Continuing our thirtieth anniversary series on monumental 1993 films, we’re examining the Holocaust epic Schindler’s List. Whereas previously reviewed Jurassic Park was an enjoyable blockbuster and So I Married An Axe Murderer became a fun cult favorite, Schindler’s List is a ghostly and ghastly masterpiece. We’ll focus on the film’s relevance, modern antisemitism, and governmental and individual responsibility.
A Storied Telling of a Tense Testament
The film is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler (played by Liam Neeson), the German entrepreneur who employed thousands of Jewish people¹ during World War II. Slave labor is not praiseworthy, but those fortunate enough to work in his enamelware factory were saved from certain death. Although, as the movie indicates, this was not what the immoral Schindler originally intended.
It was Itzhak Stern (Ben Kingsley) who initially used the business as an opportunity to save fellow Jews. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian and director Steven Spielberg ratchet the tension as the film progresses. There is a respite after Stern gets many prisoners jobs at the factory, but when Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) takes command of the concentration camp where the workers are housed, a whole new level of cruelty follows. Amidst planned barbarity, we’re given examples of sporadic cruelty, like when Goeth practices his marksmanship on random prisoners from his villa balcony perched upon a hill.
Slowly Schindler begins growing a conscience, chiefly from his interactions with Stern. At one point Schindler describes true power to Goeth as mercy and the ability to pardon the “guilty.” These attempts at subverting Nazi policies add a level of uneasiness. The audience wonders if Goeth and others will report, or worse, kill Schindler for his sly humanitarianism.
Instead of easing the pressure, the Allied Powers’ advancement drove the Nazis to send the prisoners to Auschwitz Concentration Camp to be gassed and burned. This is one of Schindler’s turning points where he uses his personal funds (most of which was “earned” by the prisoners’ slave labor), makes the titular list, starts a business in his hometown of Zwittau,² and has 1,200 Jewish people transported to work there.
Racism’s Regrettable Relevance
In an article celebrating the films twenty-fifth anniversary, Spielberg said he believed Schindler’s List was more relevant at that point (2018) than it was in 1993. Two weeks ago I received a newspaper with the cover story titled “Antisemitic incidents on the rise in California.” The article reports: “More than 500 antisemitic acts targeting Jewish people, including assault, vandalism and harassment, were committed in California last year, an increase of more than 40% from 2021…”³ And, according to the Anti-Defamation League and Tel Aviv University, “Antisemitic incidents are at a new high worldwide…”⁴
If you’re like me, you may hear regularly about bigoted harassment and assaults. But I was surprised to hear that the victimization of Jewish people has had such a sharp uptick. Didn’t we learn something unforgettable from World War II (and more precisely, from the Holocaust), so as to never repeat ignorant, prejudiced behavior? It’s certainly easy to blame the global community or governments or other individuals.
Interestingly, Schindler’s List gives commentary. The film is shot almost entirely in black and white, but one of the most memorable moments of color is of a child wearing a red coat. This comes from the real Schindler’s recollection of a little girl walking, completely ignored by the SS as they evicted and shot people in the Krakow ghetto.
The director felt this symbolized turning a blind eye. “To me,” explained Spielberg, “that meant that Roosevelt and Eisenhower—and probably Stalin and Churchill—knew about the Holocaust … and did nothing to stop it. It was almost as though the Holocaust itself was wearing red.”⁵ This chilling statement isn’t of dusty historical importance, but also relevant for politicians and governments of today.
Unfortunately, several groups backing former President Trump have claimed responsibility⁶ for targeting Jewish people, spreading white supremacist propaganda, and multiple murders. Although not necessarily condoned by Trump, it’s important that, regardless of party affiliation, politicians publicly denounce names of groups like the Proud Boys, Goyim Defense League, Active Clubs, White Lives Matter, and the KKK, not just their deplorable propaganda and actions. But to actually call out a group and denounce it would mean a drop in support, and ultimately votes, and that can be a noble but difficult thing to do when attempting to attain a political office.
