The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and The True Story Behind the List
By David M. Crowe
Westview. 766 pp. $30
David Crowe devoted seven years, conducted scores of interviews and did research on four continents in order to write the definitive biography of Oskar Schindler. That's the good news. The bad news is that this definitive account is buried in a massive text. Crowe would have been served by a good editor, one with a relentless red pencil.
Schindler, a man with many flaws, risked his life and his fortune to save more Jews during the Holocaust than anyone else did. While the young Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved a larger number of Jews, he had the assistance of an entire team of people and the financial support of American Jews. In contrast, Schindler had only the assistance of his wife, Emilie. Moreover, Schindler performed his heroic deeds only a short distance from Auschwitz.
Schindler's road to becoming the man who rescued almost 1,100 people was hardly predictable. Born in the Sudetenland, the area of Czechoslovakia that was home to a large German population and on which Hitler had designs, Schindler spied for the Abwehr, the German army's espionage unit. He helped pave the way for Germany's 1939 dismemberment of Czechoslovakia.
Shortly after Germany invaded Poland, Schindler showed up in Krakow with one intention: to make money. He bought a Jewish-owned factory for a small fraction of its original worth and then contracted with the SS for Jewish workers. A lackluster businessman, Schindler let knowledgeable Jews run the factory while he wined, dined and bribed German officials.
How did a man of questionable morals whose fortune was essentially made by stealing from Jews become one of the Holocaust's most-heralded rescuers? The path to Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust in Jerusalem, is lined on both sides by trees planted for "Righteous Gentiles," non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. One can easily spot Schindler's tree because hundreds of thousands of people have worn down the ground around it as they have come to pay homage to this man.
As the Germans moved from ghettoization to murder, Schindler -- revolted by this development -- was transformed from self-interested shady, entrepreneur to fierce defender of his workers. Crowe, a professor at Elon University and the author of a history of the Gypsies, meticulously documents this transformation. Schindler, the former German spy, became a courier for Jewish aid organizations. He helped these organizations supply Jews with money, food and medicine, and transmitted important information about the gassings in Auschwitz.
In contrast to the impression given by Steven Spielberg in "Schindler's List," Crowe discovered that the famous list was not compiled by Schindler but by one of his Jewish administrators, Marcel Goldberg. There is, Crowe reveals, a seamy side to this story. Aware that inclusion on the list could mean the difference between life and death, Jews bribed Goldberg to get themselves on it. In certain cases, entire families were listed, while people of lesser means were dispatched to Auschwitz and other camps.
Schindler did not create the list, but, motivated by a deep sense of compassion for these people and revulsion at the Germans' actions, he did feel responsible for keeping these people alive, particularly during the harrowing final months of the war. When his female workers were transported to Auschwitz, he fought to have them released. As the situation in Krakow deteriorated, he moved his factory to Czechoslovakia. By so doing, he saved the lives of his 1,100 workers. Using his own funds, he kept them relatively well fed and even managed to find medication for them. Emilie played a crucial role during these harrowing winter months. She personally nursed the Jews and, working with her husband, managed to procure desperately needed medical supplies. Many "Schindler Jews" (as Jews rescued by Schindler began to call themselves after the war) credit her with ensuring their survival.
Schindler's saga did not end with Germany's defeat. After the Holocaust, Yad Vashem initially refused to honor him as a Righteous Gentile. How, it wondered, could it balance his membership in the Nazi Party with his efforts to save Jews? Those Jews whose factory he had expropriated protested to Yad Vashem that he acquired the considerable sums he spent to save his workers through the Aryanization of Jewish property and the use of slave labor. They tried to take legal action against him. Other Schindler Jews objected vehemently, arguing that, but for his actions, they would not have survived.
Schindler's postwar business efforts were complete disasters. Without the support he received from a well-respected Jewish aid organization, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, he and Emilie would have been destitute. Many of his supporters were infuriated when he gambled away substantial sums. Others, willing to ignore his personal shortcomings, shrugged it off with "that's Oskar."
This book, despite containing fascinating information, is marred by its completely undisciplined nature. It contains scads of ancillary -- and sometimes hardly even that -- details on an array of other topics. Do we need to know all about films that were not made about Schindler? Does Crowe have to tell us that his interviews with Schindler Jews "touched [him] deeply"? Why does he feel compelled to include not just the life story of a young American GI who helped some Schindler Jews immediately after the war but also what was said about him at the time of his death? Moreover, Crowe repeatedly fails to follow a chronological thread. Early in the book, when he is discussing Schindler's expropriation of the Krakow factory, Crowe goes into a discourse on a lawsuit that was not filed until the 1960s. While this is certainly part of the story, he would have served his readers well by waiting until his discussion of postwar developments to tell it. What initially is distracting becomes, by the end of this massive tome, maddening.
Nothing in Schindler's behavior before or after the war would have led one to identify him as a hero of such tremendous proportions. At a crucial moment, he more than rose to the occasion. He surpassed it and, as a result, saved more than a thousand people. His actions are testimony to the fact that, contrary to what many Germans claimed, there was something that people could have done. Oskar Schindler did it.
Deborah E. Lipstadt is professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University. Her book "History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving" will be published this year.