Geborgenheit is a German word describing a feeling of well-being and security. Some call it untranslatable, as its meaning is much deeper than mere safety, but refers to intensely beautiful moments characterized by comfort and peace.
During the Holocaust, from 1941 to 1945, Jewish men, women, and children were stripped from their families and lived in torturous conditions with scarce amounts of food until they were led to their death by the Nazi Germans. Beyond being deprived of their safety and well-being, the Jews were stripped of their fundamental humanity, systematically enslaved and exterminated.
However, some individuals, such as German industrialist Oskar Schindler, provided a sense of hope for Holocaust victims by giving them a chance to survive. Although a member of the Nazi Party, Schindler’s humanitarian actions saved nearly 1,000 Jews from their likely deaths in concentration camps and serve as exemplars for heroism and compassion in the face of fascism and cruelty. What Schindler did for helpless strangers, against everything he was ordered to do, embodies the essence of geborgenheit and the dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who called all people to value peace and common humanity over division and oppression.
Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in a province within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Schindler grew up and worked as a businessman throughout his early life until joined the Nazi Party. Since his lifestyle did not exactly correlate with a military position, he “seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime rescuer.” During World War II, Schindler took in approximately 1,000 Jews to work at his enamelware factory, where he provided those victims with a safe haven from the oppression and torture at Auschwitz concentration camp. Instead of turning them over, he actively sought people to save and protected their basic human rights, giving them food, clothing and shelter. Although the Jews were employed as factory workers, the conditions there were much more humane than the labor camps most Jews were subject to.
Although his Nazi title and his altruistic actions contradicted each other, Schindler used his privilege to bring peace to the lives of others. One survivor named Ludmilla recounted her time at both Auschwitz and Brunnlitz, one of Schindler’s factories. Ludmilla stated, “Schindler tried to do everything possible to make our [lives] more comfortable.” While all nearby surrounding areas were being evacuated, even the Germans struggled to find food; however, Ludmilla recalled that Schindler still managed to provide food for the factory workers. His actions did not come without significant risk, and Schindler put his life in danger to save hundreds of Jews. His informed action came from a place of awareness and selflessness. Schindler knew that he would face serious consequences if he got caught. In fact, he almost sacrificed his life, as he was “suspect[ed] of corruption and of giving unauthorized aid to Jews. German SS and police officials arrested him three times, while he owned Emalia [his factory], but were unable to charge him” (United States). Schindler’s arrests did not deter his commitment to saving Jews.
Schindler’s actions were significant because while he was risking all that he had for the Jews’ safety, he felt peace within himself. Schindler’s actions reflected Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message that the “onward push to the end of self-fulfillment is the end of a person’s life.” As Dr. King and Schindler both did, we must be prepared to put our lives on the line for our communities. When we see people being robbed of their lives, their liberty and their futures, we must do something. Just as Schindler and Dr. King exemplified, we must be deeply committed to the well-being of others in order to gain a sense of geborgenheit. If we are not, this sense of trust and peace will never be achieved.
Oskar Schindler and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. both took courageous steps by acting in a way that upheld peace in the face of inhumanity. Dr. King and Schindler were able to do this by treating others with kindness and respect. Ultimately, the way we all can answer Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to help one another is by living to give others a sense of geborgenheit.
Thalia Colarian is a junior at Buchanan High School in the Clovis Unified School District. This essay won first place in the high school division of the Fresno County Superintendent of Schools’ MLK contest.