The first scenes of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1993) show a man lay out his fine clothing, carefully select a tie, and embellish his suit with a Nazi Party lapel pin. The viewer soon discovers that this is Oskar Schindler, not only a Nazi but an opportunist, a businessman with questionable ethics, and a notorious womanizer – qualities unlikely in a rescuer of more than 1,100 Jews during the Holocaust. Yet Schindler’s story was even more complicated than what we see in the film. In his Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List, David Crowe, Professor of History at Elon University and a Professor of Legal History at the Elon University School of Law, presents a far more intricate portrait of the man who has attained near-mythological status.
Oskar Schindler, born in 1908 in the region later known as western Czechoslovakia, was so motivated to support the union of his fellow Sudeten Germans with the Reich under Hitler that in the mid-1930s he became an agent of the Abwehr, a branch of German military intelligence. (His life as a spy began after the married Schindler had a sexual liaison with a female agent active in the German intelligence services.) Schindler’s decision to relocate to Krakow, Poland in late 1939, we learn from Dr. Crowe, had more to do with his Abwehr connections than the simple desire to take advantage of lucrative business opportunities. Other disclosures show that the film character of Itzak Stern (played by Ben Kingsley) was a composite of the real Stern as well as Abraham Bankier and Mietek Pemper. The List, too, had a more complicated development than depicted in the film, passing through several versions during the last months that Schindler operated his Krakow enamelware factory.
The narrative that formed the basis for Spielberg’s film was Australian writer Thomas Kenneally’s 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark. While Kenneally and Dr. Crowe each used survivor testimony in their research, Crowe casts a historian’s eye to complement eyewitness accounts with surviving documentation. Dr. Crowe was also able to talk to more survivors from the List than Kenneally was able to reach out to twenty years before. One of these was Leon Leyson, whose memories add small but essential details that humanize Oskar Schindler within the extensive portrait offered by David Crowe.
David M. Crowe. Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List. New York: Basic Books, 2007.