In his book Schindler's List, Thomas Keneally writes, "At some
point in any discussion of Schindler, the surviving friends of
Herr Direktor will blink and shake their heads and begin the
almost mathematical business of finding the sum of his motives.
'I don't know why he did it,' they say. 'Oskar was a gambler, was a sentimentalist who loved the transparency, the simplicity to ridicule the system; that beneath the hearty sensuality lay a capacity to be outraged by human savagery, to react to it, and not to be overwhelmed.'"
Since the release of Spielberg's film, the surviving Schindlerjuden have been asked to describe Oskar Schindler and, often, the question arises: Why did he do it?
Johnathan Dresner: "He was an adventurer. He was like an actor who always wanted to be centre stage. He got into a play, and he couldn't get out of it."
Mosche Bejski: "Schindler was a drunkard. Schindler was a womanizer. His relations with his wife were bad. He often had not one but several girlfriends. Everything he did put him in jeopardy. If Schindler had been a normal man, he would not have done what he did."
Danka Dresner: "We owe our lives to him. But I wouldn't glorify a German because of what he did for us. There is no proportion."
Ludwik Feigenbaum: "I don't know what his motives were, even though I knew him very well. I asked him and I never got a clear answer and the film doesn't make it clear, either. But I don't give a damn. What's important is that he saved our lives."
Helen Rosenzweig: "I couldn't make him out . . . I think he felt sorry for me."
Eva Scheuer, one of Schindler's secretaries: "He was larger than life, likable and gallant."
Abraham Zuckerman: "The movie didn't show all the little things he did; he came around and greeted you. I had food, protection, and hope."
Helen Beck, one of the women rescued from Auschwitz: "I will never forget the sight of Oskar Schindler standing in the doorway (at Brunnlitz). I will never forget his voice - `Don't worry, you are now with me.' We gave up many times, but he always lifted our spirits . . . Schindler tried to help people however he could. That is what we remember."
Salomon Pila: "I don't know why he was so good to us, but I would say, `Thank you very much,' because he saved my life."
Ludmilla Page: "To know the man was to love him. For us, he was a God."
Abraham Zuckerman, pointing to a photograph of Schindler taken at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem: "Look at that face. Can't you fall in love with a guy like that?"
Helen Beck, referring to racial tension and conflict today: "It hurts us very much. You see the world, they have not learned so much from the past."
Mrs. Wertheim, referring to a conversation with her grandson who had just seen the film with some of his friends: "He said everyone of them, and they were not only Jewish boys, were all taken by that film. They didn't believe that something like that could happen. I told him he should go more often, with more friends. I want everyone should see what can happen."
Webster's Dictionary defines
altruism as "an unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others." In
war, however, the term assumes a power words cannot measure. OBSTACLES TO RESCUE
ALTRUISM IN WAR
The hand of compassion was faster than the calculus of reason.
-- Otto Springer, rescuer
Why did they do it? Why did a small number of Gentiles risk their lives to rescue a small number of Jews during the Nazi-occupation of Europe?
The question is difficult to answer. The historian can ask sundry questions of surviving rescuers, delving into the past with expert knowledge, but it is impossible to return to the moment in 1942 when a beleaguered Jew knocked on the door and begged his Gentile neighbor for shelter from the Nazi storm. The Nazis' penalty for a non-Jew assisting a Jew was death. Death for you, death for you family.
It is impossible to enter the soul of another person, to explain the matter of conscience.
In her book, When Light Pierced the Darkness: Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland, Nechama Tec tells the story of a Polish family that momentarily sheltered a Jewish girl "whose Semitic features spelled doom." The father of the Polish family insisted that the risk was too great. His daughter, Zofia, who wanted to keep the Jewish child, described her father's attitude this way: "He was a realist; he saw things more clearly and perhaps this is why he was more afraid." The Jewish girl was asked to leave. She survived elsewhere, and felt grateful for the few days Zofia's family had given her.
To many, the idea of rescuing a Jew was the furthest thing from their minds. In Poland, the Jew had been defined as the chief villain long before the Germans arrived in 1939. Miriam Peleg-Marianska, a Jewish woman who worked clandestinely for Zegota (Council for Aid to the Jews) in Krakow during the occupation, has written, "The sowing of hatred would not yield a harvest of compassion."
