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Humanizing A Hero: A Look Into the Life of Oskar Schindler

Book Essay on: David Crowe, Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List
(New York: Westview Press, 2004), 766 pages.
UCSB: D804.66.S38C76

by Lauren Foehr
March 14, 2009

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
Germany, 1900-1945
UC Santa Barbara, Spring 2009

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
Plagiarism Warning & Links
Read it at Google Books

About Lauren Foehr

I am a junior History major whose main interest is history of the twentieth century. I traveled to Berlin in December of 2008. During my time there I saw where the Bendler Block was located, as well as its current state, which is a parking lot. I chose to write about Crowe's book because I was interested in seeing how true Steven Spielberg's film was and to learn more about Oskar Schindler himself rather than just his legacy.

Abstract (back to top)

David Crowe's book Oskar Schindler explores Oskar Schindler's entire life, especially his character. Crowe argues that Schindler sought early on to solely make money, and that he engaged in both moral and economic compromises in order to generate profits. Yet Crowe later concludes that, as "the war and the Holocaust changed, so did Oskar Schindler," for his concerns began to surround the welfare of Jews rather than generating revenue (Crowe, 132). However Schindler's flaws must not only be noted as a means of establishing contrast but also that such flaws, such as his insatiable quest for wealth, in turn assisted in his success in saving Jews. Oskar Schindler himself remarked "I am far from being a saint," when asked about his wartime actions (Crowe, 130). Crowe successfully depicts the complex life of Oskar Schindler, seeking to reveal his true character, and as a result, humanizes a hero.

Essay (back to top)

“I am far from being a saint,” remarked Oskar Schindler when prompted about the Jewish lives he spared during the Second World War (Crowe, 130). David M. Crowe, in his biography appropriately titled Oskar Schindler, documents the span of Schindler’s life, seeking to discover the man’s motivations for his decision to save so many Jewish lives. With the use of numerous sources, from Emilie Schindler’s memoir, to government documents, and accounts of Schindlerjuden (Schindler’s Jews) and others Crowe successfully depicts the complex life of Oskar Schindler. Crowe argues that Oskar Schindler sought early on to solely make money, engaging in both moral and economic compromises in order to generate profits. Crowe later concludes that, as “the war and the Holocaust changed, so did Oskar Schindler,” for his concerns began to surround the protection of Jews rather than generating revenue (Crowe, 132). However, Oskar Schindler’s flaws must not only be noted as a means of establishing contrast but also that his flaws, such as his initial insatiable quest for wealth, in turn assisted in his quest to save Jews from Third Reich.

Crowe begins his portrayal of Oskar Schindler by depicting the family environment in which he was raised, seeking to provide a foundation to which he builds upon over the course of his work. In the process Crowe creates a stark comparison between Schindler and his father. Both men were excessive drinkers and habitually unfaithful to their wives, a similarity that Schindler failed to cognize (Crowe, 72). Schindler’s mirroring of his father’s toxic lifestyle fueled his insatiable quest for money further, as it required him not only to support his wife, Emilie, as well as a slew of mistresses and eventually two illegitimate children. The monetary supply required to maintain multiple households in turn led Schindler to employ himself as a spy and to later on buy a factory in Kraków, both of which he engaged in with the hopes of increasing his own prestige and wealth (Crowe, 54).

Oskar Schindler spent the early portion of his adulthood as a spy for the Abwehr, a division of German military intelligence. The author sheds light on this period of Schindler’s life with immense detail, describing specific missions as well as contacts to which Schindler engaged in at this time. He does so to lay a foundation of Schindler’s persona as a young man that enables him to establish a basis of evidence, a reference point of sorts. This ‘reference point’ is referred to by the author throughout the book for a variety of reasons. The man personified as a spy for German intelligence, one who aided in the preparation of Nazi invasions in both Czechoslovakia and Poland stands in sharp contrast to the actions he carried out once the war had erupted on an international scale (Crowe, 45). Crowe’s successful depiction of Schindler as a young adult provides a basis for his argument of the profound changes that Schindler underwent over the course of the war, culminating in the establishment of the famous ‘list.’ Emphasis on the early period of Schindler’s life has additional significance to Schindler’s story, as a few of the contacts that he made during this time, such as Wehrmacht’s Armaments Inspectorate Officers, whom he openly thanked following the war for helping make his ‘list’ possible (Crowe, 48). For the officers assisted in Oskar’s prompt release from prison on the three separate occasions when he was arrested during the war. These were men that Oskar categorized in a personal letter as either, “ anti-Nazi or at least opponents of the SS and its methods” (Crowe, 57).

