Two people, two destinies, two different eras, but a shared common cause; to follow the whispering of their consciences and risk their lives to save the persecuted. Ultimately, they also shared the same fate and were destroyed by their own governments. Entrepreneur Oskar Schindler and lawyer Gao Zhisheng are deserved of the title ‘great’ because they dared to go against the grain and stand against evil.
Entrepreneur Oskar Schindler: The silent hero
Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in the then German province of Zwittau (present-day Czech Republic), into a family with a long history of producing businessmen.
When Hitler took power, like many Germans, Oskar Schindler signed up for the NAZI. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, with his business acumen, Schindler took the opportunity to follow the SS Armed Forces to Krakow and established a close relationship with the German Intelligence Agency, the Gestapo, stationed there.
In 1940, Schindler hired Jews to work in his enamelware factory. In 1942, SS Officer Amon Goeth, who was the head of Plaszow’s camp, was ordered to liquidate the Krakow slum, pushing the Jews into three death camps in eastern Poland, including Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Among the population due to be moved to the camps were Jewish workers hired to work in Schindler’s factory.
Amon Goeth was notorious for being an atrocious killer, he was known for aiming powerful rifles at Jewish children playing in the camp every morning in order to encourage a productive working day. Witnessing the brutality of the SS, Oskar Schindler was determined to take the risk to save the Jews who were working for him.
Schindler persuaded, negotiated and bribed Amon Goeth to allow him to open a “mini labor camp” in his own factory “to save labor time”. Secretly, his actual purpose for this was to prevent his workers from being sent to the death camps. From then on, any money that businessman Schindler made, was devoted to providing for his workers and “bribing” Amon Goeth and other local SS officials.
Schindler’s factory was located next to the Plaszow camp and SS guards were only allowed to patrol outside the factory fence, they could not enter the factory without his permission.
Inside the factory, Jewish workers were treated well, they could pray daily, read the Torah and gather at night to learn Chumash. Their daily meals contained up to 2000 calories, and when food became scarce, Schindler spent a lot of his own money on buying overpriced food on the black market.
Schindler diligently stayed at the factory all day and all night to prevent the Gestapo from coming in. Whenever Schindler’s Jewish workers were threatened with deportation, he would utilize his negotiation skills and offer large sums of money in exchange for their freedoms.
Under the Nazi leadership, millions of Jews were murdered in the death camps of Treblinka, Auschwitz, and countless others but Schindler’s Jewish workers survived miraculously at Plaszow until 1944.
In 1944, when the Nazi’s were defeated on the Eastern Front, Plaszow camp was ordered to dissolve. Schindler’s factory was forced to shut down and the Jews in the labor camp were sent to the death camps, where nothing but death awaited them. In a desperate attempt, he made use of every relationship in Krakow, Warsaw and even Berlin to hold off the process.
Schindler decided to shift from producing enamelware to grenade shells, in order to persuade the SS officers of the vital role his factory played in providing supplies to the German army. Oskar Schindler had, by this point, used up all of his capital and influence to persuade, plead, and bribe the SS in order to achieve his goals.
During the last months of the war, Nazi death camps intensified their efforts in eliminating the Jews. No-one at the time could believe that Schindler’s plan would be successful, but miraculously, he was allowed to move his factory from the camp at Plaszow to the town of Brunnlitz (Czechoslovakia) with all of his Jewish workers.
The 1,200 Jewish workers on his list were able to escape the tragic fate that so many of their contemporaries met. 25,000 men, women and children from Plaszow camp were sent to the gas chambers of Auschwitz, just 60km away.
However, due to an error, 300 Jewish women from Schindler’s list were stuffed onto the train to Auschwitz. They each had their hair forcefully cut and were then pushed into a chamber with the masses, their righteous protests falling on deaf ears. Still unsure whether water was about to rain down on them or death, they began to panic. It was then that they heard a familiar voice.
“What are you doing with these people? They belong to my list.”
Schindler appeared just in time, to their rescue.
The 300 people on Schindler’s “lost” list were the only “shipment” of people to leave the Auschwitz death camp during World War II, a place where the Nazis killed 2-3 million people. The sight of Schindler liberating his 300 people from Auschwitz must have been spectacular. It was a place where only the dead could leave.
“No one has ever escaped from Auschwitz, and if that happens, the only way is to escape through the smoke pipe,” Abraham Zuckerman, one witness commented.
The 1,200 workers on Oskar Schindler’s list miraculously survived the war until its end on 1945 September 2nd.