When studying the behavior of non-Jews during the Holocaust, we stand at the moral precipice. It is important to avoid a rush to judgment, a quick condemnation. The task is to understand, not to condemn. As Maria Peleg-Marianska has said of the rescuers, "One is challenged to think whether in similar circumstances one would have found the inner resources to act as they did."
What would I have done? It is a question everyone who studies this subject must ask themselves. It is, however, a question with a loud echo but no answer. Only the moment can decide. An individual, however selfless and humanitarian in previous circumstances, does not know how he or she will react until the knock on the door forces a decision. The student who knows the answer does not yet understand the question. To explore what motivated the rare Gentile to risk his life for a Jew is a useful exercise in empathy. In December 1940, on the eve of the Nazi destruction of the Jews, the writer John Dos Passos wrote, "Our only hope will lie in the frail web of understanding of one person for the pain of another."
Magda Trocme, who with her husband Andre saved Jews in the French (Protestant) village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, recognized the value of studying the events of 50 years ago: "Remember that in your life there will be lots of circumstances that will need a kind of courage, a kind of decision of your own, not about other people but about yourself."
It is said that history repeats itself. This might be stated otherwise: Human nature remains the same. Let us turn our attention to that very subject.
"He was a realist; he saw things more clearly and perhaps this is why he was more afraid."
-- Zofia, a Polish girl whose father refused to hide a Jewish girl
Webster's Dictionary defines
altruism as "an unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others." In
war, however, the term assumes a power words cannot measure.
OBSTACLES TO RESCUE
There were many obstacles confronting the Gentiles who would offer succor to the outcast Jews of Nazi-dominated Europe.
2. INFORMERS: The Gentiles who decided on the path of rescue had to
contend with native collaborators. In Poland, there was a professional class of
scoundrels known as the Schmalzownicki (blackmailers). This class, the lowest
dregs of Polish society, sought out Jews in hiding and betrayed them to the
Germans for a meager reward of money, vodka and sugar. Outside of every ghetto
in Poland the Schmalzownicki lurked in the shadows, waiting to blackmail the Jew
trying to escape to the "Aryan side." "You Poles are a strange people," an SS
man is reported to have said during the occupation. "Nowhere in the world is
there another nation which has so many heroes and so many denouncers."
The rescuer of Jews also had to contend with the neighbor who simply did not like Jews, the neighbor who believed the destruction of the Jews was God's wrath in the guise of Hitler, the neighbor who feared the presence of hidden Jews would provoke the Nazis to retaliate by punishing everyone in the building.
The rescuers also had to contend with Jewish informers. "Was I afraid of Jews?" asked Miriam Peleg-Marianska, a Jewish woman who worked for Zegota, the Council for Aid to the Jews. "I must admit I was. There were all sorts and we were often warned to be on our guard ... one had to live through such infamy."
In Krakow, particularly nefarious was a Mrs. Chilowicz. Her task was to inform the Germans where Jewish children were hidden in the Plaszow camp. Like most informers, she betrayed others to save herself, and then perished with those she had betrayed.
At no time and in no place was the Jew or the rescuer safe in Nazi dominated Europe. Informers were everywhere, waiting to turn a profit by denouncing the Jew.
3. CULTURE: Anti-Semitism (hatred of Jews) played an important role
in discouraging sympathy and aid for the Jews. Anti-Semitism was no invention of
the Nazis. It is deeply rooted in Western culture.
The Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg has noted: "The Nazis did not discard the past, they built on it. They did not begin a development. They completed it ... The missionaries of Christianity had said in effect, 'You have no right to live among us as Jews.' The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed, 'You have no right to live among us.' The German Nazis at last decreed, 'You have no right to live.'"
Once the Jews were reduced to a symbol of all that was bad, they were, as historian Helen Fein has said, pushed beyond the "boundaries of moral obligation."
For centuries, many organized Christian religions instructed the faithful that the Jews--not the Romans--were responsible for the death of Christ. The theological basis for anti-Semitism was the account of Christ's crucifixion in the New Testament, St. Matthew 27:
And the governor said, "Why, what evil hath he done?" But they cried out the more, saying, "Let him be crucified." When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it." Then answered all the people, and said, "His blood be on us, and on our children."
In Poland before the war, Gentile
children leaving church on Easter Sunday or at Christmas often shouted "Christ
killer! Christ killer!" at Jewish shops and Jewish homes, the windows of which
were boarded up in anticipation of the Christian holiday.