It’s easy for armchair critics like me to describe what should be a no-brainer political declaration; it’s another to consider the onus on each of us to fight racism. It’s also easy to mistakenly think racism happens as grandiose acts, but, as Black geoscientist Martha Gilmore reminds us, racism is “a ‘persistent current in everyday interactions’—of belittlement, of denial of opportunity, of feeling that you do not belong.” The projects Spielberg has chosen give an example of how an individual can take on racism.
Speaking about his biopic The Fabelmans, Spielberg says, “Aspects of my Jewish existence is just part of the DNA…that’s how we grew up. And the bullying…doesn’t define my life, but it’s certainly…something that happened to me.”⁷ He goes on to explain how that harassment influenced films he made such as Munich with Fabelmans cowriter Tony Kushner. Although Spielberg feels this moment is the right time to share his story of Jewish roots, he was equally impassioned thirty years ago to tell the story of others with the same heritage.
In 1993, principal photography had just completed for Jurassic Park when a small window of opportunity opened to film Schindler’s List. Despite making his life incredibly more difficult, Spielberg chose to begin filming Schindler’s on location in Poland, while others finished Jurassic Park. The director made the work even more personal by donating the proceeds from the film to found the Righteous Persons Foundation.
Another unplanned but vital outcome from the 1993 film was the USC Shoah Foundation which documented Holocaust testimonies from 55,000 survivors and witnesses. I remember watching some of these accounts a few years after watching Schindler’s List and being thankful the footage existed as most survivors wouldn’t be alive for much longer. Shortly afterward, I saw an episode of 7th Heaven titled, “I Hate You.”
The plot centers around one of the kids befriending a concentration camp survivor, but a classmate’s parents are Holocaust deniers. The survivor is brought into the classroom and through her account, the naysayers begin to believe that the atrocity happened. I was shocked to learn Holocaust denial was (and still is) a real thing.
I had never watched 7th Heaven, so the fact that I caught a majority of that episode and had seen some of the Shoah footage, I view as a divine move of God. Certainly God has used Schindler’s List in meaningful ways. Even Spielberg acknowledges the importance of the film to the Shoah project. “It wouldn’t have happened without Schindler’s List. The Shoah Foundation wouldn’t exist.” We may not have the platform Spielberg does to promote loving others while simultaneously decrying hatred, but we can make similar sacrifices in our sphere of influence.
Seeing the Shoah footage and knowing antisemitic conspiracy theories like Holocaust denial existed impacted my life in some big ways. One influence came when I started high school and became friends with a guy named Michael Leibovich. When I found out he was Jewish, my experiences with the aforementioned media informed some of our conversations. He became one of my best friends and we would argue about Christianity, Judaism, and how Jesus fit in. Even though I was a know-it-all-wanna-be apologist, he went to church with me and I went to temple with him. I grew a lot from that friendship, one major way was in respect for how my friend comedically and boldly faced mockery for being “a Jew.” And, sadly, sometimes I was the one joking about his heritage.
Our Ultimate Moral Responsibility
Unfortunately, one reason Schindler’s List stays evergreen is that racism will always be a problem. So why 1993? Having given birth to the blockbuster in 1975 (Jaws), Spielberg used the cultural moment of 1993 to produce another blockbuster and pioneer digital special effects (Jurassic Park), while creating a black and white classic with very few effects. He knew 1993 was his one shot to make Schindler’s List: enough survivors were still alive for him to interview, locations and time of year aligned, and Universal Studios backed him to make a Holocaust epic the way he wanted.
The film won seven Academy Awards and ranked #3 on one of AFI’s lists of top films over 100 years. The LA Times rightfully called the picture 1993’s “most critically acclaimed” film. Schindler’s List, like the Holocaust itself, is memorialized as an event we wish to forget, but the possibility of it happening again is so horrific that we shouldn’t turn away. Historically, this type of predicament has galvanized many people of faith to take action.
