Schindler with photos of people he rescued

Oskar Schindler:
The Man behind the Myth

by Kristina Graf
June 2004

student research paper for
UCSB History 133P proseminar, Spring 2004
Prof. Marcuse (Courses page, homepage)
to 133p homepage; papers index page


The Phenomenon of Holocaust Rescuers (back to top)

The phenomenon of rescuing Jews during the Holocaust has been widely acknowledged and glorified in post-Holocaust years. The tendency to automatically glorify rescuers as "heroic figures" stems from the intrigue of people who risked their lives to save people "the authorities considered beneath contempt."[1] Even the term "rescuer" inherently connotes altruistic heroism. The glorification of rescuers occurs from the assumption that people saved Jews only for altruistic reasons. Scholars like Eva Fogelman, author of Conscience & Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, depict rescuers as heroes of "moral courage" and "moral integrity" without the consideration of ulterior motives other than motives of integrity and ethics.[2] The propensity to instinctively and mindlessly exalt rescuers to a saint-like status becomes problematic because it is next to impossible to weed through the biases and validate genuine rescuers.

The inclination and affinity to glorify rescuers contributed greatly to the creation of the myth of the rescuer Oskar Schindler. The available accounts of Schindler and his List all depict Schindler as heroic. The 1984 publication of Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List, a novel based on the life of Oskar Schindler, the epic release of Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List, a film also based on the life of Oskar Schindler, the 1996 release of Emilie Schindler's Where Light and Shadow Meet, a memoir, and the remaining memoirs and testimonies relating to the life of Oskar Schindler underscore his mythic status as a hero in popular culture [note: the book title is underlined, the film title italicized].[3] Accounts of Schindler prior to Keneally's publication of Schindler's List are far and few between. The few meager words about Schindler, however, all underscore his mythic heroism. German newspaper accounts of Schindler published at the time of Nazi Eichmann's trials all emphasized the heroic nature of Schindler. If the heroic image of Schindler is pure myth, it certainly did not start with the release of Keneally's book.

Although most accounts of Oskar Schindler reflect a bias of the author, the heroic myth of Schindler is much more historical than mythical. Schindler was certainly not a man without faults but his positive attributes far outweighed whatever faults he did have – perhaps that partially explains why many authors choose to overlook or disregard his flaws, a fear that negative qualities would outweigh his achievements. Regardless of biases inherent in accounts of Schindler and his List, the factual, historical chronicle of Oskar Schindler substantiates the myth of Schindler. Historically accurate evidence authenticates that Schindler the man legitimately earned his reputation as a heroic rescuer – because he was a heroic rescuer. Many, if not essentially all, post-war accounts depict Oskar Schindler as a hero. Although most accounts of Schindler reflect the authors' biases and not necessarily the entire truth, Schindler did heroically engage in rescuing Jews. The myth of Schindler emerged with the embellished narratives of his life but the historically accurate account of Schindler dissipates the notion of Schindler's account being mythic. Ultimately, the mythic legend of Schindler is effectively the historically accurate account of Schindler packaged in authors' embellishment and hyperbole.

Commentators on Oskar Schindler and his List (back to top)

Prior to the publication of Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List, the novel that depicts Schindler as heroic, no biographies or books about Schindler existed. However, in 1949 journalist Herbert Steinhouse, who at that time worked as a Western Europe news correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, interviewed Oskar Schindler and Isaac Stern in Austria. Steinhouse concedes that his initial motivation for interviewing Schindler was due to his skepticism of the "Good German" that everyone spoke of. Upon hearing from colleague James Rice that a German had saved 1,300 lives, Steinhouse recalls thinking that he "was convinced that they had never held a gun in their lives."[4] Not only was Steinhouse skeptical, he had no knowledge of the manner in which Schindler had saved Jews: Steinhouse definitely entered the interview with cynicism and doubt. Steinhouse recalls his disbelief when he learned of Schindler's List. "So when James Rice met up with the Schindler group, Oskar did not say: "I saved a Jew."…He simply said: "I saved twelve hundred Jews." How could you possibly believe it?"[5] Steinhouse spent years developing and researching Schindler's List.

I must say I worked harder as a young journalist on that Schindler story than I ever did, before or since, to research a story…Eventually my acceptance of the story got up to sixty or seventy percent. Because there was virtually nothing that didn't fit, from wherever I got it – from French-Jewish organizations and other organizations…even from some then still-secret American-Jewish wartime dossiers.[6]

After years of correspondence with Schindler, Steinhouse wrote and attempted to publish an article about the "Good German" but every publication declined to purchase it. Steinhouse's initial skepticism goes a long way towards validating his ultimate conclusions about the authenticity of the story behind Schindler's List. Although Keneally and Spielberg can be criticized for their artistic license in their respective accounts of Schindler, the came criticisms cannot be used towards Steinhouse because Steinhouse's accounts and conclusions are all based on his interactions with Oskar Schindler and, unlike Spielberg and Keneally, Steinhouse was not forced to turn to his imagination to construct the version of events because he had the factual evidence and testimony to establish the story for him. Since Steinhouse wrote his Schindler article, which largely corroborates Keneally's and Spielberg's accounts, long before and other published material about Schindler, Steinhouse's perception was untainted – he objectively ascertained the historical accuracy of Schindler and his List.

