Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help

Go to the "Schindler's List" Page

Germany Views Its Past Through 'Schindler's List'

By Rick Atkinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 3, 1993

FRANKFURT, GERMANY, MARCH 3 -- The Holocaust returned to Germany today with the opening of the movie "Schindler's List" and the reopening of a national debate about guilt, courage and the unresolved mysteries of mass murder.

Not since the late 1970s, when the American-made television miniseries "Holocaust" provoked widespread rumination by Germans about their dark past, has a cultural event here uncorked such painful introspection.

The Steven Spielberg film, which premiered Tuesday night at a special gala here before opening today across the country, has garnered generally rave reviews in the German media. (One exception this week lambasted the movie as a Hollywood tear-jerker and suggested that it should have been titled "Indiana Jones in the Krakow Ghetto.")

But on talk shows, in classrooms and in countless magazine and newspaper stories, the film has Germans brooding in a very German way about some uniquely German questions: why it took a foreigner -- once again, an American -- to make such a movie; whether Germans today are fundamentally different from the silent majority that supported Adolf Hitler during the Third Reich; and, most pointedly, why more citizens didn't display the courage of Oskar Schindler, a randy, hard-drinking Nazi industrialist who shielded more than 1,000 Polish Jews from death camps.

"The film forces the viewer to ask why others didn't try to do what Oskar Schindler managed," the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung observed in a front-page editorial.

Schindler spent the last 16 years of his life in Frankfurt before dying in 1974, penniless and largely anonymous, at least in his native Germany. Despite belated recognition by the postwar German government, which in the mid-1960s provided Schindler a small monthly pension, a medal and 160,000 marks ($40,000) as compensation for his lost factory, his knack for squandering his money reduced him to passing his final years alone in a seedy attic flat near the central railroad station. Until now his memory here has been preserved chiefly through a minuscule plaque in a Frankfurt housing project, which notes that the street "Oskar-Schindler-Strasse" is named after a "savior of many Jews from extermination in concentration camps."

Schindler's actions were rare but not unique. The film has triggered a roll call of righteousness in Germany with the commemoration of others who risked imprisonment or death to do the right thing. Frieda Adam, for example, sheltered her Jewish friend Erna Puterman in her Berlin apartment for more than two years. Similarly, Hedwig and Otto Schroedter, honored posthumously last month by Israel, hid two Jewish families in East Berlin, sharing their meager wartime rations among eight people. A resistance group headed by Adm. Wilhelm Canaris, chief of German military intelligence, helped 15 Jews escape to Switzerland.

A memorial service held Sunday afternoon on the site of Berlin's old Jewish cemetery recalled one of the few instances of collective action against the Nazi shipment of Jews to concentration camps. In late February 1943, as the Gestapo rounded up most of the Jews remaining in Berlin, including those of "racially mixed" marriages, hundreds of non-Jewish wives encircled the building on Rose Street where their Jewish husbands had been assembled for deportation. Throughout the day and subsequent night, as Berlin resident Ruth Andreas-Friedrich recorded in her diary, "They called for their men. Screamed for their men. Wailed for their men."

Confounded by this unprecedented display of mettle, the Gestapo dithered for several days before doing the unthinkable: The men were released into the custody of their wives with the bureaucratic rationale that "privileged persons are to be incorporated into the national community." Most survived the war, according to Peter Kirchner, who was an 8-year-old Jewish boy in central Berlin at the time of the Rose Street demonstration.

Yet the singularity of such actions underscores the tacit acquiescence -- if not the active complicity -- of the vast majority.

"There were more people than just Schindler who acted courageously. That has to be remembered. You can't paint it black and white," said Kirchner, who along with his Jewish mother was shielded from arrest. "Seventeen people knew who we were and nevertheless for more than two years provided us food and shelter, at great risk to themselves. So I never said all Germans are bad.

"But the great silent majority of the German people looked away when the trucks drove through the streets to haul terrified Jews of all ages to the assembly points. They remained silent and indifferent, even when it involved their neighbors or work colleagues," Kirchner added.

Spielberg's movie has also provoked debate over the contemporary relevance of Schindler-like Zivilcourage, a German term that means the courage of one's convictions.

The Munich-based Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily, for example, drew pointed parallels between the acquiescent German majority during the Third Reich and a tendency by many people today to shrug off racist violence. "Schindler is history that matters today," the paper said. "The world watching us knows that. We hope we know it too."

Finally, "Schindler's List" has provoked discussion about how best to preserve the memory of the terrible events that plunged Europe into darkness more than half a century ago. Opinion surveys show that many Germans believe they should no longer have to bear the guilty burden of their forefathers, that the stain of the Third Reich should fade after time.

There are also signs that interest in that part of Germany's past is fading. For example, the number of visitors to the concentration camp at Dachau, after soaring in the late 1970s and 1980s after the airing of "Holocaust," has recently plummeted. The 591,000 visitors last year was the fewest since 1977, according to Barbara Distel, head of the Dachau memorial.

Many hope that Spielberg's movie may spark a revival of interest while serving as a different kind of memorial, both to Schindler and to the impulses he embodied.

"It's shameful how ignored Schindler was," Distel said. "No German historian, no German writer ever told that story. It had to be an Australian {author Thomas Keneally, upon whose book the movie is based}. That says a lot about the atmosphere in this country."

"The real trick in any society is, how do you create more Schindlers?" said Andrew Baker of the American Jewish Committee here. "You can assume that the Eichmanns, the Hitlers, the evil figures of any period are always going to occur. There's no way to eradicate that evil. But you need to find ways of cultivating more people who will oppose it."

Staff writer Marc Fisher and special correspondent Ute Huebner contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1993 The Washington Post Company

Back to the top

Home Page, Site Index, Search, Help