Tragically, perhaps due to the fortune Schindler dedicated to the preservation of his Jewish workers after the war ended Schindler had no option but to live in poverty. His destitution, however, was to him, a small price to pay for the lives of the people that he saved. He died in 1974 and his body was buried in a Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion in Jerusalem (Israel).
Attorney Gao Zhisheng: Courage and Faith
Gao Zhisheng was born in 1964, in northern Shaanxi, China. From a young age, he had to work tirelessly in a coal mine, and because he had no money to pay for tuition, he would attempt to listen in to classes through the village school window. In later years, a relative financially supported him through high school. After he graduated, he was qualified to join the Army and so he became a CCP member.
In 1991, after he had left the army and was now selling vegetables for a living, Gao Zhisheng read an article referring to Deng Xiaoping’s plan to train 150,000 lawyers in order to develop China’s legal system. He enrolled, and thanks to his great intelligence, he passed the exams spectacularly in 1995 with desires of “contributing to the transformation of Chinese society.”
He started practicing law in 1996 in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, before moving to Beijing. His career gave him the opportunity to travel throughout China. The experience, however, opened his eyes to many injustices. He witnessed many cases of wrongful accusations in which the victims were poor and helpless, and often at the mercy of the courts. With generosity and deep sympathy for the “low neck” class, Gao Zhisheng set himself a rule to work by: dedicate one-third of his time to provide free juridical services for the poor and the oppressed. His devotion to protecting the interests of the common people earned him the rank of being among China’s “10 Greatest Lawyers” according to the Chinese Ministry of Justice. At that time, Gao Zhisheng was just 34 years old.
In 2004, attorney Gao Zhisheng offered legal assistance to a Falun Gong practitioner who was sentenced to three years of forced labor, without a trial. Witnessing a large community of practitioners adhering to the principle of Truthfulness-Compassion-Forbearance being brutally persecuted and slandered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), Gao made an attempt to rescue Falun Gong practitioners by bringing the case to trial. But, no matter which way he turned the path to justice was blocked.
In late 2005, Gao Zhisheng grew increasingly determined to tackle this particularly “sensitive” issue in a very special way; through the publication of an open letter. His letter was addressed to Wu Bangguo, Standing Committee Member of the Standing Committee of the Congress National people, President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Its target was to clarify his appeal by exposing the brutal torture of Falun Gong practitioners by the authorities.
Very quickly, Gao Zhisheng received a response… his house was under surveillance around the clock, the Beijing Department of Justice revoked his license to practice law and his law office was forced to close. Despite the threat of assassination and the harassment of family, lawyer Gao Zhisheng did not waver, he continued to gather information from places where Falun Gong practitioners were most brutally persecuted.
In 2006, Gao sent another public letter to the Chinese leadership, publicizing the existence of the 610 Office (the Secret Service responsible for the monitoring and suppression of Falun Gong practitioners). Next, Gao Zhisheng withdrew from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) whilst publicly criticizing them for being “brutal” and “inhuman”. With these drastic actions, Gao Zhisheng was officially regarded as an “enemy of the regime” by the CCP.
Gao Zhisheng was ultimately kidnapped and tortured by the public security in 2006 August and forced to sign a plea for “inciting regime subversion”. He was sentenced to three years in prison and one year of probation, but for no apparent reason, he was released. In 2007, Gao Zhisheng sent a letter to the US Congress, accusing the CCP of being “fascist” and demanding that the perpetrators of the Falun Gong persecution must be brought to justice. He described their actions to be “crimes against humanity”. Almost immediately, he was detained in solitary confinement in 2007 September.
Attorney Gao Zhisheng was released from prison on August 7th that year, but was under probation at home in Shaanxi Province. In the days directly following his release, he barely spoke and half of his teeth were missing, the other half were shaken loose due to the brutal torture he endured. He was, unimaginably, not allowed access to medical services.
Attorney Gao Zhisheng has spent the past eight years in and out of prison, where he has been subjected to torture similar to that of Falun Gong practitioners, including barbarous forms of beatings, electric shocks, toothpicks, prickling genitals, and sleep deprivation.
Gao said that the guards broadcasted tapes smearing Falun Gong in his cell continuously for 68 weeks .
In 2017 November, RFA released a short audio recording, in which Gao Zhisheng said that he was locked in a room where the windows were painted black, he was detained in “endless darkness”. He described his situation as even worse than his three years in the Shaya Prison in northwestern Xinjiang.
