Dr. Rigger and Dr. Churchill
21 November 2017
Making a substantial change in the world may seem like an impossible task for an individual. Large groups and movements will often get the most attention for making differences in society, while the individual is forgotten and deemed irrelevant. This idea is understandable: In a world of billions of people, how can one person really make a difference? Despite this, several historical examples would seem to refute this claim. The story of Oskar Schindler is one such example. Oskar Schindler was a businessman of the Nazi Party during the Holocaust. He used his position working for the Nazis to save over 1,300 Jews from the concentration camps. While the world may seem too vast for a single person to make a change in it, stories like that of Oskar Schindler reveal that there are always opportunities for individuals to bring positive change.
Oskar Schindler led a relatively comfortable life growing up. He was born on April 28, 1908 as a Czech citizen, and received his education at trade schools. He married Emilie Pelzl in 1928, and was employed in a variety of areas, including his father’s farm business and a driving school. In 1938 he joined the Czech army, and from there went on to serve in German Intelligence. He became part of the Nazi party in 1939 as an ambitious businessman, looking to establish his business under the new regime (Holocaust Encyclopedia: Oskar Schindler).
As the second world war picked up speed, Schindler moved to Poland, hoping to make a fortune off the work of the SS. Upon arrival, he immediately began making friends and allies among the officers and leaders of the Gestapo. After engaging in this activity for a short while, he was able to acquire his own factory, as well as a Jewish workforce, which was, due to the situation in Poland, the cheapest workforce one could hope for. Schindler had entered this game with no passion but that for money. However, as he began running his factory on Jewish labor, his outlook on the situation began to change. By December of 1939, the Holocaust was happening in full force in Poland. The Ghettos had been established, and the Jews had lost their homes, businesses, and property. The SS began moving the Jews either to the death camps, or into the hands of Nazi businessmen like Schindler. As the removal of Jews to death camps began to gain steam, Schindler made increased efforts to acquire Jewish workers for his factory. With the help of his Jewish accountant, he hired hundreds of Jews, finding any way to deem their skills “essential” to the SS. His factory was a haven: unlike any of the other places that Jews in Poland were being held, no one in Schindler’s factory was ever beaten, killed, or abused in any way (Jewish Virtual Library).
In 1942, Schindler watched as a Ghetto was emptied and the Jews were crowded onto trains bound for the death camps. This experience likely served as Schindler’s true awakening and inspiration to become an active protector of the Jews. He continued to run his factory and make connections in the SS. As the Germans began losing the war, they moved to send all the remaining Jews to the death camps. Schindler was able to prevent this fate for several hundred of them under the pretense that he needed them to begin manufacturing bullets for the war effort. His factory never made a single functioning bullet, as he swore he would not aid the Nazis in the war (Jewish Virtual Library). Instead, he spent the fortune that he had built up in the early days of the Holocaust to support his dysfunctional factory and prevent its closure by the Nazis (Bulow). By the end of the war, he was broke. Despite all the good he had done, Schindler still feared being charged for war crimes as a member of the Nazi party, so as the Allies closed in, he fled to Argentina with his wife. After living on a farm for several years, he returned to Germany, where he joined in the Allied effort to identify Nazi war criminals. He spent the rest of his life trying and failing to start new businesses before dying in 1974 (Jewish Virtual Library).
There is no doubt that Oskar Schindler brought great positive change to the world he was living in. He saved over 1,300 Jews from death or abuse by using his position as a Nazi businessman to manipulate the system. As Thomas Keneally said about Schindler in his book on the topic, “He negotiated the salvation of his 1,300 Jews by operating right at the heart of the system using all the tools of the devil – bribery, black marketeering and lies.” (Quoted by Jewish Virtual Library). The people he saved were not quiet about the hero that he was. One survivor, when asked why Schindler did all that he did, replied “I don’t know what his motives were… But I don’t give a damn. What’s important is that he saved our lives.” (Quoted by Jewish Virtual Library). He was awarded the title of “Rightous Among the Nations” in 1993, and upon his death, he was transferred to Israel to be buried in Jerusalem on the request of some of his survivors (Holocaust Encyclopedia: Oskar Schindler).
Oskar Schindler may have saved over 1,300 Jews from death, but over six million Jews died during the holocaust. Even with all the good that Schindler did taken into consideration, these numbers still push the idea that one individual cannot really make a substantial difference. 1,300 Jews is minuscule compared with the vast number that still ended up dying. However, it is important to note that Oskar Schindler was not the only individual working to save Jews during the Holocaust. All across Poland and the rest of Europe, people risked their lives using their positions and circumstances to prevent the SS from capturing Jews. Locals helped thousands of Jews escape to Sweden. Swiss diplomats rescued thousands more under the protection of “Neutral Powers”, and Quakers and other religious people offered refuge for thousands in France and across the rest of Europe. It is estimated that in Warsaw alone, 20,000 Jews were being hidden from the SS by individual civilians. These people were not part of a well organized group or movement. For the most part, they were working alone or with a few others to accomplish these deeds. Like Oskar Schindler, these individuals used their respective positions, abilities and circumstances to do whatever they could to save lives. Most were unable save large numbers of people by themselves, but all of these acts added together can account for hundreds of thousands of lives saved (Holocaust Encyclopedia: Rescue).
Oskar Schindler showed the world that one person can use their circumstances to do amazing things. 1,300 people owe their existence to the fact that this man decided to take a stand against the evil around him. Maybe 1,300 is not a huge difference when put in perspective with the big picture. However, if Oskar Schindler and the other heroes of the Holocaust had taken to heart the idea that they could do nothing to make a difference without a large group or movement to back them, the number of additional lives lost would have been in the hundreds of thousands. Stories like Schindler’s prove that even when faced with the darkest of situations, it is possible for an individual to use that situation to bring positive change.
Bulow, Louis. “Oskar Schindler: His List of Life.” The Oscar Schindler Story. Louis Bulow, 2015. Web. 1 November 2017. http://www.oskarschindler.com.
Holocaust Encyclopedia: Oskar Schindler. “Oskar Schindler.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, ND. Web. 1 November 2017. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005787.
Holocaust Encyclopedia: Rescue. “Rescue.” Holocaust Encyclopedia. United Sates Holocaust Memorial Museum, ND. Web. 6 November 2017. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005185.
Jewish Virtual Library. “Oskar Schindler (1908-1974).” Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, 2017. Web. 4 November 2017. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/oskar-schindler.