This time of year, there's a lot of focus on trees. So here's a picture of an old man planting one. He's surrounded by other old men, in serious attire and wearing solemn faces. Out of frame, two younger fellows shoot a movie of the event. The tree planter is a former Nazi spy, and the men around him are Jewish; some are Holocaust survivors. And they're in Jerusalem. The Nazi spy is not a prisoner and he is not being punished; he is, in fact, their honored guest.
This is clearly not a Christmas tree ceremony. It's actually much more inspiring and wonderful. But how is such a moment possible? How can a Nazi — a man who willingly aided the Third Reich to pursue his own selfish dreams of wealth, and who deliberately utilized Jewish slaves to reach that end — be honored as a hero? In, of all places, Israel?
The man, if you haven't already guessed, is Oskar Schindler; and the ceremony is at Yad Vashem, the Israeli memorial to the Holocaust. Yad Vashem honors not only the Jews who perished in World War II, but also the non-Jews (the Righteous Among the Nations) who helped save Jewish lives. Schindler is the only Nazi honored at the memorial. After his death in 1974, he was buried in Jerusalem; perhaps not the only Nazi buried there, but the only one whose grave is revered.
If you look at Schindler before 1941, he really wasn't much of a hero, not even for other Nazis. He cavorted behind his wife's back and did black market trading. Far from an ideologue, Schindler joined the Nazi party to spy for them with the added bonus that such work would help him gain contacts and inside information for his business ventures. Schindler never set out to be a righteous or patriotic man. Just a rich man.
When he purchased an enamelware factory in occupied Poland, he quickly became that rich man. The majority of his workers were Jews from the Krakow ghetto who worked for a Nazi-imposed wage (practically pennies). Since Schindler owned the factory outright instead of in trust with the Reich, he saw wealth unimagined pour into his accounts.
But Schindler saw much more than that in Krakow. The ghetto was liquidated in 1943: Jews deemed not fit for work were executed, and those able to work ceased to be occupied citizens and became slaves, shifted to a concentration camp. As a Nazi, Schindler was aware of this coming action, and (in a deft move) scheduled a rare overnight shift for all of his workers to keep them inside and protect them from the slaughter.
The movie portrays this event a little differently, with Liam Neeson happily riding his horse during the mid-morning with his mistress; they crest a hill and stumble upon the terror of the liquidation. But Spielberg needed to visually capture the sentiment in Schindler's mind, and the look of horror on Neeson's face was worth the dramatic license. Up until now, Oskar Schindler played along with the Nazis to make his fortune.
From March 13, 1943 forward, he made it his sole goal to keep the Jews of his factory alive. The selfish, cavorting Nazi was no more, and the righteous man stood in his place. Schindler used his wealth to bribe officials so that the Jews working for him would be protected. Later, he even co-financed the creation of a sub-camp and an ammunition factory that employed his now slave-labor force. By the end of the war in 1945, he was broke: every penny spent on bribes, for black-market supplies to feed his workers, and for the ammunition which he turned around and sold as product (his factory, by secret decree, never made a single usable shell or cartridge for the Nazis).
The remainder of Schindler's life was unpleasant: he and his wife divorced, and his subsequent businesses all failed. Reliant on donations from the very Jews whose lives he'd saved, he lived in squalor, rented rooms and with few possessions. He had no trade to ply into real work. He died penniless, and his funeral and burial were paid for by the Schindlerjuden.
Prior to World War II, there were about 17 million Jews in the world. Six million of them were killed during Hitler's "Final Solution." Today — almost 70 years after the war — there are about 17 million Jews in the world. It took that long for the population to return to pre-WWII levels.
Schindler saved only about 1,200. But none of those 1,200 would use the word "only." They would've been part of the six million if not for Oskar Schindler, and that is why a Nazi was invited to Israel to plant a tree in the Garden of the Righteous.
Like Schindler, I'm an ethnic German, though neither he nor I am Jewish (Schindler was a Catholic, and my ancestors were Lutheran). The Morlocks of my past left Germany before World War II. The further time takes us away from WWII, the fewer people are left who were present for the atrocities. But Schindler's evergreen tree is still in the Garden at Yad Vashem, representing hope for the future.