknown future. Many of "his children" wait in South America to greet them.
SEVERAL months later, the Schindlers did make it to Argentina, but Oskar's postwar life was a mess. He and Emilie split up in 1957 and there were repeated business failures. Returning to West Germany after the break-up of his marriage, he came to rely increasingly on handouts from the ever-grateful Schindlerjuden. When he died in 1974, his wartime exploits had still not been widely described, although they were recognized in Israel where Oskar Schindler was declared a Righteous Gentile and where his remains, transported from Frankfurt, were buried in a cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. As far as Thomas Keneally could discover, he was the only member of the Nazi Party so honoured.
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