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Review-a-Day
Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, August 7th, 2005


 

Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List

by David M. Crowe

Management hero

A review by A. J. Sherman

Among the authoritative guidebooks bearing the proud imprint of Baedeker, an ornament of German publishing since 1827, one of the rarest and perhaps the most curious is that issued in the war year 1943 for Occupied Poland, entitled Das General-gouvernement. German travellers, whether soldiers seeking recreation, businessmen in pursuit of investments, or the occasional tourist, were invited to explore, within its red-bound pages, Germany's "organizing and constructive work" in Poland, a colony in all but name comprising a third of the country's pre-war territory and nearly half its population. In his preface, Hitler's viceroy, Dr Hans Frank, a Nazi lawyer later hanged for war crimes, assured the reader that the Generalgouvernement would readily provide "an image strongly suggesting home" for soldiers and others returning to the Reich from the East. For those who might be travelling outwards from the Reich, Occupied Poland represented "the first greeting of an Eastern world", in which nonetheless some familiar comforts could be anticipated, all at bargain prices: clean, well run, often German-managed hotels, restaurants and theatres, functioning rail links, decent roads. Nowhere does Baedeker describe unpleasant realities such as widespread hunger, the black market, forced labour, ghettos in major cities, or the extermination camps on Polish soil, working non-stop to rid the Reich, and occupied territories, of Jews, Gypsies, the Polish intelligentsia and other "undesirable elements". Auschwitz is briefly listed as a rail junction and "industrial town with 12,000 inhabitants".

When the Wehrmacht overran Poland, it was decreed that the Generalgouvernement should have a shadowy "independent" status that permitted Poland to be exploited, without quaint legal scruples, as the staging area for further conquests to the East, and a theatre for unfettered experiments in the creation of the master race. Compelled to defray the costs of its own Occupation, Poland was also the source of needed raw materials and manufactures for the German war effort. Its people, except for a small percentage of ethnic Germans, were to be used for forced labour either within the Reich or domestically, resettled, or eliminated through starvation and executions. Imprecise, sometimes contradictory, German policy in Poland was further muddied by Governor General Frank's ambition to run an autonomous regime. His bloated administration was chaotic, riven by ferocious feuding, its senior officers often unaware of events outside the capital. It was, moreover, notorious that the most fanatic Nazis, some florid alcoholics or otherwise impaired, were deliberately sent East; they included incompetent Party functionaries, wounded officers, retired civil servants, placemen and hacks of every variety. Many of these were attracted to the Generalgouvernement by opportunities for plunder; corruption was rampant at every level of the administration, and Germans of all ranks were easily bribed. Foodstuffs, petrol, information, precious life-saving labour certificates, even exemption from wearing the yellow armband could be obtained for a price. For the Occupiers, personal servants, sexual and other favours were agreeably inexpensive.

Party and SS officials in the General- gouvernement considered themselves independent contractors outside German administrative norms, thus encouraging development of what has been called "an SS state within the Nazi state". That legal limbo proved a congenial sphere for the entrepreneurial Oskar Schindler, whose entire career demonstrated nimble opportunism, deviousness and impatience with regulations of any kind. A tall, blond Sudeten German who enrolled early in the Nazi Party, Schindler trailed a long history of high-risk behaviours, philandering, shady and mostly unsuccessful business transactions, and subversion, against both Poland and Czechoslovakia. He arrived in Poland in September 1939 with the first Occupying troops, and soon established himself comfortably in Cracow.

With a wife and several mistresses to support, avid for bargains, Schindler rapidly found an attractive acquisition, a formerly Jewish-owned manufacturer of kitchenware. Known under Schindler's ownership as Emalia, the company was actually run by his Jewish deputy, Abraham Bankier, a black-market virtuoso whose creative accounting enabled Schindler to earn significant profits, lavishly bribe officials, and escape repeated investigations by envious SS cadres bent on confiscating profitable enterprises and dispatching their Jewish workers. The combination of Bankier's management skills and Schindler's alcohol-primed diplomacy assured continuing employment and therefore survival for more than 1,000 Jews, who collectively became known as Schindlerjuden -Schindler's Jews, kept safe within Emalia's perimeter, even as the adjacent Cracow ghetto was liquidated amid scenes of horrific violence.

The gradual evolution of an almost feudal relationship between Schindler and his protected Jews is the kernel of David M. Crowe's account of the war years. His densely argued, sometimes repetitive explanation of how an ethnic German of no demonstrable moral scruple or philo-Semitism was transformed into the Righteous Gentile of legend is far more plausible than the novel and film versions of Schindler's List. Useful as well is Crowe's meticulous reconstruction of how the famous survivors' list was actually compiled, without Schindler's participation. Despite overwhelming, sometimes numbing detail, the question of motive remains. Oskar Schindler's life, like most, was full of ambiguities and only sporadic insights: there was no single revelation that shocked him into empathy and human solidarity. It may indeed be argued that feeding and trying to preserve his staff was merely prudent management. Nor was Schindler entirely unique: even in the SS hell of Cracow, there were at least two other German factory owners profiting from Jewish slave labour who, unsung, exerted themselves to protect their workers. Crowe maintains that Schindler's moral transformation and disaffection from Nazism were influenced by contacts in counter-intelligence and the military -some involved in anti-Hitler plotting -and by his repeated clashes with both the Gestapo and SS. That distancing from Nazi ideology was most dramatically expressed in Schindler's decision, in autumn 1944, to transfer Emalia and its Jewish workers to Brunnlitz in the Sudetenland, instead of closing it and taking his profits as did so many German entrepreneurs, who thereby rescued their capital and themselves from the advancing Red Army. Yet even this high-risk humanitarian endeavour was later seen by some, including Schindler's long-suffering wife, Emilie, as a self-serving measure designed to procure immunity from possible Allied prosecution. Crowe concludes, unsurprisingly, that Schindler was a "flawed human being" who amidst appalling crimes and dangers, at great personal risk, succeeded in rescuing some 1,100 men and women, a feat compelling respect and commemoration.

After the War, exploiting near-deification by some of "his" Jews, Schindler continued to solicit their financial support, most often for schemes in Argentina and Germany doomed by his reverse Midas touch to failure. Many of the saved felt genuine affection for Schindler, and determined to protect him as he had them, but his life became a struggle with alcoholism, ill health and financial strain, relieved only by growing recognition, being feted in Israel, and a new mistress. Sordid bickering over rights to Schindler's story took place largely after his death, in 1974, aged sixty-six. It is doubtful that Oskar Schindler ever encountered the classic Jewish text Avot, "Sayings of the Fathers", moral maxims compiled some 1,800 years ago; yet he faithfully observed one of its injunctions: "in a place where there are no human beings, strive to be one". David Crowe's Oskar Schindler is likely to become the definitive account of how, if not why, he did so.

A. J. Sherman is the author of Mandate Days: British lives in Palestine, 1918-1948, second edition 2001.



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