Schindler revisited

Published: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 30, 2005 at 1:45 a.m.
ELON, N.C. - David Crowe began researching Oskar Schindler with an open mind, wondering how much of the Academy Award-winning movie about the European industrialist who saved more than 1,000 Jews could possibly be true.
Early findings shook the historian in Crowe: Schindler spied on Czechoslovakia for the Germans, aided in the invasion of Poland and fathered two children out of wedlock, with whom he had no relationship.
But he also truly saved more than 1,000 Jews during the Holocaust, spending his personal fortune to feed and house them as World War II raged to an end. In turn, those "Schindler Jews" cared for their savior following the war, when he became an alcoholic with little money, Crowe writes in "Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List."
"The bottom line is does he deserve the accolades? Absolutely," says Crowe. "He was the single most righteous gentile during the Holocaust."
Mordecai Paldiel, director of the Righteous Among the Nations program at Yad Vashem, describes Crowe's work as the definitive story of Schindler. Yad Vashem, a Holocaust memorial foundation in Jerusalem, has the world's largest repository of Holocaust information.
And it draws on new records that Crowe uncovered during his research, including Czech secret police files that documented Schindler's work for German military counterintelligence.
Crowe, a history professor at Elon University and a member of the education committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., has written other books, including one on Gypsies in Eastern Europe and Russia. His biography of Schindler will also be published in German and Dutch.
Crowe's book and "Schindler's List" - the 1993 Steven Spielberg movie based on the 1982 historical novel by Thomas Keneally - reach the same conclusion. However, as might be expected, Hollywood's version of the Schindler story simplifies the transformation of a man whose passage from spy to savior still confounds.
One of the most memorable scenes in Spielberg's movie occurs when Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, confers with kindly clerk Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) about which names to put on a list of Jews to be saved from the Plaszow labor camp near Krakow, Poland.
The Nazis had given Schindler permission to take 700 Jewish men and 300 women from the Krakow plant to a new one in Brunnlitz near his hometown in Czechoslovakia. But in reality, the list was composed while Schindler was behind bars, accused of bribing the commandant of the labor camp, Amon Goth.
According to Crowe's book, the list was drawn up by a Jew named Marcel Goldberg who worked for the German noncommissioned officer in charge of transport at the camp.
Crowe believes Goldberg selected people with prewar connections and those whom his family knew.
Eventually, 1,000 Jews made their way to Brunnlitz in early 1945. Schindler and his wife were there and for some reason, another three transport trains full of Jews showed up also. Crowe believes the cars were sent to Brunnlitz by mistake in the confusion of the final stages of the war.
Schindler and his wife were struggling to feed the Jews already at Brunnlitz and could have turned the cars around. Instead, they accepted them.
Some Jews had frozen to death on the way to Brunnlitz and others died there. But in the end, 1,098 survived, with Schindler spending his personal fortune to keep them alive with food purchased on the black market.
Crowe is not sure what caused Schindler to save "his" Jews. he historian acknowledges that Schindler may have opportunistically hoped to be able to stay in business after the war. But Crowe also believes he was compelled by something simpler and more altruistic: "I think he was just disgusted by some of the things he saw."
Sol Urbach, a Schindler Jew whom Crowe interviewed for the book, agrees. "The brutality of the Germans was more than he bargained for," said Urbach, 79, who now lives in Delray Beach, Fla.
Urbach last saw his parents, three brothers and two sisters on March 12, 1943, when he left for work at Schindler's factory in Krakow. Urbach told The Associated Press that when he arrived at work, "Oskar Schindler announces we should not go back to the ghetto. He tells us to stay and do our best to see if we can sleep on the floor of the factory and stay alive."
Urbach survived, but his family died in the Nazi liquidation of the Krakow ghetto that took place the following day.
After the war ended, Schindler became an alcoholic. In 1957, he abandoned his wife in Argentina. By the end of his life - Schindler died in 1974 and is buried in Jerusalem - the Jews whom Schindler saved were supporting him.
As he fell into alcohol dependency, Schindler pawned the gold ring the Jews gave him after the war, upon which was inscribed with a verse from the Talmud: "He who saves a single life saves the entire world." So when he traveled to Israel for the first time in 1962, Schindler was given a replacement, a symbol of the work he had done to save 1,098 "worlds."
"There certainly had to be an element of self-preservation in Oskar's actions, though it is difficult to determine how much," Crowe says. "In the end, he sacrificed everything for his Jews and lost everything."

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