There are an endless amount of films about the horrors of the Holocaust. Schindler’s List is often the first one that comes to mind, to the point that it’s almost cliché. Make no mistake though, Steven Spielberg’s haunting take on the true story of the murder of millions of European Jews earns its spot at the top. It’s a film that pulls no punches, where the nightmarish imagery is out front and center. Nothing is implied or shied away from, we see it all, because we need to. While most films about the Holocaust focus on the tortured Jewish people themselves, Schindler’s List is about Oskar Schindler, a German businessman who saved the lives of more than 1,100 Jews by employing them in his factories.
Schindler is portrayed as a “good German”, a popular characterization in American cinema. He is someone who takes action to save the lives of strangers, someone who realizes that what his country is doing is wrong. Schindler was not immediately a savior however, he started out as a member of the Nazi party itself; a supporter of its beliefs and policies. He arrives in Kraków to make his fortune at the same time that the Polish Jews are being forced into the overcrowded Kraków Ghetto. He takes advantage of the Jews, using them more or less as slave labor to run his factories and amass enormous wealth and influence. While the Jews are tortured and starving in the ghetto and, later, the concentration camp, Schindler attends lavish parties held by the Nazis, eating, drinking, singing, and enjoying the company of beautiful women.
Schindler does gradually change his way of thinking, but slowly. He witnesses the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto, where many people, including children, are shot and killed. While he is certainly affected by everything he sees during this, Schindler still doesn’t exactly take action. The inhumane treatment of the Polish Jews continues to escalate, and it takes more and more obvious signs that what’s happening in front of Schindler’s eyes is an atrocity of the worst kind before he finally dedicates himself to doing as much as he can to help the Jewish people. It takes the sight of the mangled body of a small girl in a red coat, as well as the first hand accounts of his Jewish accountant, Itzhak Stern, and the maid of Amon Göth, the SS officer in charge of the camp, before Schindler becomes a truly righteous man.
When we talk about the Holocaust and the circumstances that lead to it, the phrase most often used is “Never Again”. How do we ensure that something of this magnitude truly does never happen again? We often find ourselves asking what we would have done if we had been living in Germany and other Nazi-occupied countries during that time. Would we have spoken out? Would we have taken action and tried to stop these atrocities from happening? It would seem that the time has come for us to actually find out. Since President Donald Trump took office, the warnings signs have been blatant and all around us.
This is a leader who speaks and acts as a dictator would, declaring himself above the law, constantly attacking dissent, critical media coverage, and scientific evidence, labeling them as “fake news”, claiming that all opposition to him is either unfair or just plain fabrication. Trump’s use of language and his manipulative use of the media as political spectacle are disturbingly similar to earlier periods of propaganda, censorship and repression. There has been a chilling spike in incidents of antisemitism and other racism throughout the country, and a rise of far-right extremists being proudly out in the open, such as the march of neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia, which Trump refused to condemn. Holocaust survivors have compared the current state of our country and the rhetoric of President Trump to the beginnings of Nazi Germany itself.
The Trump administration and its supporters have normalized hate and encourage hate speech. They use unauthorized immigrants as scapegoats, focusing and publicizing their crimes and their crimes alone to stigmatize them. It’s a tactic bigots have used for centuries. When Trump referred to members of MS-13, and in turn, all Latinx immigrants in general, as “animals”, it brought up discussion on similar language used by fascists of the past. It’s language used to dehumanize a group of already stigmatized people. By stripping them of their humanity, you open the door for extreme racial profiling and more and more inhumane treatment. The Nazis viewed the Jews as less than human as well. Exploiting pre-existing stereotypes, Nazi propagandists portrayed Jews as an “alien race” that fed off the host nation, poisoned its culture, and seized its economy. Sound familiar? We see similar scapegoating today with the immigrant community, where they are often blamed for the country’s problems and crime, despite contrary evidence.
We often view the Nazi officers, such as Amon Göth in Schindler’s List, as vile monsters, incapable of empathy in any form. We don’t think these kinds of people could possibly exist, but the fact is that they did, and still do. Their defense was that they were simply following orders, a phrase most recently used by ICE agents, who have been implementing a policy of ripping children from their families at the border, some as young as one-year-old, and forcing them into detention centers, foster care, and other parts unknown. Trump has said that young kids trying to cross the border for a chance at a better life are “not innocent”, and the administration’s immigration policies have quickly become unprecedented, cruel, and anti-democratic. They place these kidnapped children in warehouses and other frigid holding cells, where there is overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, and multiples reports of abuse. One of the more affecting scenes of Schindler’s List is when a new group of Jews arrive at the camp, and the parents watch in horror as their children are loaded onto trucks and taken away from them, never to be seen again.
It only begins here, and even here is already unspeakably cruel and unacceptable. The time for debate over what’s wrong and what’s right should be long since past, but the country seems to be at a standstill, sitting idly by and merely witnessing these horrors rather than trying to do anything about them. Perhaps we share articles depicting the evil that’s been happening here and spread awareness and information about it all, but we rarely ever take any action beyond that. Oskar Schindler waited a long time as well before he did anything, and while he did end up saving many, the film still ends with him in tears, sobbing over how he should have done more. Schindler had considerable wealth and influence that allowed him to help as much as he did, but at the end of the day, he was still just an average citizen that realized what was going on around him was wrong, and that he must act.
Can we take these lessons from the film and use them in our lives? Can we be someone that will speak out for what is right? Can we be someone who does everything in their power to help the victims of a marginalized people? Can we be a voice for the voiceless? Will we, as American citizens, ever be able to take action against the inhumane treatment of minorities in this country and stand up to tyranny and the rise of fascism that we’re seeing happen before our very eyes? And if we do, how long before it actually happens? How much will things escalate before anything is done about it? If literature such as Elie Wiesel’s Night is required reading, perhaps it’s time to consider certain films as required viewing, with Spielberg’s Schindler’s List being one of them.
“There will be generations because of what you did,” Itzhak Stern says to Schindler after presenting him with a ring the Schindlerjuden made for him. The ring has the inscription, “Whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” Schindler’s List is, in the end, a hopeful story. It’s a call for average people like ourselves to speak out and help wherever there is evil, in whatever way we can, and as much as we can. We cannot simply be bystanders to tyranny and oppression. No matter who we are or where we come from, there is hope for redemption and a chance to do something that is actually important, something that is truly right and good. It’s times like these where people are tested, and if the true story of Oskar Schindler is any indication, there is plenty of hope to be found in people.
Schindler’s List is now streaming on Netflix.