Christians must be realistic about two things the Bible promises. First, God has a special place in His heart for the Jewish people in the past, present, and future (Deuteronomy 7:6, 2 Samuel 7:23-24, 1 Kings 10:9, Romans 11:28). Second, Scripture prophesizes world events will continue to worsen until Jesus’s Millennial Reign when He ushers in peace (Matthew 24:4-51, 2 Timothy 3, Revelation 20:1–6). Knowing these promises gives us realistic expectations that we should defend all people loved by God, especially the Jewish people, but that racism won’t be eliminated on this side of heaven.
I highly encourage you to donate time or money to organizations fighting racism (named throughout this article or otherwise). But I truly believe the only way for governments to enact love, and politicians to denounce racist groups and their actions, is for individuals to listen to God.
My friendship with Michael helped me form empathy for others. It seems one of the best ways to fight racism is to recognize our own biases (many research articles like this and this and this review argue that every person is at least partially racist). Next, we need to actually desire to get to know people who we may intentionally or unconsciously be biased against. Growing up in Southern California, I’ve always had a lot of Latino friends, so I may not need to be intentional with interactions that come naturally.
But regarding groups we haven’t had a lot of deep relationships with, we should be intentional with exposure. Friendships that come naturally are preferred, but what if there aren’t a lot of opportunities where we live, or what if we struggle making relationships? I’ve found success in consuming media that I wouldn’t normally interact with. Not only can we enjoy different genres and mediums, but we can also seek creators with dissimilar backgrounds and nationalities from our own. Finding commonalities in media can build a relational bridge with others and can also develop our empathetic understanding for diverse cultures.
No, this won’t solve racism. But when we realize we’re only responsible for the sphere of influence God has given us, it puts tension where it’s meant to be. We’ll start to love those that don’t look like us and have a less hateful, more (as Schindler put it) “pardoning as power” view of racists. Certainly not pardoning as a discouragement of justice on racist speech and acts, but as a merciful view of the racist person him-or-herself. Someone who hates others that much actually hates themselves. And that is a pathetic and lonely life only God can save them from. So when we’ve confronted our biases and learned about others, we may be able to slowly change racist minds with the love of Christ.
The real legacy of Schindler’s List is for us and future generations to watch and re-watch so we remember the atrocities that happened at the hands of white supremacists in power. We can no longer say “never again” as racist violence is increasing. But the travesty would be for us to ignore the oppression and attacks. To shrug our shoulders, turn our backs, or allow politicians to skirt discriminatory issues, we’ll be no better than those who knew the Holocaust was happening and didn’t act.
¹ In my opinion, it’s a misnomer to refer to the entire Hebrew people as “Jews” since that title designates “Judah,” only one of the tribes (whereas “Hebrews” or “Israelis” are more inclusive terms). However, because the Hebrew people have embraced the name “Jewish” and culturally it’s used often, that’s the term primarily used in this article.
² Zwittau was in Austria-Hungary, now Svitavy, Czechia.
³ The Hemet & San Jacinto Chronicle, Tran Nguyen, “Report: Antisemitic incidents on the rise in California,” Volume V, Issue XIX, Thursday, May 11-17, 2023.
⁵ One example of Holocaust awareness during WWII comes from the story of Witold Pilecki. I learned of Pilecki infiltrating Auschwitz when I visited a current exhibit (as of the publishing of this article) called “Auschwitz. Not Long ago. Not Far Away.” Pilecki purposefully got sent to Auschwitz (as Tomasz Serafiński), smuggled intelligence to convince the resistance to attack, escaped, and wrote a report which the Allies received but ignored.
⁶ See CNN Special Report, “Rising Hate: Antisemitism in America,” aired 8/21/22.
⁷ “The Fabelmans: A Personal Journey” special features on The Fabelmans DVD.