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Schindler's Mystery

IT is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.

The proverb leaped to thought at the opening scene of the movie, ``Schindler's List,'' in which we see, on an otherwise darkened screen, a match struck and a candle lit. The candle is part of a Jewish ceremony - part of a Jewish world that was nearly lost in the Holocaust. What that candle says wordlessly about the value of individual good deeds is a thread running throughout the movie.

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``Schindler's List'' is the story of how a German Nazi party member and privateer went to Poland to get rich running an enamelware factory with Jewish slave labor and ended up saving more than 1,000 Jews - ``my people,'' he calls them - from the Nazi death camps.

The film has been faulted by some for not explaining better Schindler's transition from self-absorbed privateer to heroic rescuer of the doomed.

His witnessing, from horseback above the city, the clearing of the Krakow ghetto is represented as a turning point for Schindler in his dealings with the Nazis. But even after that horrific episode, when he complains that workers of his have been summarily shot, he still talks to the Nazis in terms of lost production rather than sheer inhumanity.

Perhaps that only makes the point that Schindler was a doer of deals, one who could accomplish more by negotiating with the devil than by holding himself aloof.

The movie is based on a book by Australian writer Thomas Keneally, who drew on the individual stories of the gratefully surviving ``Schindler Jews.'' This approach results in any number of small speaking parts, but may explain why we don't get inside Schindler's own head.

That may be just as well; mystery is part of the fascination of Schindler's story. Where did that heroic goodness come from that inspired and enabled him to act so boldly to save all those people?

He was not a conventionally ``good'' man. He was an opportunist, a Nazi party member; he had no misgivings in principle about profiting from war, and he was (this always is mentioned) a womanizer.

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One of the questions of the Holocaust is: How did so many basically ``good'' people surrender their consciences to a madman? One of the questions Schindler's story raises is: How was a basically ``not good'' man able to do so much good under such appalling conditions? And we must ask: What opportunities do we have in our own lives to intervene on behalf of others?

Erwin Staub is a psychologist who, since his own experience as a boy in Nazi-dominated Budapest, has studied the critical role of bystanders in abetting or preventing acts of evil. He has noted that Schindler started small in helping his workers, but over time took ever greater risks to help them.

Bystanders can achieve a great deal at minimal cost to themselves if they intervene early. Dr. Staub has commented that if, some time back, a United Nations fleet had appeared in the Adriatic Sea to signal the Serbs that their aggression against Bosnia would not be tolerated, that aggression could have been checked. A European foreign minister made a similar point to a couple of my colleagues a few years ago.

It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. And he who saves one life saves the whole world.

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