STUDENT DISCUSSION QUESTIONS
Schindler's Listis at times a
historically complex movie. Experience indicates that students find the movie more
engaging and comprehensible in they understand the historical context of the film.
Students should understand and be able to use the
- Death Camp
- Germany (identify on map and describe role in war)
- Nuremberg Laws
- Poland (identify on map and describe role in war)
- World War II
Students should understand the key events leading to World
- Nazi Seizure of Power
- Invasion of Poland
- Beginning of World War II
- Death Camps Open
- End of War
- Understands the central events of the Holocaust
- Analyzes the moral and political significance of
- Recognizes the central role of prejudice in creating the
- Understands the significance of the Holocaust to their own
lives and the world today
- Understands key theories on the causes of
What is the central theme of Schindler's
List? This is a complex question with no "right" answer. The film will speak to
each student differently. But the search for the central theme will provide students with
a framework to gain useful insights and analytical skills.
The following questions can serve as a basis for student
discussion and additional projects. The questions are followed by an "analysis"
and a "follow-up" section that draws on the insights offered in previous
sections of the manual.
Part I is devoted to the central question:
WHY DID HE DO IT?
Schindler risked his life in order to save Jews. It was a
time when terror reigned. The Jews had been dehumanized in non-Jewish eyes by Nazi
propaganda and brutality. Tom Keneally, the author of the book Schindler's List, quotes
Schindler as having said that "A life is not worth a pack of cigarettes." Yet
Schindler risked his own life. Why?
ANALYSIS: Schindler was capable of empathy. His
accidental viewing of the Aktion in the Krakow ghetto had a profound impact upon him. The
ability to feel the pain of another is a critical ingredient to altruistic behavior.
Schindler was an adventurer. He enjoyed participating in
exciting activities, for example, his motor cycle riding in earlier years. It might be
argued that Schindler liked living on the edge. In this sense, rescue of Jews appealed to
him. He also appeared to be the type of person who liked to manipulate events, or feel
like he was manipulating events.
Schindler might have been influenced by "a parental
model of moral conduct." His mother, a devout woman, was apparently a beacon of moral
conduct. Itzhak Stern, the accountant, was also an important moral influence. To repeat,
when Stern died in 1969, Schindler wept at his grave.
It might be said (using Nechama Tec's point) that
Schindler lived on "the periphery" of the German community in Krakow. As a
Sudeten German, a German from Czechoslovakia, he was an "outsider" not as
heavily influenced by Nazi propaganda and not bound to typical ways. Thus, the argument
follows, Schindler could see things with a measure of independence. He was not compelled,
for psychological reasons, to conform to the existing behavior, that is, to the
dehumanization and extermination of the Jews.
However, many Sudeten Germans were ardent Nazis precisely
because they were not "pure" Germans. They felt a need to assert themselves in a
way that demonstrated that their loyalty to the Nazis should not be questioned.
1. WHY HE SAYS HE DID IT:
Twenty years after the war, Mosche Bejski, a
Schindlerjuden and later a Supreme Court justice in Israel, asked Schindler why he did it?
Schindler replied, "I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you
have to behave towards them like human beings."
The same question was asked by Poldek Pfefferberg, another
Schindlerjuden. Schindler answered, "There was no choice. If you saw a dog going to
be crushed under a car, wouldn't you help him?"
In a 1964 interview, standing in front of his dingy
Frankfurt apartment, Schindler said, "The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland
meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced
to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years
'41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like
pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Compare and contrast each of
these quotes. Which one do you think most accurately explains Schindler's reason for
assisting the Jews? How are the quotes different from one another? Similar?
2. THE EVOLUTION OF A RESCUER:
Schindler did not come to Krakow to save Jews. He came to
turn a profit, and Jews became a part of the bargain. It might be argued that his ideas
about rescue evolved. In the book, Keneally writes that Schindler made the first tentative
step towards assisting the Jews on December 3, 1939. He whispered unambiguous words into
Stern's ear: "Tomorrow, it's going to start. Jozefa and Izaaka Streets are going to
know all about it." He was referring to a SS Aktion which did indeed occur. It was a
small step in the direction of rescue, but it was a step in that direction nonetheless.
ANALYSIS: Ervin Staub, a Holocaust survivor from
Hungary and a scholar on altruistic behavior, has written, "Goodness, like evil,
often begins in small steps. Heroes evolve; they aren't born. Very often the recuers make
only a small commitment at the start, to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had
taken that step, they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps. What
starts as mere willingness becomes intense involvement."
