Schindler's List Analysis

  • Keneally blended fact and fiction in Schindler's List. Though based on true events, the book has often been considered a novel because of its use of the traditional tropes of fiction.
  • Described as a “documentary novel,” Schindler’s List is based on interviews with fifty “Schindler Jews.” Keneally recreated dialogue, but the events are based on the memories of witnesses. 
  • Keneally recounts the personal experiences and stories of Jews at the camps. In this sense, the Holocaust is presented as a collection of the personal experiences of each individual victim and witness.

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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...

(This entire section contains 2141 words.)

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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.”

Historical Context

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Hitler, WWII, and the Jewish Holocaust
The mass murder of European Jews and others under Nazi rule during World War II has come to be known simply as the Holocaust. "Holocaust" literally means "massive destruction by fire." It is thought that eleven million people were killed by the Nazis. These included political opponents (particularly Communists), Slavs, gypsies, mentally and/or physically disabled, homosexuals, and other "undesirables." An estimated six million men, women, and children were killed merely because they were Jews. The destruction of the Jews in Europe stands as the archetype of genocide in human history.

Jews had been the subjects of persecution in Europe at least since the seventeenth century. When Adolph Hitler, the charismatic, Austrian-born demagogue, rose to power in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s, he rallied the German people with a message that included notions of "Aryan," or white, superiority and the inferiority of other races. The Jews were a special target of his hatred, and they were incorrectly represented during this time of social, political, and economic upheaval as being wealthy and in control of the country's economy. In 1932, Hitler ran for president of Germany. He did not win, but he did well, and when the party in power was unable to end the depression, its leaders turned to Hitler for help. He became chancellor, or prime minister, of Germany in 1933. Within weeks, he set into motion a series of laws that destroyed the nation's democratic government. He eliminated all opposition and launched a program of world domination and extermination of the Jews. His government, like all totalitarian regimes, established complete political, social, and cultural control over its subjects.

In Hitler's program for the "Aryanization" of Germany and world conquest, Jews were subjected first to discrimination, then persecution, and then state-condoned terrorism. This had as a turning point, the "night of the broken glass" also known as Kristallnacht, which took place in Munich, Germany, in November 1938. Nazi storm troopers burned down synagogues and broke into Jewish homes, terrorizing men, women, and children. Over twenty thousand people were arrested and taken to concentration camps. After Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were expropriated, employers were urged to fire Jewish employees, and offices were set up to expedite emigration. Jews could buy their freedom and leave the country, but they had to abandon their assets when they left. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, half of Germany's five hundred thousand Jews had fled, as had many Jews from other German-occupied areas. When the Nazis invaded western Poland in 1939, two-thirds of Polish Jews—Europe's largest Jewish community—fell into their hands. As is described in Schindler's List, Polish Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos, where it is estimated that five hundred thousand people died of starvation and disease.

After Soviet invasion in June 1941, the Nazis launched a crusade against the supposed Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Police battalions called Einsatzgruppen (operations groups) moved from town to town, rounding up Jewish men and suspected Soviet collaborators and shooting them. They then began to target Jewish women and children as well. The Einsaztgruppen murdered some two million people, almost all Jews.

While these massacres were taking place, Hitler's Nazi government was planning a "Final Solution" to the "Jewish question." Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and at Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans that were driven to nearby sites where bodies were plundered and burnt. At Chelmno and Semlin, 265,000 Jews were killed in this way.

