“There’s Oskar Schindler’s factory in Krakow.”
“Who’s Oskar Schindler?” I asked.
“You haven’t watched the movie before?” My colleague asked incredulously.
The movie he meant was Schindler’s List, a 1993 Steven Spielberg movie retelliing the story of Oskar Schindler a German businessman who saved the lives of more than a thousand Polish-Jews in Krakow by hiring them as employees in his factory in Krakow.
No one would question the power of the film today, and yet when Spielberg was trying to make the film he faced significant resistance.
Krakow was one of the hubs of Jewish people in Europe when the Nazi’s marched in and were thus at the forefront of the Third Reich’s anti-Jewish extermination movement.
Many Jews were locked in the Jewish quarter and others were shipped out to the district of Podgórze to be kept in ghettos before being shipped out to concentration camps or liquidated. The Jews did not let themselves live as helpless victims, a group of young man (as with many others around Nazi-controlled territory) attempted uprisings against the Nazis, most of the uprisings failed, as did the one in Krakow.
A Memorial to the Jewish Uprising in Krakow
There were more than 68,000 Jewish people in Krakow when the Nazi’s marched in, few were left at the end of the war, census numbers put the Jewish population in all of Poland today at around 10,000.
Into this unpromising story was an bright spark, Oskar Schindler.
Schindler was an industrialist and trade unionist, but spent much of his career as a spy for Nazi Germany in the Third Reich. He was originally a spy in Czechoslovakia and later in Krakow, where he set up an enamel factory and employed 1750 at his peak.
This would seem to be an malevolent background for a would-be hero and yet it was his history as a spy for the Nazi’s that allowed him to bribe officials and soldiers to ensure that the around 1200 Jewish people he employed in his factory were safe from repercussion.
As the war drew to an end, and the Hitler and his team of Nazi’s proceeded with their Final Solution – the extermination of all Jews in Nazi-controlled Europe. Concerned with this, Schindler convinced the authorities to allow him to move his factory out of Krakow to Brenec (in modern day Czech Republic), this preventing his workers from being put into the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He then continued to bribe officials, emptying his personal bank account to prevent the execution of his workers.
The factory continues to stand in Krakow where is has always been, the site now refurbished and home to a contemporary arts museum and a history museum of the war.
Schindler is an individual, but his story of bravery is a story that shines out of humanity in the darkest of moments. He, like many of the people in his company, do not appear in our conception as heroes. We are conditioned today to think of heroes as people who fight against oppression or who appear poor and in rags (people like Mahatma Gandhi and Matrin Luther King Jr) that we forget that heroism takes many forms.
In today’s political discourse (especially in America and Western Europe) these people are the privileged and the enemy. Yet one’s station in life, one’s birth in life, one’s identity and the amount of ‘privilege’ they are born with do not say anything about their humanity and their soul. For a rich, privileged person can be both good and bad, so too can a poor, non-privileged be good and bad.
Schindler is in good company, with people like Raoul Wallenberg – a Swedish diplomat who saved Jews in Hungary and Mamoru Shinazaki – a Japanese official who saved many Chinese during the Sook Ching and softened Japanese brutality in Singapore, who collectively show the essence of heroism in our darkest hour.
May the memory of humanity continue to shine brightly, and may we as humans never be cursed with being placed in such a situation where such acts of bravery and heroism would ever be required again.
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