Scrapbookpages Blog

June 1, 2010

Did Oskar Schindler save 1,200 Jews from “certain death?”

I’ve been reading about 80-year-old Leon Leyson, who is the youngest survivor of the Jews saved by Oskar Schindler during World War II.  Leyson was only 13 years old when his name was put on Schindler’s List.  Here is a quote about the famous Schindler’s List from the Ottowa Citizen newspaper web site:

“Leyson owns the distinction of being the youngest on Schindler’s List — the famed roll containing the names of approximately 1,200 Polish Jews Schindler saved from certain death by employing them in his factory.”

It is generally accepted that the Jews on the famous Schindler’s List would have been sent straight to the gas chambers at Auschwitz if they hadn’t been saved by Oskar Schindler. But is this really true?

The 1993 movie Schindler’s List was based on a novel written by Thomas Kennealy; the book was originally entitled Schindler’s Ark.  The novel was renamed Shindler’s List after the movie came out.  In the fictional story in the novel, Kennealy wrote that the women and children were “accidentially” sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and they would have been gassed if Oskar Schindler hadn’t saved them.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the movie shows Oskar Schindler at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp where he has gone to personally rescue the women and children on his List who, according to the movie, were mistakenly sent to the death camp.

Scene from the movie “Schindler’s List”

Schindler did not personally make up the List of Jews for his factory, as it was portrayed in the movie. David Crowe wrote a book entitled Oskar Schindler, in which he revealed that the movie scene, shown in the photo above, is pure fiction.

According to Crowe, Oskar Schindler had no role in preparing the famous list, other than giving SS-Hauptscharführer Franz Josef Müller some general guidelines for the type of workers he wanted on the list. Amon Göth had been arrested by the SS on September 13, 1944 and was in prison in Breslau when the list was prepared, but this is not mentioned in the movie.  Göth just disappears in the movie and no one notices that he is gone. (Amon Göth was the Commandant of the Plaszow camp who shot prisoners from his balcony in the movie.)

David Crowe wrote that the person responsible for the preparation of Schindler’s List was Marcel Goldberg, a corrupt Jewish prisoner, who was a member of the Ordnungdienst, the Jewish police force in the camp. Goldberg was the assistant of SS-Hauptscharführer Franz Josef Müller, the SS man responsible for the transport lists. Only about one third of the Jews on the list had previously worked in Schindler’s factory in Krakow. The novel, Schindler’s Ark tells about how Goldberg accepted bribes from the prisoners who wanted to get on the list.

In his book Oskar Schindler, David Crowe wrote:

“… watch how Steven Spielberg traces the story of Marcel Goldberg, the real author of Schindler’s List, in his film. He begins in the early part of the film with Goldberg sitting near Leopold “Poldek” Page and other Jewish black marketeers in Krakow’s Marjacki Bazylika (church) as Oskar Schindler tries to interest them in doing business with a German. What follows throughout the rest of the film is the subtle tale of Goldberg’s gradual moral degeneration. Schindler, for example, gives Itzhak Stern first a lighter, then a cigarette case, and finally a watch to bribe Goldberg to send more Jews to his factory from Plaszow.”

Here is the true story of what actually happened:

After Germany conquered Poland in 1939,  Oskar Schindler purchased a factory in the city of Krakow, where he employed Jews from the Krakow ghetto.  When the Krakow ghetto was closed, all the Jews were sent to the nearby Plaszow labor camp which was just outside the city of Krakow.  Schindler got permission to turn his factory into a sub-camp of the Plaszow camp so that he could continue to employ Jews; he built barracks at his factory for the Jews who were then transferred from the Plaszow camp to his sub-camp. After the Plaszow labor camp became a concentration camp, Schindler’s  factory sub-camp was then under the authority of the WVHA, the economic office of the Nazi concentration camp system.

Oskar Schindler was making a fortune during the occupation of Poland during World War II.  Schindler was hiring Jews in his factory and paying lower wages than what he would have had to pay Polish workers.

By 1944, the Nazis were only allowing munitions factories to become sub-camps in their concentration camp system.  Schindler’s factory in Krakow had two parts; one part of his factory made enamel pots and pans for the German army, but he was also producing munitions for the German military.  The Nazis did not want to open a munitions factory that would be a sub-camp of Gross Rosen, so Schindler had to bribe them to allow him to open a munitions factory near his home town of Brünnlitz in what is now the Czech Republic.

When the Plaszow camp was closed in 1944, all the men were sent to the Gross Rosen concentration camp, including the Jews on Schindler’s List.  All the women had to go to Auschwitz temporarily because Gross Rosen was a men’s camp that had no barracks for women. After the barracks were built at Schindler’s new sub-camp, the Jews on his List were sent there, including the women who had been temporarily staying at Auschwitz.  In real life, Schindler sent his secretary to Auschwitz to make sure that his Jews got on the right train, but he didn’t go himself.

What if Schindler had just closed his munitions factory in Krakow and not bribed the Nazis to allow him to move it to Brunnlitz?  What would have happened to the prisoners on his famous list?  Would they have been sent immediately to the gas chambers?  No.  The men would have been sent to the Gross Rosen concentration camp which did not have gas chambers.  The women and children would have been sent to Auschwitz which was only 37 miles from Krakow, but they would not necessarily have been gassed.  There were numerous survivors of Auschwitz, including old women and little children.

Old women in the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau

Old women walking out of Auschwitz-Birkenau

Children leaving Auschwitz-Birkenau after it was liberated

The food for the prisoners in Oskar Schindler’s sub-camp was provided by the Nazis, but Schindler spent his own money to buy extra food and medicine for them.  His workers had a better chance of survival than they would have had in any other camp, but even then, some of his workers died of disease.  The Plaszow prisoners who did not get on Schindler’s List were not condemned to “certain death.”