A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, in the Words of Those Who Knew Him
When Oskar Schindler first visited Israel, in 1961, he was given a tumultuous welcome; when the West German government finally got around to honoring him, in 1966, Adenauer presided over the ceremony; when he died in 1974 The New York Times ran a piece about him. And his story has certainly not been overlooked since then. The gist of it can be found, for example, in Benjamin Ferencz’s admirable study of Jewish forced labor under the Nazis, Less Than Slaves. Yet it also remains true that he is seldom mentioned in general books about the Holocaust and that, in the English-speaking world at least, few people seem to have heard of him until the appearance of Schindler’s List.
Quite what this proves I am not sure. Possibly it should be taken as a reminder of just how vast an atrocity the Final Solution was, so vast that even the most dramatic or appalling episodes are liable to remain untold. Possibly historians of the Holocaust are reluctant to make too much of an exception while they still have to establish (and establish in the public mind) the full hideousness of the prevailing rule. Or perhaps it is simply a matter of chance—in which case chance redressed the balance when an Australian novelist wandered into a luggage store in Beverly Hills, fell into conversation with the owner (a Schindler survivor), and learned for the first time who Schindler was and what he accomplished.
That Thomas Keneally should have seized on the story is not to be wondered at. A German industrialist, a Catholic, arrives in Cracow in the wake of the Wehrmacht. Secretly disgusted by what he sees his countrymen doing, he sets up a factory, and although it is part of a murderous prison-camp complex he manages to protect his Jewish laborers and their dependents by means of bribery and bluff, to keep them supplied with food from the black market, and to ward off the threat of deportation by paying the SS for the necessary work cards. As the German retreat begins, he sets up a second factory in his native Sudentenland and succeeds in transferring his work force there, including the women, whom he has to rescue after they have been shunted off to Auschwitz; still keeping the SS at bay, as the war ends he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has saved well over a thousand lives.
It is an extraordinary tale, even when it is told in the barest outline, but no summary can adequately convey the stratagems and reverses and sudden twists of fortune, to say nothing of the grinding repetitions, which are an essential part of the story. For Schindler’s heroism was not of the kind that expresses itself through a single irrevocable action or an unambiguous taking of sides. He could only have achieved what he did by playing along with the system, adjusting to its constraints, renewing his decision to oppose it from one day to …
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Kolbe & Anti-Semitism April 14, 1983