3. Schindler became a full member of the Nazi Party in 1939
Schindler was arrested for espionage in July of 1938. While he was imprisoned the crisis over the Sudetenland reached its climactic point. The Munich Agreement in the fall of 1938 ended the crisis and gave Germany the Sudetenland, effectively dismembering Czechoslovakia, though the Czech government continued to function for a time, and later in exile. The agreement also provided for the release of “political prisoners” including those who had lobbied for the cession of the Sudetenland to Germany. Schindler was classified as one such political prisoner and released in the fall of 1938. On November 1, 1938, Oskar Schindler applied for membership in the Nazi Party, which was granted in 1939.
Schindler was promoted within the Abwehr and he and his wife relocated to the town of Ostrava, located on the Polish border, arriving there in January 1939. Aware of the German plans to occupy all of Czechoslovakia, Schindler continued to be involved in spying for them, operating a network of spies of his own choosing. Schindler developed a network of more than two dozen spies and agents which operated in Czechoslovakia and Poland. His Polish agents provided information about critical military bottlenecks and checkpoints, as well as the disposition of the Polish Air Force and other crucial military units. They also provided useful information about the Polish railways and critical bridges and tunnels around the country. The information obtained by Schindler was used by the German Wehrmacht planning the blitzkrieg against the Poles.
4. Schindler acquired a factory formerly owned by Jewish businessmen
In October 1939 Oskar Schindler was dispatched to the Polish city of Krakow, which had been overrun by the German army the preceding month, on orders from the Abwehr. While in Krakow he met Itzhak Stern. Stern was an accountant for another agent of the Abwehr who had seized the formerly Jewish-owned firm where Stern worked. Immediately upon the conquest of Poland, Polish Jews were stripped of their rights as citizens and forbidden to own property. Schindler intended to operate an enamelware factory which had been seized from its Jewish owners as a state-owned company. After reviewing the books with Stern, the accountant recommended that Schindler acquire the company on his own, either by purchasing it from the state or through a long-term lease. Schindler agreed but lacked the funds to do so out of his own pockets.
In November of 1939, Schindler signed a lease on the factory, which he renamed the German Enamelware Factory, abbreviated as DEF (Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik). He also acquired through lease a nearby glass factory, and became an officer of the wholesale company to market his enamelware. His financial backers were for the most part Jewish, and seven of the enamelware factory’s initial staff workers were Jewish. The remaining 250 workers were Poles. He then used his contacts within the German military, which he had established through his espionage work for the Abwehr, to contract with the Wehrmacht to provide enameled cooking pots and pans, as well as various forms of glassware. Through his staff, including the former owner of the company, Abraham Bankier, Schindler was soon dealing with the illegal black market in Poland.
5. Schindler lived a life of luxury through the practice of corrupt activities
Oskar Schindler saw the opportunity to make himself a fortune through the sale of products to the German government, and sought to reduce his labor costs by hiring more Jews as workers than Poles, since wages for Jews were established by Nazi law as much lower. In order to obtain the needed contracts for his products, Schindler resorted to the tried and true method of bribing corrupt officials in the German government. Many of the materials needed for the bribes were available only from the black market as the war went on, and Jewish members of his staff, especially Abraham Bankier, maintained contacts within the black market to provide the materials and products which Schindler needed. One such contact was Marcel Goldberg.
Goldberg was a clerk in the office of Arnold Buscher, the SS Commandant of Plaszow, where Schindler’s factories were located. It was Goldberg who eventually provided the names for what became known as Schindler’s List, but in the early days of the DEF Goldberg was a source of much of the black market goods which Schindler used to bribe German officials. Schindler’s use of the black market provided him with a two-edged sword, he was able to use it to enrich himself and the threat of exposing those same corrupt officials allowed him to bend them to his will. Schindler lived in Krakow in luxurious surroundings, and although joined by his wife he continued to maintain several extramarital affairs, while entertaining visiting Nazi officials and business leaders. He also continued to drink heavily, a habit which had plagued him for most of his adult life.
In August of 1940, the order was issued for the 60-80 thousand Jews living in Krakow to leave, allowing only those who worked in industries vital to the German war effort to remain. In March of 1941, the remaining Jews in Krakow, estimated to be about 15,000, were relocated to the Krakow Ghetto, which was a walled section of the city located in an industrial area. The Jewish workers in Schindler’s factories lived in the Ghetto and walked to and from their jobs every day. At the time Schindler employed about 1,000 Jews, out of a total workforce of about 1,600. Schindler expanded the services his company provided employees, including a medical clinic, dining facilities, and expanded work areas. He also provided enlarged office space for staff workers, allowing them to remain overnight whenever possible, rather than returning to the ghetto.