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Does Staub's argument apply to
Schindler? When do you think Schindler make the decision to rescue the Jews? When does he
take the first step? The answer is, of course, we don't know. But if this question is
posed before the students see the movie, they can search for an answer while viewing it,
which will make the film an intellectual challenge.
3. SCHINDLER THE IMPULSIVE:
It is possible that Schindler was trapped by his own words
which, on occasion, slipped out with little forethought. In Keneally's book, Schindler is
quoted as saying to the first batch of Jewish workers who arrived at his factory,
"You'll be safe working here. If you work here then you'll live through the
war." The Jews did not believe he could possibly make good on that promise. Did he
ANALYSIS: Having spoken the words, Schindler might
have felt compelled to fulfill them. Later, during a more perilous hour, Schindler (in the
book) declared: "I'm going to get you all out." Stern asked, "All?"
"You anyhow," said Schindler.
4. SCHINDLER THE NARCISSIST:
Schindler, it might be argued, embarked upon Jewish rescue
because it gave him immense emotional and psychological satisfaction. He was a man with a
tremendous ego. To be depicted as "a savior," a man who had the power to deliver
life, this appealed to him in no small way. The psychoanalyst Anna Freud argued that no
individual does anything for altruistic reasons. Instead, a person acts in a selfless
manner for reasons of self-gratification.
Jonathan Dresner, one of the Schindlerjuden, has said that
Schindler "was an adventurer. He was like an actor who always wanted to be centre
stage. He got into a play, and he couldn't get out of it."
ANALYSIS: Luitgard Wundheiler, a psychotherapist,
has investigated Schindler's behavior during the Second World War. His theory is as
In Nazi-occupied Krakow, Schindler found himself in a
position to assist those who were in a precarious state: The Jews. They had been
dehumanized. They were on the verge of destruction. Any act of humanity (a job, a kind
word, a place to stay) was received with exaggerated but understandable appreciation.
"Vain and insecure," with little family life to speak of, Schindler was moved by
the attention a desperate people bestowed upon him.
Initially, Schindler was motivated by friendship to
individual Jews (specifically, it would seem, to Stern). But gradually the Nazi
industrialist won a reputation as a kind and compassionate man. He was "a
savior." His factory was "a haven." The Jews working in his factory became
"his Jews," the Schindlerjuden. Schindler began to glory in his reputation as a
kind and compassionate man. He liked the role he was playing. It made him feel good. It
filled a psychological vacuum in his life. This self-definition was a motivating factor.
Wundheiler argues that Schindler, "being defined by
others as a compassionate and caring man," began to see himself in the same light. As
a result, he acted in line with that idea, which in turn reinforced others' view of him as
a humanitarian, and it spiraled."
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: In your opinion, did Schindler
rescue the Jews to please others or did he rescue Jews out of a subconscious desire to
6. SCHINDLER AND SELF-INTEREST:
The issue of Schindler and self-interest is an important
one for students to consider. It demonstrates that a person can be a scoundrel yet can
still be capable of selfless acts. Emilie Schindler described her late husband as a
"saint of the devil."
Exploring Oskar Schindler's weaknesses does not detract
from his contribution; on the contrary, the more we learn about the human frailties of our
heroes, the more we can appreciate our own capacity for heroic behavior, despite our past
failings and personal imperfections. Depending on how they are portrayed, heroes can make
us feel either empowered or powerless. Romanticizing our heroes may help us feel good
about the human race in general, but it can also prevent us from recognizing the potential
for good in ourselves.
Keneally observed that Schindler and the sadist Amon Goeth
may have been two sides of the human personality: "The reflection can hardly be
avoided that Amon was Oskar's dark brother, was the berserk and fanatic executioner Oskar
might by some unhappy reversal of his appetite, have become."
ANALYSIS: It must be emphasized that Schindler came
to Krakow as a war-profiteer. At no point in his early life did Schindler demonstrate a
hint of the altruistic behavior for which he is now so widely acclaimed. He became
involved with the Jews when he realized that it made economic sense to employ them in his
factory (formerly a Jewish factory). His early efforts helping the Jews, it might be
argued, were efforts that he made to assure the continuation of his profits. In June 1942,
he rescued Jews from a transport on its way to a death camp. In the film, he asks Stern,
"Where would I be?" if the train had departed? Stern, of course, might have
asked the same question about himself and the other Jews.
Schindler's motives for dueling with the SS over the fate
of the Schindlerjuden could be interpreted as an attempt to prevent the SS from treading
on the good life he was leading.
"Quite skilled," Schindler tells an SS officer
(in the film), referring to a Schindlerjuden who had only one arm and who does not appear
to be "an essential worker."
