The day was January 30, 1933, when Hitler took over as the Chancellor of Germany, and turned it into the most powerful position in the German government. With Germany reeling under severe socio-political crisis, this change in leadership was inevitable.
The Nazi regime under Hitler not only put an end to democracy, but also fueled a racial supremacy era in Germany, with Jews coming under direct attack. New German laws forced Jews out of civil service jobs, universities and even businesses.
Hitler’s dictatorial powers made life miserable for the Jews forbidding them from public schools, theatres, and even walking in certain sections of German cities.
Jewish businesses were seized or forcefully sold off at throwaway prices. This followed the physical destruction of Jewish-owned stores, synagogues, the arrest of individuals and subsequently the organized extermination of millions of Jews in various concentration camps.
This went on to be infamously referred to as the Holocaust, also called HaShoah in Hebrew. By the end of the war, 2 out of every 3 Jews in Europe were dead.
During the Holocaust, one man stood as a beacon of light for the Jews, by saving the lives of roughly 1200 of them. He was no less than a saint to them and his name was Oskar Schindler.
But how did he pull off such a massive escape for these people right under the noses of the Nazis?
A member of the Nazi Party, he was a German industrialist and a spy for the Abwehr, the intelligence service of Nazi Germany. An opportunistic businessman with a taste for the some of the finer things in life, Schindler’s initiatives and dedication to saving the lives of his 1200 Jewish employees from deportation to Auschwitz (Nazi Germany’s largest killing center) was exemplary.
By the way, Schindler joining the Nazi Party was not out of any love for the Nazis or their ideology, but because, during tough times, it made business sense to go along with the prevailing changes in the political landscape in Europe, and specifically Germany.
Oskar Schindler (third from left) at a party
with local SS officials on his 34th birthday.
Schindler’s factory in Krakow, Poland (present day)
During this time he made an acquaintance with Itzhak Stern, a Jewish accountant who served as his liaison with the local Jewish business community. With borrowed capital from some of the men he met via Stern, Schindler purchased a bankrupt enamel kitchenware factory, renamed it Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (also known as Emalia) and opened it in January 1940 with Stern as the bookkeeper.
Schindler’s willingness to bribe the right people at the right time earned him contracts for pots and pans for the German army. As advised by Stern, he sourced cheap and reliable Jews from the Krakow ghetto as employees for his factory. Krakow at that time was house to 56,000 Jews.
Around this time, the Nazi came up with newer rules for the Jewish workers. Firstly, employee wages to be routed via the SS than be directly paid to workers. Secondly, all Jews were sent to concentration camps except those who were essential to the German war effort.
Schindler’s intention was to save as many Jews as possible, otherwise destined for their ruthless fate in the concentration camp at Plaszow.
His protection of his Jewish workers and black market dealings even led the SS and German police to suspect him of corruption and of giving unauthorized aid to the Jews. The SS and police officials arrested him three times, but for his contacts with the higher officials in the SS, he was released each time.
While the Nazis started deporting Jews at increasing regularity to the concentration camps, they also included the names of Schindler’s workers and office managers.
Schindler being extremely protective about his workers, found this an interference in his business and emphasized the importance of his workers as essential to the German war effort. This went on to become a regular reason he would play on with the Nazis later.
Plaszow concentration camp near Krakow
The Krakow ghetto’s Jewish population would continue to decrease to a paltry 4000 in number when the final wipeout of the last few Jews began. Called the “Liquidation’, a young SS officer named Amon Goeth, commandant of the Plaszow camp, oversaw the operation.
Goeth met Schindler and other industrialists to coax them to relocate their business inside the Plaszow camp, with the condition that only healthy Jews would be allowed. The rest would be executed or sent to death camps. Schindler, being the shrewd and clever person that he was, convinced Goeth for a sub-camp within his factory. He would continue to employ his workers and that the guards won’t be allowed inside the premises without his prior permission.
The result – heavy compensation paid as bribe for no Nazi intervention.
A concentration camp with deplorable living conditions
In addition to the approximately 1,000 Jewish laborers registered as factory workers, Schindler permitted 450 Jews working in other nearby factories to live at Emalia as well. This camp served as a boon for the Jews as it saved them from getting executed or tortured. Despite food shortage everywhere, Schindler would ensure food is made available to the workers even if that meant purchasing them at higher rates from the black market.
Overall, these workers had much better living conditions than the ones living in deplorable conditions in the main camp. Bribing of SS officers continued as Schindler made no compromise in the safety of his workers.
Amon Goeth at Plaszow
Plaszow’s rebranding as a concentration camp in early 1944 meant its prisoners would soon be sent to the Auschwitz death camp, a place where 12,000 Jews would get killed every day.
During the summer, authorities asked Schindler to dismantle his factory. Schindler approached Goeth with the suggestion that his workers be moved to Czechoslovakia with the intention of supporting the Germans in their war efforts. This deal, as usual, involved a large sum of money and Schindler was no different even this time to protect his men.
Goeth had asked Schindler to finalize a list of his workers he planned to move along with him. Using names provided by the Jewish Ghetto police officer Marcel Goldberg, Goeth’s secretary, a Polish Jew called Mietek Pemper, compiled and typed the list of about 1200 Jews.
Pemper’s usefulness as a German stenographer and interpreter got him assigned to the important position as Goeth’s assistant at the Plaszow camp, and being a close friend with Stern, would later provide vital classified information to Schindler which would eventually prove pivotal in Schindler’s plans.
Schindler obtained authorization to relocate his plant and these workers to Brünnlitz, Czechoslovakia, in October 1944 justifying this move to support an exclusive armaments factory. He continued to bribe SS officials to prevent the execution of his workers until the end of the War in May 1945.
Mietek Pemper in the 1940s
After the war was over, Oskar Schindler in his speech to his Jewish factory workers, said, “Don’t thank me for your survival… thank your valiant Stern and Pemper, who stared death in the face constantly.“
Post the war, Schindler was in danger of being arrested as a war criminal and he emigrated to Argentina in along with his wife Emilie in 1949. He returned to Germany post-bankruptcy where again he had a series of unsuccessful business ventures.
Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem
Schindler died on 9 October, 1974 and is buried in Jerusalem. About 500 Schindler’s Jews attended his funeral – the only member of the Nazi Party to be honored this way.
For his work during the war, in 1963 Schindler was named Righteous Among the Nations, an award bestowed by the State of Israel on non-Jews who took an active role to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. Three years later in 1966, he was also awarded the German Order of Merit.
More than 6 million Jews were exterminated by the Nazi regime almost wiping out the entire Jewish population in Europe.
Today, there are more than 8,500 Holocaust survivors and their descendants in the United States and Europe including Israel. Thanks to Oskar Schindler, the man and the hero.