Thomas Keneally's publication of Schindler's List was the first published account of Oskar Schindler and Schindler's List. Keneally initially utilized the account of one List survivor, Leopold Pfefferberg, to ascertain the historically accurate version of Schindler and his List and then interviewed fifty List survivors to authenticate the facts. Aware of probable biases in the stories of List survivors, given that they owe their lives to Schindler, Keneally also utilized documentary and testimonial information supplied by Emilie Schindler, Schindler's wartime associates, and postwar friends. In his introduction, Keneally emphasizes "most exchanges and conversations, and all events, are based on the detailed recollections of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews), of Schindler himself, and of other witnesses to Oskar's acts of outrageous rescue."[7] In spite of his painstaking and methodical efforts to create a truthful account of Schindler, Keneally acknowledged that "it has sometimes been necessary to make reasonable constructs of conversations of which Oskar and others have left only the briefest record."[8] For this reason only, Keneally classified Schindler's List as fiction.

Although Thomas Keneally purports to "avoid all fiction, since fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between reality and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar's stature," Keneally shows bias in his consideration of Schindler's List to be a "pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms."[9] Keneally maintains to have recounted a non-biased depiction of truth in Schindler's List and this statement reflects a potentially problematic bias inherent in the novel. Keneally misses his own point: Keneally's assertion of a factual account of Schindler discounts any possibility of inherent partialities in Schindler's List and assumes that Keneally's account is the only account.  

In spite of his biases, Thomas Keneally, although praising of Schindler, does not outrageously and unrealistically portray and glorify Schindler. While Keneally acknowledges Schindler's kindness and humanity towards his Jewish workers, he does not represent Schindler as a man concerned only with rescuing and mentions Schindler's financial gains from his factories. "The shifts were long, often twelve hours, for Oskar was still a businessman with war contracts to fill and a conventional desire for profit."[10] Ultimately, Keneally viewed Schindler "as flawed hero, ambiguous liberator, strange deity" and in Keneally's opinion, Schindler "deserved to be looked upon in those terms."[11] Keneally's willingness to acknowledge Schindler's flaws and faults lends more credence to Keneally's judgment of Schindler's mythic hero status.

In his film Schindler's List, Steven Spielberg created an unexpected hero out of Oskar Schindler. Far more than Emilie Schindler's testimony and Thomas Keneally's novel, Schindler's List contributed the most to the formulation of the heroic myth of Oskar Schindler in popular culture. It was only after Spielberg's Schindler's List that the heroic myth of Schindler was firmly concretized and became commonly known worldwide. In Schindler's List, Spielberg depicts Schindler as an altruistic businessman with nothing but good intentions. Schindler's List reflects the feel-good idea that "the individual can make a difference, and Schindler does."[12] To further perpetuate the heroic myth of Oskar Schindler, Spielberg utilizes narrative and character development in Schindler's List that historian Tim Cole feels "leaves us with an essentially optimistic belief…in human potential."

Rather than facing the pointless, industrialized murder of six million which causes us to wonder at what human potential can lead to, we see Oskar Schindler and the 1,100 Schindler Jews and are comforted at the thought that flawed people like Schindler – and us – are after all basically good…Spielberg has – through Schindler's List – reached back into the chaos of the Holocaust, and found the story of one individual who did make a difference.[13]

Although Spielberg ultimately exalts Schindler to a mythic heroic status by the end of the film, particularly in the final scene, Spielberg does not ignore Schindler's faults and in acknowledging Schindler's faults, Spielberg lends more credence to his depiction of Schindler as a heroic rescuer.

 Schindler's List had a considerable impact on moviegoers because it served as an important source of "historical information affecting popular perceptions of the Holocaust…[the film was] responsible for…the emergence of a ‘Schindler's List Effect'."[14] Because Schindler's List has essentially acquired the status of a primary document for these moviegoers, the film's depiction of the myth of Schindler resonates deeply.

Ultimately, Spielberg exalted Schindler to the status of a saint. "Indeed it may not be going too far to suggest that Spielberg transforms Schindler into a Christ-like figure."[15] Spielberg clearly wanted to depict Schindler as a heroic, mythic figure. Although Oskar Schindler was a short, stocky man and had an unimpressive physique, Spielberg cast Scottish actor Liam Neeson for the part of Schindler. Neeson has a tall, commanding figure. In the scene after Schindler brings the women back from Auschwitz, he walks among the haggard group as they shuffle up to his factory. Schindler's figure contrasts with the short women and in most scenes, Schindler towers over the other people, especially SS guards. The effect is one of importance; Schindler's large frame implies his importance, influence, and, most importantly, his distinction, which is one of heroism.

