Oskar Schindler

The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List


By David Crowe

Formats and Prices




$19.99 CAD




ebook $14.99 $19.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around August 1, 2007. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

Spy, businessman, bon vivant, Nazi Party member, Righteous Gentile. This was Oskar Schindler, the controversial man who saved eleven hundred Jews during the Holocaust but struggled afterwards to rebuild his life and gain international recognition for his wartime deeds. David Crowe examines every phase of Schindler’s life in this landmark biography, presenting a savior of mythic proportions who was also an opportunist and spy who helped Nazi Germany conquer Poland. Schindler is best known for saving over a thousand Jews by putting them on the famed “Schindler’s List” and then transferring them to his factory in today’s Czech Republic. In reality, Schindler played only a minor role in the creation of the list through no fault of his own. Plagued by local efforts to stop the movement of Jewish workers from his factory in Krakóo his new one in Brüz, and his arrest by the SS who were investigating corruption charges against the infamous Amon Gö Schindler had little say or control over his famous “List.” The tale of how the “List” was really prepared is one of the most intriguing parts of the Schindler story that Crowe tells here for the first time. Forced into exile after the war, success continually eluded Schindler and he died in very poor health in 1974. He remained a controversial figure, even in death, particularly after Emilie Schindler, his wife of forty-six years, began to criticize her husband after the appearance of Steven Spielberg’s film in 1993. In Oskar Schindler, Crowe steps beyondthe mythology that has grown up around the story of Oskar Schindler and looks at the life and work of this man whom one prominent Schindler Jew described as “an extraordinary man in extraordinary times.”




His Life, Wartime Activities,
the List



Sol Urbach


Chris and Tina Staehr


Richard H. Moore


Leopold Pfefferberg–Page and

Dr. Dieter Trautwein


The initial idea for this book came about during a conversation I had in the fall of 1996 with my editor at Westview Press, Peter Kracht, who is now the Editorial Director of Praeger Publishers. Peter and I had worked together on several books, and he wanted to know whether I had any ideas for a new one. I told him that I would love to do a biography of Oskar Schindler because, despite his fame and new place in the Holocaust field, there was no scholarly work on him. Peter was intrigued by the idea and told me to send him a book precis and outline. The rest, as they say, is history.

I began working on this book in 1997 and never imagined that it would take seven years to complete. The discovery of the vast collection of Oskar Schindler’s private papers in 1997 and its public release two years later forced me to expand my research because these papers raised new questions about Schindler and opened up new avenues of research. I worked with several editors at Westview Press during this period. The most important was Steve Catalano, who carefully nurtured the book through its final stages. He is an author’s editor.

During my research, I had to rely on the expertise and kindness of quite a few people who are far too numerous to mention individually. Needless to say, the pace and depth of my research would have been far less successful if it had not been for these individuals. Little appeared in the historical literature on Oskar Schindler, so I had to rely on Thomas Keneally’s novel, Schindler’s List, and Steven Spielberg’s film of the same title as my initial guideposts to research. My research plan was quite simple— to go back to the beginning of Schindler’s life in Bohemia and Moravia and then gradually move forward chronologically with research in the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Israel, Argentina, and the United States. My plan was to blend archival research with interviews of anyone who knew Oskar or Emilie Schindler.

I also decided that to explore successfully the archives of the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, and Argentina, I would need research assistants to help me with my work and interviews in each country. I should like to thank Dr. Ilona Klímová, Konstancja Szymura, David Fuhr, and Dr. Adriana Brodsky for their invaluable assistance during the numerous trips I made to these countries during the course of my research. I also had to rely on linguists to help me translate the mountain of documents, much of it handwritten, in eight languages. I should like to thank Jenny Raabe, Yudit Natkin, and Tomasz Jaskiewisz’s tireless translating of very difficult, hard-to-read and aging documents.

