Oskar Schlindler's Legend Explored In Recent Biography

Dinitia, Smith, The New York Times, 24 Nov. 2004

An authoritative new biography of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis, clashes sharply with his idealized portrayal in the Oscar-winning 1993 Steven Spielberg movie ''Schindler's List'' and the 1982 historical novel by Thomas Keneally that inspired it. The Schindler who emerges in this latest account -- based on interviews with Holocaust survivors and newly discovered papers, including letters stored in a suitcase by a mistress -- is far more flawed than the one depicted in the movie and novel. Even so, scholars say, the fresh revelations about Schindler's darker side cast his moral transformation and heroism into starker relief.

To begin with, there was no Schindler's List.

''Schindler had almost nothing to do with the list,'' said David M. Crowe, a Holocaust historian and professor at Elon University in North Carolina, whose book, ''Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind the List,'' was published this fall by Westview Press.

In the film, Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, is shown in 1944 giving the Jewish manager of his enamelware and arms factory in Krakow, Poland, the names of Jewish workers to be taken to the relative safety of what is now the Czech Republic. But at the time, Mr. Crowe said in a telephone interview, Schindler was in jail for bribing Amon Goth, the brutal SS commandant played by Ralph Fiennes in the film. And the manager, Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley), was not even working for Schindler then.

Mr. Crowe said that there were nine lists. The first four were drawn up primarily by Marcel Goldberg, a corrupt Jewish security police officer and assistant to an SS officer in charge of transporting Jews. (Goldberg was later accused of accepting bribes and of favoritism.) Schindler suggested a few names, Mr. Crowe said, but did not know most of the people on the lists. The authors of the other five lists are unknown.

Mr. Crowe said the legend of ''the list'' arose partly from Schindler himself, to embellish his heroism. He was trying to win reparations for his wartime losses, and Yad Vashem, the Jewish Holocaust memorial organization in Jerusalem, was considering naming him a ''righteous gentile,'' an honor given to someone who risked death to save Jews.

Those he saved further enhanced the legend because ''they adored him,'' Mr. Crowe said, ''and they protected him.''

No one doubts that Schindler, an ethnic German born in what was then Austria-Hungary, was a moral hero, but the revelations add deeper texture to his story.

It has long been known that Schindler was a spy for German counterintelligence in the late 1930's, but he played down those activities. Yet Mr. Crowe said that Czech secret police archives refer to Schindler as ''a spy of big caliber and an especially dangerous type.'' Mr. Crowe also said that Schindler compromised Czechoslovak security before the Nazi invasion and was imprisoned. Later, the Czechoslovak government tried to prosecute him for war crimes. Schindler was also the de facto head of a unit that planned the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Schindler, a big, charming man, was a drinker and womanizer, as depicted in the novel and film. But Mr. Crowe said that he also had two illegitimate children whom he ignored.

There were also rumors, briefly mentioned in the book and film, that after Schindler moved to Krakow in 1939 as a carpetbagger following the Nazi invasion, he stole Jewish property and ordered Jews beaten. Although the charges were unproven, Mr. Crowe discovered that Yad Vashem was so concerned that it delayed designating Schindler a righteous gentile. The film's epilogue says Schindler was named in 1958, 16 years before his death in 1974. But Mr. Crowe found that he was officially named in 1993, after Yad Vashem learned that Schindler's widow, Emilie, who also behaved heroically, was coming to Jerusalem to participate in the film. Both received the honor, he posthumously.

There are many books about Schindler, including accounts by survivors and Emilie's memoirs, but Mr. Crowe's is the first comprehensive biography to draw on newly available records. Mr. Crowe is a member of the education committee of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, and the author of a history of the Gypsies of Russia and Eastern Europe.

He dismissed some scenes in the film and book that are part of Schindler's legend. For instance, in the film Schindler is shown riding with his mistress on Lasota Hill in Krakow and watching the clearing of the ghetto in March 1943, when he sees a little girl seeking shelter. The scene depicts Schindler's moral awakening, but Mr. Crowe called it ''totally fictitious.'' He said that it would have been impossible to see that part of the ghetto from the hill, and that Schindler never saw the girl. Schindler's transformation was more gradual, Mr. Crowe said, and even before the ghetto was cleared he was appalled by the mistreatment of the Jews.

''Steve is a very wonderful, tender man,'' Mr. Crowe said of Mr. Spielberg, ''but 'Schindler's List' was theater and not in an historically accurate way. The film simplifies the story almost to the point of ridiculousness.'' Mr. Crowe also said that he admired Mr. Keneally's novel.

[Editor's Note: The original review is much longer.]

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