Steven Spielberg's film, Schindler's List, reflects his personal spiritual growth, which motivated Spielberg to make the film. It is unclear whether Spielberg sacredly reconnected to his Jewish heritage and spirituality because of Schindler's List or whether Spielberg chose to direct Schindler's List because of his newly discovered spirituality.

Since Spielberg made Schindler's List only after and because of the publishing of Keneally's Schindler's List, it could be argued that the myth of Schindler ultimately came to light because of Keneally.

Emilie Schindler's memoir, Where Light and Shadow Meet, contains inherently problematic testimony. Emilie Schindler unquestionably yearned for more from her husband than she received. A chronic womanizer, Schindler undoubtedly cast Emilie on the sidelines during their marriage: "His behavior as a husband left much to be desired."[16] Schindler's adultery created a plausible and significant motivation behind Emilie's palpable abhorrence towards him; after forty years apart from Oskar, Emilie still admits to a profound melancholy when she allows herself to think of Oskar. During twenty-nine years of marriage to Schindler, Emilie always felt that she lived in his shadow. "I have hated him, I have tried to forget him…I have lived by his side and under his shadow."[17] Consequently, Emilie's memories and recollections reveal her prejudices, partiality, and biases towards (and against) Oskar Schindler and his associates. Therefore, her declarations should be regarded as at least subjective and at most forgone conclusions. In spite of Emilie Schindler's declaration that "the sake of truth" provided her motivation for writing Where Light and Shadow Meet, her declaration of hate towards Oskar Schindler promises a biased rendering of events. In the preface of her memoir, Emilie contends, "Oskar Schindler was bathed in all the light that history accorded him, and I feel that is not entirely fair…[because] he was not a hero."[18] Therefore, she "will not portray Oskar as a hero" in her book.[19] Emilie's obvious contempt towards Schindler emerges in her account of her life before, with, and after her marriage to Oskar Schindler.

Emilie Schindler's narrative of her life with Oskar reflects her predisposition and preconceptions.

Interestingly, Emilie includes twenty photographs in her novel and, in doing so, she exposes not only her predispositions about Oskar Schindler but also her passionate desire to disparage him. Over half of the photographs display Schindler partying and drinking with his comrades – it is noteworthy that Emilie is absent from these jovial pictures. The caption to a 1952 picture that shows Schindler gleefully hovering over five smiling and engaged women is: "Oskar charming his female audience. On the left, his lover Gisa, who followed him to Argentina."[20] Emilie Schindler is a bitter, scorned woman and her bitterness taints her recollections of Oskar.

Although it would be most convenient and straightforward to omit Emilie Schindler's thorny testimony, it would also be problematic because Emilie, in spite of her unwillingness to "portray Oskar as a hero" contributes to the myth of Oskar Schindler as much as Steven Spielberg does. Emilie Schindler witnessed a plethora of Schindler's undertakings and exploits, as well as contemporary Third Reich circumstances that both she and Oskar were subjected to and forced to react to. However, since Emilie wrote and published Where Light and Shadow Meet only after Spielberg released Schindler's List, it is likely that the film influenced Emilie. The latter fact adds one more reason to trust that the only method to approach Emilie Schindler's testimonies and accounts is with the understanding that her ulterior motives are central.

Oskar Schindler – The Man Behind the List (back to top)

Despite his heroic deeds, few myths refute Schindler's questionable character, although many soften his blatant debauchery and hedonism. Schindler lived life to the fullest and Keneally notes "wherever he was, whether it was a bar or a prison, Oskar Schindler was the dominant figure in any landscape."[21] Schindler's considerable character flaws significantly impact the myth of Schindler: if an author or artist chooses to omit certain negative aspect of Schindler, he risks undermining his credibility regarding Schindler's rescuing, but if an author or artist integrates Schindler's immoral behavior, he risks portraying a man too depraved to be capable of rescuing 1,300 Jews. Schindler possessed many degenerate and self-indulgent characteristics – it is difficult to conclude whether Schindler's rescuing occurred because of or in spite of these faults. Regardless, an author or biographer lacks the capability to create the widely accepted mythic hero: a true-life, non-mythic superman possesses faults like every other human being. Although Schindler's drinking and womanizing make him any less of a hero, the depictions of these characteristics in accounts of Schindler reflect a sordid fusion of truth and biases.

Schindler's already excessive drinking escalated as he increased his involvement with Nazi officials. Keneally underscores Schindler's alcohol consumption. "He was a drinker. Some of the time he drank for the pure glow of it, at other times with associates, bureaucrats, SS men for more palpable results."[22] Emilie notes in Where Light and Darkness Meet that prior to Oskar Schindler's associations with the Nazis, he barely drank, but after Schindler made close ties with his Nazi contacts, he drank daily. As his affiliations with Nazi officials flourished, Schindler's drinking escalated so rapidly that Emilie Schindler feared that her husband was becoming an alcoholic, just like his father.[23] Oskar Schindler increased his daily alcohol consumption as the surrounding social and political state of affairs worsened.