More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in western Europe for deportation to labor and concentration camps such as those at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. The largest of the death camps was at Auschwitz. It was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners but was expanded in 1941 with the addition of a larger camp at nearby Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau and its subcamps held 400,000 prisoners, including 205,000 Jews. In the spring of 1942, gas chambers were built at Birkenau, and mass transports of Jews began to arrive there. Some were held as registered prisoners, but the great majority was gassed. These gassing operations were expanded in 1943, and four gas chamber and crematorium complexes were built. Before they were killed, the victims' valuables were stripped from them. Their hair was used to stuff mattresses, and any gold in their teeth was melted down. In total, about one million Jews died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The Final Solution moved into its last stages as Allied forces closed in on Germany in 1944. The camps were closed and burned down. Prisoners remaining at concentration camps in the occupied lands were transported or force-marched to camps in Germany. Thousands of prisoners on these death marches died of starvation, exhaustion, and cold, or they were shot. When the war ended and the concentration camps were liberated by Allied troops, thousands of unburied corpses and tens of thousands of sick and dying prisoners were found crammed into overcrowded barracks without food or water.

Much of Europe was destroyed in the war. Survivors of the camps were in terrible condition, both physically and psychologically. Trials were held in Nuremberg in 1945 at which top surviving Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes. Similar trials followed, but thousands of war criminals eluded justice. Israel was established as a state in 1948 and opened its doors to all Jews, and many of them who survived the Holocaust migrated there, as well as to the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.

Literary Style

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Documentary NovelSchindler's List is a "documentary novel," a novel that recreates events that actually took place in real life. The events described in the book are based on interviews with fifty Schindler survivors and enriched by extensive research as well as by the author's visits to Kraków, Plaszow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Keneally goes to great lengths to describe characters as they were in real life and to create a sense of realism. But he uses the texture and devices of the novel—a form normally used for fictional accounts—to tell the true story of Oskar Schindler because, he says, "the novel's techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar." Keneally stresses, though, that he attempts to avoid fiction in his work because "fiction would debase the record." He says that, although he has recreated some of the conversations, all events are based on detailed recollections of witnesses to the acts described. The result is a work that moves back and forth between simply telling a story and embellishing or commenting upon that story by examining how the author came to know the facts, how the facts may be disputed, or how the witnesses feel about certain events. For example, the author sometimes intrudes into a story to mention that another witness has a different account of those events, how a particular survivor says he or she felt about Schindler, and so on. The effect of this authorial intrusion is always to return the reader to reality, to make it plain that the events described are not merely a novelistic fantasy but a true account that impacted people's lives in ways that can barely be imagined.

The story of Oskar Schindler and the rescue of the "Schindler Jews" unfolds through a series of stories about dozens of characters. The narratives are pieced together by the author so that they are interesting anecdotes or character sketches on their own, but they also weave into the larger story about Schindler. The effect of this technique is that what becomes of most importance in the book is people, the minute details of their lives, the ideas they held and intimate moments they cherished. Unlike the film version of Schindler's List, Keneally's novel is memorable not so much for the backdrop of the labor camps and atrocities of war but for the realistic description of people and the personal sufferings or victories they experienced. There is, for example, the story of the courtship and marriage of Josef and Rebecca Bau in the barracks of the Plaszow camp, that of Henry Rosner playing the fiddle so magically that an SS officer kills himself, that of the young man who escapes Belzec by hiding for three days in the pit of the latrines, and that of young Janka Feigenbaum dying of cancer. That the novel is constructed in this way conveys a sense that the story of the Holocaust is made up of stories of individuals, each one a human life.

Symbols and Imagery
Despite its factual tone, Schindler's List uses a number of symbols and images, some of them recurring, to underscore its central questions and ideas. One of the most memorable scenes in the book is when Schindler, sitting on his horse, observes the destruction of the Jewish ghetto and, amidst all the turmoil, the figure of a small child wearing a red dress. It is after witnessing this event that Schindler vows to do everything he can to defeat the system. The red dress makes the young girl stand out, and it seems, for the first time, Schindler really understands that the Jews in the ghetto are individuals—humans—who are being subjected to the most inhuman treatment imaginable. The small-ness of the child may be seen to represent innocence and the red to represent the blood of the Jewish people.

