Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Triumph of the Human Spirit
In the face of overwhelming evil, the Jews in Schindler’s List exhibit an unbroken spirit and will to survive. Mrs. Nussbaum, trying to make the best of the situation just like all the other Jews forced into the ghetto, tells her husband their ghetto apartment could be worse. Schindler’s factory workers believe they may be safe in his factory and continue to hope for survival. The event that perhaps best illustrates this triumph of spirit is the wedding in the Plaszów labor camp. Even though the Jews in Plaszów live in constant fear of death, including random shootings from a hilltop villa by camp overseer Amon Goeth, two people manage to fall in love. With possibly no future to look forward to, they marry in the hope that they will survive. A woman in the barracks apologizes to God for performing the ceremony when she is not a rabbi, but explains that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that the union of the couple is ultimately what counts. The groom crushes a light bulb—an improvised substitution for the traditional wineglass—with his foot at the conclusion of the ceremony. Not only does the couple wed, but they stay true to Jewish traditions, which symbolizes hope for the survival of the Jewish race.
The Difference One Individual Can Make
The more than six thousand descendants of the Schindlerjuden might never have been born had one man not chosen to take a stand against evil. The Third Reich sanctioned and encouraged violence against the Jews and sought the ultimate destruction of the Jewish race, and millions of citizens of the Third Reich either stood idly by or actively supported this persecution. In Schindler’s List, as the Jews in Kraków are forced into the ghetto, a little girl on the street cries out, “Good-bye, Jews,” over and over again. She represents the open hostility often shown the Jews by their countrymen. After all, the little girl did not contain this hatred naturally—she learned it. Through her, Spielberg sends the message that the evil of the “final solution” infected entire communities. Although some people tried to help their Jewish friends and neighbors, far more refused to help, fearing reprisal, and some even turned on their Jewish neighbors. Any one of these people could have made a difference in the lives of Jews, but almost none did. Oskar Schindler risked his life and stood alone against the overwhelming evil of the Nazi Party. The powerful idea that one man can save the life of another underlies the entire film.
The Dangerous Ease of Denial
The Jews in Schindler’s List, even as they are forced into the ghetto and later into the labor camp, suffer from a denial of their true situation. This denial afflicted many European Jews who fell victim to the Holocaust. They leave their homes in the countryside and move to Kraków and later to the ghetto because the Nazis force them to. Once in the ghetto, however, they believe the bad times will pass. Their denial of their situation continues in the labor camp, even as killing surrounds them. A prime example of denial occurs in the scene when Mila Pfefferberg tells the other women in her barracks about the rumors she heard of the death camps like Auschwitz. She tells the women how Jews are being gassed to death en masse, their remains cremated. The women respond with an almost angry dismissal, saying something like that surely could not happen. However, the actors manage to convey the fact that deep down, the women suspect the truth. They have suffered enough horror already to know mass extermination is possible.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
Lists dominate the lives of the Kraków Jews in Schindler’s List. Early in the film, close-ups of name upon name being typed into the list of Jews registering in Kraków demonstrate the vast number of Jews forced into the city. But this first list only scratches the surface of danger and destruction. The lists become increasingly ominous during sorting exercises to determine who is fit to work or who is “essential” and who is not. Those deemed “unessential” are placed on the list to be evacuated to extermination camps. Stern’s name appears on a list sending him to Auschwitz. When Schindler saves him, an SS officer mentions that it doesn’t matter which Jew gets on the train, and that keeping track of names just means more paperwork. This disregard for names and particularity symbolizes the extent to which the Nazis dehumanized Jews. Schindler’s list is one that saves lives. The Nazis’ lists represent evil and death, but Schindler’s list represents pure good and life. In an ironic twist, the final list in the film is a list that Schindler’s workers give to him—a list of their signatures vouching for Schindler as a good man, to help him if Allied soldiers catch him. The saved in turn become saviors.