Drinking was not Schindler's only vice – women commanded Schindler's affection easily. While Emilie lived in Moravia, Schindler's German mistress lived with him part-time in Poland. Schindler also kept a long-term relationship with his Polish secretary. Keneally mentions "that to all his women [Schindler] was a well-mannered and generous lover."[24]

Schindler's perpetual womanizing and excessive drinking enabled him to easily make social connections with important Nazis. Much to Emilie's chagrin, Schindler spent almost every night of the week drinking with and entertaining local SS and Wehrmacht officials. In doing so, Herbert Steinhouse notes that Schindler was "cultivating influential friends and strengthening his position wherever possible."[25]

After a short time of rescuing, Schindler's activities were dangerously known throughout the Nazi party. Everyone appeared to have knowledge of Schindler's rescuing activities. Herbert Steinhouse recalls an incident when a Krakow Commandant that Schindler had pushed down some stairs said, "Oskar, you tried to kill me. And don't think you can get away. We all know who you are. You're a Jew-lover, and you'll go to Auschwitz just as fast as your Jews."[26] Schindler placed himself in great danger by associating with Nazi officials after Schindler's rescuing became common knowledge. Schindler's relationship with Goeth, although useful for his rescuing endeavors, resulted in various predicaments. Goeth even sent Schindler to jail once for falsely accusing Schindler of stowing boxes of stolen jewelry and weapons.[27] However in spite of common knowledge of Schindler's rescuing activities, Schindler still enjoyed protection and security from his Nazi comrades. In Schindler's List, Schindler declares, "I'm protected by powerful friends, you should know that" when the Auschwitz Kommandant threatens to have Schindler arrested.

In Schindler's List, Thomas Keneally highlights Schindler's kindness and compassion to his Jewish workers.

Oskar set [the factory's] tone. The tone was one of fragile permanence. There were no dogs. There were no beatings. The soup and bread were better and more plentiful than in Plaszow – about 2,000 calories a day…no one died of overwork, beatings, or hunger in Emalia.[28]

Spielberg depicts Spielberg's factory in the same light. In Schindler's List, Schindler advises the SS guards, "It is unlawful to kill a worker without just cause. Under the business's Compensation Fund, I am entitled to file damage claims for such deaths. If you shoot without thinking, you go to prison and I get paid. That's how it works. So, there will be no summary executions here. There will be no interference of any kind with production. In hopes of ensuring that, guards will no longer be allowed on the factory floor without my authorization. For your cooperation, you have my gratitude." He then gives cold beers to his staff of SS guards. In this scene, Spielberg underscores Schindler's cleverness at manipulating the situation to protect the Jews while simultaneously protecting his reputation. Schindler's gift of beer functions as a bribe.

The latter scene reveals the mythic Schindler who has the ability to deceive practically anyone for the purpose of preventing suffering, harm, or deaths of Jews. Spielberg underscores Schindler's cunning ability to manipulate Nazis in an exchange between Schindler and Goeth. After witnessing Goeth shoot a Jew, Schindler, recognizing Goeth's love of power, tells Goeth that the most powerful thing that one can do is to forgive. Anyone, says Schindler, can kill a Jew. But the most powerful man forgives him because then the forgiver holds the power of life and death. Like a hypnotized man, Goeth goes from Jew to Jew, saying, "I forgive you." Schindler's manipulation spares the lives of several Jews. Amon Goeth's own actions validate Spielberg's depiction of Schindler's ability to delude Goeth. At his war trials, Goeth considered calling Schindler as a character witness because Schindler had convincingly presented himself as a trusted friend to Goeth during the years Schindler needed his support to save Jews.

Schindler's Rescuing Prior to the List (back to top)

Even before the creation of the now infamous Schindler's List, Schindler helped Jews when he could. In an interview with Herbert Steinhouse, Isaac Stern recalls Schindler warning, "I hear there will be a raid on all remaining Jewish property tomorrow."[29] Everyone in Krakow and neighboring cities knew that Schindler's factory was the Promised Land – Steinhouse notes that "although they could not understand the reasons, they recognized that der Herr Direktor [Schindler] was somehow protecting them. An air of quasi-security grew in the factory."[30] As depicted in Spielberg's film and Keneally's novel, word traveled quickly among the Jewish population that Schindler's factories were the best and safest factories to work in.

Schindler actively worked to save Jews who worked in his factories. Schindler falsified his records and documented senior citizens as being as much as twenty-five years younger. Schindler also falsified the occupations of his workers, listing white-collared workers as skilled laborers in trades that were essential to the production of war materials. This seemingly simple action of falsifying logbooks saved countless lives because extermination commissions routinely examined factory logbooks to divide the most valuable workers from the least valuable.

