Sunday, September 6, 2009

Tattered Remnants #004: Oskar and Emilie Schindler

The introduction to this series can be found here.


Ah, Oskar, Oskar. What has not been written about you these last fifteen years?

Before 1992 or so hardly anyone had ever heard of the man, save those he saved and Yad Vashem. Today he's a posthumous celebrity–not a Michael Jackson or Teddy Kennedy, perhaps, but his name is recognized worldwide.

Still. Nobody, really, had heard of the man before Steven Spielberg got his hands on his story. And it is because of his obscurity during his life that he is included herein. His worldwide fame today would probably bewilder him–although, knowing him, if he were alive he'd probably use it to cadge a free drink and make time with the barmaid serving it.

The movie Schindler's List was brilliant, largely accurate, and its story is so familiar now that it is not necessary for me to repeat his story.

Oh, what the hell, I will anyway:

A businessman, adventurer, and womanizer, he was born an Austrian subject, but grew up a Czech citizen of German extraction. He joined the German Abwehr and acted as a military intelligence agent against his Czech countrymen–that is, he committed treason against his new country in so doing. After the Germans gained the Sudetenland, he found himself, like a Mafia journeyman, having been "made."

He left behind his saintly, somewhat shrewish, and apparently celibate wife and moved to newly conquered Poland in the fall of 1939. He used his Nazi credentials, his charm, his ability to schmooze, and an almost godlike ability to mask his revulsion at evil to worm his way into the ascendancy that took control of Poland after the conquest. While drinking and chatting and throwing around money and gifts at high ranking Nazi criminals (not to mention sleeping with an astonishing number of women), he simultaneously convinced a number of Jewish investors to help him buy a bankrupt enamelware factory. He soon went into business making pots and pans for the German army. He was, as he later described himself, a Nazi industrialist, who used a workforce army of Jewish forced laborers to make himself rich.

But something strange happened on the factory floor.

He fell in love with his own slaves.

Now, in this day and age, when slavery is held in (very deservedly) low esteem, one aspect of the system is not commonly remembered: it was not unusual for a master to love his slaves, or the reverse.

Slaves were often held loved and respected by those who owned them, both in ancient times and in the American slave experience. We see this referred to in the New Testament, when the Centurion asked Christ to heal his servant, who was "like a son to him."

And close contact between master and slaves in Southern households resulted in so many children of mixed ancestry that the American black population is unmistakably paler than their cousins in Africa. (Of course, this is also because slave women were often subjected to rape by their owners.) The great anti-slavery agitator Frederick Douglass was a child of one such a union: his owner was his own father.

I do not mention this as any defense of slavery (and a pox on anyone who claims that I am!): in fact, this often present emotional bond made slavery worse, as we remember from our pre-Civil War experience. Proponents of slavery could point at certain "beloved," "happy" and "well cared for" slaves as "typical", which worked to the extent that it delayed Abolition until it became necessary to fight a war to end it.

One remembers also that the whole shocking (at the time) point of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was to reveal that even a "good" man who who owned slaves still did them very grave wrong by continuing to own them, and that owning them degraded him.

The point here is this: Schindler, who was a Nazi, a (yes) traitor, a womanizer, an exploiter of slaves, a war profiteer, and otherwise everything that we look to as evil, in the end discovered that he loved those that he "owned." And this love eventually saved their lives, and him.

We first see this love, relatively early in the movie, where one of Schindler's workers, a one-armed First World War veteran, gets killed by SS thugs for no reason other than his handicap (and his Jewishness). Schindler complains to the local commandant, who warns him, "Don't get too attached to your people, Oskar."

Which causes him to bark: "They're MINE!"

And in a profound sense, so they became.

Schindler no doubt started this kindness as a shrewd business decision. He surely realized (to paraphrase The Ten Commandments) that well fed slaves made more "bricks" than the starving, and that the dead made none. He therefore treated his people well, but only so that they produced more. And so his factory, without his quite realizing it at first, became a haven, as he merely exploited his workers without actually beating, raping or killing them.

In the film, he first realized the danger this put him in when a pretty girl, a Jew in hiding, used her wiles to get an interview with him. He asked her what she wanted, and she replied that she wanted him to "hire" her parents:

"They say that no one dies here. That you are a good man."

He blinks. "Who says this?"

Bewildered, she answered, "Everybody!"

Word had gotten about: the Schindler factory was where you wanted to work if you lived in Krakow and wanted to live.

When the war roared out of Russia and into Poland, it became clear that Krakow was going to fall to the Russian army. So Schindler moved the whole operation west -- lock, stock, barrel, and most importantly, his entire factory staff -- to his home town of Bruennlitz (now Brnenec, Czech Republic). There, he set up a bogus factory that supposedly made artillery shells but which, in fact, produced nothing whatsoever -– "A model of non-production," as the movie says. "I don't want any poor bastard to die as a result of my product," he famously said.

By the end of the war, 1200 of his people lived. And they came to identify themselves with him so closely that they became known as Schindlerjuden –- "Schindler Jews." And more Schindlerjuden (and their descendants) living today than there are Jews still living in Poland.

We know all this from the movie. But what of the man?

The man was a jerk.

Oh, a charming jerk. But he was a jerk.

He convinced his wife to marry him after only a few weeks -– then wasted a large dowry within weeks of his marriage on luxuries. He was compulsively unfaithful. He was a mooch. He drank like a sponge. While he never struck her, he lied constantly to her.

