Schindler was born in Zwittau, then Austria-Hungary (now Svitavy, Czech Republic), into a wealthy business family. The family suffered in the Great Depression of the 1930s and Schindler joined the Nazi party. He was a dilettante and an opportunistic businessman. Following the German invasion of Poland he was one of many Germans who sought a profit in the new territory. Schindler cheaply acquired a factory in Krakow, which he named Deutsche Emailwaren-Fabrik, producing enamelware and later munitions. He also obtained around 1300 Jewish slave labourers to work the plant. Some say that he was, at least initially, motivated by money – hiding wealthy Jewish investors, for instance – but later he began shielding his workers more actively. He would, for instance, claim that unskilled workers were in fact essential to the working of the factory, and that any harm to them would result in him raising complaints and demanding compensation from the government.
The key horror he witnessed was a 1942 raid on a Jewish ghetto in Krakow. The soldiers were transferring them to the concentration camp at Plaszow, but savagely killed the many Jews who tried to hide in their homes. He was a brilliantly diplomatic individual, and after the raid was increasingly prepared to use all his skills to save his Schindlerjuden (Schindler's Jews). He arranged with Amon Goeth, the commander of Plaszow, for 900 Jews to be transferred to an adjacent factory compound where they would be relatively safer from the depredations of the German guards. When the advancing Red Army threatened the camps they were destroyed, with their inmates mostly executed. Schindler managed to move 1200 'workers' to a factory at Brunnlitz (Brnenec) in Czechoslovakia in October 1944. When a shipment of his workforce was misrouted to Auschwitz, he managed to have them returned to him. Brunnlitz was liberated in May 1945.
At the end of the war Schindler emigrated to Argentina. He went bankrupt and returned to Germany in 1958 to a series of unsuccessful business ventures. He died in Hildesheim. The Israeli government declared him 'Righteous' in 1962 and buried him in the Protestant Cemetery, Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.