Fifty years ago a Sudeten German living in Poland turned his back on his desire to accumulate wealth and defend his fuehrer and fatherland, and rescued over 1,100 Jews from certain death. By now the story of Oskar and Emilie Schindler is well known and celebrated, first by a book by Thomas Keneally and then a Steven Spielberg movie. It takes the detailed research of the author--a college professor and expert on Eastern Europe--628 painstaking pages of text and about another 100 pages of notes to confirm the basic truth of the popular versions of the Schindlers' lives. What we kew about them before was the “Classic Comics” version of how a ne’er-do-well, boozing, skirt-chasing Nazi ended up being the poster boy for “good Germans." David M. Crowe, an Elon College history professor, shows us the whole story of how Oskar and Emilie rossed over from indifference to heroism. The sad thing is that even this meticulous and essential book will have no impact on those who still deny the Holocaust, or think it to be fact-based, but exaggerated.
The Holocaust was not a stand-alone event. It was a national policy of the Third Reich. We Americans, unfortunately, have nothing to feel superior about. As a British colony, and then as an independent nation, we enslaved a whole continent’s people, marginalized the natives of the Americas, and denied women participation in decision-making. As an independent nation, after a bloody civil war, we terrorized the former slaves, incarcerated Japanese-Americans, and continued to take Native American land. In our own country, prominent Americans like Charles and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Howard Hughes, Joseph Kennedy, Avery Brundage, Henry Ford and Father Coughlin supported Nazi notions of race superiority. Even friends-of-Israel Harry Truman and Richard Nixon wrote and spoke in a prejudicial manner at one time in their careers. In fact, the entire Post-World War II anti-Communist hubbub was created to keep Jews in their “place” and deter them from advancing the cause of civil rights and integration.
What Professor Crowe’s book does is put the Keneally and Spielberg works in their proper perspectives as docu-dramas based on fact. Oskar Schindler was a man of divided loyalties, to Germany, National Socialism, and his own treasury. He moved in and out of circles of Hitler opponents, SS men, industrialists, and partisan Poles and Jews. At some point, faced with the moral stench of the ovens, he moved into a higher plane. It is irrelevant whether he made up the “List”; he fed and cared for anyone who worked for him, and even if they were not with him on VE day—they had a greater chance of survival working for Oskar than for almost any other industrialist.
The Holocaust was a time for religious and racial zealotry, like the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Any time you put a sword and shield in the hands of any deity or religious figure--be it Moses, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Zeus or Baal--you corrupt the body politic and reap what is sown. The State of Israel anointed the Schindlers as "Righteous Gentiles." I hope one we can live in a world where such acclaim and categorization is unnecessary.
This story was published on February 17, 2005.