Equally important were individual archivists, historians, and others in the Czech Republic, Poland, Israel, Germany, Argentina, and the United States who did everything possible to insure the success of my work. In the Czech Republic, I should like to thank Dr. Jitka Gruntová and Ra-doslav Fikejz; in Great Britain, Robin O’Neil; in Poland, Leszek Światek; in Israel, Dr. Sara Bardosh, Dr. Mordechai Paldiel, and Dr. Moshe Bejski; in Germany, Mietek Pemper, Dr. Wolf Buchmann, Dr. Uwe Vorkötter, Claudia Keller, Stefan Braun, Susan and Michael Fuhr, and Dr. Dieter and Ursula Trautwein; in Argentina, Francisco Wichter, Ilse Chwat, Monika Caro, Ilse Wartenslebens, Elias Zviklich, Werner Krowl, and Roberto Alemann; and in the United States, Elinor Brecher, Sherry Hyman, Ned Comstock, and Daisy Miller. I am eternally grateful to each of the Schindler Jews who shared their memories of Oskar Schindler with me.

It is difficult to find the adequate words to thank my wife, Kathryn, for all of the hard work and support she put into helping make this book possible. In addition to carefully reading each chapter and offering advice on every aspect of the book, she cheerfully put up with my long absences during the research and writing phases of the manuscript. This book would not have been possible without her undivided love, support, and encouragement.

I should like to dedicate this book to three individuals who played an important and inspiring role in all aspects of my research and writing— Sol Urbach and Chris and Tina Staehr. Sol was that rare Schindler Jew who worked for Oskar Schindler in Emalia and Brünnlitz. More important, he was able throughout the course of my research and writing to give me realistic, unromantic insights into the heart and mind of Oskar Schindler during the war years. Chris and Tina Staehr have been equally gracious and helpful. I was particularly moved by their generosity and sensitivity when it came to the question of the vast Oskar Schindler Koffer (suitcase) collection. Instinctively, they insisted that it be sent to Yad Vashem in Israel as a gift to the Jewish people. I am absolutely convinced that this is exactly what Oskar, who deeply loved Israel and is buried in Jerusalem, would have wanted.

This book is also written in memory of several people who passed away as I was working on it: my beloved brother-in-law, Richard H. Moore; Leopold Pfefferberg-Page; and Dr. Dieter Trautwein.

David M. Crowe
April 10, 2004



IT WAS THE WINTER OF 1947–1948 IN MUNICH. TED FEDER , A former American GI, was now deputy director of the Munich office of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint; AJJDC). His boss, Samuel L. Haber, called Ted into his office and told him: “Ted, there’s a German out there who wants to see me. See him, see what he wants, and get rid of him.” When Ted Feder walked into the outer office, he saw a German sitting there in traditional Bavarian clothing: winter Lederhosen (leather breeches with knee socks) and a felt cap with a feather in it. As Feder uncomfortably approached the German, a side door opened and one of the office’s other workers, a Holocaust survivor, saw the German and cried out in Yiddish, “Uns grettet, uns grettet [He saved us, he saved us].” The survivor then fell to his knees and began to kiss the German’s hands. The German was Oskar Schindler.1

At that time, Oskar Schindler was an impoverished former Sudeten German factory owner desperately searching for ways to survive financially during the postwar hardships in Germany. With the exception of the 1,098 Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews) who survived the war in large part because of Schindler’s efforts, few people knew of his exploits. Yet to many Schindlerjuden, he was already a god-like figure. This adoration was the basis for Schindler’s extremely close relationship with many of his survivors until his death in 1974. “My Jews or my children,” as he often called them, overlooked Schindler’s human failings and continually searched for ways to help their flawed hero maintain some semblance of a normal life, first in Germany, later in Argentina, and again in Germany. They helped him financially and looked for ways to honor him and tell the world about his unique efforts to save them during the Holocaust. The Schindlerjuden were driven, for the most part, by the deep love and admiration they had for him. When faced with Schindler’s shortcomings, particularly after the war, many would explain that it was these very character flaws that made him so effective during the Holocaust. In reality, their love for Oskar Schindler was so deep and reverential that some would simply shrug off talk about his drinking and womanizing and say, “Oh, that’s just Oskar.”

Yet who was this Oskar Schindler? Was he truly the revered savior portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List? Or was he a womanizing alcoholic with questionable business skills? The only way to answer these questions is to look at the complete life of this controversial figure.

