Friday, October 15, 2010

Schindler's List

Thomas Keneally struggles throughout his book with one question: "How can a bad person do such a good thing?". To discover the answer, he acts as a private investigator, learning as much as he can about all of Oskar Schindler's actions and relationships. Not mincing words in any instance, Keneally repeatedly gives the reader accounts of Oskar's vices of women, alcohol, and excess. Were this story a play from Sophocles, we could see the makings of Schindler as a tragic hero who ultimately meets his demise. Maybe you can consider his emigration to Argentina and declaration of bankruptcy followed by divorce to be a sort of demise brought on by his "tragic flaw" of helping the Jews at great personal risk. But Keneally worries less about how Oskar fared after the war and much more about the complexities of his character and the motivations that led him to do the things he did.

By any interpretation of Judeo-Christian morality, Oskar Schindler was a bad man. Keneally puts it a little bit more delicately when he says Oskar "was not a virtuous young man in the customary sense." He had a wife on whom he cheated regularly with his mistress in Cracow, his secretary, and any woman who would have him for the night. He also was quite the drinker. Keneally at one point even refers to his "heroic liver" that allows him to withstand as much alcohol as he consumes. Additionally, Schindler's inflated pride led him to incredible displays of excess with his wealth and a misperception of his own intelligence. His associate Itzhak Stern notes multiple times that Oskar greatly enjoyed speaking at length on subject such as comparative religion, where he did not have much knowledge. Finally, Oskar had never shown any affinity toward Jews in his past that would indicate his desire to save them. Keneally laments on page thirty-three that there should be some story about Oskar saving a Jew from being bullied in his youth for the sake of the narrative. No such story exists. In 1939, Oskar Schindler was nothing more that a selfish, ambitious industrialist who nobody--probably including himself--would have expected to be viewed as "a minor god of deliverance" merely six years later.
Oskar Schindler
Despite all of his shortcomings as an individual, Schindler displayed some important qualities that enabled him to assume the leadership role that he did during the war. First and foremost among these traits is his ability to instill hope within those around him. Keneally gives us multiple accounts of Schindler interacting with Jews to calm their fears and lift their spirits. In the prologue, Schindler is visiting Amon Goeth in his villa and encounters his maid Helen Hirsch. She has accepted the grim fact that "one day he'll shoot me." Trying not to be trite, Schindler encourages her by explaining that she pleases Goeth. Keneally then mentions that Hirsch had heard a similar sentiment from Leo John, but it did not have the same effect as when Oskar said it.

This brings us to our second point about Schindler as a leader: he was able to maintain a demeanor that was accessible and genuine enough to prove to people that he cared about them. Although he used this ability sincerely to uplift the Jews, Oskar could feign his care for a person like Goeth. In the scene where Oskar and Amon are drinking together in Goeth's villa, Schindler attempts to influence his companion to show some mercy to the Jews by playing to Amon's vanity. Schindler's savvy ability to read people and figure out what they want masks his shallow scholarly mind about which Stern complains. This skill of personal connection--real or feigned--is almost essential for the leadership that Oskar demonstrates. It allows him to identify those around him and have them do what he desires.

Oskar Schindler managed to get past all of his moral shortcomings and be one of the most inspiring leaders during the Second World War. His extraordinary circumstances afforded him the opportunity to exhibit a kind of leadership that would not have been possible to demonstrate during a time of peace. We are left to wonder: without the Holocaust would Oskar Schindler have ever become the great man that he is now remembered to be? I honestly don't think so. He was thrust into a situation where he saw something going on around him that he thought to be terribly wrong. To his credit, he acted out to stop it.

Finally, I want to slightly adjust the question mentioned at the beginning by thinking about how we judge a bad man who does such a good thing. In some cases such as the preacher or the politician, such moral indecencies would surely outweigh the good done because a moral component is expected of those figures. Nothing was expected of Oskar. He could have gone on with his business, made a fortune, and not batted an eye at the plight of the Jews. However, simply because nobody expected a thing from him, Schindler was regarded as "a provider of outrageous salvation." Even though he almost stumbled into his position as a savior figure for the persecuted people, that should take nothing away from the great personal sacrifices that he undertook in order to ensure their safety. Oskar Schindler has fairly earned his place in history as a great Jewish leader.

1 comment:

  1. Jack: Really good point about the elements of tragic hero. The tragic flaw was indeed exposed only after the holocaust - the urgent disaster. During that disaster he seems to have suspended tragedy, which seems somewhat impossible but it happened. So "when bad people do really good things" is the topic and the dilemma. Appropriately this is your central point about leadership here. (In Too Big to Fail, do we have people like that? I think so.) Oskar's lack of real intelligence was a huge advantage in that topsy-turvy situation. When you get to leadership qualities, your first two are about empathy and compassion. He had those qualities, but I would say the first and foremost was his knack for applying his intuited and suddenly discovered ethical position in the most pragmatic way. He's the ultimate pragmatist in service of an ethical cause. I suppose both these kinds of leadership are fused together in what you call the "skill of personal connection." Connection = human empathy AND ALSO the ability for making contacts, connections--networking! Your last line is a metaphor ("Jewish leader") but I certainly get the point.--Al