Other ideas that are used repeatedly in the book are those of gods, kings, and heroes. Oskar is referred to as a "minor god of deliverance, double-faced" who brings salvation to his Jewish workers. This ties in with the question of the complex nature of morality, for Schindler is not a conventional type of god. He is like Bacchus, the god of wine, who loves to indulge in good food and drink, but he also performs good acts. The imagery of kings is used often when describing Goeth, who fancies himself an emperor. He is compared to the Roman emperor Caligula, famed for his cruelty and excesses. Also, when he plays blackjack with Schindler over the fate of Helen Hirsch, Goeth draws a king and loses the game. The notion of heroism is explored not only with the unlikely heroism of Schindler but in the description of many of the Jewish characters. During the Aktion in which the Jewish ghetto is razed, for example, Dr. H's nurse administers cyanide to his dying patients so that they can "escape" being murdered by the SS. "The woman is the hero of this," the doctor says to himself.

Literary Techniques

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Schindler's List is characterized as nonfiction-fiction—a seeming contradiction. The incidents are the recollections of real people; the style is that of "the new journalism," for which Keneally has been criticized by some. The book was published in England as Schindler's Ark and nominated for the Booker McConnell Prize for Fiction. Since this is England's most prestigious literary award, the book's categorization as fiction or nonfiction became quite important. In the London Times Keneally explained: "The craft of the novelist is the only craft to which I can lay claim, and . . . the novel's techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar [Schindler]." The judges awarded the prize to Schindler's Ark, concurring with Keneally's explanation.

Keneally learned of the story by accident when he happened to meet Leopold Pfefferberg, the same Pfefferberg who made purchases for Schindler on the black market. "With Pfefferberg's constant help I interviewed almost fifty people who survived, thanks to Schindler," Keneally said in a New York Times report. Using this information, Keneally was able to tell the story of Schindler's contribution to the Jews in World War II. According to the critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt of the New York Times, Keneally's restraint in telling the story—not trying to tell what is not honestly there—increases its believability. Phillip Howard of the London Times wrote, "The book is a brilliantly detailed piece of historical reporting. It is moving, it is powerful, it is gripping."

Ideas for Group Discussions

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In Schindler's List, Keneally examines personal choices for good or evil, using historical figures and the roles they played in one part of the Holocaust. The choices for good lead to the preservation of the lives of more than thirteen hundred people, many of them Jews, because Schindler works within an evil system to make a difference for these people. Amon Goeth and others who work with him make choices for evil, causing many to lose their lives. After the war ends, they blame their choices on orders from their superior officers.

1. Schindler's List is told from the point of view of a German Nazi who does not agree with his government. Schindler has all the better things of life—he lives in a fine apartment, dines on good food, and wears elegant clothing. Yet both the book and the movie attempt to reveal the horrors of the Holocaust. Can the true horror of what was suffered in the extermination camps be realized through the eyes of Schindler?

2. Amon Goeth is a psychopath. Describe instances in the book and film that show the symptoms of his mental illness. Compare the descriptions in the book with the images in the film; which give more depth to your perceptions of his illness?

3. When is a person responsible for making a moral choice? Does Schindler make all the moral choices that are open to him? Discuss Schindler's choices at his birthday party, the first year DEF is open.

4. Compare Hitler and his policies for the "final solution" to the policies and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo under Slobodan Milosevic.

5. Schindler was not the only non-Jew who saved Jews from the death camps. Find information about other people who also put their lives at risk to help the Jews.

6. Other groups of people were sent to the death camps. Why were those groups singled out for extermination?

7. Describe the physical characteristics of an "Aryan."

8. Discuss Jewry as a race or as a religion. What do members of a particular race have in common? Of a particular religion? Which characterizes this group of people more correctly?

9. Consider the place of Israel in the world today. What parallels with the Holocaust can you draw with Israeli treatment of the Palestinians?

10. Consider Goeth's attitude toward women. Consider Schindler's. How are these attitudes alike or different? What events from the book and film helped you to draw these conclusions?

