Schindler's List | Study Guide

Thomas Keneally

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Schindler's List | Chapter 1 | Summary



Chapter 1 discusses Oskar Schindler's early life. He was born in 1908 in the industrial city of Zwittau to a Catholic family of German descent. At the time, Zwittau, a city in the Sudetenland region that Hitler seized from Czechoslovakia in 1938, was part of the Austrian Empire. The region was controlled by the Germans during World War II, and today it is Czech-speaking and part of the Czech Republic. Young Schindler attended a German school, had Jewish friends in the local population, and received an engineer's education in preparation for taking over his father's farm-machinery plant.

Schindler's family is largely apolitical, and as an adolescent he is uninterested in questions of "race, blood, and soil." Motorcycles are his passion, and he competes in races in the spring of 1928. That summer, he marries Emilie, a reserved farmer's daughter from a neighboring village. His father disapproves of the marriage because the match reminds him of his own unhappy marriage. Although some townspeople think Oskar marries Emilie because of her large dowry, he never receives most of the money. Like Oskar, Emilie had Jewish friends in her youth.

After marrying and getting an apartment in Zwittau, Schindler serves in the Czechoslovak army. He soon begins leaving Emilie at home while he spends his evenings socializing in town. In 1935 his father ends up bankrupt and leaves his mother. This is the beginning of Schindler's resentment toward his father, which intensifies after his mother's death shortly thereafter. He begins working as a sales manager, a job he likes because of the travel and socializing involved.

Prior to the German invasion of the Sudetenland in 1938, Schindler is a member of Konrad Henlein's Sudeten German Party, which advocates Nazi principles. After the annexation, Schindler begins to find fault with Nazism. However, he begins working for the Abwehr, an important German military intelligence organization, gathering intelligence from Poland and the surrounding regions. This work leads him to Cracow in Poland, the city where he will establish himself.


In this chapter, the reader begins to understand the influences that shaped Oskar Schindler. Seeking the beginning of the "impulse toward rescue" that would later compel him, Keneally examines Schindler's youth and the early days of his career.

In examining Schindler's childhood for the roots of his sympathy toward Jews, Keneally finds nothing remarkable. Young Schindler's next-door neighbor is a rabbi, but he is more captivated by machines than theology, finding "a motorcycle [to be] the most compelling model of the universe." By riding motorcycles, Schindler develops a lifelong taste for movement and travel. Young Schindler is also engaged in a rivalry with his father and is more concerned with outdoing him in business than with political matters.

Although he is basically apolitical, young Schindler does pay lip service to the fashionable nationalism of the time. He serves in the army because it is required. He wears a swastika because it gives him an advantage in his dealings with Germans. He works for the Abwehr because it exempts him from military duties and separates him from the growing influence of the SS, Heinrich Himmler's powerful paramilitary organization and a primary arm of Nazi power. In the Abwehr, Schindler becomes familiar with Cracow and recognizes that the city is full of business opportunities. The job also allows him to develop his "gift for charming news out of people, especially in a social setting—at the dinner table, over cocktails." In later years this charisma will serve Schindler well as he works to manipulate Nazis in order to save Jews.

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