Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Schindler's Truck

Today I'm thinking about Schindler's truck and what it suggests about the moral psychology of one of the great heroes of the Holocaust.

Here's a portrayal of the truck, in the background of a famous scene from Schindler's List:

[image source]

Oskar Schindler, as you probably know, saved over a thousand Jews from death under the Nazis by spending vast sums of money to hire them in his factories, where they were protected. Near the end of Spielberg's movie about him, the script suggests that Schindler is broke -- that he has spent the last of his wartime slave-labor profits to save his Jewish workers, just on the very eve of German surrender:

Stern: Do you have any money hidden away someplace that I don't know about?
Schindler: No. Am I broke?
Stern: Uh, well...

Then there's the surrender, Schindler's speech to the factory workers, and preparations for Schindler's escape (as a hunted profiteer of slave labor).

Seeing the film, you might briefly think, what's with the truck that caravans off with Schindler? But the truck gets no emphasis in the film.

Thomas Keneally's 1982 book Schindler's Ark (on which Spielberg's 1993 film was based) tells us more about the truck:

Emilie, Oskar, and a driver were meant to occupy the Mercedes. [Seven] others would follow in a truck loaded with food and cigarettes and liquor for barter (p. 375).
In one of the factory garages that afternoon, two prisoners were engaged in removing the upholstery from the ceiling and inner doors of Oskar's Mercedes, inserting small sacks of the Herr Direktor's diamonds... (p. 368).
So, on Keneally's telling, Schindler drove off with a truck full of barter goods and small sacks of diamonds hidden in the upholstery -- hardly broke. On reflection, too, you might think the timing is too cinematic, the story suspiciously tidy, if Schindler goes broke just at the moment of German surrender.

Part of me wants Schindler to have gone broke, or at least not to have driven off with sacks of diamonds. A fully thoughtful Schindler would have realized, perhaps, that he was in fact a profiteer of slave labor, despite the admiration he rightly deserves for the risks he took and his enormous expenditures of (most of!) his ill-gotten profits. On this way of thinking, the wealth generated by Schindler's factories more rightly belonged to the Jews than to Schindler. I picture an alternative Schindler who realizes that and who thus retains only enough money to ensure his escape.

But another part of me thinks this is too much to hope for, that the thought "Of course I deserve to keep some of these diamonds" is so natural that no merely human Schindler would fail to have it; that in wanting Schindler not to have that thought, I am wanting an angel rather than a person.

We don't really know, though, what Schindler fled with. David M. Crowe writes:

It is hard to imagine that he still had a collection of diamonds so large that it would fill the door and ceiling cavities of a Mercedes. [N.B.: This is an uncharitable reading of Keneally's version] Emilie [Schindler's wife] totally discounted the idea that the two of them left Bruennlitz with a "fortune in diamonds," though she later admitted that Oskar did have a "huge diamond" hidden in the glove compartment (2004, p. 455).
By all accounts, Schindler's remaining wealth was gone, probably stolen, by the time he surrendered to the Americans.

Still another part of me thinks: If anyone deserves diamonds, it's Schindler. It would have been justice served, not a failing, for him to keep a portion of his wealth.

These three parts of me are still at war.


Callan S. said...

Next we'll find that in terminator it was a splinter AI that was using humans as slave labour to put the bodies of other humans into furnances, simply as a ploy to keep humans around a little longer...

I'd never watched the Shawshank redemption properly before - always seen bits of the middle or end. When I eventually saw the start, I was blown away! Because they never confirm whether he killed those two people or not!

The whole movie ends up like one of those young woman/old woman optical illusions, where you can see it either way. To me, in the one where he killed them both in cold blood, it's actually the character 'Red's redemption...but then he meets up with the killer at the end...perhaps to be corrupted regardless...

Which leads to the video game 'Red dead redemption'!...okay, that's just being silly! heh!

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Shawshank Redemption is one of those movies I really should see. I like the idea that it leaves the viewer duck/rabbit, depending on whether he committed the crime.