This was a Jewish worker whose value Schindler himself had
doubted. Schindler was not interested in the one armed machinist as a human being, but as
a worker. Stern arranged for the machinist to thank Schindler personally for allowing him
to work at the factory. Schindler is livid. "Don't do that to me again," he
tells Stern. But when this one armed machinist is murdered by the SS, Schindler is
furious. To repeat, he says, "Quite skilled." One armed or not, the machinist
was Schindler's machinist.
Stanislaw Dobrowolski, a Polish Righteous Gentile who was
the director of Zegota's operations in Nazi-occupied Krakow, dismissed Schindler's
altruistic motives altogether. In the book Righteous Among Nations, Dobrowolski referred
to the Germans who could be used, in one way or another, to assist the Jews:
Either camp guards who could be bribed, or frightened
profiteers and industrialists who had for long years employed for a token fee the slave
labor supplied by the camp commandant and, toward the end of the war, when at last they
took alarm, let themselves be terrorized to the point of acting as intermediaries in
smuggling whole cart-loads of bread and clogs, purchased by the Council for Aid to Jews
(Zegota). One of these benefactors out of fear was the German Schindler, owner of Deutsche
Emailwerke, who employed hundreds of Jewish slaves. After the evacuation of the camp to
Brunnlitz (in Czechoslovakia), we managed through such Schindlers to send whole goods
wagons of aid in the wake of the unfortunate Plaszow inmates.
In an interview, Dobrowolski said that many German
industrialists moved their Jewish workers from Poland to the Reich in the final months of
If self-interest was indeed Schindler's early motive for
helping the Jews, at some later point he crossed the line and began assisting the
Jews---not with himself in mind, but with the Jews in mind. Twenty years after the war,
Schindler said, "I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have
to behave towards them like human beings." The causes for this transition are one of
the central themes to be explored.
ANALYSIS:Contrasting the historical Schindler to
the romanticized persona in the film provides lessons on the way film is limited in
accurately portraying some aspects of history.
While film can convey the horror of the Holocaust more
vividly than text, it is difficult for cinema to accurately portray the profound flaws in
a heroic character.
Part II includes five questions:
1. WHAT WAS THE ROLE OF ITZHAK STERN?
What examples are there in the film of Itzhak Stern (Ben
Kingsley) nudging Schindler in the direction of rescue?
ANALYSIS: It was Stern who first quoted the
Talmudic verse to Schindler: "He who saves one life, it is as if he has saved the
entire world." Schindler replied, "Of course, of course."
The role of Itzhak Stern is crucial. Stern, an accountant,
informs Schindler that German industrialists must pay less for Jewish slave labor than for
Polish labor. In this way, Stern first opens the door for the possibility of Jewish rescue
at Schindler's factory. It is into Stern's ear that Schindler whispers a hint of the
forthcoming SS Aktion in the Jewish quarter (December 1939): "Tomorrow, it's going to
start. Jozefa and Izaaka Streets are going to know all about it!"
In the film, Schindler sits down with Stern and proposes a
toast to the factory's success. With the Nazi destruction of Jews taking place outside of
Schindler's factory and throughout Poland, Stern is not interested in a toast.
"Pretend for Christ's sake," Schindler pleads. "I'm trying to thank you,
and acknowledge I couldn't have done it without you." Stern replies, "You're
welcome." But he does not lift his glass.
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: How does this exchange
influence Schindler? How does Stern, overall, influence Schindler?
ANALYSIS: Schindler is thinking about his
successes, but Stern, subtly and in a dignified way, reminds him that the world in which
Schindler lives and thrives is not Stern's world. In contrast, Stern's world is being
destroyed by the same men--the SS and the Gestapo--with whom Schindler usually raises his
"I know what you're doing," Schindler says in
the film on another occasion, referring to Stern's maneuverings to bring more endangered
Jews to the "haven" of Schindler's factory.
It is as if Schindler is backed into the role of being a
rescuer, almost against his will. These scenes provide an opportunity to discuss the ways
in which humans respond to moral expectations of those around them. In this sense,
morality is a social product. A society's values are sustained by mutual expectations. If
we expect people to act decently, they will discover the decency in themselves.
In a 1973 documentary for West German television, Emilie
Schindler said that Schindler had done nothing astounding before the war and had been
unexceptional since. He was fortunate to have in that "short fierce era met people
who summoned forth his deeper talents."
The relationship between Schindler and Stern is
instructive. It demonstrates not only the power of moral expectations, but also the
influence of role-models. Schindler came to Krakow with little regard, it appeared, for
human suffering. He met Stern, who was intelligent, dignified, and worthy of respect.