Schindler's List (back to top)

Schindler clearly cared about the fate of his Jewish factory workers. During a particularly difficult time, Emilie noticed Schindler's "very depressed state of mind" and "assumed that his unusual grief had to do with the course the war was taking."[31]

Schindler's relations with SS officers enabled Schindler to gain closer access to the Jews he wanted for his enamelware factory. In addition to furnishing the Nazis with large sums of money, fine jewels, and overpriced cognac, Schindler also indulged in abundant black-market luxuries to give as bribery under the pretense of gifts. As the circumstances of the Jewish people worsened, Schindler was forced to bestow upon the Nazis ever mounting sums of money and increasingly lavish gifts in order to keep his Jewish workers.

However, Schindler soon exhausted his opportunities for bribing Amon Goeth with booze for the purposes of keeping his Jewish workers from being transferred to Auschwitz. Schindler saw the munitions factory in Brunnlitz as an "ideal place" to relocate his Jewish workers to avoid their seemingly inevitable transfer to Auschwitz.[32]

As Emilie Schindler recounts Oskar Schindler's concern over the potential loss of his Jewish workers, Schindler appears concerned primarily with the loss of labor, not the loss of life.

The situation is becoming more and more unbearable. Goeth has decided to close the Plaschow [sic] camp and send all the prisoners, including our workers, to Auschwitz. I've talked to him several times, but I haven't been able to change his mind, no matter how hard I tried. The important thing is finding a way to move our people to some other place in order to go on working. I've been offered a munitions factory in Brunnlitz, which seems to be an ideal place. But I don't know what else to do to persuade him to authorize the transfer. I have offered him diamonds, jewelry, money, vodka, cigarettes, caviar…I just can't think of anything else. Maybe I'll get him a couple of beautiful women to cheer him up…perhaps this will work. Another problem that worries me is the list of people we are to submit to him. I don't really know the men, their families; I barely know the names of a few who come to our office when something is needed. But I have no idea about the others…I've spoken to the people who sold me the factory. One of the Jews will arrange to draw up a list of the workers we shall take to Brunnlitz. All this really worries and depresses me. I'm not used to not being in charge of things.[33]

According to Emilie, the latter conversation depicted the course of events leading up to the creation of the List. Bearing in mind Emilie's objective to deny Schindler's status as a heroic rescuer, the conversation seems to support her hatred of Hitler more than it does the historical facts. Emile contradicts the above statement, which implies that Schindler created the List because he feared the loss of his financially beneficial workers and not out of a desire to save their lives. Emilie later says "it is also not true that Oskar tried to take advantage of unpaid Jewish labor."[34] In spite of her desire to tarnish Schindler's heroic image, Emile slips up periodically and divulges truths that corroborate the myth of Schindler as heroic rescuer.

Emilie recalls that the formation of the List developed after Schindler arranged to move his operations to Brunnlitz. Emilie remembers Dr. Schwartz, a List survivor, claiming that Schindler placed his name on the List only after paying large sums of money to Schindler and maintains "my husband had not been aware of all these manipulations and frauds."[35] Emilie's contention that Schindler made composed the List for reasons other than financial motivation substantiates the myth because she clearly lacked loving intentions to pass Schindler off as something that he was not. Schindler's move to Brunnlitz resulted in success only after excessive struggle.

Keneally's novel and to a larger extent Spielberg's film both depict Isaac Stern as a crucial contributor to the List. Herbert Steinhouse, who had met with Isaac Stern extensively, contests that characterization: "In the simplified film version, and…in the book, Stern is portrayed as Schindler's main confidant. You'd think Schindler never made a move without Isaac Stern being involved. You'd think it was Isaac Stern who was writing down the famous list and putting people on and taking people off."[36] In his novel, Keneally suggests that it was only upon Isaac Stern's request that Schindler added the names of old and debilitated Jews who were unable to work to his List. However, Keneally's point is likely untrue because Schindler had already actively engaged in the practice of falsifying the ages and abilities of old and debilitated people to his logbook in his factories long before the creation of the List. Spielberg also depicts Isaac Stern as the paternalistic mentor to Schindler but factually the man that Spielberg calls Isaac Stern is actually four men combined: Isaac Stern, Dr. Nathan Stern, Magister Label Salpeter, and Samuel Wulcan. By omitting three out of the four Jewish confidantes to Schindler, Keneally and Spielberg easily establish a relationship between Schindler and a Jew. This enabled both Spielberg and Keneally to simply expose Schindler's rescuing-minded thoughts through relatively straightforward dialogue. This intentional factual inaccuracy served the specific purpose of revealing Schindler's innermost intentions and reflections.

Although Emilie downplays Schindler's rescuing, she concedes that Oskar took great risks just to give his workers food. "Terror was always present" and Schindler "lived in constant fear that the SS would discover that he was helping the Jews and giving them food."[37]

Schindler Saves Women From Auschwitz (back to top)

When Schindler relocated to Brunnlitz from Plaszow in the spring of 1944, the women's train was inadvertently rerouted to Auschwitz in spite of Schindler's excessively generous bribery to Goeth in return for the assurance that the Schindlerjuden would arrive to Brunnlitz without and problems. Emilie recalls that "Oskar was confused and nervous but, in spite of the difficulty of the situation, he decided not to be cowed and to try to do something, whatever that might be," and, after several days passed without recovering the females, Oskar "still despaired about the fate of the female workers.[38] Although Emilie recalls Schindler's rescuing of the women from Auschwitz somewhat different than Keneally, one must take into consideration both her reluctance to grant credit to Oskar and also her absence from he entire situation.

