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Oskar and Emilie Schindler intervene to save Jews from Nazi genocide, Poland, 1939-1945
Oskar Schindler was not your typical nonviolent savior. There is no doubt that his actions resulted in the saving of the lives of 1,200 Jewish Holocaust prisoners. What makes this story stand out among other nonviolent campaigns was the enormous and sustained risk he took for people with whom he had no immediate identification.
Schindler, whose wife Emilie was a partner in this campaign, first made his mark by purchasing, from bankruptcy court, a factory that produced field kitchenware products. The cost of the business venture was 50,000 Zlotys—the equivalent of 10,000 American dollars. Situated on the outskirts of Krakow, Poland, the factory was renamed Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik or D.E.F. Driven by success, Schindler made the deals, but behind the scenes he relied on his staff.
While the Nazis’ were gathering up the Jewish people of Europe and forcing them into inhumane work camps that exposed the prisoners to torture and disease, Schindler took an approach that did not involve inflicting violence on his own workers. Instead, the employees, who were all Holocaust prisoners that would commute from a nearby concentration camp, were addressed in a humanitarian manner. Schindler first began by conversing with his workers as if he was one of their peers and not their superior. Employees who conversed with Schindler found themselves on the receiving end of an extra order of soup ration the following day, ordered by Schindler.
The spring of 1943 the Nazis’ realized that they could not maintain the war and thus, ordered the process of liquidating the ghettos, a procedure that meant committing mass genocide. Upon hearing this, Schindler went to the German government and got permission to build a barracks on site of his factory so that his employees would not have to spend another day in the ghetto and more importantly, their lives would be preserved. Schindler told the government that building a barracks would be beneficial to the warfront, as the factory would be more efficient, and time would be saved on the workers’ commute to and from the ghetto.
Throughout this political deception, if caught, Schindler risked imprisonment or worse, death. Schindler had been arrested on three different occasions, on suspicion of black market activities, but always managed to talk or bribe his way out of it. Had his charm and wallet been unsuccessful, Schindler risked the safety and welfare of his workers in the factory.
In 1944, while the factory continued to produce goods essential to the war, Schindler received word that all camp in Krakow were being ordered to close. This order also included the factory. This news did not sit well with Schindler, who decided to go to Berlin and persuade the government to allow him to move his factory and workers to Brünnlitz, Czechoslovakia. The government agreed and Schindler returned back to Poland where he was able to get all of his employees on a list; a list that would prove to be life saving for the workers. This is where the famous term “Schindler’s list” originates from.
With the process of relocation completed, the factory resumed production. It was business as usual one day in 1945 when Schindler received word of two abandoned cattle cars carrying 132 Jewish prisoners, prisoners who were malnourished having not eaten or drank anything for ten days. Without hesitation, both he and his wife hurried over to the abandoned cars and heroically the couple was able to save 116 of the 132 disregarded prisoners. The 116 prisoners were brought to the factory, but would never work a single shift in their lives. Additionally, Schindler purchased a plot of land nearby so that the ones who perished could have a proper burial.
In May of 1945, Schindler proudly stood up on the factory floor and announced to his staff that the war was over and they were all free to go. 1,200 prisoners who had experienced countless brutalities at the hands of the Nazis got up, thanked Schindler for his humanitarian spirit, and walked away as survivors of the Holocaust.