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“In Poland’s deepest autumn, a tall young man in an expensive overcoat, double-breasted dinner jacket beneath it and — in the lapel of the dinner jacket — a large ornamental gold-on-black-enamel Hakenkreuz (swastika) emerged from a fashionable apartment building in Straszewskiego Street, on the edge of the ancient center of Cracow, and saw his chauffeur waiting with fuming breath by the open door of an enormous and, even in this blackened world, lustrous Adler limousine. ‘Watch the pavement, Herr Schindler,’ said the chauffeur. ‘It’s as icy as a widow’s heart.’ In observing this small winter scene, we are on safe ground. The tall young man would to the end of his days wear doublebreasted suits, would — being something of an engineer — always be gratified by large dazzling vehicles, would — though a German and at this point in history a German of some influence — always be the sort of man with whom a Polish chauffeur could safely crack a lame, comradely joke.

But it will not be possible to see the whole story under such easy character headings. For this is the story of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil, a triumph in eminently measurable, statistical, unsubtle terms… Fatal human malice is the staple of narrators, original sin the mother-fluid of historians. But it is a risky enterprise to have to write of virtue.

‘Virtue’ in fact is such a dangerous word that we have to rush to explain; Herr Oskar Schindler, risking his glimmering shoes on the icy pavement in this old and elegant quarter of Cracow, was not a virtuous young man in the customary sense. In this city he kept house with his German mistress and maintained a long affair with his Polish secretary. His wife, Emilie, chose to live most of the time at home in Moravia, though she sometimes came to Poland to visit him. There’s this to be said for him: that to all his women he was a well-mannered and generous lover. But under the normal interpretation of ‘virtue,’ that’s no excuse.

Likewise, he was a drinker. Some of the time he drank for the pure glow of it, at other times with associates, bureaucrats, SS men for more palpable results. Like few others, he was capable of staying canny while drinking, of keeping his head. That again, though — under the narrow interpretation of morality — has never been an excuse for carousing. And although Herr Schindler’s merit is well documented, it is a feature of his ambiguity that he worked within or, at least, on the strength of a corrupt and savage scheme, one that filled Europe with camps of varying but consistent inhumanity and created a submerged, unspoken-of nation of prisoners.”

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Excerpted from the intro to Thomas Keneally’s 1982 novel Schindler’s Ark (later retitled to Schindler’s List). When asked, years later, why he’d acted the way he did during the holocaust, Schindler apparently replied, “I could never abuse something with a human face.”

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