When I taught the Holocaust to high school students, I often would show the students a documentary that would make the statistical information more vivid and meaningful. Night and Fog was a frequent choice. On occasion, I would show excerpts from Shoah, Claude Lanzmann’s 11-hour documentary.
After the appearance of Schindler’s List, I would show the iconic scene in which Oskar Schindler for the first time sees the gross brutality of the Nazi regime. A ghetto is being purged of Jews and, in the midst of this chaos, we see a little girl in a red dress fleeing the horror around her. It is the only color in a black and white scene that unfolds like a newsreel. Oskar is a war profiteer, but now he sees the tragedy from a human perspective and it changes him.
The film opens with the relocation of Polish Jews from all parts of the country to Krakow in 1939, shortly after World War II began. Oskar Schindler, an entrepreneur, sees the possibility of using a cheap labor force of Jews to manufacture enamelware for mess kits and cooking utensils for the German military. To advance his business interests, he bribes army and SS personnel and develops a coterie of loyal supporters.
However, he has no real business experience and needs someone with accounting expertise to run the business. This he finds in Itzhak Stern, a member of the Judenrat, the local Jewish council. Stern has valuable connections with the underground business community in the ghetto and is an expert accountant. Schindler proposes that Jews lend him the money to open the factory, in return for which the Jews will receive enamelware that they can trade on the black market.
Stern suggests Schindler hire only Jewish workers since they are cheaper, but he has in mind the welfare of the workers. Schindler’s employees will be allowed to leave the ghetto to go to work; and if they are considered “essential” workers, they will not be sent to the death camps.
The initiative works, even when Amon Goth, a ruthless German officer, subverts Schindler’s plans by relocating his “essential” workers. Schindler convinces Goth to reconsider and this lays the groundwork for Schindler’s extraordinary effort to save Jews.
As his relationship with Stern deepens, and as Schindler sees the awful plight of the Jews, he becomes sympathetic to them and wants to help. Again, bribery and the force of his charismatic personality enable Schindler to be successful economically and rescue Jews at the same time.
What distinguishes Schindler’s List from other Holocaust films is its focus on individual stories. It is difficult to comprehend the loss of six million Jews, but it is easier to understand the tragedy through the eyes of people who saw their lives crumble before them, who suddenly went from affluence to poverty, who witnessed loved ones disappear before their eyes.
Schindler’s metamorphosis from bystander to savior is prefigured in the Bible story of Moses who does not understand the terrible situation of the Jews in Egypt until he steps out of the palace where he was raised and sees an Egyptian beating a Jew. The abstraction of slavery becomes the reality in which his brethren live, and this marks the emotional turning point for Moses.
Seeing things for yourself changes the human equation. This is what happens to Oskar Schindler when he views evil close up, when he sees how decent, law-abiding people can suffer at the hands of cruel oppressors. It is then that Schindler becomes a more sensitive human being. His empathy for the Jews and his heroism make him a hero for our times.