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Helpful Background

Additional Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)

Additional Assignments

Other Sections:
      Bridges To Reading
      Links to the Internet
      Selected Awards & Cast

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Helpful Background:

Oskar Schindler (1908 — 1974) was an ethnic German born in the village of Zwittau in Sudetenland, a portion of Czechoslovakia with many German inhabitants. He was known in the village by the name "Gauner," which meant swindler or sharper. A Jewish woman who lived in the town and whose life Schindler later saved, said, "As a Zwittau citizen I never would have considered him capable of all these wonderful deeds."

Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party. He arrived in Cracow, Poland, just after the collapse of the Polish Army and at the beginning of the German occupation. His first effort, as shown in the film, was to capitalize on the misfortune of the Jews who had recently been forbidden to engage in business. As an added inducement for them to "invest" in his new business, Schindler offered to employ the investors or their relatives in his factory. For years, relations between Schindler and his Jewish workers were circumspect. But as the lot of the Jews in Poland worsened, the workers at Schindler's factory noticed that they were somehow protected. Word of this spread through the Jewish community.

Schindler spent his evenings entertaining the SS and German Army officers. His apparent political reliability and his engaging personality made him popular among the Nazi elite. During the day, Schindler would entertain officials and visitors to the factory, pouring them drinks, telling them that he knew how to get work out of the Jews and that he wanted more brought into his factory. In this way, he managed to bring into the plant and save from the gas chamber intellectuals, artists, and the families and relatives of his workers.

Schindler's acts of kindness and bravado saved lives on a daily basis. It was very dangerous to intercede for Jews in Nazi Germany, but Schindler did so repeatedly. Often he would say "Stop killing my good workers. We've got a war to win." One woman, Rena Finder, who was forced into slave labor at the age of ten, recalled that she was about to be shot by an SS guard for breaking a machine used to make bullet casings. Schindler saved her life, telling the guard: "You idiot, this little girl could not break that machine."

In 1943 the Cracow ghetto was ordered closed and many of the Jews were sent to the death camps. Those people able to work were moved to the forced labor camp at Plaszow, just outside the city. The conditions in Plaszow were terrible. Many workers died and there were frequent transfers to nearby Auschwitz, a death camp. In the Spring of 1943, Schindler moved into an active phase of his anti-fascist efforts, conspiring directly with his accountant/manager Itzhak Stern and other employees to save Jews from extermination and to outwit Nazi officials. He bribed Amon Goeth, the commander of Plaszow, to allow him to set up a sub-camp for his workers at the factory, "to save time getting to the job." It was then easier to smuggle food and medicine into the factory. When Plaszow was slated to be shut down and its prisoners transferred to the death camps, Schindler took the chief of the war equipment command for all of Poland out drinking and convinced him that Plaszow's workshops were well suited for serious war production. This idea survived the General's hangover. Plaszow was converted to a war-essential concentration camp and the inmates were no longer slated to be transferred to Auschwitz for extermination.

But still, Stern had doubts about Schindler. These ended in late 1943. In August, Schindler hosted visitors sent to him by the underground organization that the Joint Distribution Committee (an American Jewish welfare organization) operated in occupied Europe. Schindler told Stern to speak frankly and the men asked for a full report on anti-Semitic persecutions in Plaszow. Stern thought this was a foolish risk and resisted, but finally Schindler ordered him to write the report. Stern wrote everything he could remember, mentioning the names of the living and the dead. When the underground brought him answering letters from America and Palestine, any doubts that Stern had about the integrity and judgment of Schindler were answered.

Schindler, aided by his wife, Emilie, provided extra food and brought in medicine, all purchased on the black market. They allowed religious celebrations in the factory. The SS guards were given regular bribes to keep them from reporting what was happening.

When the tide turned on the Eastern Front and the German forces were in full retreat, Schindler convinced the authorities to permit him to move the factory and the camp to his home area of Sudetenland.

After the war, Schindler's talents of bonhomie and lobbying government officials were not as helpful in business as they had been during the war. His business ventures were not successful. The Schindlerjuden gave him money to buy a farm in Argentina but it failed in 1957. Schindler and his wife then separated and he returned to Europe, living part of the year in Germany and part of the year in Israel. The Schindlerjuden and the State of Israel then supported Schindler. In the later years of his life, Schindler was honored as a "Righteous Gentile" by the Israelis and was the subject of veneration in that country.

Schindler had married his wife, Emilie in 1928. He was tall, handsome and had an eye for women. He was not faithful in his marriage. The film omits the role that Emilie Schindler played in Schindler's conversion to anti-fascism and in helping to care for the Schindlerjuden. Emilie fully supported what her husband did for his workers. She cooked and cared for the sick. She earned praise and a reputation of her own. She has written a book about her life with Schindler, entitled, Where Light and Shadow Meet.

