Thirty years ago, Schindler’s List, directed by the illustrious Steven Spielberg, debuted in theaters across the United States. It not only was the most consequential English-language movie about the Holocaust up to that point but also shaped filmmaking and public consciousness of the genocide for years to come.

Schindler’s List is based on Schindler’s Ark, a 1982 novel by Australian author Thomas Keneally, who famously wrote the book after he tried to buy a briefcase in Beverly Hills, California, and had a chance encounter with Leopold Page, a Polish Holocaust survivor. Formerly known as Poldek Pfefferberg, Page told Keneally about the Nazi who saved him and his wife during World War II. The Nazi in question, Oskar Schindler, is credited with saving more than 1,000 Jews by putting them to work at his Krakow enamel factory, thus sparing them from deportation and death.

Schindler’s List tells the story of the eponymous German industrialist, who is played by Liam Neeson. It shows how the Nazis rounded up Jews in ghettos, then moved them to concentration camps, where they existed at the mercy of the SS—notably, in this case, Amon Göth (Ralph Fiennes), commandant of the Krakow-based Plaszow camp. Comparatively, Schindler’s Jews were lucky: He established a Plaszow subcamp on his factory’s premises, where, as survivors have recounted, they could rest if they were sick and weren’t arbitrarily shot. Toward the end of World War II, when the Nazis sent most camp inmates on death marches to hide them from the advancing Russians, Schindler transferred his workers to a new factory site in Brünnlitz, then part of occupied Czechoslovakia. He even secured the release of 300 women mistakenly sent to Auschwitz instead of Brünnlitz.

Schindler's List (1993) Official Trailer - Liam Neeson, Steven Spielberg Movie HD

After meeting Page, Keneally decided to write a book—a novel, since he was a novelist—about Schindler’s story. “I didn’t want to give it up,” he says. “I was really hooked on this idea of highly imperfect deliverance.” (Schindler’s Ark spends more time on its protagonist’s backstory than the movie does, detailing how he used World War II to become rich.) Keneally was originally going to write the screenplay for the movie, but that job ultimately went to Steven Zaillian, whose more recent credits include Moneyball and The Irishman.

Keneally believes Schindler’s Ark and its film adaptation are compelling for several reasons. There’s Schindler himself, a Nazi and a war profiteer—and the reason hundreds of Jews survived the Holocaust. He was also a womanizer, Keneally says, noting that one survivor told him, “Thank God [Schindler] liked us better than he liked his poor wife.” Others rescued by Schindler pointed out that he profited from their labor.

Beyond its contradictory central character, the book touches on many different elements of the war and the Holocaust: the complicity of bystanders, the black market, the concentration and extermination camps, the perpetrators, the victims, the survivors. In a way, it’s a story that’s small enough in scale that people can wrap their minds around it. It creates a tangible narrative out of a horror that is unimaginable in its scale and scope.

Schindler's List

In this milestone of Holocaust literature, Thomas Keneally uses the testimony of Oskar Schindler’s Jews to brilliantly portray the courage and cunning of a good man in the midst of unspeakable evil.

Keneally’s book was a smash hit when it came out in the early 1980s. But Schindler’s List didn’t premiere until 1993, meaning it burst onto the scene at what was already a significant moment for Holocaust remembrance in the U.S. In the works for more than a decade, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) finally opened earlier that year; its opening ceremony featured speeches by U.S. President Bill Clinton and Israeli President Chaim Herzog. Holocaust education had been ongoing in U.S. public schools since the 1970s, and Holocaust remembrance was central to American Jews’ political consciousness, but the early 1990s arguably brought understanding of the Shoah to a new level for the country at large.

Schindler’s List entered that context and further elevated remembrance. It also performed almost shockingly well, earning more than $300 million despite the fact that it’s a 195-minute, almost entirely black-and-white film. (A New York Times report on the movie’s box office performance noted that it had “no major stars,” a statement that, 30 years later, is somewhat amusing given its headliners of Neeson and Fiennes.) Schindler’s List won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

On April 22, 1993, more than 10,000 people gathered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum dedication ceremony to observe the lighting of the eternal flame
On April 22, 1993, more than 10,000 people gathered at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum dedication ceremony to observe the lighting of the eternal flame. Robert Giroux / AFP via Getty Images

Four years later, in 1997, Ford Motor Company sponsored an ad-free broadcast of Schindler’s List on NBC. Sixty-five million people tuned in. (Roughly 200 million around the world had watched the film prior to that point.) Per Nielsen, more than a third of households watching TV in the U.S. that Sunday night were tuned in to Schindler’s List.

The broadcast proved controversial; Tom Coburn, a Republican representative from Oklahoma and a co-chair of the Congressional Family Caucus, objected on the grounds that children across the nation “were exposed to the violence of multiple gunshot head wounds, vile language, full-frontal nudity and irresponsible sexual activity.” Senator Alfonse D’Amato, a Republican from New York, in turn pointed out that depicting naked prisoners in a concentration camp is not sexual.

Ford Motor Company’s founder, Henry Ford, was a notorious antisemite who published various antisemitic screeds, including against Jewish filmmakers, in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. Though Ford executive Gerry Donnelly downplayed the industrialist’s history when discussing the sponsorship, he also said the team “felt it was the right thing to do to present this great story of one man’s courage.” Regardless of how intentional the choice of movie was, the fact that a company founded by an antisemite sponsored a film about the Holocaust was something of a turning point—one that hinged on Schindler’s List.