Early Life, 1908–1935

Oskar Schindler was born on April 28, 1908, in Svitavy (German, Zwit-tau), a Moravian town in the Austrian-Hungarian empire. Schindler’s family, like many of their neighbors in the region, were Sudeten (southern) Germans. Their first language and culture was German, as opposed to the thriving Czech culture in other parts of the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia. The Schindler family originally came to the region from Vienna in the early sixteenth century. Oskar’s father, Johann (Jan) Hans, came from the village of Moravsky Lacnov (German, Mährisch Lotschnau). Oskar’s mother, Franziska (Frantiska) “Fanny” Luser, was from the same village; she married Johann “Hans” Schindler in 1907. Oskar was the eldest of two children. His sister, Elfriede, was born in 1915. 2

Svitavy seems to have changed little from the time that Oskar Schindler lived there as a child. Even now, Svitavy seems remote, although it is only an hour’s drive from the Czech Republic’s second largest city, Brno, and three hours from the capital, “Golden” Prague. Vienna is only a few hours south of Brno. Though the Czechoslovak government drove the Sudeten Germans en masse from Czechoslovakia after World War II, their presence still lingers in the architecture and in the surnames of some residents in this part of the Czech Republic. When you mention this, most Czechs living in Svitavy, Brněnec (Brünnlitz), and the surrounding villages remind you that they are Czechs, not Germans.

The trip from Brno to Svitavy is like a step back in time. The fields are lush and green during the summer, and the rolling landscape is dotted with forests and clusters of orange-tiled village roofs. There is a sense of relaxed comfort and prosperity here, though Czech income statistics suggest otherwise. The locals complain that low property values are attractive to Germans looking for cheap summer homes. Svitavy is a quiet city. The city center is small, attractive but unimpressive. Fanny Schindler bought a home in one of Svitavy’s more prominent neighborhoods, No. 24 Iglauerstrasse. The Schindler home overlooked a private park that was given to the city in 1933. The park is now known as the Jana Palacha Park, named after a Czech student who immolated himself in 1969 to protest the Soviet invasion that ended the 1968 “Czech Spring” flirtation with democracy. In 1993, Germany’s Sudeten German community erected a monument to Oskar Schindler on the edge of Jana Palacha Park, just across the street from his boyhood home. Yet, although most Czechs would agree that Jan Palach is a legitimate hero and martyr, they are less certain about Oskar Schindler, who, some feel, played a role in the destruction of the Czechoslovak Republic before World War II.3

Before the Depression, Hans Schindler made a comfortable living making and selling farm machinery. He made certain that his family remained close to their Austrian German roots even after Svitavy became part of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. After World War II, Oskar frequently referred to himself as an Austrian to distinguish himself from the “Prussians,” whom he blamed for the war and its atrocities. He was also proud of his Sudeten German roots. Oskar was baptized in the Catholic faith when he was one month old. Though he nominally remained a Roman Catholic throughout his life, he seemed to have little affection for Catholicism, at least until the later years of his life.4

We know very little about Oskar’s early life, though his father’s heavy drinking and womanizing might indicate that life in the Schindler home was less than perfect. In 1915, Oskar began Volksschule (elementary school) in Svitavy and later attended Realschule (secondary school). He went on to the Höheres Realgymnasium (technical school), where he was expelled in 1924 for forging his grade report. After he returned to school, his classmates nicknamed him “Schindler the crook.” Though he later graduated, Oskar was not an outstanding student and never took the Abitur exam for admission to college or university. He would remind acquaintances after the war that he was a businessman, not a scholar. After graduation from the Realgymnasium, Oskar attended several trade schools in Brno, where he took courses on machinery, heaters, and chauffeuring. He passed exams to qualify in each of these fields.5

During this period, the first hint of trouble with his father began to surface. According to Oskar’s wife, Emilie, soon after Oskar turned seventeen, Hans accused his son of stealing some insurance premiums. Emilie claimed that Hans sold insurance on the side and stole some of the premiums after he ran into financial difficulties. Some of Hans’s clients reported the thefts to the police, who questioned Hans. Emilie said in her memoirs, Where Light and Shadow Meet (1997), that Hans told the police that Oskar had stolen the money. Emilie, who married Oskar in 1928, had little respect for her father-in-law. She blamed Oskar’s worst traits, particularly his drinking and his womanizing, on his father. She said that Hans was a “hopeless alcoholic” who got so drunk on one occasion that he raped his sister-in-law. A daughter who was born of this crime died at the age of fourteen.6