During the fall of 1941, the Nazis began removing the remaining Jews from the Ghetto, most of them being sent to the Belzec concentration camp. In the late winter of 1943, the remaining Jews who were able to work began construction of a new camp at Plaszow, those who were not capable of work were sent to the extermination camp. During the process of rounding up the remaining Jews, the Nazis killed hundreds in the streets, quelling resistance and imposing terror on those who remained. Schindler kept his employees within the factory to protect them from the SS violence in the streets of the Krakow Ghetto. That same month, March 1943, the Plaszow concentration camp was opened under the command of Amon Goth. Goth planned to move the factories supporting the German war effort to within the confines of the camp, which would keep the remaining Jews under the eyes of his guards at all times.
7. Schindler used bribery to keep his factories outside the camp
The SS guards at the Plaszow concentration camp were notorious for their random shooting of prisoners, an activity encouraged by their commandant, who practiced it himself as an example to his men. Workers were essential to Schindler maintaining his ability to fulfill his contracts and thus his coffers, and he was determined to keep his workers away from Goth and his men. The myth perpetuated by Schindler’s List, that he was inspired to action during an epiphany-like moment during the liquidation of the ghetto, didn’t happen. Schindler moved to assist the Jews in his employ, and eventually others as well, in a methodical fashion, with his business interests and the luxurious lifestyle in which they kept him always a part of the equation. He was as much mercenary as merciful.
To keep his workers free from the SS guards, Schindler persuaded Goth to allow him to build a camp on the grounds of his factory, using company funds (which he recovered using creative billing on his contracts). He eventually housed the Jews in his employ, as well as about 450 from other factories, in the sub-camp at DEF. During this time the Eastern front was beginning to show signs of collapse, and the Allies were making progress against the Germans in the west. The Allied bombing effort was gearing up and increasing evidence indicated that the Germans were losing the war on all fronts. According to some sources, during 1943 Schindler was contacted by Zionist leaders and began transporting funds for the Jewish underground in Europe from contacts in Budapest, to which he often traveled on business with the Hungarian government.
8. Schindler was arrested at least three times while in Plaszow
In 1941, Schindler was arrested by the Gestapo and investigated for black market activities and bribery of corrupt officials. His standing with several senior Nazi leaders, including Admiral Wilhem Canaris, the head of the Abwehr, led to his being held for one night before he was released and the investigation dropped. In 1944 he was arrested a second time for the same reasons but under different circumstances. Amon Goth was arrested in September of that year and as part of the investigation into his black-market activities and bribes, because of his somewhat cozy relationship with Schindler – he had allowed the latter to build the sub-camp and house his workers separately – Schindler was arrested as well. On that occasion, he was held for a week in Gestapo cells but again, his relationship with leading Nazis in the military and business (including his knowledge of their complicity in corruption) led to his release.
On April 28, 1942, a birthday party was held for Schindler at his factory, attended by his staff and workers. During the party, Schindler allegedly kissed a young Jewish girl on the cheek while receiving good wishes for the day. The following day he was arrested by the SS for violating the Nuremberg Decrees, which prohibited such activity. The arrest also revealed to Schindler that there was at least one Nazi collaborator within his company, since the party was attended solely by his staff and employees. It took five days of extensive activities contacting Schindler’s allies within the Nazi hierarchy and bureaucracy before he was released from custody. Schindler’s arrest led him to believe that his activities needed to be covered under the blanket of maintaining production for the benefit of the German war effort, and his arguments for the benefit of his workers remained under that guise.
In June 1944, the Allies launched the invasion of France and the Soviet Army launched an offensive which was soon grinding up the German defenses in the east. As the Soviets approached the Germans recognized that the activities of the eastern concentration camps would soon be known to the world. The Germans began arrangements to close many of the factory camps and move the remaining Jewish workers to extermination camps such as Auschwitz. Schindler learned of the plans through Mietek Pemper, the personal secretary of Amon Goth, who informed Schindler that the Nazis no longer considered his enamelware plant as crucial to the war effort. The suggestion was made, likely by Pemper, to shift the DEF to the production of anti-tank grenades used by the German Panzerfaust weapon in an effort to keep his factory open and the workers protected.
