As he does every year on the birthday of Oskar Schindler, Nahum Manor will make a pilgrimage to the famed factory owner’s grave on Mount Zion.
Manor, 85, met his wife while working in Schindler’s factory. “My life changed very dramatically when I started working at Schindler’s factory,” he said. “We moved from hell to a kind of paradise.”
April 28 would have been Schindler’s 100th birthday, and around the world there will be scattered, locally inspired memorials to the factory owner who saved 1,100 lives during the Holocaust and was immortalized in Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List.”
In New Jersey, Sol Urbach, a Schindler survivor, will be at a small ceremony at the Kaplen Jewish Community Center in New Jersey that his daughter helps organize every year. In Krakow, Poland, last month, 30 Schindler survivors joined a march to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the liquidation of the city’s ghetto, winding from the ghetto to the concentration camp to remember the liquidation and honor Schindler. The march ended at the Palace of Art, where more than 500 photos of Schindler and his factory were on display.
Many elements of Holocaust memorialization have become ritualized to intense levels of detail and organization. But Schindler has not yet earned any regular form of commemoration. The homegrown ceremonies that have sprung up around his birthday suggest the personal ways in which many Holocaust survivors are still dealing with their experiences of horror and heroism.
“What we have seen recently is the routinization of Holocaust commemoration,” said Michal Bodemann, a professor at the University of Toronto who has written about Holocaust remembrance. Bodemann said the individualized commemorations of Schindler hark back to an earlier era. “From 1945 up to 1978, all commemoration was personal, out of the public eye,” Bodemann said.
“It is important to see,” Bodemann added, “that the Schindler Jews have their own private way of celebrating Schindler that is very different from what is happening in public.”
Schindler was born in 1908 in Svitavy, Austria-Hungary, which is now a part of the Czech Republic. Under his watch, his family’s business dissolved into near bankruptcy. But when the war started, he saw a business opportunity in following the German army into Poland. There, he used his connections to secure a factory in Krakow that made pots and pans and defective munitions for the German forces.
Driven by profits, he used the cheapest labor around: Jews. But on March 12, 1943, Schindler changed his life, the life of his workers and history. Addressing his workers, he told them not to go home that night. The Krakow ghetto, he said, would be liquidated the next day. Schindler had witnessed the killings and decided he must protect his laborers. He built his own concentration camp as a satellite to Kraków-Plaszów, and his staff compiled the now famous list of workers he wanted transferred to his camp.
Schindler’s dramatic change in character — from a self-absorbed playboy to a caring hero willing to risk his life to save others — attracted Thomas Keneally, the Australian author who wrote “Schindler’s Ark.” The book was later renamed “Schindler’s List,” and used in Spielberg’s movie.
“You’d expect Oskar to be a perfect Nazi,” Keneally said from his home in Melbourne, Australia. “He was a good German lad. You’d think he’d be a pushover for the dominant propaganda about race, but he wasn’t. It is a remarkable legacy in that way.”
Schindler’s story has become the core of many of the personalized efforts to commemorate the man. Lili Haber, whose father was on Schindler’s list, organized a symposium that will coincide with Schindler’s birthday, to take place in Ariel, Israel, on behalf of the Association of Krakovians in Israel. Haber hopes to fill the 400-seat auditorium with students. The symposium will include a panel discussion featuring a Holocaust scholar and 10 to 20 survivors.
“It is important for young people to learn Schindler’s legacy,” Haber, said. “This way, we show young people Schindler’s great accomplishments and what he risked.”
In New Jersey, rather than focusing on history, the Schindler admirers have designed a ceremony that will have more of a personal, religious bent. Families and members of the community will gather in the Kaplen JCC. The ceremony will begin with a playing of Itzhak Perlman’s music from “Schindler’s List.” The Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the deceased, will be recited, as will the “El Maleh Rachamim,” the prayer for the souls of the deceased. A candle lighting will take place, too, and a survivor will address the audience.
“Schindler was a very personal hero,” said Barbara Urbach Lissner, Urbach’s 53-year-old daughter. “That is always acknowledged on a personal level, but as a community the focus is on the tremendous loss and the tremendous sadness.”
For many survivors, the personal nature of the connection to Schindler means that remembering the man does not require his birthday or a ceremony.
“I think of Schindler most of the time. I don’t have to wait for his birthday,” said the youngest member of Schindler’s list, Leon Leyson, who is 78 and lives in Los Angeles.
“I could be spreading margarine on my toast,” Leyson said, “and I’ll remember having that little piece of margarine as part of the ration and remember that Schindler had given me bread and, at that time, that was as precious as you can imagine.”
In Jerusalem, where Schindler is buried, there are always a number of people who congregate at his grave for his birthday, though not in any organized fashion. Manor said he was considering going to Krakow this year, but he did not need to return to remember.
“It wouldn’t be right to say we are going back, because we are always back,” he said. “We never leave Krakow, nor Schindler, nor the war.”