Slavery is perhaps the most debasing system in human civilization. It degrades human beings to the status of property. Slaves are bought and sold like objects. They are forced to work for free or for flimsy compensation, often in grueling and inhumane conditions. Sometimes they are raped and beaten by their owners. Slaves are deprived of all human rights and of their dignity. With the exception of the Holocaust, I don’t know of any other period in human history when slavery was desired by the slaves themselves and when forced labor became a saving grace for the victims. In such a dark epoch, when everything conspired to wipe the Jewish people of the face of the Earth, enslaving over a thousand of them in an enamel factory became an act of courage and heroism.
As incredible as this topsy-turvy perspective may seem to contemporary readers, this is the story of Thomas Keneally’s great historical novel, Schindler’s List. The novel is based upon the eyewitness accounts of several of the Jewish survivors saved by the German industrialist Oskar Schindler. It is a biographical fiction in the strict sense of the term. In fact, Keneally states, “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”. (New York: Touchstone, Schindler’s List, 1982, Author’s Note, 10)
Oskar Schindler is, by the author’s own account, an unlikely hero. As Keneally acknowledges in the Prologue, Oskar Schindler “was not a virtuous man in the customary sense of the term”. (Schindler’s List, 14) We tend to think of heroes as virtuous individuals: people with extraordinary character and moral fortitude. Yet Oskar Schindler was an average man, with ordinary human foibles. He was a sensualist and an honest womanizer: if that’s not a contradiction in terms. He openly cheated on his virtuous wife, Emilie, with both long-term mistresses and countless casual lovers. He loved carousing with his friends, business partners, acquaintances and escorts. Worse yet, he was a member of the Nazi party, initially joining its ranks out of genuine political conviction, of his own free will.
Though quickly disillusioned by the Nazis, Schindler nonetheless hopes to profit financially from the new regime. An ethnic German from the Sudetenland, he moves to Krakow Poland to set up an enamelware factory that will employ the slave labor of local Jews. The large Jewish community in Krakow was isolated from the rest of the population by the Nazis in a ghetto, which was formally established in March 1941 in the Podgorze district. Schindler witnesses the incredible cruelty manifested by the SS towards the 15,000 helpless Jewish civilians as well as the random acts of violence of his sociopathic country mate, Amos Goeth, who regards the captive Jews as his personal property and prey.
This biographical novel presents a slice of history and a study of contrasts: between times of normalcy and the mass insanity of the Nazi era; between the humane actions of Oskar Schindler and the savage inhumanity of Amon Goeth. Without the dark figure of Goeth, it would be more difficult to appreciate Schindler’s heroism and humanity.
Amos Goeth, the SS Second Lieutenant in charge of liquidating the Krakow ghetto and of overseeing the Plaszow concentration and labor camp, is a malicious sadist. He savagely beats his Jewish servant, Helen Hirsch, and kills Jewish inmates, randomly, just for sport. As the narrator states, “No one knew Amon’s precise reason for settling on that prisoner—Amon certainly did not have to document his motives. With one blast from the doorstep, the man was plucked from the group of pushing and pulling captives and hurled sideways in the road” (192).
By way of contrast to Goeth’s predatory cat and mouse games, Schindler exhibits compassion, courage and character. He uses all his connections, resourcefulness and wealth to save as many Jews as possible during the Holocaust. Threatened by the advance of the Russian army on the Eastern front, the Nazis dismantle the Plaszow labor and concentration camp. When he finds out about their plans to send most of the prisoners to their deaths in Auschwitz, Schindler promises those who worked for him that he would save them. He sets up a small munitions factory in his hometown of Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia, where he eventually manages to bring over 1500 Jews. In these horrific times, slavery becomes the Jews’ only salvation. “Oskar’s list, in the mind of some, was already more than a mere fabulation. It was a List. It was a sweet chariot which might swing low” (277).
The Nazi regimes brought out the worst in many people throughout Germany and occupied Europe: at best, a cruel indifference to the enslavement and massacre of Jews; at worst, various degrees of collusion with the local Nazi administrations. Yet these evil times also brought out the best in some, like Oskar Schindler. His acts of courage and resourcefulness have inspired the blockbuster movie, Schindler’s List (1993), directed by Steven Spielberg. Perhaps this is why we still know of Oskar Schindler to this day. But the greatest homage to this ordinary man who did his best to protect fellow human beings from the Nazi savagery remains that he will be forever remembered and honored by generations of Jews as an extraordinary hero.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon