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Schindler's List | Themes

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Subversion

The story of Oskar Schindler is a story of subversion—the undermining of a system from within. As an insider in the Nazi regime, Schindler's power to effect good is greater than it would be were he to fight the system as an outsider.

At the onset of the war, Schindler's use of subversion is selfish rather than altruistic. In his early days in Cracow, Schindler engages in subversion for personal gain. He makes sure production at his factory is sufficient to satisfy essential military contracts and to allow him to engage in lucrative black market trade. By fulfilling military contracts, Schindler's business directly supports the imperialistic, murderous aims of the German military. At the same time, he subverts the system for personal gain through his black market activities. The system tolerates these subversive activities because Schindler engages in cronyism (appointment of friends to positions of authority regardless of qualifications) and bribery.

The unprecedented savagery of the June 1942 Aktion in the Cracow ghetto occasions a fundamental moral shift in Schindler. Soon after, his position as an insider allows him to facilitate the transfer of rescue money to the prisoners of Płaszów. At the same time, he manipulates the system into accommodating the first major iteration of his rescue scheme. Wishing to spare his workers from the violence at Płaszów, he convinces Amon Goeth that it is in the system's best interest to allow him to establish a subcamp at DEF. Schindler's ability to execute his subversive activities so effectively is based on his convincing pretense of friendship with Goeth and men like him.

By 1944 Schindler's singular desire is to leverage his position within the system to save Jewish lives. The system, which is now openly engaging in the mass extermination of Jews at its concentration camps, permits Schindler's rescue of 1,100 Jews because he maintains they are highly skilled workers engaged in the essential wartime industry of munitions manufacture. In reality Schindler adopts a "policy of nonproduction" at Brinnlitz. By means of this inventive and creative subversion, Schindler employs Jewish labor to sabotage the capacities of the German military. Schindler gets away with this, as always, because he placates the authorities with expensive gifts.

In contrast, the story of Bosko illustrates that attempting to fight a system from the outside can be dangerous as well as ineffective. In 1942 Bosko works for the SS, guarding the ghetto's perimeter. Like Schindler, Bosko is compelled by his horror of the system to leverage his insider's position for the benefit of Jewish lives. He smuggles people out of the ghetto and provides passes into the ghetto for underground resistance organizations. But while Schindler is "a man of transactions," Bosko is "a man of ideas," and his idealism compels him to leave the SS and join the partisan guerillas. With the partisans, he has no power to effect good because he is promptly recognized and "shot for treason." From within the system, Bosko had the power to engage in lifesaving subversions. When he abandons his position within the system, Bosko loses this power as well as his life.

The Power of Culture

Throughout the text, Jewish cultural traditions and norms provide a means for Jews to resist the loss of their identity and eventually reclaim their power in the face of systematic violence and oppression. Thomas Keneally describes Auschwitz, that horrifying culmination of Nazi anti-Semitism, as a place "where tribes and histories were sucked in and vaporized." Forced to live under a regime seeking to destroy their bodies and their culture, the Jews of Poland maintain essential parts of their sanity by clinging to the routines of daily life and practicing their cultural traditions.

In 1941 the regime mandates that all Jews must live within the ghetto. This places a strict limit on their freedom, but some Jews see the ghetto as a place where Jewish culture can thrive. The ghetto "consecrated the Jews to their own specialness, to a richness of shared scholarship, to songs and Zionist talk." This positive view of the ghetto as ironically a safe space for Jewish culture offers protection against a feeling of powerlessness and a consequent loss of hope.

As another example, by choosing to pursue the "ritual dance of courtship" inside Płaszów, prisoners Josef Bau and Rebecca Tannenbaum use the power of their culture to normalize abnormal conditions. Their insistence on a proper courtship is a way for them to maintain their dignity in the squalid, louse-infested labor camp. They set a precedent that empowers those around them as well—given "a license to play their prewar ceremonious selves," the women of Płaszów quickly "fall into their traditional roles as chaperones." At their wedding ceremony, the couple enacts a resourceful approximation of tradition: Josef's mother stands in for the rabbi, a ring is fashioned from a spoon, and Josef crushes a light bulb beneath his heel, following a tradition at Jewish weddings when a glass is crushed under the groom's heel to symbolize the marriage.

Oskar Schindler is aware of the power of culture to provide a sense of normalcy, and although he is neither religious nor Jewish himself, he supports his workers in practicing their culture. At first, Rabbi Levartov believes Schindler is joking when he chides him for working when he "should be preparing for Shabbat." Schindler is not joking; rather, he makes space for Jewish custom by supplying ceremonial wine and dismissing Rabbi Levartov from the factory floor on Friday evenings. Schindler goes as far as to establish a Jewish cemetery near Brinnlitz, insisting that the dead be buried in accordance with Jewish custom. Schindler's insistence that Jewish cultural traditions be respected has "enormous moral force within the camp."

The Nazis are also aware of the power of culture. Their program of destruction includes not only physical violence to Jews, but also an attack on Jewish identity through the desecration of its cultural and religious artifacts. During the first Cracow Aktion, the SS men force a group of Jews to enter their 14th-century synagogue and spit on the Torah scroll moments before burning the building to the ground. Sadistic Amon Goeth uses shattered Jewish gravestones as pavers on the road through Płaszów. It is a choice of materials calculated to inflict distress upon the prisoners and break and dehumanize them.