In Schindler's List, Spielberg depicts Schindler as overzealous and unwavering in his attempt to free the women. In response to the Kommandant's comment, "It is not my task to interfere with the processes that take place down here," Schindler bribes the Auschwitz Kommandant with diamonds for the return of the Schindlerjuden women and says, "I'm not making any judgment about you. It's just that in the coming months, we're all going to need portable wealth." The Kommandant takes Schindler's jewels and offers Schindler "three hundred units from [a shipment coming in the next day], new ones. These are fresh." But Schindler defiantly responds, "I want these," referring to the women on his List. The Kommandant says, "You shouldn't get stuck on names." By emphasizing the Kommandant's resistance, Spielberg underscores Schindler's dedication and loyalty to the Jews on his List.

Upon successfully saving the Jews on Schindler's List, Schindler gained confidence in his rescuing abilities and subsequently continued rescuing.

Amon Goeth: The Villain Propagates the Myth of Schindler (back to top)

For every mythic "good guy," there must be a villain. In the myth of the heroic protagonist Oskar Schindler, Amon Goeth fills the position of the antagonist – the "bad guy". The mythic construction of Amon Goeth, while certainly a monstrous individual, heightened Goeth's status as a villain for the purpose of contrasting the inherent evil in Goeth with the righteousness of Oskar Schindler. Oskar Schindler befriended Amon Goeth, the commander of the Plaszow concentration camp, primarily for the purpose of maintaining his high-ranking Nazi affiliations.

Spielberg utilizes the character of Amon Goeth for the purpose of contrasting Schindler's heroic character to that of a sadistic madman. This dichotomy underscores and accentuates Schindler's mythic heroism. To create the Schindler-Goeth dichotomy, Spielberg took certain artistic liberties in the creation of the quintessential villain. Emilie specifically recalls Goeth as being "rather slender," whereas Spielberg goes to great lengths to emphasize Goeth's weight problems, sloth, and stoutness.[39]

Spielberg utilizes heightened drama and stress between Schindler and Goeth to craft Schindler's heroism. In Schindler's List, Schindler tells Isaac Stern to leave the last line on the last page of the list blank and Schindler proceeds to Goeth's office to request that the name of Goeth's maid, Helen Hirsch, be placed on Schindler's List. When Goeth balks, Schindler shrewdly persuades Goeth to settle the matter over a hand of blackjack. With this exchange between Schindler and Goeth, Spielberg characterizes Schindler's desperation to save Jews while simultaneously calling attention to everyone else's willingness to categorize Jewish people as objects, things to be bought or sold, won or gambled for.

Keneally also utilizes Goeth to distinguish Schindler, as rescuer, from the brutes like Goeth from whom Schindler had to save the Jews from: it was people like Goeth that Schindler had to save Jews from. Keneally emulates Spielberg's depiction of Schindler's gambling for Helen. This paper was published on the UCSB Hist 133p website. Keneally represents that "Oskar suggested…that he and Amon play one hand, double or nothing…Come on, said Oskar, she's going to Auschwitz anyhow."[40] According to Keneally, Oskar then quickly composed an authorization note in the event Goeth lost: "I authorize that the name of prisoner Helen Hirsch be added to any list of skilled workers relocated with Herr Oskar Schindler's DEF Works."[41] Goeth lost, and Schindler wrote Helen's name on the last line of his List.

Emilie Schindler detested Amon Goeth. Emilie's hatred of Goeth in all probability reflects in part her resentment towards her husband's drinking buddy, who also engaged in womanizing with Schindler: Emilie's revulsion of Goeth is understandable, if not expected. In spite of personal reasons that predisposed Emilie to dislike Goeth, Emilie's strong feelings towards Goeth were not unfounded.

Goeth was the most despicable man I had ever met in my whole life. He had a double personality: on the one hand he seemed to be a refined gentleman, like a true Viennese, and on the other he seemed to relish submitting the Jews under his jurisdiction to constant terror.[42]

Emilie also feared Goeth. As depicted in the film Schindler's List and the novel of the same name, Goeth used Jews for target practice in the mornings. Emilie verifies Spielberg's depiction of Goeth:

Goeth "combined the most barbaric instincts with an exquisite degree of refinement. He was capable of killing in cold blood and at the same time could detect a flat note on any of the classical recordings he listened to constantly…[Emilie] could never understand what drove him to this, and [Goeth's] attitude made the human condition even more comprehensible to [her]."[43]

Although Emilie disparages Goeth for personal reasons, her accounts of Goeth categorically corroborate Keneally's and Spielberg's depictions of Amon Goeth.