Social Concerns

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In the face of the unbelievable horror of the murder of six million Jews in Europe during World War II, Oskar Schindler is able to make a difference, one person at a time, and save the lives of his factory workers by setting up his own camp at his own expense. Schindler is the Nazi who does not believe, who works within the system, a system of bribes and gifts, to convince the people in power in Cracow, Poland, that his workers are important enough to be left to him. He manages to create a refuge, in a time of unspeakable terror, for a chosen few. To be on "the list" meant the difference between life and death. Schindler's regret in the end was that he was unable to save more lives.

Oskar Schindler is born on April 28, 1908, in Moravia, at that time part of the Austrian Empire. As a child, he plays with some Jewish boys, who are the sons of a liberal rabbi, and he attends school with them and other children of Jewish parents at the German grammar school. The Jewish population does not experience discrimination as part of life in the early-twentieth century Moravian town of Zwittau, where Oskar grows up. All seems to be going as predicted by the nineteenth-century German-Jewish liberals: the Jewish population is accepted, allowed to pursue careers in business, education, the arts, or whatever they choose, while practicing their religion with no fear of reprisals.

The National Socialists, better known as the Nazi Party, change all this. Some of the Jews realize that their safe lives are threatened. Others feel that since they are German or Polish or French or Dutch, with the same rights as the Christian population, they will be protected by their citizenship. Some will flee. Some will wait. All will eventually feel the effects of the "final solution."

The teen years for Schindler are full of wonders. As a high school senior, he owns a red 5OOcc Galloni motorcycle, the only one in all of Moravia, perhaps all of Czechoslovakia. In the spring of 1928, encouraged by his father in his love for fast cycles, he acquires a 250cc Moto-Guzzi, one of only five outside Italy. The rest are owned by international motorcycle racing professionals. That summer Schindler races his Moto-Guzzi, loses on a technicality, and falls in love and marries. Neither his father nor the father of his bride, Emilie, approves the marriage, both feeling that the two young people are unsuited to each other. Emilie, a gentleman farmer's daughter reared and educated in a convent, is a quiet, unsophisticated young woman who will find that marriage to Oskar is anything but easy.

For the next several years Schindler serves in the Czechoslovak army, finding that he dislikes the military because of the discomfort of the life. Upon returning to Zwittau, he spends his evenings in the cafes, neglecting Emilie. Even when the family business goes bankrupt in 1935, Schindler is able to find a job as a salesman, in the middle of a depression, using his connections and personality. Although not politically inclined, he joins Konrad Henlein's Sudeten German Party because membership helps him get orders. He seems to become disillusioned with National Socialism almost immediately after the German army enters the Sudetenland; later he will say that he was appalled at the treatment of the people. Also, his father and Emilie both tell him that Hitler cannot succeed, and those are the opinions he respects.

In spite of his disillusionment, Schindler agrees to work as an intelligence agent when approached by a German named Eberhard Gebauer. The young Schindler seems to have approved of the German takeover of Poland and perhaps approves of the national goals of Hitler's government, if not its management. The Abwehr intelligence group, under Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, seems to Schindler to be the Christian elite, the group in competition with Heinrich Himmler and the SS for the very soul of Germany. Through this contact and perhaps also his travels as a salesman, he discovers Cracow, Poland.

Schindler follows the army into German occupied Poland in 1939, looking for business opportunities. He is a salesman with ambitions. He has heard that Polish businesses formerly owned by Jews are to be Aryanized—taken over and run by German "Aryan" businessmen who will be given the opportunity to make a fortune. Almost immediately he becomes aware that the government of the occupation is not what it seems on the surface. A chance meeting with a Polish Jew named Itzhak Stern sets Schindler on the path to the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (DEF), the enamel works he will use to save his workers. During this first conversation the discussion turns to religion and the value of life in this era. Stern tells Schindler there is a Talmudic verse that sums up the importance of saving life: "He who saves the life of one man saves the entire world." Ever after, Stern believes he has set Schindler on the road to saving lives.