In late 2017, he was abducted from his home, his whereabouts unknown and remains so to this day. Gao Zhisheng has become a symbol of JUSTICE throughout China and the Chinese court system. His only crime, his perseverance in defending Falun Gong and Christian practitioners. He was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008 and 2010.
They are great because they dare to go against evil
It is questioned, why did Oskar Schindler and Gao Zhisheng, two ordinary men, living prosperous lives, choose to embark on these journeys and throw themselves into such terrible situations?
Why Oscar Schindler dared to risk his life to rescue 1,200 Jews from the terror of the gas chamber remains a mystery, when so many others stood idly by. The Nazis sowed a lie into the mindset of the German people so deeply that the population were either crippled by fear or by ignorance, into submission. Despite being arrested by the Gestapo twice, Schindler continued to do things that few of his compatriots were brave enough to even think of.
Twenty years after World War II, Moshe Bejski, a Schindler Jew, now a judge at the Supreme Court in Israel, asked his benefactor, “Why did you do that?” Schindler replied, “I understand the people who work for me. When you understand them, you have to treat them like a human being.”
In Hitler’s evil and crazy world, where Nazism regarded the Jews as parasites, and the whole of Germany lived in fear and silence, shutting their eyes to genocide, Schindler distinguished clearly right from wrong. He not only accepted the Jews as people but he also created conditions for them to practice their faith in his factory, despite being overwhelmed by the spies of the Gestapo crawling everywhere. Magnificently, Oskar Schindler risked his life and bet his entire fortune on a risky “gamble” to save their lives of others, at all costs.
Why did was Oscar Schindler, coming from the role of a business opportunist in wartime, earning money from lucrative deals, including using cheap Jewish workers, finally spent his last penny to save their lives and risk his own?
He was a truly great man, who saw people for what they are, people.
So, what of Gao Zhisheng?
Falun Gong is a very sensitive topic in China, Falun Gong practitioners have been subjected to brutal torture by the communist regime, without the right to speak out, and there is no one daring to defend their case when that means confronting the intimidation and harassment of the Chinese government. This is, until Gao Zhisheng.
Many Chinese lawyers encountered the pressures of Jiang’s violent and hostile regime, but most of them also chose to avoid the fight. There was, however, a group of righteous lawyers who spoke out against the regime in defense of the weak. Gao, being the figure head. The Le Nouvel Observateur weekly magazine posted “China’s Courageous attorney”, and are quoted to have said“Gao Zhisheng was one of the first lawyers to defend Falun Gong practitioners. He had to pay a high price for it.”
Gao Zhisheng, one of the most celebrated lawyers of the early 21st century. For the sake of speaking out and defending Falun Gong practitioners, he suffered all kinds of brutal persecution. However, Gao Zhisheng said that he would never leave China, despite his imprisonment, extreme torture, the mental pain of his families dispersal and all the news related to him being hushed up by the China government. Under intense surveillance by the secret police, Gao Zhisheng demonstrated his unwavering strength of character after his brutal torture administered by the Chinese regime.
In a letter dated 2016 June 28th, from an isolated poor village in northern Shaanxi Province, he wrote: “Silence before evil is the equivalent of the dead world – but for a stupid dictatorship, it is the world of dreams … History is always recorded honestly and diligently, and in the end the wrongdoers will be punished … Extend the list of crimes after Tiananmen Square Massacre and the brutal persecution of Falun Gong, these wild abusers of human rights will be brought to justice, one by one, in special tribunals after 2017.”
Why these two people? What made them have the courage to stand against evil? The answer is: They had FAITH. Oscar Schindler and Gao Zhisheng were both Christians, and the character of the truly religious has always emphasized Ethics, Tolerance and Compassion.
Thomas Keneally, author of the world-famous book Schindler’s Ark, writes, ‘Oscar Schindler was deeply influenced by the Catholic doctrine of his parents. Oscar Schindler not only saved the Jews – he saved our faith in humanity…’
Cao Qiang, the daughter of lawyer Gao Zhisheng said in a press conference, “The last time I spoke to my father, he prayed to God.”
They were able to escape from the fear that humanity faced in a world where evil was dominant, pass through the bloody mire of the Holocaust and the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners, not as men alone, but also as men of God, shining by compassion, with respect for every human life.
In the end, who we are and the world we want to live in, depends on our choices. The weak or strong, the great or the wicked, all lies ultimately in our hands…