Emilie misses her own point when she admonishes Schindler for associating with Goeth: Schindler's readiness to frequently socialize with Goeth exhibits Schindler's willingness to associate with corrupt and unarguably evil persons for the sake of establishing useful social and political connections, which were in all probability the deciding factor in Schindler's ability to save the Jews on his List.

Oskar Schindler's Motivation behind Schindler's List (back to top)

Oskar Schindler ultimately created what is now known as Schindler's List because he felt incapable of passively watching innocent men, women, and children be sent to their certain deaths. In Mordecai Paldiel's 1993 novel, Schindler defended his actions. "I hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of Nazism. I just couldn't stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That's all there is to it. Really, nothing more."[44]

Keneally's novel and, to a certain extent, Schindler's List suggest that Schindler remained ignorant of, or at least somewhat blasé towards, the vastness of the Jews' horrific situation until he went horseback riding with his German mistress one day and saw the liquidation of the Jewish ghettos from the hill on March 13, 1943. From this vantage point, Schindler could see the Nazis brutally extracting Jews from their homes. The close-up of Schindler in Schindler's List reveals a look of sheer horror on his face. It was then that Schindler had a change of heart regarding the Nazi policy. In Conscience & Courage, Eva Fogelman attributes the same incident to Schindler's transformation from "a sympathetic onlooker into a rescuer…This sickening spectacle transformed Schindler."[45] If we are to believe the film and the publications, this provided the motivation for Schindler's rescuing. However in 1995 Herbert Steinhouse, the journalist who in 1949 had interviewed Oskar Schindler, definitively refutes the idea that Schindler suddenly became a "simple humanist" after stumbling onto the evacuation of the ghetto.[46] Claiming that Schindler's motivation to rescue stemmed from his intrinsic beliefs about and respect for humanity, Steinhouse maintained that Schindler had always been adamantly, staunchly against Nazi race policies and, although he believed in the Greater Germany, Schindler had nothing but respect for Jewish people. Schindler, a member of the Heinlein party, which later mutated into the Nazi party, believed in essentially all Nazi doctrine except their racial policies.[47]

He was a Czech, but he didn't consider himself a Czech. He was a German [sic] national, German in every respect. Deep in the Nazi party and maybe the Abwehr, maybe even the SS, say some British researchers, and agreeing with everything except the racial policies.[48]

Eva Fogelman attributes Schindler's rescuing activities to his "Judeophile" tendency. Fogelman defines a Judeophile as a person "whose rescue activity arose out of a special feeling or love for individual Jews or the Jewish people as a group."[49] Fogelman lumps Schindler into the group of Judeophile because "his initial impetus to rescue Jews stemmed from his desire to please his scholarly accountant [Isaac Stern]. The transforming encounter that Schindler experienced watching a little girl dressed in a scarlet coat and cap as she witnessed the German soldiers murdering ghetto residents transmuted that desire into something more."[50] If one was to believe Fogelman's theory, Schindler rescued Jews not out of a burden of collective guilt or respect for human life but rather out of a deep-rooted desire to please Isaac Stern, the accountant with whom Schindler had become so close to. Fogelman also attributes Schindler's close ties with Schindlerjuden to this theory of Schindler as Judeophile. It is a ridiculous theory.

Emilie Schindler implies financial motivations played a role in Schindler's rescuing but she diminishes her credibility when she chose to emphasize her rescuing instead of Schindler's. While downplaying Oskar's rescuing, Emilie doesn't hesitate to call attention to her rescuing activities, which, incidentally, Emilie fails to notice would never have occurred had Oskar not been actively involved in rescuing himself.[51] Emilie proudly recalls her daily tasks in Brunnlitz that included feeding the Jews, Czechs, and Poles working in Schindler's factory. Emilie remembers altruistically giving her own food to Schindler's workers because she "could not stand seeing our workers getting weaker by the day because of hunger."[52]

Many question Schindler's motivations. Although Emilie failed to reach a definitive conclusion, many people who were close to Schindler observed a collective guilt that he burdened himself with. Fogelman implies that this collective guilt served to motivate Schindler.

He realized that the Germans' lack of shame meant that their acts were officially sanctioned. They tolerated witnesses, such as the little girl in scarlet, because they believed all the witnesses would also perish. "Beyond this day," Schindler claimed, "no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system."[53]

It is impossible to argue anything other than moral motivation behind Schindler's List. In his film, Spielberg implies that the driving force behind Schindler's rescuing was financial gains. Schindler divulges to Isaac Stern that his primary motive for hiring Jews was the financial gains, since Schindler sent his workers' reduced salaries directly to Nazi officials and consequently Schindler paid his Jews nothing. This is an untrue assessment of the historical unfolding of events. Spielberg constructed this scene to include Schindler's apathy towards Jewish workers' well being so that Schindler's "transformation" to an altruistic rescuer commanded considerable dramatic sentiment.

