I knew what I was getting into by watching Schindler’s List for the first time. The film’s massive cultural and artistic imprint (as well as references to it on Seinfeld) made me aware that I was about to view a Holocaust movie, with all the attendant features of that genre. Though I hadn’t seen the film, I had visited the grave of Oskar Schindler in Jerusalem and was vaguely familiar with the actions of the German industrialist. And so as I finally sat down to watch Schindler’s List, I readied myself to see a film rich with themes of life, death, suffering, and redemption.
To be sure, Schindler’s List was all that and more. The entire film, from the single tear on Itzhak Stern’s face to the reappearance of the girl in the red jacket, powerfully communicates the awful horror of the Holocaust and its all-out assault on the dignity of human life. The transformation of Liam Neeson’s Schindler from an avaricious war-profiteer to a broken man begging to save “just one more” life is deeply moving. This film is, if nothing else, a robust reminder that no price can ever be put on human life.
Yet, as I watched Schindler’s List I couldn’t help but try to relate the film’s message to the world I inhabit. Questions like “how does this message apply to my life?” and “how is this movie more than just an interesting historical tale?” began to crop up in my mind. After some thought, what I came to realize is this: Oskar Schindler is not a hero. He was an ordinary man who saw the truth—that human life is of infinite worth—and acted on it. Schindler did not save all the Jews in Krakow, much less Poland. He was not a superhuman figure. But his encounter with truth did inspire him to preserve those he could, and because of him thousands are alive today.
Oskar Schindler is not a hero. He was an ordinary man who saw the truth—that human life is of infinite worth—and acted on it.
Schindler’s List unambiguously identifies and denounces the Holocaust as evil. What struck me, however, is how long it took Schindler to see evil for what it was. In looking back on the great crimes of the 20th century—the Holocaust, Stalin’s purges, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and the Armenian Genocide, to name a few—we often presume that we can easily identify evil in our world. Yet, as the historical record and this movie show, evil is often difficult to see. Like Schindler at the beginning of the film, many of us struggle to see evil for what it is. Like Schindler in the end, however, all of us are called to combat it.
Because identifying evil in our modern world is anything but uncomplicated, we must strive more than ever to affirm human life and value it in all of its forms—especially when it seems counter-intuitive to us. If, as the saying goes, “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing,” then Schindler’s List testifies to its corollary: all that is necessary for the victory of good over evil is for ordinary people to act. To do so, we must be willing to question the status quo, recognize evil, and fight for human dignity whatever the cost. In short, we need more Oskar Schindlers.
Randall Fowler is an Intern for WYA Headquarters in New York City.
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