In the movie, they played up his adulteries for comic effect -– and even his workers would chuckle over them sometimes. In Schindler's Ark, the novel on which the film was based, the story is told that two of his factory workers were called to the bath house by SS guards; they arrived, trembling, knowing that showers were death cells in other places. But they were only to discover that they were called because Herr Schindler was lolling in a big bathtub with a pretty blonde female SS guard, and he wanted more hot water.

It was an endless cycle of adultery and repentance between himself and his wife. Emilie later wrote in her autobiography:

In spite of his flaws, [Oskar] had a big heart and was always ready to help whoever was in need. He was affable, kind, extremely generous and charitable, but at the same time, not mature at all. He constantly lied and deceived me, and later returned feeling sorry, like a boy caught in mischief, asking to be forgiven one more time — and then we would start all over again....

But it doesn't excuse it. His behavior embarassed and hurt his wife, and even his friends were shamed on her behalf. He eventually left her, long after the war, and spent the rest of his life sponging off of those he had saved.

He was also a bad businessman. Before the war, he was a so-so salesman, much more successful at selling himself to secretaries than he was selling wares to the factory owners who employed them. He earned millions as a factory owner during the war (and who would not have, given the resources made available) but after the war, when put under practical strictures most normal businessmen face, he failed again and again. His attempt to build a nutria farm in Argentina failed miserably. He tried to open a cement factory in Germany in the 1960s; that failed as well.

And he was a liar. Baldfaced. He could lie to people endlessly and convincingly. He lied to his wife; he lied to his girlfriends; he lied to his investors; he lied to his Nazi cohorts, convincing them that he liked them when he actually loathed them.

But then, only a liar could have done what he did; he lied to the Nazis he hung about with, and convinced them to such an extent that let his people go.

And, he was a traitor to Czechoslovakia. Before the war, he actively cooperated with German military intelligence and helped the Nazis take over his country.

Most bewilderingly, he was also an out of control alcoholic, one that could lead him to be profoundly disrespectful of those who loved him.

At the end of the film, Schindler is presented with a gold ring, inscribed in Hebrew with a saying from the Talmud: "Who saves one life saves the world entire."

The gold for the ring came out of the mouth of one of his workers: a Mr. Jereth donated bridgework to make the ring. "What the hell?" he said later. "If it weren't for Oskar one of those Nazi bastards would have wound up with it."

The movie does not mention that, many years later, when Oskar was asked what became of the ring, he revealed that he had pawned it. "That went for drink," he shrugged.

He was, to the end of his life, plagued with the memory that he could have done more: his womanizing and high living cost huge amounts of money that could have saved even more lives than he did. (Although perhaps this was a good thing for him to have, a thorn-in-the-flesh to keep him from becoming too proud of what he did.)

The reason I mention these stories is that he was for all his great works a deeply flawed human being. He was no saint; he was a sinner, in many ways a particularly nasty one.

His wife Emilie he left embittered. In one interview, it was revealed that, up until her final days, she hated him:
Emilie Schindler does not refer to her late husband as "Oskar" but only as "Schindler." It is a measure of her contempt. "Schindler never sent anything. He spent the money on women."

The world has come to admire Oskar Schindler, but Emilie despises him. Was he a saint or the devil? "A saint of the devil," she replied.

Schindler was a lazy, self-indulgent man. "With that money," Emilie said, referring to Jewish gifts and a payment from the German government for lost property, "he could have become rich. He didn't want to. Here he had a good job offer. He didn't want that either."

Is she bitter? "People who are no good don't make me mad." Was there ever happiness in the marriage? "No. People who don't like to work, I don't like."

One could hardly blame her for feeling as she did.


He was, in spite of his flaws, determined to be good in the ways that mattered most, within his powers.

And those powers proved very great.

The Wikipedia article on Schindler states that "writer Herbert Steinhouse, who interviewed Schindler in 1948 at the behest of some of the surviving Schindlerjuden (Schindler's Jews), wrote:

'Oskar Schindler's exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him. The inference may be disappointingly simple, especially for all amateur psychoanalysts who would prefer the deeper and more mysterious motive that may, it is true, still lie unprobed and unappreciated. But an hour with Oskar Schindler encourages belief in the simple answer.'"

Simple human decency. That is enough.


A few words about Emilie. Her famous husband got much posthumous glory for the rescue of the workers, and rightfully so, for it was he who had to bamboozle the Nazis to keep his operation going. But she was, herself, a righteous individual who also cared for those she could. As ascetic as Oskar was erotic, she lived a private, pious life, attending Mass as often as Oskar did not, and considering herself his wife long after he had abandoned her. They never were divorced.

When the factory came into Bruennlitz, Emilie Schindler herself shone almost as brightly as her husband. Many of the workers arrived straight from concentration camps, ill and dying. She set up an infirmary at the factory to keep them alive or, if not, to provide them some dignity in death.

One recounts that when conditions worsened and they started running out of money, she sold her jewels to buy food, clothes and medicine.... one survivor later recalled:

She got a whole truck of bread from somewhere on the black market. They called me to unload it. She was talking to the SS and because of the way she turned around and talked, I could slip a loaf under my shirt. I saw she did this on purpose. A loaf of bread at that point was gold...

And this: "There is an old expression: Behind the man, there is the woman, and I believe she was the great human being." Perhaps. Perhaps it was she who kept her husband on a straight and narrow to the degree that she could.

On the other hand, if she had a flaw, perhaps the above interview also revealed that she herself was rather a self-righteous shrew.

But. In the end, she was also a most righteous person, one of the greatest of the Remnant. Let her be so remembered.

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