In Cracow is an area that at one time was the Jewish ghetto. Kazimierz, once an island and now a suburb, was ceded to the Jewish community by Kazimier the Great some five hundred years earlier. Schindler manages a warning to Stern and the other Jews that the first Aktion will take place the next day, giving him specific street names. The eviction of Jews from their homes outside Kazimierz by the Germans is about to begin, carried out by the local SS, the Field Police, and the Einsatzgruppen, which are "special-duty groups." These groups are there to carry on "a tough struggle for national existence"—in other words, "race warfare" conducted with "the hot barrel of a gun." On the night of the first Aktion, this group moves against the fourteenth-century synagogue of Stara Boznica. As usual, it is filled with traditional Jews at worship. The Einsatzgruppen bring in other Jews from the surrounding apartment buildings, herd all the worshipers to the Ark, remove the Torah scroll, and force the congregation to file past and spit on the scroll. In the end all except one does. He is the first to be shot, followed by the rest. The building is set on fire, leaving only a shell of the oldest of all Polish synagogues.

Because of Schindler's warning of the first Aktion, Stern believes that it is wise to "make of Schindler a living and breathing sanctuary." In order to make DEF a viable enterprise—and thus a sanctuary—capital is needed. Abraham Bankier, office manager of Rekord, soon to be DEF, helps Stern and Schindler by beginning to look for investors. Bankier knows men who are willing to accept as a return on their investments so many kilos of pots and pans each month. Equipment can now be purchased to expand production capacity so that when the first army contracts for mess kits are received early in the new year, production can keep up. Schindler's cultivation of key people on the various committees, in the offices, anywhere there is someone who might help, is bearing fruit. With the contracts come the need and excuse to expand, giving Stern the opportunity to suggest to Schindler that he employ this person or that, until within a few months there are about 150 Jews in his factory. As the governor general of Cracow, Hans Frank works to make the city judenfrei (free of Jews) by initiating Aktions. DEF becomes a haven where the workers feel a certain safety.

Stern and others work to get as many of the Cracow Jews as possible on the list of skilled Jewish workers who will be allowed to stay in the city. They are helped by a group of sympathizers, Germans who employ Jews and give them the proper labels. As for the rest of the Jewish population, the first thing Frank does is ask for volunteers to go to other cities, and by November 1, 1940, he has moved twenty-three thousand Jews to places like the ghettos at Warsaw and Lodz. Oskar and the Jews seem to hope that this is a "temporary excess," but other actions by the authorities, such as detaining workers going to and from the factories to make them shovel snow, convince Schindler it is not. This action by the SS makes Schindler an "advocate of the principle that a factory owner should have unimpeded access to his own workers, that these workers should have access to the plant, that they should not be detained or tyrannized on their way to and from the factory." In the end, Schindler builds his own camp, using the excuse that he must ensure that his workers are at work. He moves the camp and his people when it becomes necessary to stay out of the reach of the liberating Russian army.

Early in 1941 the Jewish population in Cracow is moved back into Podgorze, the ghetto from whence it was allowed to spread at will after a decree by Franz Josef in 1867. The older people remember the ghetto as a place of safety, so they are willing to make this move, in the hope that it will again be a place of safety. March 20 is the deadline. All Jews must be in residence in the ghetto by then. On his drive to his factory, Schindler sees families pushing their possessions in barrows into the ghetto, much as he imagines their ancestors may have brought their belongings to Cracow five hundred years before when Kazimier the Great invited them there. Cement walls are raised to block off the ghetto, leaving a strip down the center where the trolley line runs. March 20 also marks the end of wages paid to Jewish workers. They are now expected to live on their rations, and Schindler will pay a fee to SS headquarters for the use of this slave labor. Money is no problem for Schindler: he is able to keep four automobiles and live in style.

