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Michel Friedman: 'Oskar Schindler saved my parents'

Klaus Krämer db
January 31, 2019

Schindler's list was made world-famous by Steven Spielberg's movie. DW host Michel Friedman's parents were on that list, and survived thanks to the entrepreneur. He feels today's world needs more people like him.

Oskar Schindler List
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

On Thursday, the German parliament commemorated the victims of National Socialism in a special event following International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust, held on January 27 every year since 2005, when the United Nations introduced the memorial day. It was on January 27, 1945 that the Red Army liberated the German concentration and extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Contributing to the commemorative events is the re-release of Schindler's List last Sunday in German cinemas — 25 years after its premiere. In the movie, director Steven Spielberg tells the true story of entrepreneur Oskar Schindler (1908-1974, pictured above), who saved more than 1,100 Jews from certain death by the Nazis by listing names of prisoners he needed for the production in his factory.

The names of Michel Friedman's parents were on the list, too — although most of the Franco-German author and politician's Polish Jewish family did not survive the Holocaust.

DW: If Oskar Schindler hadn't saved your parents, you wouldn't exist. Schindler was a good friend of your family's, so you saw quite a bit of him when you were a child and a teenager. What do you feel when you think of him?

Michel Friedman
Michel FriedmanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. Roessler

Michel Friedman: Gratitude. As you just said, my life is grounded in his commitment; he saved my parents and my grandmother. I feel proud to have had the chance to know this man. I learned a lot from him, the most important thing being that "there is no excuse for not taking action, for not getting involved." I also feel a good bit of love for him. He is one of the people dear to my heart because he was so complex. He wasn't just a hero and the towering idol; he had a dark side, too. It is good for a child or teenager to see that a person they love is not just good and perfect.

You indicated that Oskar Schindler was not the epitome of morality and propriety — he was known as a ladies' man and drank a lot. He was a businessman who profited from the Nazi regime, and went along with the system to a certain degree. How was Schindler different from the many opportunists and perpetrators?

To begin with, he used the system for purely economic reasons. He was one of many entrepreneurs in the economic and industrial sector who became rich thanks to the Nazis. But there came a moment when he realized that it was no longer about having money or not having money, but about emerging from the situation as a human being. The moment he saw the people who worked for him as human beings, when the Jews became individual people again, he knew what he had to do, and that was save lives.

He realized that the Nazi regime was doing something he could not accept, which was de-humanizing people. The Hungarian theater director George Tabori once said "Everyone is someone." For the Nazis, the Jews were nobodies. For Oskar Schindler, the people he was in touch with once again became somebodies. He himself was a someone again, a human being who wanted to and did help others.

Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler in 1967Image: picture-alliance / dpa

So you're saying Schindler's actions show that individual people can very well bring about change in a complicated system?

If Oskar Schindler was able to save people between 1942 and 1945, what could have been done in the years before that? Perhaps Auschwitz would never have happened.

If you look at the present, you must ask yourself, how many budding moments of violence have you and I overlooked at work, in our families or associations? Where we should have said "stop"; where we should have interfered or changed the discourse? Did we or didn't we?

Living in such a wonderfully democratic and free country doesn't take courage, but it does mean that you have to take a stance. That is what Oskar Schindler did. He developed another stance during the years he spent in Krakow. Once you have a mindset, interfering is not complicated or difficult.

All I can say is that today, we are not facing the beginnings of problems that need to be stopped — we're right in the middle. Our society has a structural problem. Take action, show your true colors, interfere — not just because of the Jews and other minorities, but for your own sake. When we speak of human rights that concerns us all, doesn't it?

Are there enough people like Oskar Schindler in German society today, almost 75 years after the end of the Nazi dictatorship and the Holocaust? The political landscape here has changed dramatically, in particular the far right.

The fact that a misanthropic, anti-Semitic, racist party, whose co-leader trivialized Auschwitz, Hitler and the Third Reich as a speck of "bird shit" in German history, won seats in parliament is a shocking scandal that concerns all of us. It's scandalous, too, that millions of people are still willing to vote for this party. Anyone who votes for a party that stands for hatred, exclusion and contempt of democracy knows that the vote supports this way of thinking. No one can say they didn't know. Anyone who supports incendiary talk should not believe they can wash their hands of it.

I would never have thought that this could become reality: a legalized and legitimized party wants to rewrite history, for instance by criticizing the Berlin Holocaust Memorial as a "memorial of shame."

The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin
The Holocaust Memorial in BerlinImage: picture-alliance/Schoening

Twenty percent of Germans can imagine supporting something like that. As far the remaining 80 percent are concerned, I'd say they are too quiet, too reticent and too indifferent. Some people interfere, but not enough and many are not loud enough. You asked whether Germany has people like Schindler — we don't need heroes, we need democrats.

What role does the German Basic Law play?

If our society no longer sees the Basic Law, which emerged from the experiences of the Nazi era, as the supreme principle of our country, namely that human dignity is inviolable, and if society does not notice that once again, there are people and parties violating this dignity — the foundations of our country, our society — and if this realization does not prompt millions of people to take action, then I'm pessimistic about the years to come.

Every day, however, offers millions of people the chance to reflect and decide to take action. As I said, that does not have to be within a broad political framework; practice again and again at home, at work, in associations, and your voice will become louder on a political level. You need to decide, and doing nothing is also a decision. It is no excuse to say, the individual cannot do anything. A Jewish saying has it that "whoever saves one life saves the entire world" — which means that even a small contribution means you have done something.

The name Oskar Schindler has to a certain extent become a benchmark for humanity. Do Germans need to be more like Schindler?

People in Germany, Europe and the US, too, need to adopt the attitude that what is happening concerns them, and that they can change the world, maybe by just a tiny bit. There is no excuse. When people tell me that getting involved is pointless, I say: "That is a cheap excuse. Get up, do it!"