Trains were an integral logistical component of the Holocaust. Jews were loaded into actual cattle cars of freight trains, which carried them to death camps. In Schindler’s List, the first Jews arrive in Kraków by train and register as Jews on the platform. When Stern is rescued from a crowded train bound for Auschwitz, thousands of other Jews are visible on the train, packed into the cars like sardines. In one scene, Schindler implores Goeth to spray water into the cars on a hot day to help the dehydrated Jews inside. Goeth tells him that to do so would give false hope—a clear implication that the trains deliver Jews to their deaths. When the Schindlerjuden are transported to Schindler’s new factory in Czechoslovakia, the men travel in one train, the women in another. In this case, the trains signify hope and life, since they are taking their occupants to a safe haven. But the women’s train becomes a death train when it is diverted to Auschwitz, where Schindler’s intervention saves the women from extermination. The women board a train to safety, but as they depart, more trains arrive at the camp. The cycle of death seems never-ending.
Death and fear of death govern the lives of the Jews in Schindler’s List. Images of death pervade the film, usually in the form of executions, as people are shot in the head, often indiscriminately. This method of execution is used again and again. The one-armed man who thanks Schindler for employing him and making him “essential” is shot in the head by an SS officer as he shovels snow the next day. Blood flows from his head, staining the surrounding snow. In a later scene, Goeth orders the execution of a Jewish woman engineer who tells Goeth of a fatal construction error. Her blood, too, pours from her head and darkens the snow around her. The blood pouring from the victims’ heads is both literally and metaphorically the lifeblood being bled out of the Jewish race. In yet another scene, Goeth attempts to execute a rabbi working at the Plaszów labor camp. The rabbi stays kneeling as Goeth again and again attempts to shoot him in the head. But the gun jams, and the rabbi is spared, symbolizing the tenuous protection the Schindlerjuden had and the fine line between life and death.
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Girl in the Red Coat
The girl in the red coat is the most obvious symbol in Schindler’s List, simply because her coat is the only color object, other than the Shabbat candles, presented in the main body of the film. To Schindler, she represents the innocence of the Jews being slaughtered. He sees her from high atop a hill and is riveted by her, almost to the exclusion of the surrounding violence. The moment Schindler catches sight of her marks the moment when he is forced to confront the horror of Jewish life during the Holocaust and his own hand in that horror. The little girl also has a greater social significance. Her red coat suggests the “red flag” the Jews waved at the Allied powers during World War II as a cry for help. The little girl walks through the violence of the evacuation as if she can’t see it, ignoring the carnage around her. Her oblivion mirrors the inaction of the Allied powers in helping to save the Jews. Schindler later spots her in a pile of exhumed dead bodies, and her death symbolizes the death of innocence.
The Road Paved with Jewish Headstones
The road through the Plaszów labor camp, paved with headstones torn up from Jewish cemeteries, is a replica of the actual road that existed there. The road adds to the historical accuracy of the film but also symbolizes the destruction of the Jewish race. The removal of the headstones from the cemeteries represents the enormity of the Holocaust. Unsatisfied with simply wiping out existing Jews, Goeth, by planning the road, denies acknowledgement of many Jews’ final resting places. By removing the grave markers, Goeth in effect erases the existence of the dead. Moreover, Goeth forces the Jews in the camp to build the road, rubbing in their faces the fact that they, too, will soon be erased. The message is clear: the Nazis view the Jews as not worth even grave markers and want only to erase them from history.
Piles of Personal Items
In one of the most jarring scenes in the film, Jews are loaded onto cattle cars as a recorded voice tells them to leave their luggage on the platform, as it will follow on a separate train. The luggage, however, will not follow them. Instead, Nazis bring it to a back room, where they dump out and sort the contents. This room holds huge piles of personal belongings, including photographs, shoes, hairbrushes, and clothing, all separated for processing. At a table sits a group of Jewish jewelers, forced to sort and determine the value of the gold, silver, and jewels belonging to those on the train. These piles symbolize the millions of lives that were lost—not just the physical lives but the very essence of the victims, who are stripped of their identity. One thousand hairbrushes represent one thousand victims and one thousand lives.
Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!