Itzhak Stern was the head accountant for a large Jewish owned export-import firm located in Cracow, a large Polish city near the Czech border. After the occupation of Poland, the Germans "Aryanized" businesses by seizing ownership, installing a German Trustee, making the former owner into an employee hired to manage the business, and replacing many Jewish workers with "Aryan" workers. The German Trustee of the business in which Stern worked, however, acted strangely. He left the discharged workers on the social insurance registry which enabled them to maintain their workers' identity cards. This protected them, for a while, from deportation. He also secretly gave the former workers money to buy food. After the end of the war, Stern learned that the "German" Trustee was actually a Jew who was masquerading as an "Aryan." It was this man who first introduced Stern to Schindler saying "You know, Stern, you can have confidence in my friend Schindler." However, it took years for Stern to fully trust Schindler. It was difficult to sort through Schindler's greed, high living, close association with Nazi officials, and membership in the Nazi party, to see the real man. These were the very traits that permitted Schindler to survive detection by the Nazis.


Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide...

5.  At the beginning of the war Schindler was a greedy high living war profiteer anxious to make money from the misfortune of the Jews. By the end of the war, what was his attitude toward money? What made him change? Suggested Response: At the end of the war money meant nothing to Schindler if it could save the life of another person. What made him change is the mystery of Oskar Schindler. Everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses. A person who cheats in business or despoils the environment to make money will turn around and make large donations to a charity. A person who is protective of the environment may be a tyrant in his personal relations. Mass killings were beyond Oskar Schindler's limit and he had the courage and the love of cheating the system that brought out the hero in him.

6.  There have been many atrocities committed throughout history. The Holocaust was not the first nor the last. Why is the Holocaust recalled with such horror? Suggested Response: There are several reasons: (1) The Holocaust was perpetrated by a technologically advanced country. Its achievements science, art, literature, music, poetry and medicine were renowned throughout the world. (2) The Holocaust was mechanized and rationalized, using all of the latest technologies. (3) The Holocaust was one of the largest, if not the largest, atrocities in history, causing the death not only of six million Jews, but five or six million other people including: Gypsies, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political opponents of the Nazi regime. (4) Children constituted probably 1/4 of the number of Jews killed.

7.  Has the Holocaust changed the actions of political leaders in the time since it occurred? Suggested Response: The Holocaust has helped world leaders understand that they cannot sit idly by and allow genocide to occur. However, it has not been enough to make them act to prevent all further genocides. There have been mass killings on several occasions since 1945, for example in Cambodia (1971-1975, see the movie The Killing Fields) and in Rwanda (1994, see Learning Guide to Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April). One of the occasions in which countries of the world have banded together to stop a genocide was in Kosovo (1998-1999). At that time the failure of the international community to stop the genocide in Rwanda was fresh in the minds of world leaders and, at least, President Clinton of the United States had vowed to learn from experience and moved to intervene.

8.  Why didn't the Allied Powers, who knew that mass killings were taking place, focus their firepower on the ovens and the killing operations? Suggested Response: No one knows the answer to this. It is one of the few black marks on the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt and the Allies during WWII.

9.  Schindler was a gambler and an opportunist who liked living on the edge and outsmarting the SS. Does the fact that he may have had an emotional predilection for connivance and for cheating the authorities take away any of the glory of his accomplishments? Suggested Response: Answers will vary depending upon individual values. All answers should be argued carefully.

10.  In this film, almost none of the Jewish characters that audience gets to know well are killed. Suggested Response: Given the strong identification of the audience with the characters in the film, it would have been devastating had any of them been killed.

11.  Why is this film shot mostly in black and white? Color is used four times in the film. Why are certain scenes shot in color? Suggested Response: Color film for the more horrific events would have been too traumatic for the audience. Black and white gives the audience a sense that the Holocaust was something that had happened in the past and gave the audience a sense of distance from the horrors being shown. The few scenes shot in color served to personalize them.

Additional Assignments

Continued from the Learning Guide...

5.  Pick three major religions and discover how the existence of events such as the Holocaust are explained in their theology. This can be done through reading and research or through interviews with religious leaders.

See additional Assignments for use with any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


[Questions 1 — 9 of the Discussion Questions section relate to Human Rights.]

1.  Can you describe the personal relationship that developed between Itzhak Stern and Schindler? Suggested Response: From the film it appeared to be one of partnership in their enterprise of protecting the workers in Schindler's factories.

2.  How does the idea that the victim is somehow regarded as "evil" affect all atrocities and mass killings? Suggested Response: This is another part of the concept of alien. People who are evil are outside the scope of consideration. There are very few, if any, people who are actually evil. There are people who do evil things, but almost everyone can be redeemed in one way or another and certainly entire classes or groups of people are not evil.


