In his fourteen novels, Thomas Keneally has mixed fact and fiction in treating subjects as diverse as Joan of Arc in Blood Red, Sister Rose (1974) and the aborigines of his native Australia in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972). The various facets of war are a frequent topic for Keneally: the signing of the armistice ending World War I in Gossip from the Forest (1976); the story of a young English surgeon transferred to a Yugoslavian medical unit during World War II in Season in Purgatory (1977); the War Between the States in Confederates (1980).
Keneally’s latest treatment of war, Schindler’s List, concerns the efforts of an industrialist to save his Jewish workers from extermination in Poland and Czechoslovakia during World War II. The idea for the book came about when Keneally met a survivor of this experience in a Beverly Hills luggage store while on tour for Confederates. Leopold Pfefferberg showed him documents detailing the remarkable story of Oskar Schindler, and Keneally was soon on the other side of the world interviewing fifty Schindler survivors and examining a large body of papers and letters.
Keneally writes in his preface that he chose to “use the texture and devices of a novel” to tell this story “because the novelist’s craft is the only one I can lay claim to, and because the novel’s techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar.” The novelistic devices in Schindler’s List include beginning the book with a prologue set in 1943 and then returning to the beginning of the story. This prologue sets the tone of the book and introduces some of the leading figures in the same way that the opening chapter in a novel might. Similarly, Keneally offers brief glimpses of people and events throughout the book whose significance does not become clear until the end. The dialogue is a plausible reconstruction based on interviews and written recollections.
Indeed, the status of Schindler’s List as a novel has been somewhat controversial, especially after the book was awarded Great Britain’s prestigious Booker McConnell Prize for fiction; there was widespread protest that such an honor should be accorded a work which many readers regarded as essentially nonfiction. (It was published in England as Schindler’s Ark.) Keneally himself told The New York Times, “I deliberately set out to write a book as fact in a literary way. . . . There is something in it as a novel, but not as fiction. My publisher . . . describes it as a nonfiction novel. It is startling that it would win a prize for fiction.” He had the survivors read and correct his manuscript to insure its accuracy.
Keneally devotes about half the book to Oskar Schindler and half to what happened to the Jewish population of Krakow during the years from 1939 to 1945. When the Germans invaded Poland, the Jews thought they would survive as their race always had, by petitioning and buying off authorities. After all, since one in eleven Poles was Jewish, they were needed. They soon learned that the Nazi menace was much worse than they had imagined. Their businesses and homes were appropriated, and they were forced to live in a ghetto. Eventually, the ghetto was cleared, and they were placed in some of the seventeen hundred large and small forced-labor camps in Poland. On the day the Krakow ghetto was closed, four thousand people were found hiding and were murdered. At Forced Labor Camp Plaszów outside Krakow, the Jews discovered that “the SS believed the death of the socially unappeasable Jew outbalanced any value he might have as an item of labor.” Commandant Amon Goeth and his men looked for any excuse to beat or kill the prisoners. The irony of Plaszów was that the Jews conspired to make it work because the alternative was death camps such as Auschwitz.
Oskar Schindler was a most unlikely candidate for advocate of such oppressed people. Born in 1908 in Moravia, then part of Austria, later belonging to Czechoslovakia, young Schindler joined Konrad Henlein’s Sudeten German Party, but he became disillusioned with National Socialism as soon as Germans entered Moravia and began bullying people and seizing property. Politics were never as important to Schindler as making money and living the good life. When Germany invaded Poland, he saw his chance to get rich, and he convinced the Armaments Inspectorate to allow him to take over a bankrupt enamelware factory in Krakow. He named the company Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (commonly called Emalia) and soon had army contracts to produce mess kits and field kitchenware. (He was later to manufacture 45mm anti-tank shells as well.) Within a few months, Schindler was employing 150 Jewish workers, and Emalia was developing a minor reputation as a haven because of his humane treatment of them. Eventually, the military contracts together with black-market dealings made Schindler rich.
Schindler was a larger-than-life figure, a hedonist with expensive tastes. He had a wife, Emilie, in Moravia, and he had two mistresses: Ingrid, the German supervisor of a Jewish hardware company, and Victoria Klonowska, his Polish secretary. Keneally describes him as “the prototypical tycoon. He looked sleekly handsome in the style of the film stars George Sanders and Curt Jürgens, to both of whom people would always compare him. . . . He looked like a man to whom it was profit all the way.” Luckily, he was more than this; soon after he arrived in Krakow, Itzhak Stern, an accountant, spotted Schindler as a “just Goy,” one of those “who could be used as a buffer or partial refuge against the savageries of the others.”
Schindler used his influence with the Armaments Inspectorate and other high places to run Emalia his way. New Jewish workers would arrive at Emalia, see this immense young man, an apparent “Hitlerite dream,” and expect him to lecture them on the war effort and increasing production quotas only to hear him say, “You’ll be safe working here. If you work here, then you’ll live through the war.” Schindler repeatedly proved the sincerity of his words, as when he rescued thirteen prisoners from a cattle car headed for a labor camp near Lublin by threatening to have an SS officer sent to the Russian front. He became even more determined after seeing the SS round up children in the ghetto. “Beyond this day,” he explained later, “no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.” Even Zionists in Palestine learned of Schindler’s efforts, and he was smuggled in to Hungary to tell Jewish leaders what was happening in Poland.
