Oskar Schindler was a German businessman in the 1930’s. In many ways he was a most despicable man. He did not like Adolph Hitler, but eagerly joined the Nazi party when he saw that it could be very good for business. He was raised a Catholic, but never went to church unless he needed to make a business contact there. He spent more money on alcohol than most people will spend in a lifetime on everything. He was a heavy drinker himself, he threw many parties, bought many rounds, and gave away countless expensive cases of wine as he sought to gain favor with Nazi military and political leaders. And when the war began Schindler was able to secure several lucrative industrial contracts, and became extremely wealthy. His businesses were especially profitable because he had to pay very little for labor. He set up his plant near a neighborhood in Poland where Jews had been imprisoned by the Nazis, and he paid the Jewish refugees practically nothing.
Schindler was a domineering man, and could get his way with anyone, Jewish refugee or high-ranking Nazi, by doing whatever it took. He would bully and he would charm, he would threaten and he would bribe, at times he would intimidate people and at other times he would endear himself to them.
After the war, Schindler’s luck ran out. He had to flee because he was branded a war criminal for illegal profiteering and for using Jewish slave labor. He went to Argentina with his wife and one of his many mistresses. Schindler had a wonderful wife, but carried on numerous affairs without even trying to hide it from her. In Argentina, his marriage ended to the surprise of no one, and he also failed at everything else he tried there. Near the end of his life, he moved back to Germany where was despised by many of his neighbors because of his wartime activities. He died in 1974.
Despite all that, Oskar Schindler was buried with honor in the Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem. He had said, ‘Bury me in the Holy City among my people.’ He was declared by Jewish leaders a ‘righteous man.’ In 1993 Steven Spielberg, a Jew, made a movie about his wartime activities called Schindler’s List which won the academy award for the best movie of that year. You see, along with all his huge faults and sins, there is one part of Oskar Schindler’s story that I have not yet described. Oscar Schindler saved the lives of more condemned Jews in World War II than any other individual.
In 1943 all the workers in Schindler’s Poland plants were ordered to go to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, that death camp which was killing and cremating thousands of Jews each and every day. Schindler had by this time already made more money than he would ever need. He could have left the country, bought a mansion somewhere, and lived out his days in luxury. But somewhere along the line something happened to Oskar Schindler, something that was never understood by even those who knew him best. For some reason, he began to care about those Jews who were to him at first nothing but cheap labor. Schindler demanded that ‘my Jews’ (as he called them) not be sent to Auschwitz, but that they be permitted to stay to run his plants. The Nazis refused. So he bribed them, arriving at a price in the thousands of dollars for each Jew he wanted to save. The Jews he would buy would then be loaded into a train going the opposite direction of Auschwitz, to work in another factory he bought in Czechoslovakia. Thus began the task of making up ‘Schindler’s List’ of those Jews who he would buy and thereby save from the gas chambers. The movie shows him adding name after name to the list, with each name depleting his fortune, until there were over 1200 names on the list. The bribed Nazis kept their word, and the Jews were taken to Schindler’s factory. They were still heavily guarded by German soldiers, but Schindler treated them as well as he could. He kept them all alive and fed and working until the end of the war.
Schindler did all this even though it left him with practically nothing. The rest of Schindler’s own life did not go very well because of that incredible and unexpected sacrifice, but the Jews he saved were forever grateful. Those he saved and their descendants are to this day called the ‘Schindler Jews.’ When the movie was made in 1993 there were already over 6,000 people in this family of ‘Schindler Jews.’
In Jesus’ parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25, ‘all the nations of the world’ are gathered before him. The people are divided into two groups, and to each group, Jesus says, “I was hungry and you did (or did not) feed me, I was thirsty, and you did (or did not) help me, I was imprisoned and you did (or did not) come to me,” and so on. This parable of Jesus is intended to give us a long term perspective on our good deeds. When on that last day we stand before the Lord we will be happy for every good deed done, but we will sorely regret the many times we had the opportunity to do good and neglected to do so. At the moment of decision, helping someone in need may seem to be a costly and an unwanted interruption, but than later on, we usually do feel good about helping. In the same way, later on, we may feel guilty about not giving someone a hand when we could have. How much more so, implies Jesus, after your life is over and all opportunities are past, will we have those good feelings or those regrets. Paraphrasing Martin Luther: “When we are brought to life on the last day we shall spit on ourselves and say, ‘Shame on you for not bring bolder in obeying Christ when you had the chance, since the glory is so great'” (Table Talk #203).
Near the end of the movie Schindler’s List there is an unforgettable scene that is a powerfully illustration of this. The war has ended and the Jews will soon be liberated. The Nazi soldiers go home, and Oskar Schindler goes from being a big shot industrialist to being a wanted man. The 1200 Jews gather to say good-bye. They have all signed a letter explaining Schindler’s work on their behalf, but everyone knows that there is no guarantee that the invading Russians will believe that letter, or, if they will believe others who were angered by Schindler’s work and would want to see him arrested. So he has to run for his life. He says good-bye, and as he looks out over all the people for whom he risked his life and gave up his fortune, he began to weep. At first he cannot speak, but then he says, “I could have done more, I could have done more… This car,” he says, “why did I keep it? I could have sold it and saved ten more lives. This stupid diamond pin,” he said of a pin on his lapel, “Even that I could have sold and gotten enough money to save one more life.” He kept weeping and kept repeating, “I could have done more, I could have done so much more.”
Oskar Schindler (1908-1974)
Matthew 25:40 — (Jesus said), “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
John 9:4 — (Jesus said), “As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.”
Who can tell what a day may bring forth? Cause me therefore, gracious God, to live every day as if it were to be my last, for I know not that it may be such. Cause me to live now as I shall wish I had done when I come to die. O grant that when I die I may be found in Christ, who is my only Savior and Redeemer. Amen.
–Thomas a Kempis