3.  Schindler's wife, Emilie, who was very much his partner in his heroic efforts, said, "We only did what we had to do." How do you reconcile this statement with the actions of most of the German people who lived during the Second World War and who permitted the Holocaust to occur without protest. Suggested Response: There is no way to reconcile them. The Schindler's acted nobly and those Germans who just went along or turned a blind eye acted immorally. Teachers and parents note that there is a more detailed discussion of this in the Learning Guide to Judgment at Nuremberg.

4.  Schindler was a gambler and an opportunist who liked living on the edge and outsmarting the SS. Does the fact that he may have had an emotional predilection for connivance and for cheating the authorities take away any of the glory of his accomplishments? Suggested Response: No. He knowingly risked his life to save the lives of others.

5.  Is there a mystery to profound human goodness or to abject evil, or can everything be explained by human psychology? Suggested Response: There is no one right answer to this question. It is excellent for debate and discussion.

6.  There was a theme that ran through most of Schindler's actions: his delight in women; his interest in good times and high living; his friendliness with everyone (including the Nazis); and his protection of the Jews who came to work in his factory? Can you describe what this was? Suggested Response: Schindler cared for people. Sometimes his caring was too much, as when he hurt his wife by having affairs with other women. Sometimes it allowed him to appreciate the company and become friends with people that he later realized were war criminals. And finally it drove him to heroism, as told in this story.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
(TeachWithMovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

1.  Elie Wiesel, a student of the Holocaust, has said that "indifference" is the greatest sin and punishment of the Holocaust. Can you explain what he meant by this? How does this concept relate to the scene in which Schindler arranges to have the condemned Jews in the overheated box cars hosed down with water? Why does this act amuse the Commandant and other SS officials as they sit in the shade and sip their iced drinks? Suggested Response: There is no one correct answer to this question and reasonable minds can differ. Indifference is a great sin because it allows evil to triumph but the indifferent person does not realize he is perpetrating evil and therefore has no motivation to change his attitude. In the scene with the people in the box cars, Schindler was not indifferent to the plight of the people in the box cars but the German officers were.

Bridges to Reading:

Books recommended for readers ten years and older include: Raoul Wallenberg: The Man Who Stopped Death by Sharon Linnea, Jewish Publications Society, 1993; Walls: Resisting the Third Reich: One Woman's Story, by Hiltgunt Zassenhaus and Katherine Paterson, Beacon, 1993 (this book is about the experience of Ms. Zassenhaus, a translator for Scandinavian political prisoners, who smuggled food and medicine to them and later won a Nobel Peace Prize). Books recommended for older children include: Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed by Philip P. Hallie, HarperTorch Books, 1985 (this book is the story of Andre Trocme, a Huguenot minister and the Village of Le Chambon; Trocme and his parishioners saved thousands of Jewish lives during WWII, turning Le Chambon into a massive refugee hiding camp and way station to safety in Switzerland ); Return to Auschwitz by Kitty Hart, Athenium, 1982 (tells of the experience of a young woman and her mother who survived Auschwitz); Childhood by Jonah Oberski (tells of the experiences of a young child in Bergen-Belson), Gizelle, Save the Children by Gizelle Hirsch; and Women at War by Kevin Sim, (consisting of stories of five women who defied the Nazis and lived).

Links to the Internet:

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:  1993 Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score; 1993 British Academy Awards: Best Film, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Supporting Actor (Fiennes) Best Adapted Screenplay; 1994 Golden Globe Awards: Best Film-Drama, Best Director (Spielberg), Best Screenplay; 1993 Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards: Best Film, Best Cinematography; 1993 National Board of Review Awards: Best Film; 1993 New York Film Critics Awards: Best Film, Best Supporting Actor (Fiennes) Best Cinematography; 1993 Writers Guild of America: Best Adapted Screenplay; 1993 Academy Award Nominations: Best Actor (Neeson), Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Sound, Best Supporting Actor (Fiennes); 1994 Golden Globe Award (Nominations): Best Actor-Drama (Neeson), Best Supporting Actor (Fiennes), Best Original Score; 1994 MTV Awards: Best Film, Breakthrough Performance (Fiennes). This film is ranked #9 on the American Film Institute's List of the 100 Greatest American Movies of All Time (2006). This film is listed in the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress as a "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" film.

Featured Actors:  Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley, Ralph Fiennes, Embeth Davidtz, Caroline Goodail, Jonathan Sagalle, Mark Ivanir.

Director:  Steven Spielberg.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:
  • "The Real Oskar Schindler" by Herbert Steinhouse, published in Saturday Night, April 1994;
  • Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally;
  • "To A Nazi With Love": Schindler's List Debuts in Boston Spilling Holocaust Survivors' Memories", Bob Hohler and Brian McGrory, Boston Globe, Dec. 16, 1993.

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