Schindler’s biggest problem was Amon Goeth, the sadistic Plaszów commandant who shot prisoners for walking too slowly and other minor offenses. Goeth constantly beat his young, pretty maid Helen Hirsch but did not try to abuse her sexually, since having sex with Jews was against his “principles.” Keneally points out many similarities between Schindler and the man who presided over eighty thousand deaths at Plaszów. They were huge men of the same age, both were Catholic, both had technical training, both considered themselves philosophers, and both had enormous appetites for food, drink, and sex (Goeth was bisexual). Keneally speculates that “Amon was Oskar’s dark brother, was the berserk and fanatic executioner Oskar might, by some unhappy reversal of his appetites, have become.” Because of these similarities and Schindler’s salesman’s gift for ingratiating himself with men he abhorred, Goeth always saw Oskar as his friend, and Schindler was able to manipulate him.
Most important, Schindler convinced Goeth to allow him to establish his own camp at Emalia, ostensibly so that he would have complete access to his workers but really to get them away from the commandant’s impulsive violence. Goeth and other Nazis knew Schindler’s motives and were almost amused by his actions: “They thought of him as a good enough fellow who’d been stricken with a form of Jew-love as with a virus. It was a corollary to SS theory that the Jewish genius so pervaded the world, could achieve such magical effects, that Herr Oskar Schindler was to be pitied as much as was a prince turned into a frog.”
Schindler made the Emalia camp as much unlike a labor camp as he could. He kept the SS guards out of the factory and living quarters, spent $360,000 on food for the prisoners, and used bribery and other chicanery to get more Jews out of Plaszów and into Emalia. The prisoners considered it a paradise compared to Goeth’s camp, inspiring in them “a sense of almost surreal deliverance, something preposterous which they didn’t want to look at too closely for fear it would evaporate.” Schindler grew to see the fates of the prisoners as intertwined with his and sometimes referred to the end of the war as “our freedom.”
As the Russians advanced, the Polish camps were ordered closed, and the Emalia prisoners were sent to Plaszów to await relocation, probably to Auschwitz. Schindler convinced Goeth and the German authorities to allow him to move his factory to Moravia. After getting as many names as possible on his list of “essential skilled workers,” Schindler and his Jews moved to Brinnlitz in October, 1944. The women prisoners, however, were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau by mistake. Not only did Schindler use his salesman’s charm to get his women out of Auschwitz, but he also managed to have more than three thousand women transferred to small camps throughout Moravia. This was the only such Auschwitz rescue.
By the time he opened his Brinnlitz factory, Schindler had lost his ambitions to get rich from the war, and he and his workers went through the motions of manufacturing. He bought shells from other Czech manufacturers and passed them off as his own during inspections. Everything Brinnlitz produced was rejected for poor quality.
Schindler did not, however, remain completely immune to the usual consequences of actions such as his. While at Emalia, he was arrested by the Gestapo twice, once for alleged corruption, again for kissing a prisoner at his birthday party. At Brinnlitz, he was imprisoned for a longer, more frightening period because of his connections with Goeth, who had been arrested for his black-market activities. Schindler was released each time through the intervention of his powerful friends. He feared something worse than imprisonment when the war ended because of rumors of Russian soldiers shooting German civilians. Dressed as a prisoner, he escaped to Switzerland.
Ironically, with his escape, Schindler began to become dependent on his Jews, and this dependence continued after the war when all his property in Cracow and Moravia was confiscated by the Russians. His Jewish friends helped him finance a nutria farm in Argentina, and, when that went bankrupt, they helped him start a cement factory in Frankfurt, which also failed. After he was honored by the Israeli government, he was hissed and jeered by the crowds in Frankfurt. In the last decade of his life, he lived six months of every year in Israel with survivors of his camps. He died in 1974 and was buried in the Latin Cemetery of Jerusalem.
Schindler never explained his motives for his actions, except to say that he was upset by the German seizure of Czech and Jewish property and the forcible removal of people from their homes. What made this hedonist spend most of his fortune buying food for his workers and bribing officials for their benefit? Keneally offers some possibilities: “It can be said to begin with that Oskar was a gambler, was a sentimentalist who loved the transparency, the simplicity of doing good; that Oskar was by temperament an anarchist who loved to ridicule the system; and that beneath the hearty sensuality lay a capacity to be outraged by human savagery, to react to it and not to be overwhelmed.”
The only flaw in Schindler’s List is that Keneally could have done more to try to explain why Schindler went to such painful lengths to help his Jews at constant risk of his life when much of Europe was not only doing nothing to stop the horrors but also was participating in them. How could such a man be both a greedy, drunken womanizer and a saint? The thirteen hundred Emalia-Brinnlitz survivors do not know either but are glad he was a man of such contradictions. As Leopold Pfefferberg’s wife, Mila, explains, “He was our father, he was our mother, he was our only faith. He never let us down.” When Schindler left Brinnlitz, his workers gave him a ring made from the gold bridgework sacrificed by one of them. Inside was inscribed in Hebrew a Talmudic verse: “He who saves a single life saves the world entire.”