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Holocaust Essays: Oskar Schindler: The Man and the Hero

The following are essays created by a class studying the Holocaust. If you'd like to send your comments, please contact the instructor,

Jan Haswell

Oskar Schindler: The Man and the Hero

by April N. Aberly

The purpose of this paper is to shed a different kind of light on who and how we consider a hero. I've tried to express what kind of a life and person Oskar Schindler was, and I ask you to evaluate yourself and decide if you could take the kind of risks Oskar Schindler did. As you learn about a man full of flaws just like the rest of us, I know that you too will appreciate the fact that an ordinary man can do extraordianry things.

What is a hero? In my book, a hero can be any number of things. A hero can be someone who loves and cares for you, someone you look up to, or maybe someone ordinary who does the extraordinary. Many people think of their favorite athlete or rockstar. Some may think of a famous speaker or activist. Whatever the case may be, most everyone has a hero. Oskar Schindler is a hero to over 6,000 Jews currently living across the United States and Europe (Hertling, 1997). Schindler was an ordinary man with extraordinary power that he used to save 1200 human lives during the Holocaust of World War II. The question arises : Who was Oskar Schindler the man? Where did he come from? More importantly, what was his motivation for saving so many Jews? Mainly, though, why is Schindler considered one of the greatest heroes of this century?

Oskar Schindler was born on April 28, 1908 in Zwitlau, which is now part of the present day Czech Republic. His father and mother, Hans and Louisa Schindler, were deeply religious. This resulted in a strong Catholic household for Schindler and his younger sister Elfriede Schindler. The Schindler family was one of the richest and most prominent in Zwitlau and elsewhere. This was due to the success of their family owned machinery business ("Schindler's List," 1995).

Schindler himself was a very tall and handsome man. Needless to say, he was adored by all the young women. His fancy, though, fell for a beautiful young girl named Emily. After only six weeks of courtship, they were married. Sadly, after only a few months of marriage, Schindler began to heavily abuse alcohol. He also had several affairs resulting in two children out of wedlock. In 1929, during the Great Depression, the Schindler family business went bankrupt. At this time, Schindler's father left his mother, and she died soon after. Finding himself jobless, Schindler sought work in nearby Poland as a machinery salesmen ("Schindler's List," 1995).

The picture being painted of Schindler is not exactly one of high class and morals. Indeed, Schindler was an alcoholic and a womanizer. This leads many to think, how can this man be considered a hero? What would possess him, with all of his power and money, to risk his own life to save the lives of thousands of people he has never met? How did he do it? It was no easy task.

The saving of the first Schindler Jews began in 1939, when he came to Krakow in the wake of the German invasion. In Krakow, he took over two previously Jewish owned companies that dealt with the manufacture and sales of enamel kitchenware products. In one of the businesses, however, Schindler was merely a trustee. Looking more for his own power, he opened up a small enamel shop right outside of Krakow near the Jewish ghetto. Here, he employed mostly Jewish workers. This in turn saved them from being deported to labor camps. Then in 1942, Schindler found out through some of his workers that many of the local Krakow Jews were being sent to the brutal Plazow labor camp. This is where Schindler's connections with the German government were so useful. Using his know how, he convinced the S. S. and the Armaments Administration, who had set up the Plazow labor camp, to set up a portion of the camp in his factory. They agreed, and Schindler took even those unfit and unqualified for work. In turn, he spared 900 Jewish lives from this one action (Paldiel, 1982).

Then in October of 1944, this time with the approach of the Russian army, Schindler used his connections to receive permission to reestablish his once defunct business as an armament production company in Bruunlitz. After some negotiating with S.S. officials, he was allowed to take with him some Jewish workers form Zalocie. Schindler then succeeded in transferring over 700 Jews from the Grossrosen camp, and another 300 women form Auschwitz. Once in Brunnlitz, these workers were given the best food, clothing, shelter, and medical care that Schindler could afford.

After this successful operation in Brunnlitz, Schindler received word that a train of evacuated Jews from the Golezow camp were stranded in the nearby city of Svitavy. As he had done twice before, Schindler pulled some strings at the top and got permission from German officials to take his workers to the nearby station to rescue the stranded. Once at the station, they forced the doors open to the rail car and removed some 100 half frozen Jews. Schindler's wife Emile did her best to nurse the ill back to health. Those that did not survive were given a proper Jewish burial paid for by Schindler (Paldiel, 1982). Schindler spent infinite amounts of money not only paying for the upkeep of his workers, but paying the government. Schindler was arrested two times while trying to complete his saving operations. Each time, though, he found a new excuse, or paid a little more money. He risked his life, as well as his family's lives, to save a race of people he never even knew.

In all of this the question still remains, why? Why did he do it? The answer is that there is no answer. Schindler would never comment on what he did. He never truly gave an answer as to why he did what he did. Ludwik Feigenbaum gave the best description of Schindler that made sense of his actions. "I don't know what his motives were, even though I knew him very well. I asked him and I never got a clear answer and the film doesn't make it clear, either. But I don't give a damn. What's important is that he saved our lives. Another survivor, Johnathan Dresner suggests, " He was an adventurer. He was like an actor who always wanted to be center stage. He got into a play and he could not get out of it" ("Schindler's List," 1995).

No matter what anyone believes, the story of Schindler touched me. I think to myself, would I have the courage to give up my life for a bunch of strangers? Would I give up all of my comforts and riches with nothing in return? I am a bit bewildered by the story. I wish that I knew exactly why he did the things he did. Yet as the old saying goes, "Some things are better left unsaid." I think that is what Schindler believed. He saw no reason to give a why. I think that is why he is a hero. He did not want all the pomp and circumstance. He did not want the hero status. I think he saw no reason to brag about what he had done. Schindler knew what it meant to himself and those that he saved, and that is all that mattered. Saving those lives was his return for giving up all he had. He died without much fanfare. He was bankrupt and his last few years were rough. He gave up everything he owned, literally. Yet it did not matter. He gave an unselfish love, of sorts, to the Jews. Schindler is indeed a hero for many reasons. Most importantly, he helped to save a race of human beings, just like you and me.

Works Cited

Hertling, Victoria. "The Making of Schindler's List." April 4, 1995. http://www.unr.edu.80/chgps/makeschn.htm. (8 February 1997).

Paldiel, Mordecai. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler. 1982. "Schindler's List." 1995. http://members.aol.com/rockycd/obstacle.htm. (8 February 1997).

"Schindler's List." 1995. http://members.aol.com/rockycd/why.htm. (8 February 1997).


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