Schindler developed a strong relationship with the elder Stern that continued after the
war. The relationship has been described as one of "a father and son." When
Stern died in 1969, Schindler attended the funeral and wept uncontrollably at the grave.
2. WHAT IS THE IMPORTANCE OF LANGUAGE?
In the film, the Nazi commandant Goeth describes Jewish
people as "vermin" and as "rats." In this depiction of the Jews, Goeth
is following the tenets of Nazi propaganda which were ceaselessly pounded into the minds
of people in Nazi Germany and in the occupied territories. Why did the Nazis depict the
Jews as "vermin" and as "rats?" What purpose did it serve them?
ANALYSIS: Reducing the Jews to these despicable
images, the Nazis sought to dehumanize (or demonize) the Jewish people, to push them
beyond the boundaries of human and moral obligation, to reduce them to the
"other." The Nazis believed this was the necessary first step in the process of
first isolating the Jews and then exterminating them.
One word can confer dignity; one word can take it away.
The process of dehumanization begins with the selective use of language. In many
countries, including Poland, the very word "Jew" was a pejorative, a slur which
conjured up the negative associations attached to Jews: dirty, shrewd, dishonest and
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Ask your students about the use
of language in their own community. What are the words that describe different ethnic
groups? What can be the consequences of this selective use of language?
ANALYSIS: A group tends to reach a conclusion about
another group based upon the example of a relatively few members of that group.
Frequently, the "lowest common denominator" of a group, which is often visible,
serves to reflect the group as a whole. The individual is disparaged in favor of the
generality. How does language make it easier for generalizations to take root?
3. WHY DID THE JEWS NOT RESIST?
Although Schindler's List does not directly address this
issue, the question is an important one. Many people assume that the Jews went to their
death "like sheep to the slaughter." In fact, the Jews resisted in many ways. As
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has said, "The question is not why all the Jews did
not fight, but how so many of them did. Tormented, beaten, starved, where did they find
the strength, spiritual and physical, to resist?"
ANALYSIS: There were revolts in three major death
camps: Sobibor, Treblinka, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the major ghettoes, a Jewish
Fighting Organization (known as ZOB) was established and staged insurrections, most
notably in Warsaw in April, 1943. In Krakow, the seat of the Nazi government in Poland,
Jewish resistance fighters killed lone German soldiers on the street, staged acts of
sabotage on rail lines, and, in December 1942, blew up several cafes frequented by SS and
There were many other forms of resistance. When the Nazis
"liquidated" the ghettoes, Jews hid behind false walls and in bunkers. Jewish
doctors refused to part with their patients and perished with them. When the Polish Jews
realized that "resettlement" meant death, countless numbers jumped from the
trains and fled. Hundreds of Jews from urban settings lived in the unfamiliar terrain of
the forests where they fought in partisan groups against both the Germans and the local
Some acts of resistance were symbolic efforts to maintain
human dignity. In the ghettoes, the mere act of prayer was a violation of the Nazi law.
When the Nazis forbade the Jews from wearing beards and earlocks, the traditional Jews in
the Krakow ghetto pretended to have toothaches, and they wrapped their head with a scarves
so only their eyes and noses were visible. In this instance, tradition proved stronger
than German threats.
There were many conditions that made physical resistance
difficult. The Jews had no weapons. A damaged pistol was hard to come by. Bullets were a
rarity. The Polish underground, the Home Army or "AK," had few weapons which
they were not inclined to relinquish to Jews. Generally speaking, the Home Army did not
look favorably on the Jews. There were instances of "AK" groups murdering Jewish
partisans in the forests. In prewar Poland, anti-Semitism had been strong. The common
Polish assumption was that Jews were inherently cowardly and would not fight. In Krakow,
the Jews received some weapons and explosives from the Polish communist underground, the
In Poland, where the Jews from Eastern and Western Europe
were exterminated, the Nazis discouraged resistance through ruthless terror. In February
1941, two Krakow rabbis, Kornitzer and Rappaport, formally protested the expulsion of Jews
to the countryside. The two rabbis were sent to the Auschwitz death camp. This was the
fate of any Jew who questioned German orders.
The Jews were subjected to overcrowding, disease,
starvation, and humiliation, each of which served to strip the Jews of self-worth and to
break their will to resist.
The Jewish leadership (Judenrat) in many communities
counseled against resistance, hoping to avoid retaliation and decimation. The leadership
knew the Nazis would kill individual Jews but believed the Jews would survive the war as
"a "biological" entity. It based this policy on the sound assumption that
the Nazis would not be so irrational as to kill the Jews. After all, the Jews were
valuable workers necessary to run industries vital for the German war effort.
