Oskar Schindler: The Business Tycoon Who Became a Hero

Oskar Schindler was a smart businessman who used his skills to fight against the Holocaust.

Apr 9, 2024By Jacob Wilkins, BA History

oskar schindler tycoon business hero


The Holocaust remains the greatest tragedy in modern history. The crimes committed by the Nazi Party continue to horrify generation after generation, demonstrating how frightening the world can be when evil men come to power.


But despite the risks involved, plenty of individuals were still willing to fight back against this atrocity.


Oskar Schindler was one of these brave heroes. Initially driven by greed and profit, he changed his attitude after witnessing the persecution of the Jewish community. With a combination of intellect, bribery, and flattery, he saved over one thousand Jews from the horrors of the Holocaust.


Oskar Schindler: A Man Driven By Pleasure

oskar schindler youth 1929
A photograph of a young Oskar Schindler with his father, 1929. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


Oskar Schindler was born into wealth. His family was well-known and influential in the town of Zwittau, with Schindler’s father owning a factory that produced farming machinery.

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At the end of the First World War, Zwittau became part of the newly formed Czechoslovakia. The economic fallout of the conflict resulted in financial hardship for many people. But owing to his family’s wealth, Schindler had plenty of fun during his adolescence, driving cars, racing motorbikes, and attending parties.


On March 6, 1928, Schindler married a young woman named Emilie Pelzl. The father of the bride offered up a dowry of 100,000 Czech crowns. This money was meant to help the newlyweds have a strong start in life. But Schindler instead spent it on partying and a new luxury car. He was not a faithful husband, frequently dating other women and having sexual affairs. However, Emilie did not seek a divorce.


War & Business Opportunities

nazi invasion poland hitler 1939
A photograph of the Nazi invasion of Poland, 1939. Source: Military Times


1935 was a grim year for Oskar Schindler. He lost his mother, and the family business went bankrupt, forcing him to work as a salesman for a company called Moravian Electrotechnic.


The same year, he joined a political party: the Sudeten German Party. Members of the party wanted the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia to be part of Germany. They were also openly anti-Semitic. Yet Schindler’s decision to join the Sudeten German Party was not really political. He was interested in making business deals, widening his connections, and selling more contracts.


Hoping to make more money, he worked as a spy for a Nazi intelligence-gathering service called Abwehr, collecting information from inside Czechoslovakia for the Nazis. Following the German invasion of the Sudetenland in September 1938, Schindler joined the Nazi Party.


Sensing another opportunity to make money, Schindler followed the Nazis into Poland in September 1939. He decided to start a business selling military equipment to Germany. Schindler saw the war as a golden opportunity to make money while avoiding serving in the military.


At this point, the plight of the Jews did not concern Schindler. All he cared about was money.


A Change of Heart

oskar schindler krakow factory emalia
A photograph of Oskar Schindler’s factory (Emalia) in Kraków, c.1943-1944. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


Through his contacts in the military, Oskar Schindler agreed to manufacture goods for German soldiers, such as mess kits and kitchenware. He set up the business in the Polish city of Kraków and named the factory Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik, also called “Emalia.”


The city around Schindler changed quickly under Nazi occupation. After the invasion of Poland, the Germans carried out measures that isolated and persecuted the Jewish community. They forced them to form a Jewish Council, wear a white armband with the Star of David, register their property, and – later on – live in an isolated ghetto. Much of Schindler’s workforce came from the Jewish community in Kraków. Under the new laws, he didn’t have to pay them as much as non-Jewish workers, which helped increase his profits.


In March 1941, the Nazis established the Kraków Ghetto. Between 15,000 and 20,000 lived inside, surrounded by barbed-wire fences. The only Jews who could leave were those with identification labeling them as workers in a factory. This identification also kept them safe from being sent away to a concentration camp.


Though the food situation in the Kraków Ghetto was not as bad as other ghettos in Nazi-occupied Poland, hunger was still a problem. After the Nazis banned the Jews from earning a wage, the Jews purchased their food from shops inside the ghetto using a ration card system. Schindler knew his workers were not getting enough nutrition, so he bought extra food for them.


This was not the only problem. Gradually, the Nazis removed more people from the ghetto. The actions of the Schutzstaffel (the SS) alarmed Schindler. He saw them use violence against the Jews and knew something had to be done about it.


Protecting the Jewish Workers

amon goeth nazi krakow 1944
A photograph of Amon Goeth in Kraków, 1944. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


Oskar Schindler used a mixture of bribery and persuasion to ensure those in his factory were deemed essential workers in the context of the German war effort. This way, they avoided being sent to the extermination camps.


