Study Guide

Schindler's List

by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List Themes

Themes

Keneally's reason for writing Schindler's List was to acquaint the world with Oskar Schindler and his contributions to the welfare of the people he was able to save. To do this, Keneally interviewed about fifty of the people who were on the list and reviewed documents on file in Israel. Using these sources, he was able to write the story of Oskar Schindler in its entirety for the first time. The themes of personal choice, the triumph of good over evil, the relationship of the Jews and those who tried to save them with the society of the time, and what one person can do to help others in the face of huge odds resound through the stories of historical personages and events reported in the book.

Schindler's personal choices build from small ones that do a little good and endanger him very little to choices that do a great deal of good and endanger him considerably. His first choices—to move to Poland and take over the factory—are motivated by greed. His second choice, to use Jewish slave labor, seems motivated less by greed and more by sympathy for his fellow human beings. By the end of the war, Schindler is choosing to save as many others as possible, with all concern for his own safety seemingly gone. His choices inspire other businessmen in Cracow to make life more tolerable for the Jews they use as laborers. In Brinnlitz he chooses not to manufacture the ammunition he is under contract to produce, so that "none of my shells will kill anyone." He is proud of the fact that none of his munitions pass any test.

A choice that affects many is Schindler's decision to build the Emalia camp—barracks on the premises for the workers at his plant. His workers are thus able to live outside the camp at Plaszow, Schindler is able to feed and clothe them, and the workers are relatively safe from the treatment they would have received in the camp. SS and Ukrainians guard the Emalia camp, with the guard changing every two days. These guards are kept on the outside of the fence, patrolling the perimeter. There are no dogs and no beatings inside the fence. The food is much better than in Plaszow. Schindler still has to fill his government contracts, so the workers work long hours. Schindler provides the camp, the extra food, the extra clothing, at his own expense. At the end of the war he presents a bill for $360,000 to the Joint Distribution Committee for the Jews for the food for the Emalia camp, giving an indication of the costs involved.

Oskar Schindler is not the only person who must make difficult personal choices. The Polish Jewish accountant Itzhak Stern makes his first personal choice when he and Schindler first talk and he tells Schindler why he believes that Hitler cannot succeed. This conversation takes place only seven weeks after the occupation of Poland, but Stern already knows he is in danger. Jews are required to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing. Members of the German army are taking what they want from...

(The entire section is 1212 words.)

Schindler's List Themes

Virtue
In the opening pages of Schindler's List, Keneally says explicitly that it is the story "of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil" and of the story of a man who is not "virtuous" in the customary sense. Writing about evil, he goes on to say, is fairly straightforward, but it is more risky and complex to write about virtue. The hero of the novel, Oskar Schindler, is complicated because he seems to be at once virtuous and immoral. Schindler is married but keeps house with his German mistress and maintains a long affair with his Polish secretary. He is outgoing and generous but has even greater personal indulgences, including good cigars and cognac. He excels in profiting from shady dealings, procuring goods from the black market and bribing officials, through which he saves his workers' lives. From the beginning of the novel, Schindler seems to treat the Jews he encounters with respect, but for a long time he seems oblivious to the cruelties they face, being more interested in his business than the political situation around him. Also, after the war, and after his heroic rescue of his Jewish workers, Schindler leads an unremarkable life: he does not do good works or act as a champion of the powerless, but rather he again cheats on his wife, spends money lavishly, fails at his business ventures, and bankrupts himself. Yet, he is honored by the Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority (Yad Vashem) Museum in Israel and declared a "Righteous Person." Perhaps the most difficult and interesting question raised by Schindler's List is, in fact, in what way Oskar Schindler is considered a "Righteous Person." Is he righteous simply because of his actions? His motivations? His personality?

Throughout the book, Keneally draws attention to the difficult nature of virtue (again, seen most obviously in the character of Schindler), to the not-so-obvious contrast between good and evil (Schindler is compared repeatedly to his "dark twin," the clearly evil Amon Goeth), and to what exactly constitutes morality. For example, the Austrian bureaucrat Szepessi has "a humane reputation even though he serviced the monstrous machine." Keneally also illustrates certain warped conceptions of goodness and morality that are entertained by various characters. The German prisoner Philip, whom Schindler meets after he is arrested for kissing a Jewish girl in his factory, complains about the corruptibility and thievery of...

(The entire section is 1006 words.)