Oskar Schindler

Oskar Schindler (second from the left), with a group of his Polish and Jewish workers, 1940
Credit: Yad Vashem

Oskar Schindler was a typical German businessman, but during the Second World War he became the unlikely saviour of more than 1100 Jews who worked in his enamel factory in Krakow.

Schindler acquired a factory close to the Krakow Ghetto in 1939 and began producing enamelware. As Schindler witnessed the brutal hardships his Jewish workers were forced to endure in the Ghetto and as the Nazis’ intentions towards them became clear, Schindler sought to protect the Jews: ‘I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice’.

Protection became increasingly difficult as the war progressed and deportations to concentration camps began in 1942. Many Jews had forged papers in order to be eligible to work for Schindler and others did not possess the skills needed for the production of enamel. In order to keep the Nazis at bay, Schindler insisted that his Jewish workers, many of whom were women and children, were essential employees and were therefore exempt from deportation.

The factory was a haven compared to the ruthlessness and cruelty of the Ghetto. However, Schindler was on the verge of bankruptcy having spent everything he had paying off Nazi officials in order to keep the Jews alive. In the autumn of 1944, the liquidation of the Ghetto was underway and all remaining Jews were to be sent to their deaths. Schindler reacted by drawing up a list of his workers. He persuaded his superiors to allow him to set up a factory in another location in order to produce munitions to aid the war effort. Schindler and his workers remained in the factory until it was safe for the Jews to leave at the end of the war.

Schindler was forced to flee Poland in 1945, but for the rest of his life he was cared for by the Jews he had rescued from the Nazis. He was presented with a ring made by his workers who referred to themselves as ‘the Schindler Jews’. The inscription read: ‘He who saves a single life, saves the world entire’. In 1962, Schindler was named one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ by Yad Vashem, a term used to honour non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews. Today there are over 7000 descendants of the Schindler Jews living across the world and his legacy continues to inspire generations of Jews and non-Jews alike.

This story was submitted by Emma Low, a Young Volunteer at The Wiener Library.