The List … is Life. Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List

Thomas Keneally

Simon and Schuster.  1982.  400 pgs with appendix containing English translations of German SS rank designations.  Originally published in the U.K. as Schindler’s Ark.

Man Booker Prize, 1982.

New York Times Best Books of the Year, 1982.

Other books I’ve read by Keneally:  Confederates (2000).  Confederates is one of the finest novels I have ever read and it is also on the Guardian List — again, also under War and Travel.  I’m not going to blog about Confederates; I read it too long ago although its memory still haunts me.  This brilliant Australian author has written other notable works:  The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith and The Great Shame, are just two.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  War and Travel titles

What can I possibly say about this master-work that has not already been said?  One point:  the Guardian 1,000 list is a collection of best novels — just as the Booker prize is for fiction works.  So how can a book about real-life Oskar Schindler’s well-documented efforts to save over 1,000 Polish Jews from the Holocaust be considered a novel?  Keneally addresses this question himself in the novel’s forward:

“To use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story is a course that has frequently been followed in modern writing….the novel’s techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude such as Oskar.  I have attempted, however, to avoid all fiction, since fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between realty and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature.”

If you are not familiar with the book, or with Steven Spielberg’s award-winning movie based on it, the basic facts are summarized as follows.  Oskar Schindler, a German speaking Czech, and unsuccessful entrepreneur, joined the Nazi party and moved to Crakow, Poland in 1939.  He may have initially been attracted by the possibility of “renting” cheap Jewish labor from the Nazis.  Through various chicaneries, Schindler took over a bankrupt Jewish enamelware factory.  He proceeded to make a fortune in business contracts with the German armed forces.  At some point, his business venture became a rescue operation — he increasingly only hired Jews, and got them classified (and thus protected from extermination) as “essential” war employees.  Schindler played a terrifying game.  He stayed very close to key Nazis — including the sociopathic SS officer, Amon Goeth, who was responsible for the murders of thousands of Crakow Jews.  Incredibly, Schindler balanced drinking, womanizing, and partying with key Nazis and German army officers with open acts of rescue and mercy towards Jews.

Schindler’s Enamel Factory, now a museum, in Crakow, Poland. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Enamel_factory.JPG. Creative Commons license.

Many of Schindler’s well-documented rescue exploits demonstrate a complete disregard for his own safety.  He could have been executed a hundred times over.  Why his SS friends let him get away with this was a mystery — except that Schindler was a genius at keeping them bribed and amused.  And last, of course Schindler himself is a mystery.  Was he simply a risk junkie?  One of life’s dare-devils who won’t or can’t conform?  Schindler lost all of the money he made in the war and despite being honored by various governments  — died a financial and personal failure.  His much put-upon wife, Emilie remarked that:  “Oskar had done nothing astounding before the war and had been unexceptional since.”  He seemed almost to have been created for and by the purpose of saving those few and precious lives.

Oskar Schindler in the 1950’s. From: http://www.hotelsh.cz/osk_an.htm

A word about the famous list.  This part fascinated me.  Schindler did compile a real list of Jews who would travel out of Poland to safety in Moravia.  His plan was to take over 1,000 of these workers to wait out the rest of the war in another safe, obscure factory.  All remaining Crakow Jews would be sent to Auschwitz.  But a clerk who worked for the new Commandant of the local Krakow prison got his hands on the list and proceeded to take bribes from frantic would-be survivors.  Thus, instead of the heroic Schindler and his clerk portrayed in Spielberg’s movie typing the list together late at night, it appears that true survival depended on a more banal twist of evil and greed.

Of course I thought this book was fantastic.  My only issue with it was that I struggled at times because  (to my non-Polish ears) the multitude of different personal and place names were difficult and hard to keep straight.  Keneally jumps back and forth in time so some of the more intricate schemes and plots are confusing.  There are  fairly significant but secondary characters disappearing and then reappearing in the plot with sometimes apparent randomness.  In a book of this stature I would have loved to have a chart of key characters with some basic information on each so you could keep track of them all.  But these are really petty criticisms.

I’m thrilled to be able to add this one to my list of Guardian 1,000 reads.