Once again Schindler resorted to coercion, flattery, and the most potent weapon in his personal arsenal – bribery – to convince Nazi officials to relocate his factory further behind the German lines to Brunnlitz, in his home region of the Sudetenland. It was Pemper, using the information provided by Marcel Goldberg, who produced the list of 1,200 Jews who would be transported to the new factory location. Both Goldberg and Pemper enriched themselves wherever possible during the preparation of the list, and both had been active in the black market throughout the German occupation of Poland. The list prepared by the two became the first of what were later revealed to be several lists of names which became famous as Schindler’s List. The movement of the Jewish workers, 1,000 workers from the DEF and 200 additional from a nearby textiles mill, began in October of 1944.
10. There were several different lists compiled by Pemper and Goldberg
The number of lists of Jews to be transferred to the new factory location in Brunnlitz varies according to different historians. The fact that Schindler had little to do with their creation is also disputed. At the time of the list’s creation, Schindler was under investigation for black market and bribery activities, and his attention was on clearing himself of crimes against the Reich. At one point during that time, he was incarcerated. At least seven different lists were written and amended, and some historians state that there were at least nine. Four are accounted for in the 21st century, two at Yad Vashem in Israel and one at Washington DC’s Holocaust museum. Another, privately owned, was placed at auction online in 2013, though its owner withdrew the item after failing to obtain the asked price.
Schindler himself told his workers that survived the war that they should not thank him for their lives, but rather they should, “thank your valiant Stern and Pemper, who stared death in the face constantly” (Stern being the accountant, Itzhak Stern). Schindler was only given the information which he, Pemper, felt was necessary. This was because Schindler was under investigation at the time, and Pemper was fearful that Schindler could break under interrogation and give the authorities information which would implicate himself, Goldberg, and Stern. Among the many names, Pemper placed on the final list used to determine who would be transported to Brunnlitz was his own and Goldberg’s, though neither were employed by Schindler at the time, rather both served under Amon Goth, who was by the time of the move under arrest.
11. Schindler protected wives and families of his workers
By 1943 and in 1944, during the compilation of the lists, Oskar Schindler was overtly protecting those Jewish workers he employed and their families as far as possible. He claimed that wives and children were essential to the well-being of his workers and in many instances counted them by name as employees. In July 1944, his employment rolls included 1,750 workers, about 1,000 of them Jewish. He relied on his contacts to aid him, chief among them Wilhelm Canaris, the head of the Abwehr. On July 20 an assassination plot against Hitler and subsequently attempted coup failed, and investigations into activities subversive to Hitler and the Nazis intensified. That fall Schindler began relocating his factory and the workers whose names had been listed by Pemper, and approved by the SS, to Brunnlitz in the Sudetenland.
In October of 1944, a train containing 700 of Schindler’s male workers was dispatched to the concentration camp at Gross-Rosen. There they were held for a week before continuing on to Brunnlitz. At the same time, 300 women and girls were sent to Auschwitz. When Schindler discovered that the women had been sent to the death camp he resorted to the officials he had always used in Germany, only to find that their waning influence with the Gestapo and SS made them of little use. It took direct bribery, using black market goods and diamonds, to gain the release of the women (German currency has declined in value to the point of worthlessness in the collapsing Reich). After about a month the women were sent to Brunnlitz. As 1944 came to an end, Schindler’s protection of the Jews he employed was becoming known to Nazi officials at the highest levels.
12. Schindler began “producing” arms for the defense of Germany
By the late autumn of 1944, Schindler had opened a new factory in Brunnlitz, ostensibly for the production of anti-tank grenades for the defense of Germany. In order to maintain what was in fact a charade, Schindler had shipped from Plaszow raw materials and the machinery from his factory to the new location. As with other German industrial plants, the flow of raw materials was hindered by the destruction of the transportation network wrought by the allied bombing. The absence of production caused Nazi officials to question the efficiency of Schindler’s new plant, as they did with other manufacturers of needed war materials. Schindler was aware that it was necessary to maintain the appearance that his plant was productive, and contribute to the war effort if the workers under his protection were to survive the war.