Emilie “Milli” Pelzl met Oskar in the fall of 1927. Emilie, who was seven months older than Oskar, lived in the small Moravian village of Staré Maletín (German, Alt Moletein). Svitavy, which was about twenty-five miles to the southwest, was by comparison a booming metropolis. Emilie claimed that her family’s roots in the region dated back to the Middle Ages. Emilie, whose father, Josef, was a prosperous farmer, had a happy childhood. She had fond memories of her parents and her paternal grandparents, who lived with them, and of her older brother Franz. Emi-lie described her mother, Marie, as a patient and lovely woman who was her “mirror and model.” Emilie shared her love for horses with her hardworking father, who returned from World War I stricken with malaria and heart trouble. For the rest of his life, this broken man dwelled on his suffering and, as time went on, became more and more of a stranger to his family. As Emilie’s relationship with her father became more distant, she drew closer to her brother, Franz.7 Compared to her later life with and without Oskar, Emilie’s life in Staré Maletín was idyllic. She loved the natural world and animals, particularly horses. Nature, she said, always had “a magical attraction” for her. She also developed a stubborn streak that later enabled her to survive many heartaches and difficulties.8

One of Emilie’s other childhood interests was Gypsies. She said in her memoirs that Gypsies had fascinated her since her childhood. Officials in Staré Maletín would permit the nomadic Gypsies to camp only for a few days at a time at a predesignated site, usually at the edge of the village. These limitations were common throughout Central and Eastern Europe. Emilie would frequently visit the Gypsies and listen to their music and stories. Their tales of the world beyond Staré Maletín fascinated her. What most intrigued Emilie about the Gypsies was their nomadic lifestyle and independent spirit. Emilie said that it was an old Gypsy fortuneteller, whom she came across in an abandoned granary, who first warned her about the difficult life that awaited her.9 After holding the girl’s small hands in her own, the Gypsy told Emilie:

I see, child, that your lifeline is long. You will have a long life, longer than you think. But you will also experience much pain and suffering. You will meet a man who will take you away from here. You will love him above all, although you will not be happy at his side. I also see other people around you, but I do not know who they are or what they are doing. There are other things, my child, that I do not dare tell you.10

The Gypsy frightened Emilie, who ran out of the granary and into her mother’s arms. When her mother asked her what was wrong, Emilie refused to tell her. Emilie said that she kept the incident a secret until 1949. She told Oskar of the Gypsy’s predictions as they sailed to Argentina in 1949. Oskar hugged her and said, “You can no longer believe in these things and go on torturing yourself. If you have not been happy up to now, I will see to it that you are in the future. You can be sure that I love you.”11 Sad to say, Oskar failed to keep his promise.

Oskar met Emilie during a business trip to Josef Pelzl’s farm in the fall of 1927. Oskar, who had been working for his father for three years, accompanied him to try to sell Emilie’s father a new electric generator for their house. While Hans talked endlessly about the advantages of electricity in the Pelzl home, Oskar, whom Emilie described as slender with “broad shoulders, blond hair, and deep blue eyes,” seemed bored. On the other hand, according to Emilie, Oskar could not take his eyes off of her. She thought his flirtations were a bit ridiculous, though Oskar’s “particularly dignified stance” impressed her. After several trips to the Pelzl farm, Oskar finally charmed his way into Emilie’s heart. His mother and sister visited Emilie’s family as the relationship became more serious. Finally, Oskar asked to see Josef, Marie, and Emilie together to ask for Emilie’s hand in marriage. He told them that he wanted to unite his life to Emilie’s, so that “we can build a future together.” Emilie’s life at home was becoming difficult because of family illness, and she found Oskar’s charm and looks irresistible. Yet she told a German reporter in 1994 that her father had warned her about Oskar’s false charm. Regardless, she accepted his marriage proposal.12

The wedding took place in Svitavy on March 6, 1928. Afterwards, Oskar and Emilie moved in with Oskar’s parents on Iglauerstrasse 24. The newlyweds occupied the upstairs of the house; Oskar’s family lived downstairs. Emilie had few happy memories of life in the Schindler home. Hans was a crude, uneducated, abusive drunk. Fanny, whom Oskar adored, was “elegant and pleasant,” though almost totally bedridden. Oskar’s young teenage sister, Elfriede, who was unattractive and homely, was starved for attention; she grew close to Emilie, who tried to give El-friede what little attention she could, though Emilie felt overburdened by the responsibilities of taking care of the Schindler household as well as her own family in Staré Moletín. Oskar was little help because he traveled frequently on business.13