The historical work Oskar Schindler explores events surrounding Schindler and his factories in an attempt to pinpoint in the quest to locate specific event or moment that may have ignited Schindler’s shift in aspirations for his businesses away from revenue to rather the formation of his ‘list.’ Schindler purchased his first enamelware factory in Kraków, Poland in 1939 from a Jewish family, capitalizing on the German invasion there and the persecution of Jews. This purchase was done solely as a means to earn copious amounts of money. Crowe highlights this paradox that initially Schindler capitalized on the plight Jews were beginning to face, but also that, through testimony by a member of the previous owners, Schindler did in fact pay a fair price for the industrial establishment (Crowe, 89). Although Schindler possessed a drive for profits, the biographer concludes that Schindler was not a savvy businessman, a weakness that resulted in his employment of Abraham Bankier. Bankier managed business operations and found a niche within the Polish markets resulting in significant profits - the black market. Without Bankier Schindler’s business would not have generated the wealth it did. The factory’s entanglement in the black market resulted in substantial profits.

Schindler’s factory allowed him to achieve the economic status he so had longed for, which fuels curiosity around what inspired him to ultimately spend this fortune on protecting his Jewish workers. His fortune was dispersed over the wide range of expenses the Schindlerjuden brought. These expenses included a daily fee to the SS for each of his workers of approximately $1.56 for each male worker and $1.25 for each female (Crowe, 408). The costs of construction for housing, and other living expenses for his Jewish employees, such as food, left him in debt by the end of the war. This contrast demonstrates the severity to which Oskar Schindler changed his motivations, as he cast away his previous goal, the attainment of wealth, in order to succeed in saving so many Jewish lives.

In regards to the moment in which Schindler decided to strive to establish the ‘list’ and protect Jews, a confirmed origin of such epiphany is unknown. However Crowe concludes that Schindler’s decision to “solely save his Jewish workers was more than likely a gradual one.” (Crowe, 177) Crowe notes that this decision was made over the course of the summer of 1942 (Crowe, 111). During this time death camps were opened to which Jews in Kraków were routinely “rounded up and hauled off” to (Crowe,183). Schindler’s quest was solidified further by the mass murders that ensued with the closing of the Kraków ghetto in March 1943. During the closing the Kinderheim horror was carried out, in which hundreds of Jewish children, including infants, were shot in an alleyway. The gradual nature of Schindler’s decision to undermine the Nazis’ ‘final solution’ supports Crowe’s notion that Schindler himself changed as a result of the escalating violence surrounding him (Crowe, 194). Yet one must also realize that without Schindler’s initial greed the funding for his quest would not have been possible.

Once Oskar Schindler concluded that his prerogative was to protect his Jewish workers he sought to do so by establishing a strategic friendship with the Plaszow camp’s commandant, Amon Göth. Crowe cites testimonies of the camp’s survivors regarding Göth’s demeanor, including several instances in which he called upon his dogs to tear inmates apart (Crowe, 209). Schindler’s affiliation with Göth is explored by Crowe with immense care, almost too much so, as he explores not only the relationship between the two men but also Göth’s entire military record within the Nazi regime (Crowe, 226). However although Schindler frequented Göth’s social gatherings the biographer stresses that Oskar did so to attain his own aims, showing resistance to Göth’s establishment by comforting one of Göth’s Jewish servants, Helen, sneaking her small supplies of food and attempting to covertly boost her morale when possible (Crowe, 443). The cordial relations between Schindler and Göth aided the both of them, for as Crowe concludes, Göth resided in a faction of the Reich in which, “economics took precedent over racial policy when it came to the fate of the Jews.” (Crowe, 225). Göth’s economic concerns allowed Schindler to bribe Göth in order to achieve his own aims, such as the construction of a sub-camp for his Schindlerjuden within Plaszow. Such bribery was confirmed in Emilie Schindler’s memoir, in which she recalled Oskar offering Göth a range of lavish items from money to diamonds (Crowe, 331). Again Oskar’s initial greed assisted in his new cause, helping him to provide establish a stream of revenue that made such bribes possible.

When the Plaszow announced its closing in 1943, Schindler used both bribes, and reliance on contacts he had made while in Abwehr, such as General Maximillian Schindler, to establish another sub-camp for his workers within the Brunnlitz camp, the construction costs for which Schindler had to provide. The transportation of his workers to Brunnlitz in 1944 resulted in the creation of the infamous ‘list’ with the aide of Marcel Goldberg, an assistant within Plaszow’s Jewish labor details department (Crowe, 399). Thus Schindler’s actions demonstrate the moral conversion that Crowe concludes changed Schindler and his motivations from 1942 onward. However Crowe does not shed light on the fact Schindler’s transformation would not have been possible without the initial greedy aims of his early adulthood. Oskar Schindler’s greed took precedence over morals led to him acquiring the factory, which in turn with Bankier’s guidance led to the establishment of revenue streams, mainly the black market, that later funded his heroic aims. Although it is possible Schindler could have earned money through a more moral business venture, a different situation would not have resulted in the presence of Bankier, whom without Schindler would have been unsuccessful, as he was in the years following the war.