To maintain appearances, according to some historians, Schindler purchased finished products on the black market and listed them on his books as materials finished in his factory. During this time several textile plants relocated to the Sudetenland, where there was a shortage of labor, and Schindler arranged to transfer workers from the remaining camps in Poland, including Auschwitz, to address the labor shortage. By the end of 1944, food for the workers, who were by then slave labor rather than employees, was provided by the SS and was insufficient to maintain health. Rations were subsidized by Schindler. He traveled to Krakow and closer to the approaching Eastern Front to obtain the armaments he presented as his own, food, and other necessary materials to maintain appearances before Nazi officials.
13. Schindler’s wife Emilie aided him in protecting his workers
The activities attributed to Oskar Schindler were in actuality a conspiracy involving many people, some of them unwittingly. In Nazi Germany under the eyes of the Gestapo and SS, many people participated in activities of defiance while distrusting their do-conspirators, unwilling to share too much information out of fear of being discovered through interrogation and torture. Pemper, Goldberg, Canaris, and several others were of this category. Another individual who willingly aided Schindler was his wife, Emilie, who also tolerated his womanizing and frequent bouts with drunkenness, which continued throughout the war. Years later Emilie revealed to her biographers her awareness of his philandering with secretaries and other women, including some of the Jewish women under his protection, but she nonetheless participated in the activities to protect his workers.
By January of 1945, after the collapse of the final German offensive on the Western Front, Emilie was protecting trainloads of Jews which had been bound for Auschwitz, sheltering them within the armaments factory at Brunnlitz. Workers deemed unfit by the Nazis at factories and mines were dispatched to the east to be killed in the winter of 1945, even as the Soviet armies began discovering the extermination camps. With Oskar, Emilie used black market goods, diamonds, gold, and other valuables to bribe officials as the Soviets approached, and in the collapse of the German government, Nazi officials hoping to escape Europe and the consequences of their crimes became more and more susceptible. At the same time Schindler was aware that as a former member of the Abwehr and a card-carrying member of the Nazi party, as well as an employer of slave labor, he would be subject to arrest by the Soviets and the western Allies. He chose the latter.
14. Schindler fled for his life from the Soviet Army
As Nazi Germany collapsed, Schindler made preparations to protect himself from being classified as a war criminal. He solicited letters from Goldberg, Stern, Bankier, and others describing his activities protecting his workers. Throughout the war, Schindler had retained his car, and in it he and his wife departed Brunnlitz for the west, followed by one of his trucks, which carried several of his workers and one of his mistresses. In the Czech town of Budweis, he was temporarily detained by Soviet troops, who seized the car, but allowed them to pass, in response to a bribe. The Schindlers finally reached the American lines, where Schindler’s documents were examined by American officers, who arranged passage for him to Switzerland. They remained there until the fall of 1945, when they relocated to American occupied Bavaria.
Schindler was not charged with war crimes for employing slave labor, as were other German industrialists, but in post-war Germany, he was virtually destitute. Schindler had lived in luxury during his tenure in Poland and Czechoslovakia (the car he used to flee the Soviets was a Horch, a prestigious vehicle in pre-war Germany) but he claimed that he had spent his entire fortune through bribery and his other activities protecting his workers. His entire fortune had come from the sale of products to the government of Germany and its allies during the war, used by the German military. In Bavaria Schindler began accounting for his expenses, which included bribery of officials, food for his workers, construction of the sub-camp in Plaszow, travel, and so forth. The sums provided by his primary customer, the Nazi government were not included.
15. Schindler sought reimbursement for his expenditures
After the war, Oskar Schindler claimed to have spent over a million dollars of his own money in his efforts to protect the workers he employed, as well as others. Most of his expenses came, according to his own claims, from the building of the sub-camp at Plaszow and the expenses of the black market and bribery. During his escape to the west, Schindler used diamonds to bribe Soviet officials, and he still held some in his possession when he arrived in Switzerland, as well as gold. In 1948 Schindler presented his claims to the New York based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, requesting that he be reimbursed for personal expenses of just over $1 million. Included in his request were supporting documents from various Zionist groups and some of the workers he had protected.
Schindler was awarded $15,000. Many of the expenses he had listed were unsupportable. Travel for the purpose of being awarded war contracts (he was undeniably a profiteer, originally leasing the factory for that purpose) was not considered as being protective of the Jews he employed. The fact that he employed Jewish workers at all being because they were less expensive, with their wages as well as their rations set by the German government, was also a factor. As Schindler struggled to recover from the war and the loss of his factories and fortune, several of the workers he had protected rebuilt their lives. They became known collectively as Schindlerjuden (Shindler’s Jews). One of them was a former officer of the Polish Army who had worked for Schindler since the earliest days of the enamelware factory, Poldek Pfefferberg.
