Schindler soon adapted his lifestyle to his income. He became a well-respected guest at SS parties, having easy chats with high-ranking SS officers, often for his benefit. Initially Schindler may have been motivated by money — hiding wealthy Jewish investors, for instance — but later he began shielding his workers without regard for cost. He would, for instance, claim that unskilled workers were essential to the factory.
While witnessing a 1942 raid on the Kraków Ghetto, where soldiers were used to round up the inhabitants for shipment to the concentration camp at Płaszów, Schindler was appalled by the murder of many of the Jews who had been working for him. He was a very persuasive individual, and after the raid, increasingly used all of his skills to protect his Schindlerjuden ("Schindler's Jews"), as they came to be called. Schindler went out of his way to take care of the Jews who worked at DEF, often calling on his legendary charm and ingratiating manner to help his workers get out of difficult situations. Once, says author Eric Silver in The Book of the Just, "Two Gestapo men came to his office and demanded that he hand over a family of five who had bought forged Polish identity papers. 'Three hours after they walked in,' Schindler said, 'two drunk Gestapo men reeled out of my office without their prisoners and without the incriminating documents they had demanded'". The special status of his factory ("business essential to the war effort") became the decisive factor for his efforts to support his Jewish workers. Whenever the "Schindler Jews" were threatened with deportation he could claim exemptions for them. Wives, children and even handicapped persons were shown to be necessary mechanics and metalworkers. He arranged with Amon Göth, the commandant of Plaszow, for 700 Jews to be transferred to an adjacent factory compound, where they would be relatively safe from the depredations of the German guards. Schindler also reportedly began to smuggle children out of the ghetto, delivering them to Polish nuns, who either hid them from the Nazis or claimed they were Christian orphans.
Schindler was arrested twice on suspicion of black market activities and complicity in embezzlement; Göth and other SS-guards used Jewish property (such as money, jewellery, and works of art) for themselves, although according to law, it belonged to the Reich. Schindler mediated such sales on black market and also preserved many stolen items. He managed to avoid being jailed after each arrest. Schindler would typically bribe government officials to avoid investigation.
As the Red Army drew nearer to Auschwitz and the other easternmost concentration camps, the SS began evacuating the remaining prisoners westward. Schindler persuaded the SS officials to allow him to move his 1,100 Jewish workers to Brněnec (Brünnlitz) in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia (then in the Sudetenland province), thus sparing the Jews from certain death in the extermination camps. In Brněnec, he gained another former Jewish factory, where he was supposed to produce missiles and hand grenades for the war effort. However, during the months that this factory was running, not a single weapon produced could actually be fired. Hence Schindler made no money; rather, his previously earned fortune grew steadily smaller as he bribed officials and cared for his workers.
No one really knows what Schindler's motives were. However, he was quoted as saying "I knew the people who worked for me... When you know people, you have to behave toward them like human beings.
The writer Herbert Steinhouse, who interviewed Schindler in 1948 at the behest of some of the surviving Schindlerjuden (Schindler's Jews), wrote:
Oskar Schindler's exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him. The inference may be disappointingly simple, especially for all amateur psychoanalysts who would prefer the deeper and more mysterious motive that may, it is true, still lie unprobed and unappreciated. But an hour with Oskar Schindler encourages belief in the simple answer.
In 1967, Schindler was honored at Israel's Yad Vashem memorial to the victims of the Holocaust as one of the Righteous Among the Nations, or "righteous Gentiles", an honor awarded by Israel to non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust at great personal risk. Schindler was the only former member of the Nazi party to be so recognized by the planting of a tree in his name at the Yad Vashem Memorial. He was also honored with the German Federal Cross of Merit and with the Papal Order of St. Sylvester during the 1960s. Schindler's story, retold by Holocaust survivor Poldek Pfefferberg, was the basis for Thomas Keneally's book Schindler's Ark (the novel was later renamed Schindler's List), which was adapted into the 1993 movie Schindler's List by Steven Spielberg. In the film, he is played by Liam Neeson, who was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal. The film went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The prominence of Spielberg's film introduced Schindler into popular culture. As the film is the sole source of most people's knowledge of Schindler, he is generally perceived much as Spielberg's film depicts him: as a man who was instinctively driven by profit-driven amorality, but who at some point made a silent but conscious decision that preserving the lives of his Jewish employees was imperative, even if requiring massive payments to induce Nazis to turn a blind eye. While Spielberg's film takes some cinematic liberties, the depiction of Schindler appears to be a rare example of an unromanticized historical protagonist.
In the Autumn of 1999 a suitcase belonging to Schindler was discovered, containing over 7,000 photographs and documents, including the list of Schindler's Jewish workers. The document, on his enamelware factory's letterhead, had been provided to the SS stating that the named workers were "essential" employees. Friends of Schindler found the suitcase in the attic of a house in Hildesheim, Germany, where he had been staying at the time of his death. The friends took the suitcase to Stuttgart, where its discovery was reported by a newspaper, the Stuttgarter Zeitung. The contents of the suitcase; including the list of the names of those he had saved and the text of his farewell speech before leaving "his Jews" in 1945, are now at the Holocaust Museum of Yad Vashem in Israel.