In reality, Schindler sacrificed his entire net worth to save his Jewish workers. Oskar Schindler spent his millions in diamonds, gold, and dollars to save what became known as Schindlerjuden: Schindler surrendered his entire fortune to save Jewish lives – this fact is irrefutable. Schindler sacrificed his worth in other ways, too – Schindler sabotaged his Brunnlitz munitions factory to prevent aiding the Nazis' war effort. In 1962, List survivor Moshe Bejski recalled Schindler's attitude towards running the factory.

Whenever a German passed through the plant, anyone who wasn't working pretended he was. But when Schindler entered the plant, nobody cared to even pretend, and the women went right on with their knitting of sweaters and underwear…we never really produced.[54]

Journalist Herbert Steinhouse became acutely aware of everything Schindler had given up to save the 1,300 Jews. When Steinhouse knew Emilie and Oskar Schindler after the war in 1949, they lived off of the black market and off of parcels from Schindlerjuden. After the end of World War II, Schindler was destitute, despite numerous entrepreneurial attempts, which included a German cement factory and a mink farm in Argentina.[55]

Oskar Schindler: Tragic Hero in Spite of Biases and Myth (back to top)

 The myth of Schindler and Schindler's List was created out of fact and later embellished out of hope. The Holocaust encompassed the entire range of atrocities against humanity conceivable. When a story circulates about a "Good German" who saved hundreds of Jews, we, as humans, want to believe that such a person existed.

Perhaps most significant about Schindler was his air of discretion. During the war years, Schindler never took credit for the good he was doing. Even Stern admits that Schindler never "revealed himself as a die-hard fascist."[56]

Why Should We Care? (back to top)

Perhaps the issue of Schindler's motive is a moot point. Perhaps the resolution of the legitimacy of the myth of Schindler is irrelevant. Regardless of Schindler's motives, intentions, or ethics, an entire generation exists today because of him. Oskar Schindler saved over 1,300 Jews from certain death. This is fact. It can be argued that that fact in and of itself should validate and authenticate Schindler's mythic status of heroic rescuer. I would be one to argue that point

Notes (back to top)

[1] Fogelman, 1994, xiv.

[2] Fogelman, 1994, xv.

[3] For the purpose of clarification, I will indicate Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List by putting it in italics and I will indicate Thomas Keneally's novel Schindler's List by underlining it.

[4] Fensch, 1995, 6.

[5] Fensch, 1995, 6.

[6] Fensch, 1995, 13.

[7] Keneally, 1982, 10.

[8] Keneally, 1982, 10.

[9] Thomas Keneally, Schindler's List (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), 10, 14.

[10] Keneally, 1982, 203.

[11] Brecher, 1994, xiv.

[12] Tim Cole, Selling the Holocaust, From Auschwitz to Schindler: How History is Bought, Packaged, and Sold (New York: Routledge, 2000), 79.

[13] Tim Cole, 2000, 79.

[14] Tim Cole, 2000, 74.

[15] Tim Cole, 2000, 80.

[16] Schindler, 1996, 63.

[17] Emilie Schindler, Where Light and Shadow Meet (New York: W.W. Nortan and Company, 1996), xii.

[18] Schindler, 1996, ix.

[19] Schindler, 1996, xii.

[20] Schindler, 1996, 78.

[21] Brecher, 1994, xiii.

[22] Keneally, 1982, 14.

[23] Schindler, 1996, 59.

[24] Keneally, 1982, 14.

[25] Fensch, 1995, 25.

[26] Fensch, 1995, 14.

[27] Schindler, 1996, 60-61.

[28] Keneally, 1982, 202-203.

[29] Fensch, 1995, 23.

[30] Fensch, 1995, 24.

[31] Schindler, 1996, 61-62.

[32] Schindler, 1996, 62.

[33] Schindler, 1996, 62-63.

[34] Schindler, 1996, 64.

[35] Schindler, 1996, 64.

[36] Fensch, 1995, 16.

[37] Schindler, 1996, 84.

[38] Schindler, 1996, 66.

[39] Schindler, 1996, 59.

[40] Keneally, 1982, 279.

[41]Keneally, 1982, 279.

[42] Schindler, 1996, 59.

[43] Schindler, 1996, 60.

[44] Fensch, 1995, xiii.

[45] Fogelman, 1994, 54.

[46] Fensch, 1995, 14.

[47] Thomas Fensch, ed., Oskar Schindler and His List: The Man, the Book, the Film, the Holocaust and Its Survivors (Forest Dale, Vermont: Paul S. Eriksson, Publisher, 1995), 13.

[48] Fensch, 1995, 14.

[49] Fogelman, 1994, 182.

[50] Fogelman, 1994, 182.

[51] See Appendix 1 for Emilie Schindler's rescuing activities.

[52] Schindler, 1996, 86.

[53] Fogelman, 1994, 54.

[54] Mordecai Paldiel, Sheltering the Jews: Stories of Holocaust Rescuers (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 125-126.

[55] Paldiel, 1996, 149.

[56] Fensch, 1995, 25.

paper completed June 2004; prepared for web publication on 3/28/05 by H. Marcuse
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