16. The story of Schindler’s List began to emerge long after the war.
In 1939 Oskar Schindler hired an interior designer to decorate his new apartment in Krakow, as his wife had not yet joined him there, and his time was soon occupied by the acquisition of the enamelware factory. From her he learned of her son, a Jewish Polish army officer held prisoner of war by the Germans. Schindler hired the young man, Poldek Pfefferberg, to join his staff at the plant. Pfefferberg stayed with Schindler throughout the war, traveling with him to Brunnlitz when the factory was moved, and became a highly skilled worker. Following the war Pfefferberg lived in Budapest for a time, followed by a period in Munich, before finally traveling to the United States in 1948, where he adopted the name of Leopold Page and eventually opened a leather goods shop in Beverly Hills, California. There he attempted to garner the interest of film and television executives in Schindler’s story.
Eventually, Page managed to tell the story to the novelist Thomas Keneally, who wrote the historical novel Schindler’s Ark (which was published as Schindler’s List in the United States). By the time Page related the story, Schindler had been dead for six years, though his wife, Emilie, was still very much alive. Schindler’s Ark was dedicated to Pfefferberg, who reverted to using that name later in life, and who described his motivation for telling the story as a desire to, “give him immortality”, referring to Schindler. Schindler’s story had already been told by other survivors and by Schindler himself in interviews, but it was the book by Keneally and the subsequent film based on the novel which made it famous. One writer, Herbert Steinhouse, interviewed Schindler in 1948 and subsequently described him as being,” A repentant opportunist (who) saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him.”
17. Schindler after the war failed to find success
During the war, Schindler became a successful businessman through the act of war profiteering and the use of forced labor. After the war, he was unsuccessful in virtually everything he set his hand to, often unable to make a living. In 1949 he traveled to Argentina, where he failed as a chicken producer and later in an attempt to raise coypu, a large rodent which at the time was valued for its fur. Having failed in Argentina and still beset with his lifelong habit of excessive alcohol consumption, he abandoned his wife Emilie and returned to Germany in 1958. There further business enterprises ended in failure, including a cement factory which went bankrupt despite the ongoing construction boom in post-war Europe. By 1963 he was reduced to living on contributions given him by surviving Schindlerjuden and other charitable groups. He died in 1974.
His wife remained in Argentina for most of the rest of her life, occasionally visiting Germany and other places. She survived on pensions paid to her by Israel and West Germany. In Argentina, she was given 24-hour police protection due to threats from anti-Semitic groups. Many survivors credited her with being the true impetus behind Oskar Schindler’s protection of his workers, with one, Maurice Markheim, going so far as to say, “Behind the man, there is the woman, and I believe she was the great human being”. In the summer of 2001, she visited Berlin, dying there in October after suffering a stroke. She was buried in Germany, her husband had been buried in Israel. In 1999 Emilie told an interviewer on German television, “I saved many Jews too. More than he did”, in reference to her husband.
The truth about Schindler’s List, as with the exact number of Jews which were saved through his efforts, and those with whom he conspired, is impossible to pin down. Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi Party, an opportunist who profited from war contracts, bribery, and the use of forced labor. Long after the war was over he fled his debtors in Argentina and returned to Germany, abandoning his wife to deal with the creditors on her own. Some survivors gave her greater credit for their protection, others attributed their ability to live through the war to Oskar, though acknowledging Emilie’s support. Schindler was a philanderer throughout his marriage, an alcoholic throughout his life, and based on his ability to persuade his Nazi superiors to accept his bribes, a born salesman.
The various tales of who actually prepared the list of the survivors who were sent to Brunnlitz all indicate the Schindler was little involved. Emilie claimed late in life that she had written much of the lists, Pfefferberg claimed it was Oskar, Goldberg claimed he had provided the names to Pemper, Pemper that he had written the lists with Goldberg’s assistance. What is known for certain is that 1,200 Jewish men, women, and children survived the war by being relocated to Schindler’s factory and that hundreds, if not thousands, survived due to his other activities throughout the Nazi regime. Both Oskar and Emilie were named as Righteous Among the Nations by the State of Israel in 1993. Oskar Schindler is the only member of the German Nazi Party to be buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
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