As a despised minority throughout the preceding centuries,
the Jews had endured many pogroms (spontaneous outbursts of violence). Few anticipated the
Nazis would be so radically different from persecutors of the past.
In the beginning of the film, an SS officer boasts that
the Jews will not survive "this storm" because "We are not the Romans. We
are the SS." The Romans "simply" persecuted the Jews. The Nazis, determined
that the Jews would not weather "this storm," aimed to uproot and destroy the
"biological substance" of the Jewish people.
4. WHY DID THE JEWS NOT FLEE?
The destruction of the Polish Jews occurred within a
period of about fourteen months. It was relatively quick. For a long time, the Jews
believed the German assurances that the deportations were mere "resettlements."
When the truth finally leaked out, it was too late. Still, many Jews refused to believe
the warnings. There was no precedent. And it was difficult to face the prospect of one's
Jewish children were loath to leave their parents by
fleeing to the forests which, in any event, were frequented by anti-Semitic partisans and
peasants (both Poles and Ukrainians) who might betray them to the Nazis. At the time of
the Krakow deportations, a twenty-four year old Jewish woman, Matilda Bandet, said,
"My place is with my parents. They need me. They are old. They have no means of
defending themselves. If I leave them, they will be alone. I will stay here with
In some instances, the deportations relieved the younger
Jews of a tremendous burden. "They were free. Their last links with everyday life
were broken," Gusta Dawidsohn wrote in her diary, describing the Jewish youth in
Krakow after the deportations of their parents in June and October 1942. They could now
devote themselves to their own survival, and, if they chose, to the task of making the
Germans pay for their crimes with blood.
FOLLOW-UP QUESTION: Put the student in the position
of a young person in the Krakow ghetto who is torn between a wish to flee and a need to
take care of his or her parents. Ask the student: What would you do?
Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the Krakow ghetto pharmacist,
described the actions of a Jewish woman who wanted to accompany her mother standing in
line for deportation:
In the space between the pharmacy and the ranks of SS men
walked a woman with a slow majestic stride. She was a pretty, nicely dressed young lady,
wearing a light green cape . . . He (the SS man) said something, she replied, and suddenly
the German started to beat her . . . The woman bent her head slightly and remained
motionless, rigid as a statue. She volunteered for deportation to be with her mother, and
this aroused the fury of the SS men. She did not moan or cry, she did not beg. The German
could not break her --he could not force her to plead for mercy . . . She stood next to
her mother; they did not exchange a word. The SS men left, she wiped her face with a
handkerchief; her mother patted her on the head. Moments passed. The German approached her
again, and said something. I did not see her respond. The German grabbed her by her hair,
pulled her out of the line and screamed viciously, indicating with his truncheon in which
direction she was to go. She was not permitted to remain with her mother, she was spared.
This was the will of the SS. The woman left, she went slowly, helpless against the
overwhelming power. The mother's gaze followed her for the last time.
5. WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GIRL IN RED?
In the film, Schindler and his mistress witness a brutal
Aktion in the Krakow ghetto. Amidst the mass of forsaken humanity, Schindler observes a
wandering Jewish girl dressed in a red coat. This is one of the four occasions in the
otherwise black and white film in which color is used. In the book, Keneally writes that
the sight of the child in red "compelled Schindler's interest because it made a
statement." What is the statement? Why does Spielberg, the film's director, employ
the use of color? Discuss the occasions in which color appears in the film.
ANALYSIS:The girl dressed in red is a literary
device. The child is a symbol. But of what? Innocence, yes, but who wasn't innocent? There
were six million innocent Jews, and millions of other innocent people who perished at the
hands of the Nazis.
The child is set apart from the crowd by the color red.
She is presented as an individual beside the gray masses. This serves to remind the viewer
that the mass of forsaken humanity in the ghetto was a mass of individuals. The Nazis
murdered one and a half million children. This child is a symbol of all the children. We
know she is murdered. We see her a second time passing on a cart as bodies are dumped on a
It is easy to get lost in the numbers: Six million were
murdered. But what is six million? It is too much for anyone to comprehend, least of all a
student. Each of the six million was an individual, an individual who had dreams, who had
a life, who had a family.
Keneally's book casts light on why this one event
influenced Schindler. Schindler described the June Aktion this way: "Beyond this day
no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do
everything in my power to defeat the system."
Keneally writes that Schindler realized that the Aktion in
the Krakow ghetto was not a local atrocity perpetrated by a few SS men, but an atrocity
that had been ordered by Berlin, one that had the approval of the highest authority:
Hitler. He reached this conclusion because the SS appeared not to be worrying about
witnesses, like the girl dressed in red. In the end, all of the Jews would suffer the same
fate. There would be no witnesses.