Itzhak Stern was a Polish–Israeli Jewish accountant who survived the ‘Holocaust’ during World War II. He worked for the Sudeten-German industrialist Oskar Schindler in an enamelware factory in Krakow, Poland, before World War II began. He had met Schindler in 1939 at the ‘Judenrat’ building where Schindler was searching for a man with connections who could help him gather funds for his new factory. According to Schindler’s accountant, Itzhak had advised his employer to lease an existing factory instead of buying a new one, to gain more freedom from the ‘Nazi Party.’ He had also advised Schindler to select Krakow's Jewish community as his staff, as they were considered a good source of cheap, trustworthy labor. Over the course of time, both men developed a close bond, which eventually led Itzhak to assist Schindler in his wartime rescue activities during the ‘Holocaust.’ He is credited with typing out the list of names famously known as the “Schindler's list,” which contained the names of the Jews who survived the ‘Holocaust.’ He continued to work for Schindler after the latter moved to Czechoslovakia to open a new factory and he himself moved to Israel after the war ended.
Childhood & Early Life
Itzhak was born in Krakow on January 25, 1901. He had a brother named Natan Stern, who went to Plaszow after the liquidation of the ‘Krakow Ghetto.’
Not much is known about his parents or family. However, it is known that his mother died of illness when she was being transferred to Auschwitz along with other female Jews from Schindler’s company. This incident is reported to have happened before Schindler had arranged their transfer to his new factory in Czechoslovakia.
He played the role of an important leader in the Jewish community and became the vice president of the ‘Jewish Agency for Western Poland.’ He was also a member of the ‘Zionist Central Committee.’
He got engaged to his partner, Sophia Backenrot, in 1938, but their marriage was postponed until after World War II.
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On November 18, 1939, Itzhak met Oskar Schindler for the first time during the early months of the ‘Nazi’ occupation of Poland. Back then, he was working as an accountant for Josef “Sepp” Aue, who owned his former place of Jewish employment as a trustee. Josef was an ‘Abwehr’ (German military intelligence service) agent and a friend of Schindler’s.
It was Itzhak who advised Schindler, who wanted to acquire the enamelware factory called ‘Rekord Limited,’ to buy or lease his business to gain more freedom from the ‘Nazis.’ Schindler was then an active member of the ‘Nazi Party’.
He also advised Schindler to hire more Jewish people in his company at a much lower price than what he would spend to hire Polish staff. After Schindler agreed to his advice, they began rescuing Jews during the ‘Holocaust.’ This way, he became instrumental in saving many Jewish people who worked in Schindler’s factory and helped protect them from deportation. Together, they saved the lives of more than 1,000 “Schindlerjuden” (a German term meaning “Schindler’s Jews”).
Schindler practically handed over the reins of his factory to Itzhak, who was his bookkeeper and forged paperwork to make intellectuals and teachers appear to be factory workers and machinists. He began providing employment to Jews who would have otherwise been considered “nonessential” and most likely have been killed.
After the liquidation of the ‘Krakow Ghetto’ in 1943, Itzhak; his brother, Natan Stern; and Schindler’s workers were sent to Plaszow, along with Mietek Pemper and Joseph Bau. They were forced to work in the Plaszow office, where they came into contact with Amon Goth, an infamous commandant. Itzhak aided Pemper in his efforts to prevent the liquidation of Plaszow, as it would have led to the death of every prisoner there.
Even during his time in Plaszow, he never lost contact with Schindler and continued to work toward the betterment of the Jews. He continued to transfer Jewish workers to Schindler’s factory. He also circulated aid money and tried to attract the world’s attention to the plight of the Jewish people.
He came to the ‘Brünnlitz’ labor camp when Schindler decided to open the new factory in Czechoslovakia, after the closure of Plaszow became imminent in 1944. In order to prevent them from being sent to death camps, Itzhak and the surviving members of his family were placed on the famous list of Jews. They were to be transferred to Schindler’s safe haven. There, Itzhak started working directly with Schindler and became one of the leaders of the Jewish community.
He, along with other Jewish leaders, penned a letter to prevent Schindler’s arrest after the defeat of ‘Nazi’ Germany. Schindler was supposed to be arrested due to his ‘Abwehr’ membership and his ‘Nazi Party’ affiliation. He attested to Schindler’s wartime rescue of the Jewish community in the letter, which was given to Schindler before he fled to America.
He moved to Paris before finally immigrating to Israel after the ‘Red Army’ liberated the ‘Brünnlitz’ camp. He worked diligently to help Schindler be recognized more broadly and even wrote a pamphlet about his wartime rescue activities.
Personal Life & Legacy
Itzhak got engaged to Sophia Backenrot in 1938, after she survived the war due to her Aryan appearance, during her time in the ‘Drogobycz Ghetto.’ He remained married to Sophia until the end. He died in 1969, at the age of 68.
He maintained a lifelong friendship with Schindler and continued to correspond with him until his death.
His life was adapted on the big screen in the 1993 movie ‘Schindler’s List.’ His character was played by English actor Ben Kingsley. At the end of the movie, his widow, Sophia, appeared in a “Schindlerjuden” procession, with the actors who portrayed them in the film. They placed stones on Mount Zion, which is a Jewish tradition to show respect for the departed.
When he died, iIt was reported that Schindler had “cried inconsolably at his funeral.”
A letter written by Schindler to him was available for sale online for US$32,500. The letter contained rare original autographs and historical paperwork. It was put out for sale by a Stern descendant.