Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in Zwittau, Moravia (at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now Svitavy in the Czech Republic). At the age of twenty he married Emilie Pelzl, the daughter of wealthy farmers. Oskar worked in his father’s factory of agricultural machinery until the company’s collapse caused by the economic depression. He then became employed as a sales representative at a factory in Brno. In 1935 he joined the Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei, SDP); soon after that, he also became a member of the Abwehr – the intelligence and counterespionage organization of the German armed forces. In 1938 he was arrested for his Abwehr activities in Czechoslovakia and Poland, however, soon after his arrest, following the annexation of the Sudetenland by the Third Reich, Schindler was released. It was at that point that he joined the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeitpartei, NSDAP).
After the German troops had entered Kraków on 6 September 1939 Schindler was ordered to move into that city and undertake economic activity. He soon became the trustee of a pots and pans shop on Krakowska St and of the former “Rekord” factory of enamelled vessels in the Zabłocie district. Schindler expanded the company’s production profile, transforming it into Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik (DEF) and then, using the capital obtained from the Jews, considerably extended the factory premises. From that time on, the DEF manufactured not only enamelled vessels, but also various items for the German munitions industry, and it was thanks to the latter form of activity that the company was practically able to survive, since warfare industries enjoyed special privileges at the time when Germany’s military activities intensified on several fronts. The factory yielded profit mainly thanks to the production for the German army, but it also benefited from selling its products on the black market, for which Schindler was arrested several times, however, by using his connections with a number of high Nazi officials in the General Government, he managed to get himself out of trouble every time. The number of DEF’s Jewish employees grew year after year, although at the beginning Schindler’s motivation in that respect was purely economic. In 1943 he built a camp for the several hundred of his Jewish workers at the back of the factory. In 1944, when the front line rapidly approached Kraków, Schindler evacuated the factory’s staff and equipment to Brünnlitz in Moravia where it continued to operate until the arrival of the Red Army on 8 May 1945. Schindler’s Jewish employees gave him and his wife Emilie a letter describing his humanitarian activities during the war, which was to guarantee the German couple a safe journey, first to Konstanz, and then to Munich.
After the end of the war Schindler stayed in touch with the Jewish survivors who aided him financially, both via individual donations and through various Jewish organizations. It was thanks to that support that he managed to leave for Argentina where he ran a farm which, however, soon went bankrupt. After some time, Schindler decided to return to Germany where he settled for good. The story of his life and work was popularized by the former Jewish workers from Kraków; invited by his former employees, he travelled to Israel many times. In 1963 Oskar Schindler was awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Institute based in Jerusalem. He died in 1974 in Hildesheim, Germany and, in compliance with his wish, was buried at the Catholic Cemetery at Mount Zion in Jerusalem.
The legend of Oskar Schindler was largely publicized by Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark, but it was not until the novel was adapted into Steven Spielberg’s feature film Schindler’s List that the story of Schindler gained global recognition.