Immortalised by Thomas Keneally's book, Schindler's Ark, and then later in the massively successful Spielberg film Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler is a name synonymous with Kraków. A hard-drisnking, war-profiteering playboy, Schindler does not fit the standard mould for a hero, though neither was he a stereotypical Nazi. Credited with saving 1,200 Jews his actions continue to serve as an example and inspiration, and stand as one of the most heartening stories of the Holocaust.
Born on April 28, 1908 in what is now the town of Svitavy in the Czech Republic, Schindler enjoyed a privileged upbringing and was childhood friends with the Jewish family residing next door. The 1930s economic crisis saw his family's firm slide into bankruptcy, and like so many disaffected Germans he signed up with the Nazi party.
Hot on the heels of the invading German army Schindler found himself arriving in Kraków in 1939 where he took charge of a formerly Jewish-owned enamel factory. Motivated by greed he principally employed cut-price Jewish labour, and involved himself in the thriving black market. Living a care-free, lavish lifestyle his world and motives appear to have changed after witnessing the liquidation of the Podgórze Ghetto. Both Keneally and Spielberg pay particular importance to his fascination with the plight of a small girl dressed in a red cape and Schindler would later claim, “Beyond this day, no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.” He arranged for workers housed in the notorious Płaszów concentration camp to be moved to his factory, shielding them time and time again from deportation and death through bribery and cunning. With the war coming to a close, and ‘his Jews’ facing the prospect of death marches and gas chambers, he miraculously managed to persuade the Nazi authorities to relocate his factory and his workers to Brunlitz (a sub-camp of Gross-Rosen) in 1944. Estimates suggest he spent four million marks during the war on protecting his workers, with his wife even selling her jewellery so as to provide funds for medicine and food. Moreover, in the seven months he spent as director of a shell factory in Brunlitz, not one working shell left the production line.
Following the war he emigrated to Argentina with his wife to settle as a farmer, though by 1957 he was declared bankrupt and returned to Germany alone. Financial woes were to dog him for the rest of his life. Regarded as a traitor to the fatherland he was cold shouldered by Germans and more business ventures fell by the wayside. By the time of his death in 1974 he was fully dependent on the charity of those he had saved. Buried in Jerusalem, his acts of courage have been honoured by Yad Vashem as one of the Righteous Amongst Nations. Schindler sights in Kraków include the houses at ul. Starszewskiego 7 and ul. Romanowicza 7 where he lived before moving permanently into his factory at ul. Lipowa 4. After a long wait, the factory is now open to the public as a museum.