In 1993, Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List brought to the screen a story that had gone untold since the tragic events of the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler, a Nazi party member, used his pull within the party to save the lives of more than 1000 Jewish individuals by recruiting them to work in his Polish factory. Here are some facts about Spielberg’s groundbreaking film on its 25th anniversary.
Dachau (German pronunciation: [ˈdaxaʊ]) is a town in Upper Bavaria, in the southern part of Germany. It is a major district town—a Große Kreisstadt—of the administrative region of Upper Bavaria, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) north-west of Munich. It is now a popular residential area for people working in Munich with roughly 45,000 inhabitants. The historic centre of town with its 18th-century castle is situated on an elevation and visible over a great distance.
In 1935 Schindler joined the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei; SdP) and the next year began collecting counterintelligence for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence agency. In 1938 he was arrested by Czechoslovak authorities on charges of espionage and sentenced to death. After the annexation of the Sudetenland by Germany late that year as part of the Munich Agreement, Schindler was pardoned by the Reich and rose through the ranks of the Abwehr. His application for membership in the Nazi Party—thought to have been submitted out of pragmatism rather than ideological affinity—was accepted in 1939. That year, on the heels of the German invasion and occupation of Poland, Schindler journeyed to Kraków, where he became active in the emerging black market. Thanks to the network of German contacts he had arranged through liberal bribes, he secured the lease of a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory. He renamed the facility Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik Oskar Schindler (known as Emalia) and commenced production with a small staff. Three months later he had several hundred employees, seven of whom were Jewish. By 1942 nearly half of the workers at the expanded plant were Jewish. (Ostensibly “cheap labour,” Schindler paid their salaries to the SS.)
Many of the naked corpses found in the camp were left out until May 13, two weeks after the liberation, so that American Congressmen, newspaper reporters and as many American soldiers as possible could view the horror. Thirty male citizens from the town of Dachau were brought to the camp and forced to view the rotting corpses, even though the typhus epidemic was still raging in the camp, and the Germans had not been vaccinated.
Romania implemented anti-Jewish measures in May and June 1940 as part of its efforts towards an alliance with Germany. Jews were forced from government service, pogroms were carried out, and by March 1941 all Jews had lost their jobs and had their property confiscated. After Romania joined the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, at least 13,266 Jews were killed in the Iași pogrom, and Romanian troops carried out massacres in Romanian-controlled territory, including the Odessa massacre of 20,000 Jews in Odessa in late 1941. Romania also set up concentration camps under its control in Transnistria, where 154,000–170,000 Jews were deported from 1941 to 1943.
All the major death camps were behind the "Iron Curtain" and few Americans had even heard of them before the fall of Communism; the six death camps, Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec and Chelmno were all located in what is now Poland, and they were controlled by the Communists. For many years in America, Dachau was the name most associated with the Holocaust, not Auschwitz.
As we moved down along the west side of the concentration camp and approached the southwest corner, three people approached down the road under a flag of truce. We met these people about 75 yards north of the southwest entrance to the camp. These three people were a Swiss Red Cross representative and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander and assistant camp commander and that they had come into the camp on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular camp personnel for the purpose of turning the camp over to the advancing Americans. The Swiss Red Cross representative acted as interpreter and stated that there were about 100 SS guards in the camp who had their arms stacked except for the people in the tower. He said he had given instructions that there would be no shots fired and it would take about 50 men to relieve the guards, as there were 42,000 half-crazed prisoners of war in the camp, many of them typhus infected. He asked if I were an officer of the American army, to which I replied, “Yes, I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42d Division and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the American army.”
Another former inmate, Moshe Peer, recalled a miraculous escape from death as an eleven-year-old in the camp. In a 1993 interview with a Canadian newspaper, the French-born Peer claimed that he "was sent to the [Belsen] camp gas chamber at least six times." The newspaper account went on to relate: "Each time he survived, watching with horror as many of the women and children gassed with him collapsed and died. To this day, Peer doesn't know how he was able to survive." In an effort to explain the miracle, Peer mused: "Maybe children resist better, I don't know." (Although Peer claimed that "Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz," he acknowledged that he and his younger brother and sister, who were deported to the camp in 1944, all somehow survived internment there.) /37
There was initially little to distinguish Schindler from the other businessmen who cooperated with the Nazis, until the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto threatened the workers he relied on. As the war dragged on and Schindler began to build personal relationships with his workers, he underwent a personal transformation. Over time, Schindler became less concerned with making a profit; soon he was spending enormous sums of money to keep his workers safe.
There is no question that Oskar Schindler was appalled by the murder of Jewish children when the Krakow ghetto was closed but Crowe argues “evidence suggests that he had already chosen his path sometime before this tragedy” and that the murders “simply made him more determined to help as many Jews as he could.” In a film, of course, it is more challenging to portray gradual determination rather than a single moment that inspires action. However, Crowe writes, “In the end, there was no one, dramatic transforming moment when Oskar Schindler decided to do everything he could to save his Jewish workers.”
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 prisoners inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses, including those of Anne and Margot Frank, lying around the camp unburied. The horrors of the camp, documented on film and in pictures, made the name "Belsen" emblematic of Nazi crimes in general for public opinion in many countries in the immediate post-1945 period. Today, there is a memorial with an exhibition hall at the site.