The publication of Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark (1982) and the release of the Steven Spielberg Oscar-winning film “Schindler’s List” (1993), made the basic story of Oskar Schindler widely known.
German industrialist, Nazi Party member, war profiteer, alcoholic, and shameless womanizer, Schindler (1908-1974) was both a cynical, greedy exploiter of slave workers and an authentic Holocaust hero best known for risking his life and spending his entire fortune during World War II to save over 1,200 Jews by employing them at his Krakow enamelware factory and protecting them by bribing German officials.
When the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, the opportunistic businessman joined the Nazi Party. He gained ownership of an idle Jewish-owned enameled-goods factory close to the Jewish ghetto, Deutsch Emailwaren Fabrik, and, with the help of Itzhak Stern, his Jewish accountant, he obtained some 1,000 Jewish slave laborers.
Though initially motivated by money, Schindler was appalled by the Nazi murder of many of his Jewish workers and he thereafter used all his skills to protect his Schindlerjuden (“Schindler Jews”). He used the special status of his factory (“business essential to the war effort”) to arrange with Amon Göth, commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp, for 700 Jews to be transferred to an adjacent factory compound where he protected them.
In 1962 Schindler was declared one of the “righteous among the nations,” an honor awarded by Israel to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust at great personal risk, and he was the only (former) member of the Nazi Party ever invited to plant a tree at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial.
Less well known than Schindler’s wartime heroics is his life after the war, which is actually a tragic tale of recurrent failure. He became the subject of substantial physical and verbal abuse because of the assistance he had provided to Jews during the war; in fact, after he was honored by Israel, Schindler’s German business partner terminated the partnership because “now it is clear that you are a friend of Jews and I will not work together with you any longer.”
His unambiguous condemnation and denunciation of German war criminals only served to exacerbate the enmity many Germans felt toward him. He was attacked with taunts of “You dirty Jew. They forgot to gas you” (Schindler, of course, was not Jewish), and workmen shouted “Too bad you didn’t burn with the Jews.”
In particular, Schindler received countless threats from former Nazis, including one from an attorney who, after unambiguously identifying himself as “an old Nazi,” noted Schindler’s visit to Israel and his support for Jews during the war and warned: “Because of your behavior, I have an eye on you, Herr Schindler.”
In one incident, one of his factory workers attacked him with an iron rod and, though he pressed charges, the post-Holocaust German authorities failed to take any action. When he punched out a factory worker who accused him of being a “Jew kisser,” he was hauled into court, charged with violence, and received a lecture from the judge on proper social behavior.
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By the end of the war, Schindler had spent his vast fortune on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers and was virtually broke. Facing monumental financial difficulties and feeling understandably vulnerable in postwar Germany, he applied for an entry permit to the United States, but was turned down because he had served as a member of the Nazi Party. In 1949 he and his wife, Emilie, fled to Argentina where he settled down as a farmer. But when he went bankrupt in 1957, he abandoned Emilie (whom he would never see again).
Shown here is a card from a May 20, 1994 WIZO Gala Schindler Night in West Palm Beach, Florida, to honor Emilie Schindler. The card is signed by Emilie, Tom Keneally (author of Schindler’s Ark), and Jack Feigenbaum and Rena Schoenthal Fagen, surviving “Schindler Jews.” The event was the first time in 50 years that Emilie got to meet some of the people she and her husband had saved. She passed away on October 5, 2001 at age 93.
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Schindler returned to Germany, where every subsequent business he tried, including a cement factory, also failed.
He was repeatedly saved from destitution only through funds provided by some of his “Schindlerjuden,” who had never forgotten him, and later thanks to a small pension he received from the West German government and stipends from Jewish organizations. He had serious health issues, including cardiovascular problems, and ultimately died of liver failure.
Exhibited here are excerpts from what is a truly remarkable and historic correspondence, one of only a handful of Schindler letters in existence. (It was typed on onionskin and therefore does not reproduce well here; I encourage readers interested in seeing all three pages of the letter to contact me and I will be happy to forward the entire scan.).
In the January 2, 1964 letter from Frankfurt am Main to Alfred Hermann, he discusses his difficult life after the war (translation from the German):
As you learned from German television, Channel 2, Mr. Wilfert intends to visit you in NY…. He wants to make a feature about you and some of our friends for television and produce material for your article in New York Herald Tribune…. It seems to be of no consequence that I am present. On December 30, 1963 at an exhibition at Frankfurt’s Paulskirche honoring the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, I had a short conversation with Mr. Wilfert (the exhibition coincides with the trial against Auschwitz guards in the City Hall next door)…. In your first article, and unfortunately I don’t read English, it supposedly says that I was stoned on the streets of Frankfurt. This is untrue and must be based on a translation error…. However, it is true that I was attacked with an iron rod in my factory by one of my workers. This happened in a suburb of Frankfurt in front of 10 witnesses, and I fell down the stairs into concrete blocks on the floor. The emphasis was not on the injuries I sustained but on the words that were spoken: “You dirty Jew. They forgot to gas you.” Half an hour later, I pressed charges with the Hanau police in front of witnesses, but nobody followed up on my complaint…. The police did nothing, and even my lawyer, Dr. Alexander Besser, advised me to let it go. At this time, I had been receiving medical treatments…due to my cardiovascular problems, and I didn’t want to deal with this issue…. I was boycotted and we experienced an unusually cold winter…. This was a new enterprise, we had no reserve assets and finally we received an eviction notice.
I have to reject the notion that these events could turn me into a martyr or that they were caused by political intrigue against me…. On the other hand, I cannot bear the notion that things beyond my control are being trivialized. And Mr. Wilfert was wrong when he stated that “You dirty Jew. They forgot to gas you” is a common saying in Frankfurt.
But I have to complain about a company I used to do business with. Witnesses were unavailable to Mr. Wilfert since they were sick or had been fired, but their attorney revealed himself as an “old Nazi” in front of witnesses. He commented on my visit to Israel and on my support for Jews during the war by saying: “Because of your behavior, I have an eye on you, Herr Schindler. I am an old Nazi.”… I informed my lawyer, and my co-owner, Herr von Wangenheim, about this incident. The result was that our business with them sunk to 10%.