The film’s influence extended beyond the U.S. to the wider world, says Michael Berenbaum, a scholar who previously served as the project director tasked with overseeing USHMM’s creation. Back in 1999, he had the opportunity to watch Schindler’s List at the Berlin Film Festival. “I did not look at the movie as much as I looked at the audience looking at the movie,” he says. “You could see the powerful impact on the younger generation in Germany.”

Oskar Schindler
Oskar Schindler Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Amon Göth
Amon Göth, commandant of the Plaszow concentration camp Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In Berenbaum’s mind, the film was “of critical importance in unfolding Holocaust consciousness in the United States and the world.”

Schindler’s List also marked a shift for Spielberg, says Berenbaum. The movie made clear that he was not only a great filmmaker but also a great Jewish filmmaker. “Spielberg began to mean something, as it were, to the Jewish community itself,” Berenbaum explains. The film was hailed as Spielberg’s “most personal” when it came out; though the story isn’t autobiographical, it grapples with the deaths of more than a dozen of the director’s relatives during the Holocaust.

The target of antisemitic bullying when he was younger, the filmmaker “hid from” his Jewishness for years, he said in the 2017 documentary Spielberg. Making the movie, he added, “made me so proud to be a Jew.” Berenbaum also suggests that other Jewish directors felt freer to make their own more openly, unapologetically Jewish movies because of Schindler’s List. He cites Jon Avnet’s Uprising, a 2001 television movie about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, as an example.

Steven Spielberg in 1993
Steven Spielberg receives the Golden Lion, the highest prize awarded at the Venice FIlm Festival, in 1993. GianAngelo Pistoia via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

In 1994, Spielberg founded the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, now known as the USC Shoah Foundation. The nonprofit records, preserves and shares tens of thousands of testimonies from Holocaust survivors across dozens of countries and in many languages; since its founding, it has expanded to include testimony from other 20th- and 21st-century atrocities, including the Armenian genocide, mass violence against the Rohingya, and war and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The foundation also houses a collection on contemporary antisemitism.

Spielberg has said that he created the foundation because he was profoundly changed by making Schindler’s List. His goal was to “deny the deniers who had been saying on many, many occasions [that] the Holocaust never happened.” By recording testimony, survivors become educators and can remain so long after their deaths, teaching people about what happened, an atrocity that cannot be undone and should not be forgotten or denied.

The movie itself is a work of historical fiction, which has led to, if not critique, then corrective comment from those who want to ensure that the real history of the Schindler story is not lost.

Saved by Schindler's List | Celina Biniaz | Jewish-American Heritage Month | USC Shoah Foundation

“It’s so riddled with historical errors,” says David M. Crowe, author of Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities and the True Story Behind the List. “I’m always concerned about theatrical performances of the Holocaust, because they’re just that. They’re theater.”

The true story, he says, is even more dramatic. Schindler, for example, was in jail on charges of bribery at the time the eponymous list of workers whose lives would be saved was put together. Itzhak Stern, who in the movie serves as Schindler’s Jewish accountant, is actually a composite of three different figures but was, according to Crowe, the least important of the three. Abraham Bankier, the Jewish businessman whose factory was taken over by Schindler during the war, gave the industrialist the idea of saving Jews by having them work for him but is not featured in the movie.

Still, Crowe concedes, “You cannot take away from the fact [that the film] had a dramatic, dramatic impact on the whole field of Holocaust studies.”

Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler (left) and Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern (right) in Schindler's List​​​​​​​
Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler (left) and Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern (right) in Schindler's List Universal Pictures

Marilyn Harran, director of Holocaust education at Chapman University, worked with Leon Leyson, one of the youngest Jews saved by Schindler, on his memoir for young readers. Her critique of Schindler’s List is that it “very powerfully highlights Schindler, but it … doesn’t highlight as much the Jewish workers who played such a vital role in making the list operative.” As many as nine lists existed, several of them compiled by Marcel Goldberg, a Jewish inmate forced to work as a camp orderly at Plaszow, and typed up by Mietek Pemper, a Jewish prisoner assigned to be Göth’s secretary. Pemper served as a consultant on the film but is not a character in it.

Harran adds, “The film played a tremendous role in making the story of one aspect of the Holocaust accessible to people that knew very little about it. It was a turning point. Ordinary people [began] feeling like this was something they wanted to learn more about.” And as a result, “it probably led to a greater discussion of the many ways—not only in terms of well-known events like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising—but the many different ways in which Jews and others targeted struggled to resist.”

“Spielberg made clear that story is what carries memory,” Harran says. “The film—you can nitpick all you want—the film does that.”

Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth (left) and Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler (right) in Schindler's List​​​​​​​
Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth (left) and Liam Neeson as Oskar Schindler (right) in Schindler's List Universal Pictures

Berenbaum believes that Schindler’s List has one major weakness as a cinematic experience: The movie has multiple moments that could serve as an ending, like Schindler leaving “his Jews” to flee to safety or the scene in which real-life survivors walk to Schindler’s grave alongside the actors who played them. The number of potential endings, Berenbaum says, suggests how strongly Spielberg felt about the movie. “He can’t easily walk away from the film.”

For the last 30 years, this sentiment has proved true of many Schindler’s List viewers, too. At least one person predicted the film’s success from the very beginning.

When trying to urge Spielberg to make the film, Keneally recalls, Leopold Page “would call me and say, ‘I’ve just been speaking to Steven. I told him you can’t win an award with little furry animals,’” encouraging Spielberg not to retreat into more fantastical fare. According to Keneally, Page promised, “‘An Oscar for Oskar!’ He turned out to be bloody right.”

Oskar Schindler's grave in Jerusalem
Schindler's grave in Jerusalem Yoninah via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 3.0

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