David Crowe portrays Schindler’s actions amidst the war in a noble, heroic light, as overall his actions resulted in saving the lives of over a thousand Jews, through prevention of their entry into Auschwitz. However he also cites an instance in which such gratitude did not occur, with the accusations of Julius Wiener and Natan Wurzel in 1955 in what became known as the Wurtzel-Wiener Controversy. Both men stated that Schindler “brutally took over” the Wiener family business in 1939, and that he preyed on bankrupt Jewish families in order to acquire industrial property, as well as forcing Wiener’s father to kiss a portrait of Hitler (Crowe, 518). Julius Wiener later on was a member of Schindler’s ‘list,’ after which Schindler accused him of theft and had him beaten by a handful of Gestapo men (Crowe, 519). Crowe cites that Schindler never addressed the charges outright but found in a personal letter Schindler stating that he was persuaded to buy the factory in Kraków after meeting with the Wiener family, implying that they in some form “approved of his takeover,” (Crowe, 519). The author concludes that although Schindler’s logic within the letter doesn’t “fit with the racial and political realities of the time,” the massive outcry by other Schindler Jews about the wonderful things in which he did for them helps support the valorous light in which he displays Schindler’s wartime actions (Crowe, 519). Schindler did capitalize on the Wiener family’s suffering as they were forced to sell their business. This action demonstrates his greedy nature, however he did pay them for the factory rather than seize it outright, which was done during this time. This is of high contrast to his later actions where he sought to reduce the suffering of Jews rather than exploit it.

Crowe does not examine the course of Schindler’s life in the post-war era in as much detail as the other portions of his life. Schindler delved into several business ventures that failed following the war. He was not able to capitalize on the post-war economic growth. One of which was in Germany, another in Argentina shortly after he relocated there with Emilie in 1948 (Crowe, 621). His failed business ventures after the war, concludes Crowe, further solidify the importance of Bankier within the structure of the Kraków factory, as it demonstrates that Schindler lacked any of his own intuition within the business realm (Crowe, 601).

Oskar Schindler did not ever achieve economic success after the war, yet the outpouring of gratitude from Jewish communities for his courageous protection of Schindlerjuden does mark a success of a different nature. Crowe demonstrates such gratitude with opening his biography of Schindler with an account by Ted Feder, and American GI, who witnessed a Holocaust survivor in Munich fall to his knees and kiss Schindler’s hands while chanting, “He saved us!” (Crowe, 1). His reaction to Schindler’s presence, as well as the numerous awards and accreditations he received, justify the heroic nature to which Crowe portrays Schindler’s actions. Few acts of such magnitude in regards to protecting Jews were carried out during the war, and the achievements of Schindler, a man of numerous flaws, that resulted in saving the lives of 1,098 Jews are actions that deserve esteemed commemoration. The book’s emphasis on the evolution of Schindler as a person as the war progressed is crucial, for he was not a superhero, but rather an ordinary man who accomplished something extraordinary. However David Crowe’s account of Schindler’s life places the man on a balance of scales of sorts, as Crowe presents the flaws of Schindler to be balanced with the acts of courage and valor he demonstrated with his Schindlerjuden. However a human life should not be judged by a scale, but rather it should be seen that Schindler’s flaws aided in his success in saving so many lives over the course of the war, as he, in his own words, sought to combat “the unbearable sufferings of the Jewish people,” (Crowe, 206).

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/14/09)

Book Reviews

A.J. Sherman, The Times Literary Supplement, August 2005, 1-3, www.powells.com/review/2005_08_07.html
A. J. Sherman, a writer for the Time Literary Journal, begins his review of Crowe’s work with the historical context of Poland during World War II, providing everyday readers with the necessary knowledge to understand his viewpoint in regard to Oskar Schindler. Sherman argues that Crowe does not succeed in explaining why Schindler saved so many Jews. Sherman’s view fails to mention the emphasis Crowe places on the ways in which Schindler himself evolved during war as he shifted his aims from profits to saving lives. Crowe’s thesis revolves around this notion of change, thus it is hard to conceive how Sherman overlooked this statement.

