Schindler's life challenges ideas of good and evil

Published Oct. 2, 1999|Updated Sept. 30, 2005

Oskar Schindler, a 66-year-old poverty-stricken alcoholic, died in Hildesheim, Germany, on Oct. 9, 1974, and in accordance with his last wishes, he was buried in Israel in Jerusalem's Latin Cemetery on Mount Zion. Schindler's death 25 years ago was hardly noticed except for the 1,100 Polish Jews living throughout the world whom he saved during World War II.

Thanks to Thomas Keneally's book Schindler's List and Steven Spielberg's 1993 award-winning film of the same name, the world now knows about this complicated and enigmatic German whose life challenges our carefully nurtured ideas about the sources of human goodness and compassion.

Avi Granot, a former Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia, is the son of two of the Jews Schindler saved. As a youngster living in Israel, Granot first met Schindler in 1962 and kept in contact with him until the German's death.

Granot has described Schindler as "a highly confusing man . . . a smuggler, gambler, womanizer, drunk, a Catholic who never went to church . . . someone who was always looking for big money and the good life." Yet, despite his flaws, Granot stressed that Schindler "did what many "nice' people never did during the Holocaust _ he saved lives, including those of my mother and father. If Schindler, not a "nice' person, saved 1,100 lives, how many more people could have been saved if "nice' people had done their share?"

Schindler's actions shatter the naive belief held by many that only religiously rooted people are capable of fulfilling God's most important commandment: Saving human lives. Why did Schindler, a failure in almost every aspect of his life including marriage, business, spirituality and sobriety, put himself at deadly risk for nearly five years in order to save 1,100 Jews, people officially targeted for mass murder by Nazi Germany?

Schindler's response to this question appears in Kurt Grossman's little-known book Die unbesungenen Helden (The Unsung Heroes), written years before the artistic efforts of Keneally and Spielberg reached millions of people. Indeed, Schindler's own words should be required reading in every university and seminary course on ethics.

Schindler's actions and his stated reasons for doing them shame everyone else who had an opportunity to save lives during the Holocaust.

Schindler said: "I had to decide whether to abandon my (Jewish) workers to their fate or have them declared prisoners working and housed at my factory. I could not disappoint the absolute confidence they placed in me."

Schindler used bribery and lies to prevent Nazi "functionaries, SS leaders, death camp commanders and other such parasites" from taking his Jews to the nearby gas chambers. His schemes worked, and no Jew "who had come under my protection ever died a violent death."

A blatant opportunist, Schindler joined the Nazi party in the 1930s to enhance his manufacturing business, but he "hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of Nazism . . . the Prussian supermen. This group of lying hypocrites and sadistic murderers. I just couldn't stand to 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. I acted as a free human being. . . . The motive for my actions was the daily sight of the unspeakable suffering inflicted on Jewish persons."

In an obvious attack on those individuals, including Christian clergy, who privately opposed Nazism but refused to act, Schindler sarcastically declared: "I do not belong to that group of Germans who discovered their "inner resistance' to Nazism on July 20, 1944 (the date when a group of German officers unsuccessfully tried to assassinate Hitler) and later fashioned for themselves a halo made of empty phrases."

At war's end, Nazi party member Schindler fled to escape the advancing Russian army, but not before he was certain "my proteges were out of danger (and) I had kept my word."

The grateful Jews gave him letters urging Jewish officials to assist him, and one of his "proteges" offered his gold teeth, which were extracted on the spot by a dentist who was also a "protege." Another prisoner quickly crafted the gold into an inscribed ring for Schindler.

In 1961 Schindler made the first of 17 visits to Israel to see "my Jews." One of them asked what happened to the ring. "Schnapps," Schindler confessed. He had sold it for liquor.

Granot said it best: "Making big money and living well made sense to him, but why kill people? He saw no reason to do evil."

_ Rabbi A. James Rudin is the national interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.