When I saw Schindler’s List for the first time, I was studying and living in Paris. I went to a matinee on a gray afternoon, all by myself, and the movie completely rocked me on my foundations. It was odd to watch it in Paris, in a place that had felt the rise of Nazism so acutely. The elderly Parisians in the audience surely had memories, very deep and personal ones, that younger folks — or even older Americans — could never grasp.
I’m thinking of this because, in my great Year o’ Prayer experiment, this month is the Month of Saints. I’ve been reading Robert Ellsberg’s fantastic book All Saints, which features a short biography of one saint for every day. If you’re familiar with the book, you know that Ellsberg takes the title of “saint” fairly broadly. He includes many people who are not formally saints, but whose lives have borne witness to the Gospel message.
Including Oskar Schindler, the entry for today.
Schindler intrigues me. What he did — saving the lives of his Jewish factory workers, finding ways to keep them alive right under the noses of his Nazi acquaintances — is utterly fascinating. The way he responded to evil was not to stand up and denounce it publicly, as many people did; All Saints includes the stories of several people who heroically and openly resisted Nazism and who paid the ultimate price. Schindler, by contrast, kept his disgust to himself. He knew the system, and how to work it. He knew how to undermine it, subtly and quietly, from the inside. And he seemed to know that this hidden defiance, flying below the radar while simultaneously courting the enemy, was the only way he could save lives.
And he was right.
I also like how Ellsberg points out the contradictions in Schindler’s character (the movie does this well, too). He was a womanizer, utterly unfaithful to his wife. He was a gambler and an opportunist. And yet he risked his life — not once, but every single day — to save others. He is a reminder that none of us can be pigeonholed that neatly. The very person whose lifestyle you disapprove of may be quietly doing acts of staggering moral heroism. How well do we really know another person: their thoughts, their motives, their hearts?
In the past few years, I’ve realized something else. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to watch Schindler’s List again. Now that I have my boys, I sometimes feel like there’s a very thin layer of skin between me and all the world’s tragedy. Everything feels so personal now. And there are scenes in that film that would emotionally fell me, were I to see them again.
But the bottom line of the Schindler story is this: there were many mothers’ tragedies that were averted by his actions. There are many children alive today because of his unique and complicated heroism.
And if that’s not the Gospel message in action, then nothing is.