Gideon Greif, 2006, Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, www1.yadvashem.org/education/book_reviews/english/Schindler
As a member of a Holocaust remembrance association, Greif evaluates Crowe’s work on Oskar Schindler by highlighting Crowe’s depiction of both Schindler’s heroic actions as well as his flaws, such as his ‘various relations’ with women. Greif is obviously knowledgeable about Schindler. Although his review is brief, Greif notes Crowe’s argument that Schindler did evolve or change over the course of the war that he was not born with such heroic attributes, but rather he became an altered man due to his chaotic and brutal environment. Greif mentions the balancing act to which Crowe upholds Schindler’s life in which he ultimately concludes that the heroic actions during the war outweigh his flaws of greed and infidelity. Greif’s review lacks any critical analysis on the work and rather just notes Crowe’s argument as well as the time span that the author covers throughout the book.

Deborah Lipstadt, The Washington Post Co. , 2005, (amazon link)
Deborah Lipstadt, a writer for the Washington Post, offers a more critical analysis of Crowe’s work in contrast to the other reviews. Although she notes that the work contains ‘fascinating’ information, she states that such facts are ‘marred’ by the sheer size of the book and that Crowe was in dire need of the assistance of a “good editor’s red pen.” Crowe’s work is lengthy at almost eight hundred pages, however it must also be taken into account that such length occurs due to the fact that Crowe analyzes Schindler’s entire life rather than just the years of the war. Crowe does succeed articulating his argument throughout the book, and although there portions of the work that could have been omitted without harm, Lipstadt is incorrect in deeming the Crowe’s preparation and the work itself as a ‘waste’ due to its number of pages.

Web Sites

Wikipedia, “Oskar Schindler” (accessed March 3, 2009). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Schindler
The Wikipedia site for Oskar Schindler provides information not only about the Jews he saved during the war but provides information on various stages of Schindler’s life, from his childhood to his life after the war as well as his legacy. The site is successful in providing a brief depiction of Oskar Schindler that portrays him as imperfect, a man of infidelity and greed but also a man who saved almost 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust. This is an informational site that anyone can use. It is helpful in painting a quick picture of Oskar Schindler himself, as well as his heroic reputation.

Louis Bülow, “Oskar Schindler: His List of Life” (archive.org: Jun. 2000, last revised Oct. 2007).<http://www.oskarschindler.com/>
Bülow’s site contains a vast array of documentation regarding Oskar Schindler during his war years, including the names on the list itself. The site was created as part of the Holocaust project, an initiative seeking to promote awareness and extensive research of the Holocaust itself. The site portrays Schindler in a very heroic and positive light, there is no mention here of the character flaws Crowe depicts. However the site is helpful in providing pictures, testimonies, and documentation from the time. The site offers a massive amount of photos of both Schindler and the Holocaust itself that is helpful in visualizing the Nazi sphere for Jews during the war.

Notable Biographies, “Oskar Schindler Biography” (archive.org: May 2006, last revised Nov. 2007). <http://www.notablebiographies.com/Ro-Sc/Schindler-Oskar.html>
The “Notable Biographies” site provides a biography of Oskar Schindler that is comparable in length to that of the Wikipedia site, however it provides more details about Schindler’s early life as well as his life at the end of the war and immediately after the war. While the Wikipedia site is created for the use of spreading general facts, this site provides much more details as well as quotes from Schindler himself. Although the site does romanticize Schindler’s actions to a degree, it does emphasize the change Schindler underwent that shifted his motivations during the war, a theme emphasized by Crowe places. Thus the site is a fitting companion to Crowe’s literary work.

Books and Articles

Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994) , 400 pages. http://books.google.com/books?id=2xJHAAAACAAJ
Thomas Keneally’s novel regarding the wartime actions of Oskar Schindler is very well known, as it is the source to which the screenplay for Steven Spielberg’s film was derived from. Keneally’s narrative regarding Oskar Schindler’s life is cited several times within David Crowe’s own biography of Schindler. Crowe cites the main concern with Keneally’s book is the fact that it was written prior to the discovery of the ‘suitcase files,’ which are primary documents of Schindler’s that were discovered in a suitcase in an attic in 1997. Keneally emphasizes in Oskar’s character as Crowe does, yet due to the drastic differences in size of the two works it can be inferred that Crowe’s work is more detailed as well as accurate, for Keneally labeled his work a novel rather than a biography due to conversations he re-imagined without actual evidence.

Jeremy Roberts, Oskar Schindler: Righteous Gentile (New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2000) , 112 pages. <http://books.google.com/books?id=mGG5JQb_ywQC>
The biography penned by Jeremy Roberts is drastically brief recount of Schindler’s life in comparison to Crowe’s work. This difference in depth is due to the different audiences each work seeks to reach. For while Crowe’s work is meant to be read by adults, while Roberts’s book is intended to be read by an adolescent audience. Although his work is brief Roberts does shed light on the ‘moral conversion’ Schindler underwent during the war that motivated him to save almost 1,200 Jewish lives. Thus each book humanizes Oskar Schindler, yet they do so with two different audiences in mind.

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Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/23/09; last updated: 3/x/09
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