But there were still risks. Abraham Bankier, who helped Schindler finance the factory, almost suffered a terrible fate when he forgot his card identifying him as an essential worker. The Gestapo arrested Bankier and forced him onto a train destined for Auschwitz. Schindler managed to save him before it was too late, but the sight of Bankier’s terrified face was hard to shake off.


Schindler took another step to ensure his workers’ safety by altering his factory’s rosters. He listed a special skill for each worker, reducing the likelihood they would be taken away. But the situation worsened with the arrival of Amon Goeth.


Goeth was the new commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp. He was a violent, sadistic Nazi tasked with moving the Jews from the Kraków Ghetto to his concentration camp. This had a negative impact on Schindler’s factory. He complained about the situation, saying his workers arrived late and were less productive. Some of them were clearly traumatized, having witnessed beatings and hangings inside the concentration camp.


Hoping to save his workers from suffering or death, Schindler used his powers of persuasion to arrange the construction of a separate concentration camp beside his factory. This way, the Jews could be housed away from Goeth.


But even this scheme was far from foolproof. The accountant Itzhak Stern recalled how the SS would unexpectedly barge into the factory and inspect what was happening. Schindler would keep them distracted by bringing them to his office and offering vodka. He even bribed the SS if he had to.


Moving Back to Czechoslovakia

oskar schindler bronnlitz factory
A modern photograph of Oskar Schindler’s factory in Brünnlitz. Source: Smithsonian Magazine


By the middle of 1944, things were not looking good for the Nazis. The Soviet Army was approaching from the east, while British and American troops moved from the beaches of France towards the German border.


With the Soviets edging closer, the Nazis started to move the Jews out of Plaszow. Oskar Schindler discovered his male workers would be moved to Gross-Rosen (a concentration camp infamous for harsh conditions and hard labor) while his female workers would be taken to Auschwitz.


To prevent this from happening, Schindler returned to Czechoslovakia, looking for a new location to set up a factory and move his workers. He found a two-story building on the outskirts of Brünnlitz that was suitable.


Schindler had to convince the Nazis it would be good for the war effort to move his operation into Czechoslovakia away from the Soviet Army. Using a mixture of flattery and bribery, Schindler gained permission from superiors in Berlin. In preparation for the move, he compiled a list of all the Jewish workers going to the new factory.


The workers eventually arrived at the correct destination, but the plan did not run smoothly. The male workers initially went to Gross-Rosen for three weeks before moving to Brünnlitz. The female workers, meanwhile, were initially taken to Auschwitz, and Schindler had to intervene to ensure their safety.


By this point, Schindler did not care about profit anymore. He wanted to keep the Jews safe at Brünnlitz for the rest of the war. As food and supplies became scarce, Schindler spent more time bartering on the black market. He also allowed the Jews to celebrate religious festivals, such as Hanukkah, making sure to purchase extra food on these occasions.


The Final Years of Oskar Schindler

oskar schindler grave jerusalem
A modern photograph of Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem. Source: Time


On May 7, 1945, Oskar Schindler learned from a British radio broadcast the war would end the following day. He relayed this information to his workers and delivered a speech commemorating the victims of the Holocaust.


Schindler had succeeded in protecting more than one thousand Jews from the clutches of the Nazis. But it had been an expensive operation, and his fortune was gone. No longer a wealthy man, Schindler lived in Regensburg and Munich after the war. He also provided evidence against certain Nazis, including Amon Goeth, who was hanged on September 13, 1946.


The final decades of Schindler’s life were not ideal. His relationship with his wife, which had been difficult from the beginning, fell apart completely. His post-war business ventures proved unsuccessful, though he did have financial support from the Jewish community. He even went to Israel once a year to celebrate his birthday.


oskar schindler post war 1949
A photograph of Oskar Schindler, 1949. Source: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC


On October 9, 1974, Schindler died of liver failure at the age of sixty-six. He was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery in Jerusalem.


The story of Oskar Schindler – which has become more popular since the release of Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List in 1993 – continues to intrigue and inspire. When the Second World War broke out, Schindler was not an honorable man. But the cruelty of the Nazis awoke something inside of him.


In the darkest of times, heroes often arise from unexpected places.

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By Jacob WilkinsBA HistoryJacob Wilkins holds a BA in History from Royal Holloway, University of London. He has written for several publications and has a particular interest in modern European and British history. When he’s not working, he enjoys reading books, watching tennis, and running up hills.