Schindler's disillusionment with the SS is complete when he observes the cruelty of the SS to the people in the ghetto. During a horseback ride with Ingrid, his German mistress, he is on a hill overlooking the ghetto while the SS are sorting men, women, and children into different lines, leading them in different directions. One line of children is passing within half a block of people who are being killed because they tried to hide. The last child in the line is a little girl dressed in red. The child witnesses a murder and then is gently put back in line by a guard. Schindler sees that there is no shame in what the SS is doing, meaning to him that their actions are officially sanctioned. He interprets the SS actions as a statement of his government's policy. Later that day Schindler realizes that the SS permit witnesses because they know the witnesses will also perish.

Schindler is now determined to try to save as many of the Jews who work for him as possible. At the end of the war, after he has moved his factory to Brinnlitz, he will find ways to save others, by sending food to another camp nearby and by rescuing a carload of prisoners from the Goleszow quarry and cement plant inside Auschwitz III. He goes so far as to refuse to use his furnaces for cremation and to establish the Jewish cemetery of Deutsch-Bielau. He allows his Jews to restore their humanity by practicing the rituals of burial. Twice he gives speeches to his workers in the camp at Brinnlitz, with SS guards present. The second speech is after the armistice, and in it he asks his workers not to take vengeance on the guards and asks the guards to leave quietly. The guards follow his instructions rather than killing the prisoners, as Schindler has feared.

A second social concern is what living in fear does to people. One day soon after Schindler goes to Poland, fear almost costs him his life. He has been given an apartment by the Reich housing authority and wants it redecorated, so he calls upon Mrs. Mina Pfefferberg, who has an interior decorating business. Her son Poldek, a Polish army officer who had been captured by the Germans and escaped, is in the apartment at the time, which makes Mrs. Pfefferberg so nervous that it is Poldek, who is armed and ready to defend his mother, who must come out and greet Schindler. The two men hit it off, and Mrs. Pfefferberg agrees to do the apartment. Schindler recruits Poldek to become one of his regular connections to the black market. The black market becomes a way for Schindler to obtain the merchandise he needs to continue to bribe SS and other officials.
Keneally makes it plain that when people are made to live in fear over long periods of time they begin to grasp at anything that gives them even a small amount of security. The people who are moved to the ghetto in Cracow hope it will be a permanent place. No one believes they could be taken to a place that is worse. Yet when the SS begins to transport people who are not considered necessary, who do not have a blue sticker on their papers, Schindler must rescue some of his workers who have not gotten the sticker because they did not take the sticker seriously. They do not understand that the SS is sorting people. They are being loaded onto the cattle cars when Schindler manages to get them out.

The first information about the camps that filters into the ghetto comes from a young pharmacist who returns eight days after he is shipped out. He has witnessed the people from Cracow being stripped naked, put in bunkers marked as showers, and gassed. Somehow he has managed to get out of Belzek and return to Cracow. Many think that his story is a dangerous rumor that cannot possibly be credible. Living in fear does not allow one to believe the worst. Living in fear allows one to become unable to believe that anything could be worse.

When the camp at Brinnlitz is liberated, the people find that they have difficulty leaving the fenced area. They have become so used to being prisoners who could be killed at any moment that freedom to go when and where they choose is too large a concept. Gradually this feeling wears off; they gain confidence and are able to begin to return to the outside world.

A final social concern is the idea that a few evil persons could manage to control and kill so many. Their ability to create a machine that allows the control of their own population as well as the populations of the countries they overrun must be studied and understood by the generations that follow. The Jews are not the only group of people who are discriminated against. The Poles, the Gypsies, Hungarians, French, Dutch, and any people who dare to resist are also sent to the extermination camps.

In America in the twenty-first century, Schindler's accomplishment may seem like just a small part of history. Every monument to the Holocaust is meant to raise awareness that such evil could happen again. The Christian Century, of April 21, 1999, points out that it is indeed happening again in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo. NATO is working to counter the "ethnic cleansing" of Slobodan Milosevic in Kosovo by ensuring the safe return of refugees. The article goes on to say that we must ask what price we are willing to pay to make sure that the returning refugees are allowed to return to their former homes and lives.

