Thursday, 7 March 2013
Schindler and the "Problem" of Good
We need heroes, people to look up to in admiration. Do you recognise this man? Conventional, business-man-type middle-aged person?
If not, I bet you'd recognise Liam Neeson, who portrayed him in a multi-Oscar winner. There's a pleasing if random collisions in names...Oscars for Oskar...
The story of Oskar Schindler is well known, largely as a result of Spielberg's film "Schindler's List;" I haven't seen the film, but I recently finished Keneally's docu-novel "Schindler's Ark."
Most readers of the book, I'd guess, swing between tears, astonishment, and an impulse to stand up and cheer. His courage, skill and compassion were beyond praise. And - he was a member of the Nazi party. Well, I never expected to write up a Nazi as one of my heroes.
He could only do what he did because he knew powerful Nazis, he knew how to work on them, he had a huge personality. He changed radically, as the world changed round him. Schindler is one of those Reasons to be Cheerful we need to remember when parts of humankind behave like an unpleasant infection on the face of the planet.
Philosophers and psychologists chew away at the problem of Evil; if you don't believe in a supernatural personification of Evil, i.e. Satan, if you don't think evil exists as a separate force in the world, if you doubt that new-born babies are "born evil," then ???
It's perhaps too easy to say that evil derives entirely from the social and family environment, though no doubt much of it does. But then some people behave magnificently despite having been brought up in an evil environment.
Schindler might give us an enlightening mirror image of the problem of evil: the Problem of Good. Not a problem in the sense of an undesirable obstruction preventing us doing what we want. More a problem of explicability.
He doesn't look like one of The Just, at the start of his time in Krakow. He "behaves badly," you might say. Heavy boozer, charming, highly successful seducer, briber and corrupter (albeit of corrupt individuals.) Not an actively cruel or ruthless man, might be the best you could have said of him back then. All of this swings around and works through to the saving of 1,200 lives, in fantastically unlikely settings.
At one point, late on in the war when the SS were trying to obliterate all traces of camps and their inmates, a desperately ill worker at Schindler's factory is hidden away in a boiler room for warmth, so she can recover. Back in the camps, she would not have lasted a day. Keneally says there was not one other place in all war-torn German-occupied Europe where such a person could have survived.
From that warm safe place radiates the Problem of Good. How can we explain why Schindler swung round from being an ordinary businessman who was a Party member, to become a saviour of the Schindlerjüden? A turning point was when he witnesses the emptying of the ghetto. Most of the Jews are led away. Some are murdered right there on the street. He realizes that the SS don't worry about witnesses amongst the Jews to these arbitrary murders; they don't believe there will be any witnesses left when the war is over. None.
He sets to work. From being someone who was simply temperamentally disinclined to be cruel, he becomes possessed. He will not let his Jewish workers die. He himself is at very great and continual risk of being exposed and executed.
So there's the puzzle, and it's wonderful. We can't explain how someone turns their sense of common humanity, into a refusal to go along with the prevailing climate of evil, and finally into a weapon that outwits the foul apparatus of genocide. He just did.
We should remember that it could all have ended otherwise; if he'd had less courage and skill, the 1,200 could have gone to Birkenau and Schindler could have been hanged.
Some have pointed out that it was "only"1,200 people, against the millions. One could ask the descendants of those 1,200 people about that; they all owe their existence to Schindler. But more broadly, we need to acknowledge the way his achievements continue to vibrate around us; we need to acknowledge the potency of what he symbolises- a dangerous, illogical and relentless drive to do some good for totally vulnerable people, people to whom he stood in no objective relationship other than employer. And saviour.
Schindler died in 1974. What he did ripples on, influencing us, heartening us, helping us put things into a different, better perspective. One of the things about visiting Krakow, delightful destination though it be, is it's recent history. A Jewish community of 60,00 in 1939. Today, 200. It's unbearable to contemplate what happened - but then, at least there's Schindler to remind us of what can be done, what was done.