Callan S. said...

This occured to me latter - Eric, if Shindler is actually making a net loss over hiring Jews, why does he appear to be a profiteer of slave labour? He's not making a profit? What wealth did the factories produce if he's got a net loss?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Schindler didn't arrive in Poland with a lot of wealth, so although he took a huge loss in moving to Bruennlitz and in his operations there, the loss was sacrifice of the profits of the slave labor that he took from many of those same workers in Krakow.

Callan S. said...

I haven't seen the movie and I don't know how accurate wikipedia is (interestingly it reports he spent all his wealth by the end of the war - and there is no 'give citation' notice at the top. The power of movies, eh?)

But in the end he, apart from a diamond or three (which sounds like it didn't go all that far if he went bankrupt latter), blows all his profits on bribes to keep the workers. He profiteered for awhile from slave labour, definately, but then changed agenda and spent the profits on maintaining lives. Does that mean he's still a profiteer? Or is that why the story (wiki as well!) tends towards the tidy "He went broke, just perfectly by the end of the war" so as to avoid the conflict of interest there?

clasqm said...

But let's say he had run out of money a year earlier. Without money for bribes, his workers would have been rounded up and killed. Perhaps there were a dozen Schindlers that we'll never know about because they didn't make it to the end of the war.

Also, hindsight is always 20/20. He did not actually know that the war was over, or soon would be. For all he knew, this was just a bad reverse from which Germany would recover. For all he knew, there might be another phase to the war in which America would attack the USSR using Germany as a proxy (apparently a popular theory at the time). Whatever. It is easy for us to say "it's all over, pass out all you have to the poor". For him, at the time, it would have been an insane gamble. Money had enabled him to do good during the war. If the war was to go on, he'd need more of it.

You really should unload all tech shares right now, btw. My time machine has shown a major environmental scandal is going to break next month and a lot of tech share owners will be lynched. Oh well, if you don't want to take my word for it ... just remember that there will be people double-guessing your actions seventy years from now.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan and Michel: I agree that it's not reasonable to expect Schindler to have timed his bankruptcy perfectly. In fact, the implausibility of that is part of what might tip one off to the cinematic distortion in Spielberg's telling. But it does seem plausible that he left Bruennlitz with substantial wealth -- at a minimum one huge diamond and a truck with substantial hard-to-get trade goods, plausibly substantially more than that. (In Keneally's telling, the reason he didn't have that wealth later is that it was stolen from him during his attempt to flee.) Assuming that that wealth was derived from the slave labor of his workers, the question that I want to focus on is, would it be reasonable to hope or expect that he would give it to his workers -- all but whatever reasonable amount he would need to escape?

Callan S. said...

Well, 'reasonable amount' is a bit of a hindsight thing in itself. Is there something about diamonds that suggest he took more than he needed? Sure, we associate diamonds with the overly rich. But that's just an association, not a fair assessment. Just because you're using diamonds for currency doesn't mean you're by default taking an unreasonable amount.

To me, he stopped running the operation for slavery profit and more for life support.

I think even if he had been able to keep all the money (not had to pay any in bribes) but still been able to shield hundreds from death, it'd seem okay to me in the dire circumstances.

It's a context thing. Pushing an old lady over and she breaks her hip is bad. Pushing an old lady out of the way (and she breaks her hip) of a truck that would have killed her is good. Dragging a girl by her hair out of some water is bad. Dragging a girl, by the hair, out of a rapid flowing river she was going to be swept away in is good.

I think something to consider is what if the nazi's were just into enslaving Jews, not killing them. Then Schindler would just seem another nazi profiteer. But on the other hand, then you'd never know that when it came to worse things, he'd put his foot down about it.

On the other hand though, if the movie is trying to evangelicise him, perhaps to earn that sort of title he aught to have given up more of his remaining profits and given them to the workers?