Salvation

As a war profiteer and a sensualist with a fondness for women and alcohol, Oskar Schindler is an unlikely savior. Yet he promises salvation to the Jews, and he manages to deliver on his promise. The faith the Jews have in Schindler as their savior has a nearly religious quality to it. He is trusted as a savior from the very first time he offers them rescue, and this faith remains strong even when it is tested through difficult trials. Schindler, aware of his role as savior, dedicates his entire being to fulfilling that role.

Sanctuary

One of Itzhak Stern's talents is "an ancestral gift for sniffing out the just Goy," and he recognizes this quality in Oskar Schindler upon first meeting him. Goy is a colloquial Yiddish word that refers to someone who is not Jewish. The Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II is unprecedented in its scope and horror, but it is nonetheless, as Stern recognizes, the most recent iteration in a pattern of persecution stretching back through history. As a response to this pattern, Jews such as Stern have developed a useful survival mechanism: "a sense for where a safe house might be, a potential zone of shelter."

Even in 1939, before the ghetto and the camps and the exterminations, Stern immediately recognizes "the possibility of Herr Schindler as sanctuary." Schindler expresses contempt for Nazi ideology when he remarks that in current times "life did not have the value of a pack of cigarettes." This remark clinches Stern's sense of Schindler as a potential savior. Stern's pointed response foreshadows the salvation Schindler will indeed deliver: He paraphrases the Talmud's assertion that "he who saves the life of one man saves the entire world." Shortly thereafter, when Schindler warns Stern of the upcoming violence in the ghetto, Stern decides it is "a decent and wise course to try to make of Schindler a living and breathing sanctuary."

The Promise

When the Jews of Poland are forced into the Cracow ghetto and numerous others, Stern encourages Schindler to employ as many Jews as possible. Stern believes that "a Jew who had an economic value ... was safe from worse things." Schindler agrees and sends his office manager, Abraham Bankier, into the ghetto to recruit workers. Standing in front of the new recruits, Schindler makes a startling promise: "You'll be safe working here. If you work here, you'll live through the war." The workers are stunned by this "godlike promise," but at least one of them, Edith Liebgold, "found herself believing it instantly." Startled by her instant faith in Schindler as savior, Liebgold questions how Schindler could possibly make such a promise since it implied "some second sight, some profound contact with god or devil or the pattern of things." To Liebgold, Schindler seems more like a sensualist than a savior, yet his promise of salvation "had infected her with certainty."

Deliverance

As conditions grow worse in the ghetto, many Jews begin to sense the magnitude of the evil confronting them. They know "that what was needed was a special and startling deliverance." Those who have not yet encountered Schindler begin to feel hopeless because they do not believe they will receive the salvation they need. When the regime forces Jews into labor camps, Schindler establishes his own subcamp at his factory, Emalia. The humane conditions at Emalia earn it a reputation as a "paradise." The workers have a strong sense of having been saved, and to make sense of it, they attribute mystical qualities to both Schindler and Emalia. Emalia "inspired in its people ... a sense of almost surreal deliverance." The workers of Emalia regard Schindler as a "magical parent," someone who is "more authoritative and more mysterious" than a friend. For them, Schindler is truly "a minor god of deliverance."

The Test

The faith of the Jews in their savior Schindler is tested when the regime orders the closure of Emalia and they are sent back to Płaszów to await shipment to Auschwitz or Gröss-Rosen. Many of the Jews fear it is "the end of all sanctuary," but one of them, Dolek Horowitz, believes that Oskar will make a list of people and rescue them. Schindler does exactly that. Their faith is tested a second time when the transports of the men and women on Schindler's list are rerouted to other camps instead of Schindler's Brinnlitz. Struggling to survive at Auschwitz, one woman asks, "Where's Schindler now?" But many of the Schindler women retain some kernel of faith in their savior, which strengthens them throughout their trial at Auschwitz. Even though she is sick, cold, and hungry, one of Schindler's women keeps repeating, "You'll see ... We'll end up somewhere warm with Schindler's soup in us." This sense of faith in their savior keeps the Schindler women from succumbing to despair at Auschwitz. Schindler doesn't let them down. After elaborate negotiations to secure their release, he welcomes them to Brinnlitz with his savior's promise: "You have nothing more to worry about. You're with me now."

Continuing Life

In the final days of the war, in the face of looming chaos and uncertainty, Schindler stands before his workers and delivers his final promises of salvation. He makes two speeches in the last two weeks of the war, both containing "promises of continuing life." With his characteristic "gift for prophecy," Schindler assures his workers they will not "go into graves in the woods" once they leave Brinnlitz. He acknowledges "the persecutions, the trickery and obstacles, which, in order to keep [the] workers, [he] had to overcome." The workers' salvation, despite its quality of magic, is achieved through persistent hard work and clever subversions. Schindler may be a savior, but he is no "mystical parent" or "god of deliverance," and the salvation he delivers is material rather than spiritual.

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