Winner of the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction in 1982, Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s List is one of the most important literary works on the Holocaust. Ironically, the main controversy about the novel is whether it is really a novel at all. Keneally has stated that all people and events in the book are real and true (“I have attempted . . . to avoid all fiction”), although specific dialogue sometimes consists of “reasonable constructs” of “detailed recollections” of those present at the time; in other words, conversations in the novel have been filled in or shaped for clarity’s sake, while remaining truthful to the memory of those present.
Keneally uses a literary technique called faction, that is, it is mostly fact with a small amount of fiction. Schindler’s List is historically factual, yet as in any work of historical fiction, especially about such a mammoth event as the Holocaust, it requires some literary license with minor details. Keneally uses no literary license, however, in his stark portrayal of the savage ways in which the perversion of even innocent language contributed to public Jew-hating during the Holocaust. For example, Keneally uses in the novel words such as “Aktions” (violent roundups of Jews into ghettos or death camps), “Selection” (at a moment’s notice, Jews in death camps were sent either to the gas chamber or to filthy barracks), and both “Relocation” and “Special Treatment” (Jews were crammed into cattle cars en route to the death camps). All of this horror was intended to make the world Judenrein, or “Jew free.”
Similarly, Keneally documents the posters plastered on the walls of the city, Kraców: “Jews—Lice—Typhus,” “Whoever Helps a Jew, Helps Satan,” and “Entrance Forbidden to Jews and Dogs.” A falsely benign sign over the gas-chamber doors announces “Baths and Inhalation Rooms.” Language reaches a hideous low point when hundreds of Paszów children are marched off to the death trains, while their parents’ hysterical screams are drowned out by loudspeakers that blare a popular song with the lyrics “Mummy, buy me a pony.”
Originally published in England as Schindler’s Ark, this title has the additional resonance of the Old Testament narrative of Noah who, under God’s orders, built a huge boat to save the good of the world from the imminent, all-destroying Flood. However, just as there is no language powerful enough to encapsulate the great evil of the Nazis, particularly of tyrants like Amon Goeth, so there are no words to describe the profound altruism of those, like Schindler, who protected Jews during the war. This unlikely hero was a Nazi Party member, a rabid hedonist, and a womanizer, yet he built two arks of a sort, one in Kraców and one in Brünnlitz, to save some eleven hundred Jews.
Using tremendous restraint, Keneally wisely chooses not to guess at the alchemy of life experiences and personal psychology that motivated and shaped Schindler’s—or Goeth’s—choices and actions. Instead, he hints at the incremental realizations that seem to lead Schindler to his destiny.
After seeing firsthand the Kraców ghetto’s liquidation, Schindler proclaims, “I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.” He follows through on this oath when soothing his workers at Brünnlitz, “You have nothing more to worry about. You’re with me now,” and announces that his best birthday present is the knowledge that the armaments his factory produced had failed all quality-control tests and, therefore, could neither maim nor kill anyone. Keneally does not try to solve the ageless mystery of the genesis of good and evil, but rather, he lets the question continue to intrigue humanity.
Had Keneally not wandered into a Beverly Hills luggage shop in 1980 and met Leopold “Poldek” Pfefferberg, a Schindler Jew eager to tell his story, the world might never have learned about Schindler’s goodness. The 1993 film Schindler’s List, directed by Steven Spielberg and winner of seven Academy Awards, brought Keneally’s brilliant book, and the complex and heroic figure of Schindler, to stunning life for the world to admire.
Schindler’s List is terrifying in its portrayal of the chilling inhumanity of humanity, but it also is inspiring because it demonstrates, through Schindler’s altruism, that humans can do great things for each other. The grotesque early image of Jewish jewelers forced by the Nazis to weigh and grade a suitcase full of still-bloody gold teeth yanked from death-camp corpses later morphs into an altruistic image: One of the Schindler Jews has his gold dental work removed so that the gold can be melted down and shaped into a ring for Schindler. Inscribed on the ring is an extremely powerful verse from the Talmud: “He who saves a single life saves the world entire.”