But if you don't try to make a saint of him, then maybe he just did really well, even if he takes his ill gotten gains with him?

chinaphil said...

I think there are a number of potential reasons why Schindler shouldn't have given his money to his workers.

1. There was no money. Wikipedia talks about his "wartime losses". It may be that the factory made money initially, but later he was operating at a loss to protect the workers. So his workers weren't making him money.

2. Normal business ethics. A business owner is under no obligation to distribute all profits to workers. He is obliged to deal with them fairly, and everyone agrees he did much more than that.

3. Practicality. He had no way of converting his diamonds to cash without arousing suspicion. His workers had no way of keeping cash.

4. The real reason you want Schindler to be broke is not moral at all, but for signalling. We call those who give their lives/fortunes moral heroes because their action is a clear sign that they recognise that their cause is more important than their own life. Think Mother Theresa vs. Bill Gates. Assuming the Gates Foundation funds some medical work which makes a big difference, Gates has done more than Theresa. But she's the hero because she signalled better. You want that signalling because you're a bad utilitarian; you need the social aspect of "goodness" as well as the actual good. But that's poor moral reasoning... hence Schindler should keep his money(!).

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Interesting, chinaphil. I think there's probably something to 4, though "signaling" is on the dark side of that range of possibilities. I'm not as sure about 1-3! The evidence suggests against 1. That he was employing slave labor suggests against 2. (I do think it was slave labor, even if in the circumstances Jews were glad for the opportunity to be Schindler's laborers rather than someone else's or unemployed.) Against 3, he had trade goods as well as diamonds -- and Jews widely used the black markets, according to reports about the period. Furthermore, diamonds seem to have been considered preferable to cash for the black market in the period.

Callan S. said...

Mother Teresa has signalled really well, given...what might be the actual state of affairs.

AmandaR said...

Interesting one!!!Today I'm contemplating Schindler's truck and what it recommends about the ethical brain science of one of the incredible legends of the Holocaust.

clasqm said...

"Assuming that that wealth was derived from the slave labor of his workers"

Yes, that is another assumption that we have all been making (myself included): any and all funds Schindler possessed in 1945 was the result of employing Jewish slave labour.

That actually requires proof. Not much seems to be known about Schindler before the war. Is it impossible that a dying relative left him a diamond collection and warned him to keep it for a rainy day, only to use it in the direst circumstances?

Is it impossible that Schindler might have been running some shady side-business right through the war, the sort of business that never gets on the books and the proceeds from which could not be used in the factory?

If those remaining funds came from a different source, the question Eric poses just became more interesting. Is wealth an undivisible whole? Never mind accounting practices, could one ethically still expect him to compensate his workers even if the money he had left came from another source?

If we say yes, do we descend to the level of the loan-shark: "I don't care where you get the money, pay me Tuesday or I start breaking things"? Actually most of society works on this principle. If you owe back taxes, the IRS doesn't care if you have to raid little Emma's trust fund, they just expect to get paid.

If we say no, are we saying that the suffering of the workers counts for less than the maintenance of strict accounting principles and the legal fictions of corporate personalities?

Callan S. said...


If we say no, are we saying that the suffering of the workers counts for less than the maintenance of strict accounting principles and the legal fictions of corporate personalities?

That seems to be endorsing fiscal ambiguity/money laundering?

Why not just say he gets to keep it all? Works for me, given the context (we don't resent doctors making money off of victims (victims of illness)). Why can't Shindler, after shielding a bunch of folks from being victims of murderers, go off with some money.

Why do we need to validate fiscal ambiguity instead?

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Michel: My understanding is that Schindler's father was a minor factory owner with enough wealth to give Schindler a taste for luxury and motorcycle riding, as well as perhaps a small stake heading into Poland, but he was no oligarch and Schindler needed to turn to outside investors to put up most of the money to purchase his first factory. Of course, it's possible that this is wrong, and it's possible that he made money on the side, which opens up the issues you mention.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Callan: Approximately 1/3 of me agrees with you!