On March 12, 1943, factory owner Oskar Schindler made a life-altering decision.
With inside knowledge that the Krakow ghetto was set to be liquidated, Schindler famously instructed his workers not to go home that evening. Instead, he would set out a system to protect them.
The German entrepreneur was known for his business savvy and persuasive tongue, skills he eventually put to the test in convincing Nazi authorities to resist deportation of more than 1,200 Jews, individuals who would go down in history as the “Schindlerjuden.”
Schindler was born April 28, 1908, into a Roman Catholic family. As a schoolboy he worked in sales after his studies, showing an early aptitude for business. He tried his hand at several businesses as a young man following the Great Depression, and became a spy for the German military intelligence. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1938, but freed after the Munich Agreement annexing much of Czechoslovakia.
Shortly after, he joined the Nazi party.
With Germany’s invasion of Poland, Schindler’s shrewd business mind saw an opportunity for profit. He became one of many men who profiteered from the war, coming to own a bankrupted enamelware factory in Krakow.
Schindler relied on his trusted Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern to hire some 1,000 Jewish workers, notoriously cheap labor. While originally motivated by greed, however, Schindler would soon make an about turn.
In 1943, Schindler saw firsthand a raid on the Krakow Ghetto, witnessing the deportation and murder of many of his own Jewish workers. Following the deportations, he used his persuasive skills to prevent deportation of anymore of his workers.
At work, staff was treated with a civility not found outside the factory walls. Employees were allowed to read Torah and keep kosher, and form a minyan each day. However, as months passed, the Nazis became ever more skeptical of Schindler’s goings on, arresting him three separate times.
Schindler eventually learned to use subtle bribery to gain the advantage, using hard to acquire liquors, chocolate and cigars to appease soldiers who turned up at his doors. He finally got the okay to compile a registry of workers necessary to maintain his business, and he sat down with Itzhak one evening to write a life-saving list of names.
The actual list was filled with individuals who could not have actually been necessary to factory work—children, elderly women, unskilled workers. Wherever possible Schindler tried to keep whole families together, paying costly sums for each person.
Following the war, Schindler was a poor man, having spent and sold virtually everything he owned to hold onto his workers. He and his wife fled to Austria to escape prosecution, eventually immigrating to Argentina. In the late 50’s he returned to Germany where he would live out the rest of his life.
Schindler died October 9, 1974. He is buried on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. A book about his story, “Schindler’s Ark,” led to the creation of the Academy Award winning film, “Schindler’s List.”