Yet it was not business or a new wife that most interested Oskar in 1928; it was motorcycle racing. Oskar always had an interest in fast automobiles and motorcycles. By 1926, he had already gained quite a reputation as a reckless speedster on his red Italian Galloni 500 cc motorcycle with sidecar. According to one of his old friends, Erwin Tragatsch, it was the only motorcycle of this type in the Czechoslovak Republic. As Oskar became more interested in motorcycle racing, he began to look for a faster machine. In 1928, he bought a 250 cm Königsswellen Moto-Guzzi, a racing motorcycle reputed to be one of the fastest in Europe. Presumably, Hans bought both motorcycles for Oskar.14

Oskar entered his first race in May 1928. The course began in Brno and finished in the town of Soběšice just north of Brno. Though Tragatsch referred to the event as a “mountain race,” the course was more hilly than mountainous. Oskar, riding his red Moto-Guzzi, finished third in his first race. His third-place victory so thrilled Oskar that he soon entered another race at the Alvater course, on the German border. Oskar competed with nine other racers in his motorcycle class. This time, though, two other racers also drove Moto-Guzzis. During most of the race, Oskar remained in fifth place. He moved into fourth place when one of his competitors on a Moto-Guzzi dropped out. He took third place when Kurt Henkelmann, a seasoned racer on a Werks-DKW, ran out of gas. As Henkelmann pushed his motorcycle towards the finish line, Oskar passed him, thinking he was in third place. For some unknown reason, Oskar stopped just before the finish line, much to the dismay of the crowd, which shouted for him to cross over it. While he was mistaking their shouts for applause, Henkel-mann pushed his motorcycle over the finish line to take third place. According to Tragatsch, this was Schindler’s last race. Supposedly, he gave up motorcycle racing because he could no longer afford it.15

Soon after Oskar met Emilie, he quit working for his father to take a job with the Moravian Electric Company (MEAS; Moravská elektrotech-nická akciová spoleOnost) in Brno. He left MEAS after his marriage and ran a driving school in àumperk, which is about fifty-five miles northeast of Svitavy. His career with the driving school was cut short by an eighteen-month stint in the Czechoslovak army. He served in the Tenth Infantry Regiment of the Thirty-first Army and by 1938 was a lance-corporal in the reserves. Oskar later said of his active duty in the Czech army that he “played more at sports than at soldiering.”16

Oskar rejoined MEAS when he returned from active duty. In 1931, MEAS went bankrupt and Oskar was unemployed for a year. Hans was unable to help Oskar and Emilie because the Depression had forced him to close his farm machinery business. This situation frustrated Emilie. Her father had given Oskar a dowry of 100,000 Czech crowns ($2,964) and he had squandered it on a fancy car and other unimportant things. When she questioned Oskar about these excesses, he replied, “Emilie, you are too austere, a real ascetic. While, on the other hand, I am by nature a sybarite [a resident of the ancient Greek-Italian city of Sybaris who loved luxury and pleasure].”17

Like his father, Oskar had grown fond of drinking. In a 1951 letter to the Viennese-born German-American film maker, Fritz Lang, Oskar said that among his greatest pleasures at that time in his life were the “Heuriger” (new wines) taverns of Vienna. He would occasionally visit his prosperous uncle, Adolf Luser, who published the monthly Der Ge-treue Eckehart (The Faithful Eckehart) in the Austrian capital. Heuriger cafés dotted the suburban areas around Vienna and were favorite drinking spots for the Viennese and tourists alike. Oskar described his uncle’s publication as “fast völkischer Verlag” (an almost nationalistic or populist publication). The Germans forced Adolf to shut down Der Getreue Eckehart after they occupied Austria in the spring of 1938. Adolf died soon afterwards, even though the DAF (Deutsche Arbeitsfront; German Labor Front) paid Oskar’s uncle more than RM 4 million ($1.6 million) in compensation. According to Oskar, his uncle died of grief over “den Verlust seines Lebenswerkes” (loss of his life’s work).18


On Sale
Aug 1, 2007
Page Count
800 pages
Basic Books

David Crowe

About the Author

David M. Crowe is President Emeritus of the Association for the Study of Nationalities at Columbia University and a member of the Education Committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. He is currently a Fellow at the Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies at the University of North at Carolina at Chapel Hill. His award-winning books include A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia and The Baltic States and the Great Powers: Foreign Relations, 1938-1940. He teaches at Elon University.

Learn more about this author