Oskar Schindler was a German Catholic industrialist who, after the Nazi invasion of Poland, moved to Krakow to take over the operation of two manufacturers of enamel kitchenware previously owned by Jews. He soon established his enamel works outside Krakow, turned them into a haven for some 900 Jewish workers to protect them from the brutalities of the concentration camps.

A Troublemaker in the Beginning

Schindler was born in 1908 in Zwittau, Moravia, Austria-Hungary, into a Sudeten German family. His father was the owner of a farm machinery business, Johann “Hans” Schindler, and perhaps where he took his love for motorcycles the future.

As a child, Schindler was his parent’s headache; he was once expelled from technical school in 1924 for forging his report card. After secondary school, he opted not to take the college or university qualifying exams and took courses in Brno, where he learned chauffeuring and machinery. After that, he worked for his father for three years. As a youth, he bought a 250-cc Moto Guzzi racing motorcycle, passionate about his motorcycling hobby.

He married the daughter of a wealthy Sudeten German farmer named Emilie Pelzl in 1928. They would live in Emilie’s parents’ upstairs room for seven years. After that, he would serve the Czech Army for 18 months, where he rose to the ranks of lance corporal in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the 31st Army. After that, he went back to Moravian Electotechnic, where he worked before, but it got bankrupt, almost at the same time when his father’s business closed and left him jobless for a year until he worked with Jaroslav Šimek Bank.

From 1931 to 1932, Schindler was arrested multiple times for public drunkenness. He would also have an affair with a school friend named Aurelie Schlegel, who would carry a daughter and then a son.

Nazi Invasion

The Nazis invaded Poland in September 1939. The Jews were stripped of their civil rights, and everything was taken away from them— their businesses, possessions, homes, and whole lives. In Krakow, Schindler was introduced to Itzhak Stern, an accountant of his fellow named Josef “Sepp” Aue, who had taken over Stern’s previously Jewish-owned place of employment.

Itzhak Stern (left) had not seen Oskar Schindler for four years when he met him again in Herbert Steinhouse’s Paris office. Both men were still trying to get out of Europe. (Alexander Taylor United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Herbert Steinhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He told Stern about his plan of acquiring a previously Jewish-woned enamel works shop called Rekord Ltd. Stern advised him to buy instead or lease the business so that he could have more freedom from the Nazi’s rules, including hiring more Jews. Initially, he was only interested in the business’s earning potential. He only wanted to hire Jews because they were cheaper than Poles since the wages were also controlled by Nazi Germany.

Things Changed

Things changed. Later on, he started protecting his workers without thinking about profit. Then, in October 1944, Schindler was permitted to relocate his enamel works to Brünnlitz, Czechoslovakia but now as an armaments factory. He was also allowed to take his Jewish workers with him. And he did.

The entrance to Oskar Schindler’s Emalia enamel works at 4 Lipowa Street in Krakow-Zablocie. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Leopold Page Photographic Collection)

He successfully took with him some eight hundred Jewish men from the Gross-Rosen camp plus 300 women from Auschwitz, saving their lives and ensuring that they were treated humanely and with dignity.

In 1962, Schindler was awarded the “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem. In 1993, he was posthumously awarded at the United States Holocaust Memorial Council the Museum’s Medal of Remembrance. The award was received by Emilie Schindler, who accepted the medal on behalf of her husband.