Oskar Schindler: The Man and the Myth

by Kristina Graf
June 2, 2004

Oral Presentation Handout
for UCSB History 133P
(Schindler research paper; Papers index page; course homepage; Prof.Marcuse's homepage)

Topic/Methodology (back to top)

The purpose of my research is to first examine and then deconstruct the myth of Oskar Schindler and Schindler's List. In post-Holocaust years, historians have demonstrated a tendency to automatically place rescuers on a pedestal without judging the rescuers' merits. In Eva Fogelman's Conscience & Courage: Rescuers of Jews During the Holocaust, Fogelman demonstrates the tendency to automatically exalt rescuers to the status of heroes. This tendency to elevate rescuers to a saint-like status resulted in the myth of Oskar Schindler and his List. Because of personal biases and preconceived notions, the account of Schindler's List has become a legend of a mythic hero. To deconstruct the myth of Schindler, I have compared the myth of Schindler with numerous testimonies and eyewitness accounts.

Purpose (back to top)

My goal behind my research aimed to correct historical inaccuracies about Schindler and his List. I chose this goal because I felt that deconstructing the myth of Schindler would underscore inherent inaccuracies and biases in contemporary accounts of Holocaust-era rescuers. Rescuers like Oskar Schindler played a significant role in the Holocaust by saving countless lives and, equally importantly, they showed courageous humanity in the midst of every abomination towards humanity. Historians, authors, and others feel so compelled to underscore this altruistic "moral courage" they sometimes choose to embellish to truth to make the impact of these accounts even stronger. This is the myth that I sought to call attention to with my research of Schindler.

Sources (back to top)

For my specific research, many secondary sources became primary sources. I utilized Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List and Thomas Keneally's novel Schindler's List as a launching point. Each of these sources clearly depicted the "myth" of Schindler and his List.

I then compared Spielberg's and Keneally's version (which are ultimately the same) of Schindler with testimonies of List survivors, Emilie Schindler, Oskar's wife, Herbert Steinhouse, a journalist who interviewed Schindler in 1949, and Isaac Stern, Schindler's accountant.

Conclusion (back to top)

Unarguably, Oskar Schindler saved the lives of 1,300 Jews. However artists like filmmaker Steven Spielberg and author Thomas Keneally have embellished Schindler's story so much so that depictions of Schindler have reached outrageously mythic proportion. Consequently the authenticity of Schindler has diminished. Accounts of Holocaust rescuers are important for the same reason accounts of the Holocaust are important: the argument is that "if we do not learn from history, we are destined to repeat it." Thus it is equally important that accounts of rescuers like Schindler are accurate as it is important that accounts of the Holocaust are accurate. Once biases and prejudices are integrated into these accounts, the accounts lose all credibility and are subjected to the scrutiny of Holocaust deniers. The attempt to canonize rescuers simplifies the issue "to a clear-cut moral tale" and insults the validity and integrity of rescuers. Thus to avoid the fictionalization of history, mythic heroes like Schindler must be removed from their pedestals and portrayed accurately and honestly. Ultimately, Schindler was a hero but his story has been fictionalized by gross embellishments and exaggerations.

Source Timeline (back to top)

1949 – Herbert Steinhouse interviews Oskar Schindler.
"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."

1993 – Steven Spielberg directs Schindler's List.

1994 – Elinor Brecher interviews hundreds of List survivors after seeing Spielberg's film.
"Some of the survivors are upset about some of the film's more notable fictions. For example, Schindler's emotional – and well-attended – departure from the Brunnlitz factory was far less dramatic in real life than portrayed in the film. In reality, following his farewell speech on the factory floor, he, his wife, a mistress, and a small group of survivors motored out of the compound late at night without ceremony."

1996 – Emilie Schindler, Oskar's wife, publishes her memoir about her life with Oskar Schindler.
"I have hated him, I have tried to forget him…I have lived by his side and under his shadow."

Schindler Quotation (back to top)
Oskar Schindler: "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."

Handout completed June 2004; prepared for web publication on 3/28/05 by H. Marcuse
back to top, to Hist 133p04 paper index page, to Hist 133p homepage, H. Marcuse Courses page, homepage