The question of what motivated Oskar Schindler to help save the lives of more than 1,000 Jews lingers after watching Schindler’s List, which was rereleased last week for its 25th anniversary. As the film makes clear, he was an unlikely rescuer. Described by some as an opportunist, he took advantage of the Nazi German policy of “Aryanizing” Jewish-owned businesses to buy an enamelware manufacturer in Krakow. Through army contracts and the exploitation of cheap Jewish labor from the Krakow ghetto, he amassed a fortune. Dealing on the black market, he lived in high style.
As the war progressed, Schindler’s motivations changed. The film dramatizes this transformation in the memorable sequence of the girl in the red coat caught up in the ghetto’s liquidation. From that point on, the film suggests, Schindler was no longer driven solely by self-interest. Rather, he acted deliberately to protect the Jews working for him, even using bribes to secure permission from the German Army and SS officers to move his workers to a plant where they would be less at risk. For his actions, he was arrested three times.
Schindler’s treatment of Jews during the last years of the war contrasts starkly with Amon Goeth’s, the notorious SS commandant of Plaszow where many Jewish laborers who worked for Schindler were imprisoned. Why did the two men behave so differently? Did Schindler have a change of heart during the war, or did his prewar experiences predetermine his sympathy towards Jews?
On multiple occasions after the war, Schindler confronted the question of why he helped Jews survive the Holocaust. His answers changed over time, confounding any attempt to form a clear, concise explanation. “I had to help… I had no choice,” he said in a 1964 interview. To survivor Murray Pantirer, a “Schindler Jew,” he elaborated, “I was a Nazi, and I believed that the Germans were doing wrong … when they started killing innocent people, it didn’t mean anything to me that they were Jewish, to me they were just human beings, menschen. I decided I am going to work against them and I am going to save as many as I can.”
This explanation is consistent with the “change of heart” theory — that witnessing the barbarity of the “Final Solution,” what he described after the war as “pure sadism,” drove Schindler to start protecting his Jewish laborers. But it also suggests that Schindler saw the humanity in Jews, despite having been subjected to Nazi propaganda that successfully convinced countless others to view them as sub-human threats to German society.
In their postwar testimony, several survivors whom Schindler saved were convinced that, rather than experiencing a mid-war transformation, Schindler had been different from the start. Mietek Pemper, who was Goeth’s secretary at Plaszow, observed:
“He could not square it with his conscience that people should be so treated, individuals who he saw as people. He had grown up in a medium-sized town in the Sudetenland with many Jews who were also German. The Nazi propaganda that Jews were not people did not seem to have had any effect or success on him. He was convinced he was dealing with real people, and that was the most important thing. After all, we were unfortunate enough to have the example of many others before us, particularly among the SS, where we were considered essentially somehow as non-people… not even as animals, objects with which they could do as they would.”
Moshe Bejski, who would later serve as a Supreme Court justice in Israel, recalled an incident from early in the war that also indicated that Schindler held a different view of Jews than did many Nazis and other Germans:
“The only person who knew, from my friends, who knew Schindler from ’39 was Itzhak Stern. And I heard from Itzhak Stern that one day in ’39, maybe October, maybe November, a German came in and wanted — er, said good morning and wanted to shake his hand. And Stern told him, ‘Excuse me sir, I am a Jew.’ Well Schindler said… ‘It doesn’t matter to me who you are, you are a man’ and he shook his hand. Stern was scared because he shouldn’t shake the hand of a German. Well you can see in ’39 [Schindler’s] attitude towards a Jew. It was different.”
In his testimony, Solomon Urbach, who was a teenager when his family moved into the Krakow ghetto, corroborates that Schindler acted out of a sense of shared humanity with his Jewish laborers and knew them as individuals, remembering their names:
“Eventually I began to be in charge of providing all the blackout shades for the offices of Oskar Schindler. It was in those duties I entered Oskar Schindler’s office on many occasions with the purpose of seeing that the blackout shades were in proper order, working order, or replacing them. I would get to know Schindler fairly well and on occasion he would even speak to me and express some hope that this will maybe end one day. […] I somehow left an impression on him because when I met after the war, he greeted me warmly as if he knew me forever. […] I went to see him in Munich. He somehow had the knowledge to recognize me and he called me by the name of Rumak. The name Rumak was given to me somehow in the process of the war because at one time I was called Schomek but that became an awkward name so somebody popped out Rumak. The name Rumak stuck and evidently Schindler remembered that name so he still remembered Rumak. […Later, in 1973] I, together with my family at that time, my wife, my children went to visit Oskar Schindler in Tel Aviv. When I walked in, he was already a man after a slight stroke but he did recognize me. He yelled out Rumak. He called my name again, he still remembered my name at that time.”
Urbach’s description of Schindler recalling his name nearly 30 years after the war and despite having had “a slight stroke” points to a defining characteristic that motivated him to rescue Jews. “I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings,” said Schindler. Twenty-five years after his story first appeared on the silver screen, that lesson is as relevant as ever.
Anne Merrill is a digital content strategist and editor at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Note: The Pemper and Bejski interviews were conducted in 1983 for a documentary by Thames Television. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum purchased a copy of the interviews from the Imperial War Museum in 1995. The Urbach interview is in the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s permanent collection.