Oskar Schindler: The German Whose Mission Was to Save the Jews

Oskar Schindler was a German Catholic industrialist who, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, moved to Krakow to take over the operation of two previously Jewish-owned enamel cookware makers. He quickly established his enamel factories outside Krakow, turning them into a refuge for some 900 Jewish workers to protect them from the brutalities of the concentration camps.

A troublemaker at first

Schindler was born in 1908 in Zwittau, Moravia, Austro-Hungary, to a Sudeten German family. His father was the owner of an agricultural machinery company, Johann “Hans” Schindler, and possibly where he took his love for motorcycles in the future.

As a child, Schindler was his parents’ headache; he was once expelled from technical school in 1924 for falsifying his report card. After high school, he chose not to take college or university qualifying exams and attended classes in Brno, where he learned the trades of driver and machinery. After that, he worked for his father for three years. In his youth, he bought a 250 cc Moto Guzzi racing motorcycle, passionate about his motorcycling hobby.

He married the daughter of a wealthy Sudeten German farmer named Emilie Pelzl in 1928. They would live in Emilie’s parents’ upstairs bedroom for seven years. After that, he would serve the Czech Army for 18 months, where he rose to the ranks of Lance Corporal in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the 31st Army. After that, he returned to Moravian Electrotechnic, where he previously worked, but went bankrupt, almost at the same time his father’s business closed and left him jobless for a year until he works with the Jaroslav Šimek Bank.

From 1931 to 1932, Schindler was arrested several times for public drunkenness. He would also have an affair with a school friend named Aurélie Schlegel, who would bear a daughter and then a son.

Nazi invasion

The Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. The Jews were stripped of their civil rights and everything taken from them – their businesses, their property, their homes and their whole life. In Krakow, Schindler was introduced to Itzhak Stern, an accountant for his colleague named Josef “Sepp” Aue, who had taken over the workplace previously owned by Jews.

Itzhak Stern (left) had not seen Oskar Schindler for four years when he found him in the Paris office of Herbert Steinhouse. The two men were still trying to leave Europe. (Alexander Taylor United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Herbert Steinhousepublic domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He told Stern about his plan to acquire a previously Jewish-gained enamel shop called Rekord Ltd. Stern advised him to instead buy or lease the business so he could have more freedom from Nazi rules, including hiring more Jews. Initially, he was only interested in the revenue potential of the business. He only wanted to hire Jews because they were cheaper than Poles since salaries were also controlled by Nazi Germany.

Things have changed

Things have changed. Later, he started to protect his workers without thinking about profit. Then, in October 1944, Schindler was allowed to move his enamel factories to Brünnlitz, Czechoslovakia, but now as an armaments factory. He was also allowed to take his Jewish workers with him. And he did.

The entrance to Emalia enamel by Oskar Schindler is located at 4 Lipowa Street in Krakow-Zablocie. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museumcourtesy of the Leopold Page Photographic Collection)

He managed to take some eight hundred Jewish men from the Gross-Rosen camp and 300 women from Auschwitz with him, saving their lives and ensuring that they were treated with humanity and dignity.

In 1962, Schindler received the “Righteous Among the Nations” from Yad Vashem. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded the United States Holocaust Memorial Council with the museum’s Medal of Remembrance. The award was received by Emilie Schindler, who accepted the medal on behalf of her husband.

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