November 24, 2004
Book Adds Layers of Complexity to the Schindler Legend
An authoritative new biography of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis, clashes sharply with his idealized portrayal in the Oscar-winning 1993 Steven Spielberg movie "Schindler's List" and the 1982 historical novel by Thomas Keneally that inspired it. The Schindler who emerges in this latest account - based on interviews with Holocaust survivors and newly discovered papers, including letters stored in a suitcase by a mistress - is far more flawed than the one depicted in the movie and novel. Even so, scholars say, the fresh revelations about Schindler's darker side cast his moral transformation and heroism into starker relief.
To begin with, there was no Schindler's List.
"Schindler had almost nothing to do with the list," said David M. Crowe, a Holocaust historian and professor at Elon University in North Carolina, whose book, "Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind the List," was published this fall by Westview Press.
In the film, Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is shown in 1944 giving the Jewish manager of his enamelware and arms factory in Krakow, Poland, the names of Jewish workers to be taken to the relative safety of what is now the Czech Republic. But at the time, Mr. Crowe said in a telephone interview, Schindler was in jail for bribing Amon Göth, the brutal SS commandant played by Ralph Fiennes in the film. And the manager, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), was not even working for Schindler then.
Mr. Crowe said that there were nine lists. The first four were drawn up primarily by Marcel Goldberg, a corrupt Jewish security police officer and assistant to an SS officer in charge of transporting Jews. (Goldberg was later accused of accepting bribes and of favoritism.) Schindler suggested a few names, Mr. Crowe said, but did not know most of the people on the lists. The authors of the other five lists are unknown.
Mr. Crowe said the legend of "the list" arose partly from Schindler himself, to embellish his heroism. He was trying to win reparations for his wartime losses, and Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial organization in Jerusalem, was considering naming him a "righteous gentile," an honor given to someone who risked death to save Jews.
Those he saved further enhanced the legend because "they adored him," Mr. Crowe said, "and they protected him."
No one doubts that Schindler, an ethnic German born in what was then Austria-Hungary, was a moral hero, but the revelations add deeper texture to his story.
It has long been known that Schindler was a spy for German counterintelligence in the late 1930's, but he played down those activities. Yet Mr. Crowe said that Czech secret police archives refer to Schindler as "a spy of big caliber and an especially dangerous type." Mr. Crowe also said that Schindler compromised Czechoslovak security before the Nazi invasion and was imprisoned. Later, the Czechoslovak government tried to prosecute him for war crimes. Schindler was also the de facto head of a unit that planned the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Schindler, a big, charming man, was a drinker and womanizer, as depicted in the novel and film. But Mr. Crowe said that he also had two illegitimate children whom he ignored.
There were also rumors, briefly mentioned in the book and film, that after Schindler moved to Krakow in 1939 as a carpetbagger following the Nazi invasion, he stole Jewish property and ordered Jews beaten. Although the charges were unproven, Mr. Crowe discovered that Yad Vashem was so concerned that it delayed designating Schindler a righteous gentile. The film's epilogue says Schindler was named in 1958, 16 years before his death in 1974. But Mr. Crowe found that he was officially named in 1993, after Yad Vashem learned that Schindler's widow, Emilie, who also behaved heroically, was coming to Jerusalem to participate in the film. Both received the honor, he posthumously.
There are many books about Schindler, including accounts by survivors and Emilie's memoirs, but Mr. Crowe's is the first comprehensive biography to draw on newly available records. Mr. Crowe is a member of the education committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and the author of a history of the Gypsies of Russia and Eastern Europe.
He dismissed some scenes in the film and book that are part of Schindler's legend. For instance, in the film Schindler is shown riding with his mistress on Lasota Hill in Krakow and watching the clearing of the ghetto in March 1943, when he sees a little girl seeking shelter. The scene depicts Schindler's moral awakening, but Mr. Crowe called it "totally fictitious." He said that it would have been impossible to see that part of the ghetto from the hill, and that Schindler never saw the girl. Schindler's transformation was more gradual, Mr. Crowe said, and even before the ghetto was cleared he was appalled by the mistreatment of the Jews.
"Steve is a very wonderful, tender man," Mr. Crowe said of Mr. Spielberg, "but 'Schindler's List' was theater and not in an historically accurate way. The film simplifies the story almost to the point of ridiculousness." Mr. Crowe also said that he admired Mr. Keneally's novel.
Mr. Keneally, who interviewed 50 survivors and used available archives for his novel, said it was understandable that Mr. Spielberg and the screenwriter Steven Zaillian would take dramatic license with some events. "I believe Steven behaved with integrity," he said. "And he does make Schindler ambiguous."
Mr. Spielberg is filming a movie and could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman, Marvin Levy, said in an e-mail message that "Schindler was such an enigmatic figure in life, it is not totally surprising that other information or alleged information could continue to surface in death." Michael Berenbaum, former president of the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, established by Mr. Spielberg to record survivors' memories, made a distinction between the craft of the historian and the artist.
"It does neither an injustice to the novel, the film or to history to say that the story is more complex," he said.
Mr. Crowe "is not even altering the story," Elie Wiesel, the author and Holocaust survivor, said. "He's complicated it. He's made Schindler more human, and also more extraordinary."
After Schindler moved his factory to Brünnlitz in the present-day Czech Republic, a period dealt with only briefly in the film, he stalled the manufacture of weapons, and none were ever made for the Nazis. He also bribed Nazi officers and distracted them with alcohol to save his workers. Mr. Keneally describes his heroism. In Krakow, Mr. Crowe said, "he could use the black market to supply his workers with food and health care." But by the time he arrived in Brünnlitz the Russians were advancing, making conditions harsher. "He risks his life and takes all the money he made in Krakow and spends every bit trying to feed his Jews and keep them healthy," Mr. Crowe said. In an episode known as the Golleschau transport, which is depicted in the book but not the film, two boxcars arrived in Brünnlitz filled with Jewish prisoners, some frozen to death. Schindler and his wife were able to save many of the prisoners.
Amid the chaos, Schindler also tried to accommodate Jewish religious law, getting SS officers drunk so that Jews could be properly buried.
Mr. Crowe said that the only part of the film that angered him was the ending, in which Schindler flees as the Russians advance. The Jews are shown as defeated, but in fact, Mr. Crowe said, Schindler had created "an armed guerilla group of Jews."
"They were armed to the teeth, ready to fight till the death," he said. Hours after Schindler left, they hung a Jew who worked for the Nazis.
In the film, Schindler gives a speech and breaks into tears because he did not do more. But Mr. Crowe obtained a transcript in which Schindler, always a wily pragmatist, also reminded the Jews of how much he had done for them, possibly to protect himself from prosecution for war crimes.
After the war Schindler was a failure. He squandered money given to him by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and moved to Argentina, where he attempted to breed nutria. He then returned to Germany and bought a concrete factory, where workers attacked him for saving Jews during the war. That factory went bankrupt. Schindler continued drinking, and begged Jews he had saved to help him financially. He died from alcoholism and heavy smoking, Mr. Crowe said.
Mordecai Paldiel, director of the Righteous Among the Nations department at Yad Vashem, said the new revelations show that "even people with all these characteristics can do a great, saintly deed."
"It seems we all have a little angel sitting inside us and just waiting to be allowed to go to the surface, to expose himself," he said. "A little, saving angel."