About Conversation Kindling

The purpose of this blog is to share stories, metaphors, quotes, songs, humor, etc. in hopes they'll be used to spark authentic and rewarding conversations about working and living fruitfully. There are at least three things you can gain by getting involved in these conversations. First, you'll discover new and important things about yourself through the process of thinking out loud. Second, you'll deepen your relationships with others who participate by swapping thoughts, feelings, and stories with them. Finally, you'll learn that robust dialogue centered on stories and experiences is the best way to build new knowledge and generate innovative answers to the questions that both life and work ask.

I write another blog called My Spare Brain. This is where I am "storing" ideas for use in future books, articles, blog posts, speeches, and workshops. There is little rhyme or reason for what I post there. I do this to encourage visitors to come as treasure hunters looking for new ways of seeing and thinking vs. researchers looking for new or better answers to questions they already know how to ask.

10 September 2010

Schindler's List

As the 1993 film Schindler's List opens, Polish Jews are being relocated from the countryside to a crowded ghetto in Krakow. The year is 1939. World War II has just begun. Shortly thereafter, Oskar Schindler - played by Liam Neeson - a successful businessman and member of the Nazi Party, arrives from Czechoslovakia hoping to manufacture field kitchenware and mess kits for the German army. He acquires a factory by bribing SS officials and brings in accountant and financier Itzhak Stern - played by Ben Kingsley - to help him run it. Among the first things Stern does is advise Schindler to staff the plant with Jews from the ghetto; he said this would give him a dependable, low-paid work force. Schindler sees the financial benefits and quickly agrees. For Stern a job in a war-related plant means survival - at least in the short term - for himself and other Jews working for Schindler.

Schindler initially treats the Jewish workers with indifference, seeing them as a nameless, faceless mass instead of individuals with rights and equal worth to gentiles such as himself. He changes on this score as the film moves on, though, and eventually spends his entire fortune and risks his life on many occasions to keep Stern and more than 1200 other Jews out of the Nazi death camps.

Why did he do it? What made this man do what no other German had the courage to do? This is the question people - including the Jews saved by Schindler - are still asking today.

Thomas Keneally, author of Schindler's Arc - later renamed Schindler's List - hints at why he thinks Schindler did it when he says in the book:
"Schindler grew up in a strong Roman Catholic household with deeply religious parents. Their nearest neighbors were a Jewish Rabbi and his family, and the Rabbi's two sons were Oskar's best friends for years."
Steven Spielberg, who turned the novel to film, said in an interview in Der Spiegel:
"Oskar Schindler was simply ein guter Mensch whose sheer humanity forced him to take great personal risk to save his Jews."
A decade before Spielberg's Schindler's List won seven Academy Awards, a British producer and director, Jon Blair, made Schindler, an 80 minute documentary on the life of Oskar Schindler for British Thames Television. The film won a British Academy Award for best documentary in 1983, but left few clues as to why Schindler did what he did. Blair was quoted later as saying:
"Oskar, this big man with a big heart and big connections, loved to be loved and needed. But I always thought that it was a weakness in my film that I couldn't explain Schindler's motivation, and Spielberg told me the same about his - it seems impossible to crack that enigma."
Perhaps Schindler himself didn't know for sure. In a 1964 interview he said:
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then in the years '41 and '42, there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
The most plausible explanation may have been revealed in a 1965 conversation between Schindler and Moshe Bejski - a Schindler Jew and later an Israeli Supreme Court justice. When Bejski asked him why he did it, Schindler answered:
"I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings."
The story of Oskar Schindler is not merely one about an altruistic and morally decent man - though Schindler was that. It is, in the main, the story of a man who gets to know his workers through personal encounters, and comes to see them as individual human beings with hopes, dreams, fears, and passions just like his own. And, once he grants them humanity, he feels a strong pull to assist them. I think this idea is best expressed near the end of the film when Schindler introduces Stern to his wife. He says:
"Stern is my accountant and my friend."
  • How does this last explanation for Schindler's behavior make more or less sense to you than the others considered?
  • Why might it be important for leaders to build personal relationships with their followers?
  • Why might they want to keep from getting too personally involved?
  • What is your philosophy in this regard? How is it working for you? Have you ever thought there might be a better way? Have you experimented with it? What happened?
  • What is your reaction to the statement: Your people are not human resources, they are human beings?
"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." - Edmund Burke
"We ask ourselves, 'How could the German people not have known what was going on, long before the Panzer divisions moved into Poland in September of 1939? How could they not have known about Bergen-Belsen?' Well, a system to administer evil without interference is usually firmly entrenched before anyone notices - you don’t get the opportunity to see it coming. As Mussolini intuited, if you just make the trains run on time, people will be happy. So, if you’re simply getting on with life - paying taxes, changing diapers, wondering how you’re going to make the car payment next month- you’re not really paying attention to what having the trains run on time might mean." - Barry Lopez, in an interview with Christian Martin, Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2005
"They came for the communists, and I did not speak up because I wasn't a communist.  They came for the socialists, and I did not speak up because I was not a socialist.  They came for the union leaders, and I did not speak up because I wasn't a union leader.  They came for the Jews, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a Jew.  Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak up for me." - Martin Niemoller
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way." - Viktor Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
"After the war we reassured ourselves that it would be enough to relate a single night in Treblinka, to tell of the cruelty, the senselessness of murder, and the outrage born of indifference: it would be enough to find the right word and the propitious moment to say it, to shake humanity out of its indifference and keep the torturer from torturing ever again. We thought it would be enough to read the world a poem written by a child in the Theresienstadt ghetto to ensure that no child anywhere would ever again have to endure hunger or fear. It would be enough to describe a death-camp 'Selection,' to prevent the human right to dignity from ever being violated again. We thought it would be enough to tell of the tidal wave of hatred which broke over the Jewish people for men everywhere to decide once and for all to put an end to hatred of anyone who is 'different' - whether black or white, Jew or Arab, Christian or Moslem - anyone whose orientation differs politically, philosophically, sexually. A naive undertaking? Of course...." - Elie Wiesel, speaking of his book Night in his 1986 Nobel address
"Honor never grows old, and honor rejoices the heart of age. It does so because honor is, finally, about defending those noble and worthy things that deserve defending, even if it comes at a high cost. In our time, that may mean social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or as always, even death itself. The question remains: What is worth defending? What is worth dying for? What is worth living for?" - William J. Bennett - in a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997
"We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm." - George Orwell

This scene takes place near the end of the movie. The Germans have surrendered. Schindler, who will now be seen as a war criminal by the occupying Soviet army, is taking his leave. It is a powerful expression of the deep affection that Schindler has for those he saved, and of theirs for him.

1 comment:

The Kid In The Front Row said...

That last scene always bothers me. Because it's so Spielbergian. It didn't really happen in real life.

As for why Schindler did what he did, who knows? Maybe it's enough just to be glad that he did.