Oskar Schindler, a Czech manufacturer and factory owner, is on his way to dine with Amon Goeth, Nazi commandant of the Paszów labor camp outside Kraców, Poland, in 1943. Schindler’s car travels on the broken Jewish gravestones that pave the road to Goeth’s villa. Inside the villa, as Jewish musicians play unobtrusively, Goeth is surrounded by local police and prostitutes. Schindler encounters Goeth’s maid, Helen Hirsch, who has been severely beaten by Goeth; terrified, she confides to Schindler about Goeth’s frequent brutality and begs Schindler to find and save her younger sister.
It is now 1908, and Schindler is born in Zwittau, Austria (later part of Czechoslovakia), a small industrial town where people speak German. Schindler, whose favorite hobby is motorcycles, studies engineering and expects to take over his father’s farm-machinery company. Soon, he marries Emilie, a farmer’s daughter, but he is never faithful to her.
In the fall of 1939, Schindler moves to Kraców and meets Itzhak Stern, a Jewish accountant who has many valuable business insights and contacts. In November, Jews are required to register with the Nazis, and the restrictions and brutality against Jews begin. With Stern’s advice, Schindler purchases an enamelware and cookware company called Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (Emalia) and initially employs 150 Jewish slave laborers. By the end of 1939, Schindler is often seen socializing with high-ranking Nazi officers and administrators, many of whom he bribes with rare black-market items to purchase their influence, protection, and support.
In early 1940, Kraców’s Jews are forced into an overcrowded ghetto, while their Christian neighbors harass and spit at them. Despite vicious slogans and posters promising violent punishment for those who help Jews, Schindler assures his workers that they are safe with him.
Shortly thereafter, Schindler is arrested by the Nazis on a trumped up charge of some irregularity in his bookkeeping, but because of the intervention of bribed Nazi officials, Schindler is released. Later, however, when his workers throw him a birthday party, Schindler is denounced for kissing a young female Jewish worker. He is rearrested but soon released because of intervention from ranking Nazi officials.
Schindler’s office manager, Abraham Bankier, is missing, so Schindler uses bluster and bravado to retrieve him from the cattle cars departing for the death camps; while on horseback overlooking the grisly scene, he sees the brutal liquidation of the Kraców ghetto. His terrified eyes focus on one young girl in a scarlet coat, in front of whom the Nazis are shooting and bludgeoning people to death. After witnessing the cattle cars and the death of seven thousand people, Schindler fully realizes the Nazi’s plan to exterminate all Jews.
Plunder, too, runs rampant in Poland, as Jewish jewelers are forced to appraise gold left behind in suitcases by fellow Jews on their way to death. So hard is it even for Jews to believe their imminent fate, that Schindler travels to Hungary to warn Jewish leaders there about the horrific reality of the camps.
Nazi commandant Goeth takes control of the Paszów labor camp. His first act is to nonchalantly order the murder of a Jewish architect who had informed him that the Paszów buildings are unstable. Goeth rules with an iron fist, and more than four thousand Jews who try to hide from incarceration in Paszów are publically murdered in one night.
Schindler contracts with Goeth to take about eleven hundred of the Paszów Jews and employ them as slave laborers at his factory. Schindler feeds and treats them far better than the remaining Jews are treated at Paszów. As Paszów’s population reaches thirty thousand, others are able to join the relatively safe haven at Emalia. Goeth tortures and executes many of the remaining Jews, those who could not reach the safe haven of laborers now known as the Schindler Jews.
In 1944, when the Germans start losing the war, all of the murdered Jews at Paszów are exhumed and cremated; flames, stench, and ash are everywhere. Of the 150,000 who came through Paszów and its subsidiary camps, some eighty thousand died there. As more Jews arrive, the unhealthy ones are murdered. Fearing for their own safety, the Schindler Jews, aware of the liquidation, nervously continue to work at Emalia.
On a scalding summer day, Schindler demonstrates his humanity by insisting that cattle cars holding two thousand Jews en route to a death camp be hosed down with water to cool off the people jammed inside. As the Russians approach, Schindler decides to move his factory workers to a safer site in Brünnlitz, Czechoslovakia, where they will manufacture military shell-casings. Schindler convinces Goeth to “sell” him his Emalia workers, thus creating what is soon known as Schindler’s list and ultimately saving the lives of about eight hundred men and three hundred women.
The Schindler men are successfully transported to Brünnlitz; the women (including Goeth’s former maid, Helen Hirsch, and her sister) are mistakenly routed to Auschwitz. Weeks later, Schindler pays officials to release the women to his charge, marking the only time that a train with living passengers leaves a death camp during the Holocaust.
During the remaining months of the war, Schindler bribes and manipulates officials so that the Jews in his charge can survive; his factory produces no useable shells. At war’s end, he exhorts his factory’s German guards to return to their families peacefully and gives the remaining food and supplies to his Jewish workers.
After the war, Schindler is unsuccessful in business and is often bankrupt, but he is well cared for by his former employees. Honored as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum, Schindler spends his remaining years traveling between Germany and Israel. He dies in 1974 at the age of sixty-six and is buried in Jerusalem.
After the release of Steven Spielberg’s enormously successful film in 1993, it is unlikely that many people do not know the story of Oskar Schindler, a Sudetan German confidence man who uses his connections with the German SS military organization to feather his own nest. He sets himself up as a military supplier in Kracow, Poland, in 1939, in order to take advantage of the expropriation of Jewish businesses, staffing his factory with Jews whom he can use as slave labor. Little by little he takes responsibility for the workers’ lives, with a minimum of interference from the German authorities. First, he houses them in his own compound to save them from constantly being taken out of the ghettoes for other work, which would interfere with their factory time. What starts out as effective business practice becomes a peculiar kind of cruel paternalism. Everything changes, however, when the workforce is threatened with transfer to the extermination camps. Schindler, seemingly without much thought or moral intent, begins to thwart the SS in its attempts to drag his workers into the boxcars. He does not save them all; in fact, he saves only a few of the hundreds who pass through his shop, but the Jews who survived the war never forgot him. This feckless, morally dubious, and often unsavory confidence man became one of the most beloved heroes of the Holocaust.
Keneally found this true story by chance, when a Jewish survivor, Poldek Pfefferberg, told him about this strange German and urged him to write the tale. Keneally researched the historical events assiduously; any other writer might have decided to present the narrative in a nonfiction format, but, as he himself asserts, his strength is in storytelling, and the novel is his natural form of expression. This does not mean that there is much about the novel that is the product of his imagination. Indeed, one of the common criticisms of the work is its reliance on facts, and some critics have suggested that it is really not a novel at all.
The truth of the matter, however, is that for all of its meticulous detail, Keneally’s main interest in the story is in Schindler himself. Keneally, who has some experience as a screenwriter, prepared a film script for Spielberg, who, significantly enough, declined to use it. The reason appeared to be that Spielberg wanted the emphasis to be placed on the plight of the workers, as it is in the film. The screenplay prepared by Keneally evidently focused more on the character of Schindler, who seemed not quite to know why he was acting so nobly. The heart of the novel, for all the particularity lavished on the intense squalor of the workers’ living conditions and the terrifying cruelty of their German captors, is a character without a moral center who indulges, without any attempt to understand or articulate what he is doing, in a series of mortally dangerous acts of magnanimity. The novel is rich with incident, but at the same time it is propelled by the mystery of human morality.