Mordecai Peleg, a Polish Jew "passing" as a Christian in Krakow, once encountered a Polish youth who made a business of denouncing Jews to the Nazis. Peleg turned to the boy's father, "What do you think about what your son is doing, denouncing people to their death?'' The father was neither indignant nor embarrassed. "It clearly says here in the Old Testament that the Jews must perish for their sins! The Jewish prophets themselves have said it!"
Since World War II, the Catholic Church has made efforts to reverse these teachings. In 1965, the Second Vatican Council stated definitively that Jews were not to be held responsible for the death of Christ. Under the leadership of Pope John Paul II, himself a Pole, the Vatican has apologized for Catholic anti-Semitism, acknowledging that its teaching helped foster the prejudice. The Polish church, in addition, apologized for Poland's wartime anti-Semitism and for the actions of "evildoers."
It is difficult to imagine the degree of
anti-Semitism that existed in Europe and in the United States before the Second
World War. The 1929 depression inflicted economic dislocation and vast
insecurity, which, combined with the spread of Nazi propaganda, heightened the
ancient argument that the Jews were responsible for the misfortunes of mankind.
Jews were blamed for the depression of the 1930s. In Poland, Jews were prominent in the economy; the majority of stores and taverns were Jewish owned. This presence made them convenient scapegoats for economic decline. Miriam Peleg-Marianska described the Polish view of the Jews: "They were work shy, they cheated their customers, they saved a few grams of sugar on each kilogram they sold and got rich that way."
Additionally, the Jews were linked in the popular imagination with communism. The number of Jews in the communist party was relatively few, but often the relatively few occupied positions of great visibility. The great majority of Polish Jews were Orthodox, and communist atheism did not appeal to them.
The capitalist disliked the Jew because he was a communist. The communists disliked the Jew because he was a capitalist. The Christians disliked the Jew because he was a Jew.
For centuries, anti-Semitism was based upon religion.
In the latter part of the 19th century, however, this changed. Dislike of Jews
became based on a racial or ideological philosophy (in addition to religion).
This was a critical shift. As a result, the Jews were redefined as "a diseased
race" which thus rendered the "Jewish problem" susceptible to biomedical
As Robert Proctor has written, "By the late 1930's, German medical science had constructed an elaborate world view equating mental infirmity, moral depravity, criminality, and racial impurity. This complex of identifications was then used to justify the destruction of the Jews on medical, moral, criminological, and anthropological grounds. To be Jewish was to be both sick and criminal: Nazi medical science and policy united to help 'solve' this problem."
It is of note that the overwhelming majority of the German medical establishment endorsed the Nazi racial doctrines wholeheartedly. SS doctors at Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other extermination camps were in charge of "selecting" who would live and who would die. Mengele, the most notorious of the SS doctors, described the destruction of Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau as "applied biology."
Polish anti-Semitism was quite different from German
anti-Semitism. The Israeli historian has described it this way: "Polish
anti-Semitism, like every variant of that phenomenon, had its detestable and
cruel characteristics. It did, however, differ from ideological anti-Semitism
which was based on a racist philosophy. The Polish anti-Semite ridiculed and
humiliated the Jew, he saw in the Jew a foreign and unnecessary ballast, and in
extreme cases attacked him, but in my opinion, he was not capable of planned and
Then Gutman offers the following indictment of the Poles: "In an atmosphere which resulted in the isolation and elimination of Jews from the ranks of the human community, indifference, the turning of one's back, and silence in the face of tragedy --even callous acquiescence, or here and there active cooperation in the stealing of property and crimes --came to be possible."
Not infrequently, the Righteous Gentiles were not free of the anti-Semitic
images and values that influenced European life as a whole. Righteous Gentiles
did not rescue Jews because they were free of anti-Semitic prejudice; rather,
they rescued Jews because they were able to put the life of an individual before
their anti-Semitic prejudice.
In Poland, the best example is Zofia Kossack, the Catholic woman who established Zegota (Council for Aid to the Jews) in 1942. Her dislike of the Jews was manifest, but her sense of Christian duty led her to risk her life (and the lives of her children) to save them.
In order to save lives, Righteous Gentiles often had to sever the bonds linking them to their own culture. It is for this reason that many Righteous Gentiles, including Schindler, were ostracized by their countrymen when their deeds became public after the war. Not entirely unique was the Righteous Gentile who bade his saved Jew good-bye with the firm admonition: Don't tell anybody what I did.