After years of ill health and a string of failed business ventures, Schindler died a bitter man aged 66 in 1974, two decades before Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List” made him famous worldwide.
“He was an unusual man for an unusual time. But (the war) was the high point of his life and afterwards things went downhill,” said Ursula Trautwein, a friend of Schindler in Frankfurt, where he lived from 1957 until his death.
An exhibition at the Judengasse Museum in Frankfurt, which marks the 100th anniversary of Schindler’s birth, tells the little-known story of Schindler’s life away from the glare of Hollywood and world attention.
His beginnings and early life were hardly auspicious, and Schindler remained something of an enigma to the end. Born in 1908 into a middle class family in a German-speaking area of Austria-Hungary, which after 1918 became part of Czechoslovakia, he left school at 16.
His marriage, in 1928, to Emilie was childless and not a happy one. He was fond of drink, was a notorious womaniser and fathered two illegitimate children. He was also no angel in other ways either and his activities before the war suggested neither business acumen nor any readiness to let his conscience get in the way of looking out for his own interests.
After several years that included various jobs and periods of unemployment, which did nothing to temper his penchant for fast cars and high life, he was arrested in 1938 by Czechoslovakian secret police for spying.
Ironically, the rise of Hitler and his annexation of the Sudetenland – the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia – saved Schindler’s neck at this point.
He was released from prison and in September 1939 became a card-carrying member of Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists and moved to Poland where he acquired a formerly Jewish owned factory in Krakow at a knock-down price.
Most of the employees were Jewish, at first simply because they were cheaper. But Schindler’s horror at the increasing brutality of the Nazis changed his outlook and he began protecting them. Schindler managed to convince the authorities, including concentration camp commander Amon Goeth, that his factory was vital to the Nazis and that even children and old men had skills vital to the war effort.
The Gestapo arrested him three times but Schindler always got out, and as the Red Army approached in 1945, he even managed to transfer his Jewish workers to a new factory in the Sudetenland. He and his workers survived the war but the charm, people skills and luck needed to pull all this off seemed to desert him after 1945.
Schindler was lucky to escape with his life and fled Eastern Europe, heading first with Emilie to Regensburg in Bavaria, where things did not work out. Four years later the couple emigrated to Argentina. There Schindler began a chicken farm and bred nutrias – beaver-like South American creatures also known as coypus – for their fur but the venture was a disaster and in 1957 he returned, bankrupt, to then West Germany.
He left not only debts in Argentina but also Emilie, whom he never saw again, and settled in Frankfurt, Germany’s drab banking capital, where he was to remain until his death. Perhaps he only knew how to run a loss-making factory making things no one needed, because when it came to running a profitable business Schindler struggled.
He tried various ventures, helped by friends in Israel. In 1962 he bought a concrete factory which went bankrupt in less than 12 months. When he tried to get it going again, he suffered a heart attack that nearly killed him.
While his war heroics had won him recognition in Israel – he planted a tree at the Yad Vashem memorial – back in West Germany he was largely unknown despite receiving a medal in 1956, something which left him “bitter,” Trautwein told AFP.
It was her late husband Dieter Trautwein, a provost, who tracked Schindler down after learning of his story – in Israel – and found him in 1966 living in a small apartment just across from Frankfurt train station.
“My husband rang the bell … and said ‘I have a report here about one Oskar Schindler who rescued Jews’, and the man said ‘Yes, that is me,'” recounts Ursula Trautwein.
A friendship began, along with efforts to secure recognition in Germany. In 1966 he was awarded the “Bundesverdienstkreuz” (the order of merit) and two years later was honoured by the Roman Catholic Church.
But it was all too little, too late. Oskar Schindler died in 1974 in Hildesheim, where his partner at the time lived. A large memorial service was held in Frankfurt – when people discovered for the first time the existence of his two children – and he was buried in Israel.
According to Ursula Trautwein, both Thomas Keneally’s 1982 book “Schindler’s Ark” – which Leopold Page, a Jew saved by Schindler, persuaded him to write – and Spielberg’s film give an accurate picture of Schindler the man.
“Keneally had such intuition. When I read his book I could even hear Oskar Schindler laughing and talking, and he didn’t even know him,” Trautwein said. “The film brought it all together very well.”
“His wife (who died in 2001) received every honour going – she was given an audience with the pope, by the US president … I wish Schindler could have had just a small piece of that,” she said.
The exhibition at the Judengasse Museum in Frankfurt runs through August 31.