Several months ago, I visited Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory museum in Krakow, Poland. If you haven’t seen the movie, Schindler’s List, add it to your to do list. It’s the extraordinary story of a brave man who’s defiance and courage helped rescue over 1,000 Jews from the death camps. It was an uplifting day learning more about this hero. The museum is located in the administrative building of Schindler’s factory.
Before Poland gained its independence again in 1918, Poland was partitioned by Russia, Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian empire. Kraków was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. After WW1, Poland asserted its independence and began teaching its people about their history. They built a beautiful statue commemorating the Polish victory over the Teutonic (Germanic) knights that occurred during the medieval period. When Germany invaded Poland, German Soldiers banned access to the statue and posted guards around it. Hilariously (and courageously), the Poles brought flowers and laid them at the statue despite the German military presence. The Germans began to dismantle the statue, but some local Krakówians bribed the soldiers and hid it during the occupation. After the liberation, they restored the statue. Kraków was my favorite city in Poland. While Warsaw was completely devastated by the war, Kraków survived both world wars largely intact. The Germans bombed the railway station, the military barracks, and a few other targets, but the city largely remained unscathed. The Krakówian Army withdrew from the city opting to fight in the open. When the Germans occupied Kraków, they began to Germanize it much like the Russians are attempting to Russify Crimea and Eastern Ukraine today. They moved Germans into the city and began opening schools there. The Germans viewed the Poles as an inferior race. They segmented the city and implemented German-only areas. They forced the Jews to inhabit the Kraków ghetto and eventually walled them in. They finally deported them to the death camps.
During the occupation, Oskar Schindler, a German who lived in the Sudentland (an area where a large concentration of ethnic Germans lived in what is now western Czech Republic) arrived in Kraków and received permission to run the factory. The enamel factory had been established by three Jewish businessmen but became insolvent prior to the war. Schindler reopened the factory and began his work of finding employment for desperate Jewish citizens of Kraków. The factory produced a variety of pots and pans and components used for artillery and grenades. Schindler really had no choice. Every factory owner was forced to produce armaments for the war effort. However, there is strong evidence though that the Polish and Jewish factory workers successfully sabotaged these munitions.
One Polish citizen forced to work in Germany during the war told his brother who worked at Schindler’s factory that 60-80% of Polish factory output was “crap.” In other words, the Polish sabotage effectively hindered the German war effort. Before the war, nearly 25% of Krakówians were Jewish. Poland had a thriving Jewish population. Afterward, the Jewish population was decimated. Poland is now the most ethnically homogenous country in the world.
But Oskar Schindler’s courage helped save many lives during the war. He faced multiple ethical dilemmas. A decision Schindler faced was whether to keep his factory operational and aid the Nazi war effort. Schindler opted to do so to protect his livelihood and his employees, but it appears likely he approved of sabotage activities. A second ethical decision he faced was whether to pay Jewish employees the same rate he paid Polish laborers. Schindler paid lower wages to Jewish workers. This decision appeased his racist and bigoted Nazi overlords. However, had Schindler paid the Jews the same wages as the Poles, the Nazis may have been more likely to deport them to concentration camps. Schindler benefited by paying Jewish workers lower wages, but he also took significant personal and financial risks to employ them at all. He effectively hid the Jewish factory workers in plain sight although he did enjoy more protections from Nazi interference due to his factory contributions to the war effort. Did he make the right ethical decisions? Under the circumstances, it’s hard to argue against Schindler’s actions. Over a thousand Jews who avoided the death camps (and their descendants) would probably agree.