“Whoever saves one life saves the world entire”
Itzhak Stern, a Jewish clerk said this to a fleeing Oskar Schindler as World War II reached its sunset and the Allied forces liberated Nazi torture and extermination centers. Schindler is often credited for using his wealth, connections with top Nazi Party members, and position of power to save at least 1200 Jews and the coming generations from a near-certain death during the Holocaust.
One of the most horrific terms in history was used by the Nazi Germany to label a community whose lives were unimportant, or those who should be killed upright. The Jews then living in Nazi Germany were called ‘Lebensunwertes Leben’ or ‘life unworthy of life’. The phrase was also applied to the mentally impaired and later to the “racially inferior,” or “sexually deviant,” as well as to “enemies of the state” both internal and external. As World War II reached its end, the state policy to kill Jews became the final solution of Adolf Hitler to wash Nazi Germany’s hands off the blood of at least 6 Million Jews.
Extermination camps were set up throughout the controlled German land to execute Jews at a free will. The methods used to kill Jews still ache us in the heart. From mass shootings to forced hunger, to using poisonous gas, to simply putting people in burning ovens- all of these were used to execute an entire race.
Between all this was a shrewd, womaniser who thought that he could make money from the war. He wanted to make armoured shells for the Nazi Army fighting the Allied forces. Oskar Schindler started to become visible to the Nazi Party in 1939 when Hitler invaded Poland and thus started the Second World War.
From a Black-Market moneymaker to a Nazi Party member
Oskar Schindler left for Poland as soon as the war started in September 1939, hoping to make money. Looking for business opportunities, he quickly got involved in the black market. By October, Schindler used his charm and doled out “gifts of gratitude” to bribe high-ranking German officers. Wanting to expand his business interests, Schindler obtained a former Jewish enamelware factory to produce goods for the German military.
The enamelware factory, ‘Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik’ became a place where Schindler would have a change of heart and instead of handing over the employed Jews for extermination, he would save them and their families.
It is not exactly known when Schindler had a word with his accountant-cum-clerk Itzhak Stern about having to save all these Jews but it is understood that when the Nazi Army liquidated the labor areas in Krakow, Poland in 1943 and relocated the Jews to labor camps, it is at this moment that Schindler decided to save them.
Why? On the day when the Jewish labor-areas were cleared, Schindler with his girlfriend was riding a horse on a mountain from where he could see the atrocities against the Jews. And, since then he along with Stern looked for all the valid reasons to employ more and more Jews with varied and often no skills to save them from certain death at concentration camps.
In early 1943, the Nazis implemented the liquidation of the Krakow Jewish population and opened up the Plaszow work camp, run by the notoriously sadistic commandant, Amon Göth.
Schindler cultivated a relationship with Göth, and whenever any of his workers were threatened with deportation to a concentration camp or execution, Schindler managed to provide a black-market gift or bribe to save their lives.
At a rare moment during the liquidation, Stern was arrested and was sent on a train bound to Auschwitz. Schindler arrived at the train the station just five minutes before the train’s departure and bribed the officer-in-charge to mend his list and get Stern off the train thus saving his life.
The factory was making goods for the Nazi Army however, Schindler ensured that none of the products manufactured could ever actually be used by the Nazi Army. All the products manufactured in Schindler’s factory were faulty on deliberate purposes. The factory was a front to save as many Jews as Schindler could save.
“Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don’t”
Between 1944-1945, as advancing Allied troops began discovering the death camps run by the German Army, they found as results of the extermination policies: hundreds of thousands of starving and sick prisoners locked in with thousands of dead bodies. They encountered evidence of gas chambers and high-volume crematoriums, as well as thousands of mass graves, documentation of awful medical experimentation, and much more. The Nazis killed more than 10 million people in this manner, including 6 million Jews.
In 1944, Plaszow transitioned from a labor camp to a concentration camp and all Jews were to be sent to the death camp at Auschwitz. Schindler requested Göth to allow him to relocate his factory to Brnĕnec, in the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and produce war goods. He was told to draw up a list of workers he wanted to take with him.
With Stern’s help, Schindler created a list of 1,200 Jewish names he deemed “essential” for the new factory.
Permission was granted and the factory was moved. Not wanting to contribute to the German war effort, Schindler ordered his workers to purposefully make defective products that would fail inspection. The men and women boarded separate trains and were to reunite at the factory. The employees were to spend the remaining months of the war in the factory.
A near-death for women
The train for women arrived at the wrong destination. Auschwitz it was. The women were lined up. These women had heard the stories of Auschwitz and knew that they were just stepping away from death by poisonous gas. Their hair was cut, they were made to stand in a large chamber for a shower and while many were thinking that it is their death because most of the times these shower heads threw out poisonous gas, this time for them luckily it was just the water from the shower.
The Soviets liberated the factory on September 1, 1945, and by August 30, 1945, Schindler was on his way to save himself from the Allied Forces, after all, he was still a Nazi.
On the night of August 30, Schindler cried into the arms of his friend Stern while bidding farewell to the Jews he had saved that he could have saved several more lives had he known that they could be meeting a good fate and was regretting the fact that a family and its generations could have been saved.
Itzhak Stern: There will be generations because of you.
Oskar Schindler: I didn’t do enough.
Itzhak Stern: You did so much.
The day after the war ended, Schindler and his wife fled to Argentina with the help of Schindler’s Jews to avoid prosecution for his previous spying activities.
For more than a decade, Schindler tried farming, only to declare bankruptcy in 1957. He left his wife and traveled to West Germany, where he made an unsuccessful attempt in the cement business. Schindler spent the rest of his life supported by donations from the Schindler Jews.
Schindler died in 1974 and was interred in the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. Mount Zion in the New Testament has been called one of the holiest places for Jews. He is the only Nazi who has been interred at the holy Jewish site in Jerusalem.
Join me in saying a prayer for the six million Jews killed, many more tortured and a Nazi who saved around 1200 Jews and their generations:
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha’olam, asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candle