Sensing opportunity in the economic climate of Nazi-occupied Poland, Oskar Schindler moves to Cracow seeking to strike it rich. A young capitalist with a taste for women and liquor, Schindler is gifted with an ability to charm high-ranking Nazis. His factory, DEF, employs many Jews in the production of enamelware and munitions. As the Nazi regime becomes increasingly violent, Schindler begins hiring Jews merely to ensure their safety. His firm, DEF, becomes a haven for Jews, and Schindler acquires a reputation as their savior. When the ghetto is liquidated and its inhabitants moved to Płaszów, a forced labor camp presided over by the extremely violent Amon Goeth, Schindler establishes DEF as a subcamp so that he can keep his workers safe. As the Allied armies draw near, the Nazis begin exterminating Jewish prisoners en masse. To save his workers, Schindler moves his factory to Moravia. He makes a list of workers he will take with him. A place on Schindler's list is a much-coveted guarantee of survival. As the war progresses, Schindler abandons his capitalist ambitions entirely. He becomes a humanitarian, focused on saving as many Jews as possible. Once a rich and successful businessman, Schindler finds himself destitute after the war. He has experienced a moral awakening as the brutality of the Nazi regime compelled him to work for the salvation of the Jews, but he is an outcast and needs help to support himself in Germany.
Amon Goeth is a Schutzstaffel (SS) officer who arrives in Cracow in 1943 with orders to liquidate the ghetto and establish a labor camp, Płaszów. Like Oskar Schindler, Goeth has a taste for women, liquor, and black-marketeering; unlike Schindler, Goeth is a sadistic murderer who believes that by destroying Jewish lives he is a righteous participant in a grand historical movement toward the purity of the human race. The prisoners at Płaszów are rightly terrified of Goeth, who is fond of spontaneous executions. His reputation is so bad that Schindler attempts to bribe him into moderation with a crate of liquor. As time goes by, Goeth grows fatter and sicker from his overindulgences, and he is finally imprisoned on charges of black-marketeering. Utterly lacking in self-awareness, he maintains a belief that his abused maid and other prisoners who lived in terror of him would be willing to testify on his behalf. When he is released from prison, he visits Schindler at his Brinnlitz camp, where it becomes apparent he has lost his power but not the sadistic rage that fueled it. After the war, thanks to the testimony of former Płaszów prisoners, an unrepentant Goeth is convicted for his crimes and sentenced to death by hanging.
Itzhak Stern is a Jewish intellectual and an accountant. Soon after Oskar Schindler comes to Cracow, he makes Stern's acquaintance. Schindler seeks and receives business advice from Stern, and the two men establish an understanding through their discussion of Judaism and Christianity. By the end of their first meeting, Stern is convinced that Schindler is a righteous man who can be trusted. Stern also feels that by quoting the Talmud to Schindler during their first conversation, he has planted the seeds of Schindler's desire to help the Jewish people. Stern and Schindler are close associates throughout the war years. Stern convinces Schindler he can help Jews by hiring them in his factory, and Schindler obliges. In the ghetto as in Płaszów, Stern acts as a point of contact, relaying information between Schindler and the Jews. However, as the situation in Poland worsens, Stern becomes more resigned, while Schindler becomes more determined to save Jewish lives. Stern is Schindler's most trusted ally in the Jewish community; he asks him to write a report on the conditions at Płaszów as well as to give a tour of the facilities to the men from the rescue organization. Stern is always ready to assist Schindler, but he is doubtful when Schindler tells him he will save all the Płaszów prisoners. A realist, Stern doesn't believe a grand rescue is possible. Schindler does in fact achieve a grand rescue, and the loyalty and trust between the two men grows ever stronger.
Poldek Pfefferberg, also known as Leopold, is a Schindler survivor. Before the Nazi takeover, Pfefferberg worked as a high-school teacher in Cracow. During the ghetto years, he works for the OD as a policeman while also moving black market goods. A man of principle as well as resourcefulness, he fakes an injury to secure his discharge from the OD when he becomes disgusted with its actions. Throughout the war, Poldek's gifts of charm, trickery, and persuasion as well as his brazen self-confidence allow him to escape danger and secure advantageous positions for himself and his wife. At the last minute, he secures their place on Schindler's list with a gift of vodka to an SS guard he has befriended. Pfefferberg is a natural leader gifted with an ability to quickly discern the wisest course of action in high-stakes situations. He remains a leader through the final days of Brinnlitz, when he counsels cooperation, rather than attack, as the proper response when SS men come riding up on motorcycles.
Emilie Schindler is a village girl from the Sudetenland (the German-speaking area of southern Czechoslovakia), the daughter of a farmer and a woman of reserved and religious temperament. After a quick courtship, she marries Oskar Schindler in 1928. Although husband and wife share a mutual respect, Oskar is inattentive to Emilie from the start of their marriage, and she remains in Zwittau when he moves to Cracow. She is aware her husband is unfaithful to her, but she is dignified and prefers not to speak of it or put herself in situations where she is forced to confront his infidelities. Emilie remains apart from her husband until he comes to Brinnlitz, at which point she moves in with him. There, she makes vital contributions to the camp's operations, demonstrating that she, like her husband, is committed to helping the Jews. She capably runs the camp's daily operations when Oskar is in prison but finds her greatest vocation in tending to the sick. She spoon-feeds them with food prepared in her own kitchen and routinely travels to secure necessary medical supplies. Although her husband's flamboyance tends to overshadow her reserved nature, Emilie is hardworking, kind, and capable in her own way.