Schindler’s List, by Thomas Keneally

This 1982 work is not a novel, as Keneally claims. It is closer to Mailer’s “history as a novel, the novel as history.” But whatever it is, it is magnificent, even moving as it describes Oskar Schindler life as his World War II heroism ends.

What Schindler did was save about 1,400 Polish Jews from death during World War II. He was a complex man, Keneally reminds us, a Nazi spy originally, later a briber and a blackmailer of both the SS and German industrialists in behalf of the incarcerated Jews, and also a liar and a seducer of women, a man who enjoyed the pleasures of life amid the horror around him, and yet a man who was kind and generous toward helpless Jews, the victims of war.

And for a reason the author cannot pin down, the debonair Schindler converted from being a greedy businessman taking advantage of the Jews to a savior of these persecuted Jews. Was it an ethical residue of a Catholicism he had long abandoned? Was it simply a recognition of the evil, the unfairness of the Nazis regime? Itzhak Stern, one of the men he saved, believes it happened after Stern reminded Schindler of a Talmudic verse: “he who saves the life of one man saves the entire world.”

Schindler worked with the Nazis as the owner of manufacturing firms licensed to operate in labor camps, using conscripted Polish Jews. His base was Krakow, and his labor camp was close to the Auschwitz death camp. In fact, those who were not healthy enough to work for him were sent by the Germans to die at Auschwitz.

The bulk of this work is a series of anecdotes dug up by Keneally’s remarkable research. He interviewed perhaps 50 former prisoners, who told him what had happened to them and to others in two labor camps over a period of about six years. The most evil man they encountered was Amon Goeth, the German in charge of the workers in the Krakow labor camp. He would take out a pistol or a rifle and shoot the Jewish workers for doing nothing, or at most irritating him—which became an enduring image from the great Spielberg film.

Schindler despised the pleasure-loving Goeth, but met his blatant needs and cajoled and bribed him in behalf of the Jewish workers. He also bribed many other influential Nazis with liquor, cigarettes, jewelry, money, and more black market items. But more significant here is the desperation of a dozen or more Jews: their efforts to escape punishment, seek food, obtain medical care, avoid the death camps, etc. In fact, it is these horrible experiences, not Schindler’s, that give weight to this book.

The result is the most complete report of the suffering of the Jews that I have read since Hersey’s The Wall. Which was also based on historic records. And I would put both on the same literary level. It is this narrow focus on a small group of people that produces each book’s powerful rendition of what it was like for the many that were persecuted.

At the same time, the cumulative evidence of such suffering, based on these former prisoners’ reports, underscores the significance of Schindler’s efforts. Schindler himself, however, rarely bragged about what he did. “You are safe with me,” is what he often told his workers.

The greatest example of his subterfuge was moving his entire labor force from Poland to Czechoslovakia as the Russians advanced on Poland and the Germans tried to destroy all evidence of the camps, including the captive Jews. Determined to save those he had been protecting, he first moved the men to Brinnlitz, to an abandoned factory, and weeks later the women endured a harrowing experience before they also arrived. These men and women were the people on Schindler’s list, although it is disputed who actually created that list.

Schindler continually protected his Jews by telling the Germans that he had highly skilled workers who could never be replaced. He also reminded his superiors that the new factory was producing top secret armaments, while in fact the workers deliberately miscalculated exact measurements and never produced anything that could be used. In addition, Schindler himself backed up his commitment to his workers by using his own money to feed, house, and care for them.

As powerful as are the scenes of German cruelty and Jewish suffering that comprise the bulk of this book, the final moments of the Schindlerjuden, Schindler’s Jews, as the Russians approach their camp, and the Germans flee, became unexpectedly moving. Schindler himself pleaded that the prisoners conduct no reprisals. Such as in one case when retreating German motorcyclists approached, but simply to ask for gasoline. The same prisoners even feared to walk out the camp gates. As for Schindler, he rode away in striped prison garb as his disguise, and while the Americans helped his flight to Switzerland, the French were suspicious until his accompanying Jews testified how he has saved them.

As to the question of the “novelization” of this story, this work is a narration; it is not a novel. Keneally relates every event based on the tales of his sources, but while each event concerns Schindler’s Jews, the events are not dramatized; they are reconstructed. And equally arbitrary are the sequence of events. There is no linkage between these events. They are separate. They do not develop reader interest by telling a story. The tales simply enrich the horror of the scene. Keneally also rarely uses quotes, and when he does it is usually without quotation marks around them. Again, reconstruction. Occasionally, however, he will break the narrative to step back and interpret for the reader either certain events or Schindler’s unique motives.

Keneally has used this approach to history before, such as in Gossip from the Forest. He in no way compromises his reputation here. He enhances it (September, 2013)

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