In 1933, Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ (Nazi) Party assumed power in Germany and began plans for war. The party wanted to rid Germany, and eventually the world, of “impure” groups: Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and the handicapped, among others. Thus began a period of genocide.
In 1935, the German government passed the Nuremberg Laws, which defined individuals as Jews based not on their religious practices but on bloodlines. In other words, a person raised Christian who had at least three Jewish grandparents was considered Jewish and therefore impure. These laws also called for the separation of the “pure” Aryan race from the Jews. In 1938, in an event called Kristallnacht(Night of Broken Glass), the Nazis broke windows and tore apart Jewish businesses and synagogues, foreshadowing the eventual attempt at comprehensive destruction of the Jewish race.
When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the policies of racial hatred already in place in Germany were adopted in the new German-occupied territories. Jewish people could no longer own businesses in Poland and other German-occupied territories and eventually were forced to wear armbands or patches emblazoned with the Star of David so they could be easily identified as Jews. They were forced out of their homes in the city and countryside and into ghettos, concentrated and separated from rest of the population. The Kraków ghetto, featured in Schindler’s List, covered sixteen square blocks and was populated by approximately 20,000 Jews. In time, Jews were forced to work in labor camps, and some were murdered by mobile killing units.
Around 1941, the “Final Solution” was implemented in order to exterminate all the Jews, Gypsies, and other “impure” groups in Europe. Today, it stands as one of the darkest periods in human history. The Nazis evacuated Jews violently from the ghettos, sending them to Auschwitz, Treblinka, and other death camps to face the gas chambers. Bodies of the murdered were cremated in large ovens, often making the sky above the death camps and surrounding towns black with smoke, with human ashes raining down like snow.
During this bleak and terrifying period in Kraków, Oskar Schindler, a war profiteer and womanizer, saved the lives of about 1,100 Jews who worked for him. These people would come to call themselves Schindlerjuden(Schindler Jews). Given that the Nazis killed millions of people during the Holocaust, 1,100 might seem an insignificant number. However, this number represents 1,100 unique human lives, all of which would have ceased to exist if not for Schindler, and those 1,100 produced some six thousand descendants. Despite the overwhelming scale of the Holocaust as a whole, the powerful story of the Schindlerjudenand the man who risked his life and wealth to save their lives has endured.
In 1983, Australian author Thomas Keneally published his fact-based novel Schindler’s Ark, which chronicled, through first-person accounts, the amazing story of the Schindlerjuden.American film director Steven Spielberg read the book about the same time he was filming his movie E.T. He was struck by the story, particularly by the book’s powerful rendering of the Holocaust through individual accounts. Spielberg was driven to adapt the book into a film, but it was ten years before he was emotionally ready to embark on the project.
Spielberg, born on December 18, 1947, in Cincinnati, Ohio, was raised by Jewish parents in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. There, he was dismayed to find he was the only Jew most of his classmates had ever met. He went on to study English at California State University, Long Beach, when his grades were not good enough to get him into film school. Nonetheless, he managed to land a job on the Universal Studios lot and, after starting out directing television shows, eventually moved to films. By the age of thirty, he had directed two of the highest-grossing films of all time: Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg went on to become one of the most popular, prolific directors in history, with blockbuster films such as Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. (1982), Jurassic Park (1993),and Saving Private Ryan (1998).
The story of the Schindlerjudengreatly affected Spielberg. He has said that he had fallen out of touch with his Jewish identity as an adult but that he learned a great deal about his own heritage while researching Schindler’s List. After visiting Auschwitz, the enormous responsibility of his project became clear. Spielberg understood that in order to help people digest and understand an event as huge and incomprehensible as the Holocaust, he had to make the stories personal.
The director’s intentions for the film were to educate people about the Holocaust, to silence those who deny that the Holocaust ever happened, and to make sure people never forget so that history does not repeat itself. Moreover, he filmed the movie in the early 1990s when genocide against Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and ethnic Albanians was taking place in Yugoslavia. The fact that another genocide could happen in the present day strengthened Spielberg’s desire to educate.
When Schindler’s List opened in 1993, it received widespread critical acclaim. Spielberg expected a decent number of people to see the movie in theaters but primarily hoped the film would be adopted by schools in order to educate students about the Holocaust. To his surprise, more than fifty million people saw the film in theaters, and more than sixty-five million people watched it during a special airing on national television.
Schindler’s List transformed Spielberg from the king of high-budget action-adventure movies into a director capable of creating moving human drama. The film finally earned him the Academy Award for Best Director—a prize that had eluded him in the past. In addition to Best Director, Schindler’s List won six more Academy Awards: Best Art Direction (Set Design), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Music (Original Score), Best Picture, and Best Writing (Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published). The film also won three Golden Globe awards, for Best Director, Best Motion Picture (Drama), and Best Screenplay (Motion Picture).