Compare and Contrast

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1940s: The dictator Adolph Hitler is the supreme ruler of Germany.

1980s: The dictator Augusto Pinochet is the supreme leader of Chile.

Today: The dictator Saddam Hussein is the supreme leader of Iraq.

1940s: European Jews must carry passes and are marked by the Star of David so they may be identified as non-Aryans.

1980s: Under apartheid, Black South Africans must carry "passbooks" to identify who they are.

Today: Non-Muslims must wear markers to identify themselves as such under the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

1940s: The Nazi regime carries out a program of genocide against European Jews, gypsies, and other groups.

1980s: In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan military, acting on orders from the country's highest authorities, carry out genocide against the country's majority Mayan population.

Today: The World Federalist Association and other human rights organizations campaign to end genocide forever, beginning in the twenty-first century, by reforming United Nations (UN) decision-making and by creating early-warning structures within the UN before the genocide starts.

Literary Precedents

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One of the best-known books on the Holocaust, Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, has long been used by teachers to introduce children and young adults to the events of the Holocaust. According to "Holocaust Education: Legislation, Practices, and Literature for Middle-School Students," an article by Edna Greene Bradham that appeared in The Social Studies on May 15,1997, the many teachers who use literature and rely on the Anne Frank diary as the standard should use other selections from the rich literature available, choosing material that is age-appropriate. She recommends a number of nonfiction selections, including Anne Frank: Beyond the Diary: A Photographic Remembrance by Ruud van der Rol and Rian Verhoeven (1993); Hiding to Survive: Stories of Jewish Children Rescued from the Holocaust by Maxine B. Rosenberg (1994); Bearing Witness: Stories of the Holocaust by Hazel Rochman and Darlene McCampbell (1995); We Are Witnesses: Five Diaries of Teenagers Who Died in the Holocaust edited by Jacob Boas (1995); and Jewish Migrations by Jill Rutter (1995). In addition, she recommends several books for young children and information from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

As reason to inform students and adults about the Holocaust, Bradham cites a 1993 Roper poll in which 20 percent of the students and 22 percent of the adults responding thought it was possible that "the Holocaust had never happened." Cited in the same survey and quoted in Bradham's article is the information that "world organizations like the Institute of Historical Review have launched efforts to revise World War II records and erase the facts of the Holocaust from human belief and memory." Seven states in the United States have recognized the importance of the Holocaust as an area of study in public schools and mandated by law that it be in the curricula. Ten other states support these studies with materials for use by teachers.


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Steven Spielberg's film adaptation of Schindler's List was released in December 1993. The film was an instant success, with both the public and the critics. Nominated for twelve Academy Awards, it won six: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Art Direction, and Best Film Editing. The film opened around the time of the inauguration of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, a period that has been described as the "Holocaust Boom." It was the first attempt by Hollywood to depict the murder of the Jews in Europe during World War II. Government officials such as California Governor Pete Wilson and New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley publicized the impact of the film on their lives and touted its value as an educational tool. To be critical of the film at that time was heresy.

Several books comparing the film and the book have now been published. Since Schindler's List is used so often today in educational settings, there is a need for additional information to aid in the study of the book and the film. One is Oskar Schindler and His List: The Man, the Book, the Film, the Holocaust, and Its Survivors (1995), edited by Thomas Fensch and reviewed by Ray Olson in Booklist, September 15, 1995. This book contains postwar journalists' testimony, writings about Keneally's book, reviews of the film, and an annotated bibliography of other Holocaust writings. A review by Maria Stone of Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on Schindler's List, edited by Yosefa Loshitzky for the Indiana University Press (1997), appeared in the November-December issue of Tikkun magazine. It points out that "today, the film frames the way most Americans understand the fate of European Jewry under the Nazis." Stone goes on to say that there are many reasons the film is important, "but the most obvious is the coincidence of America's obsession with spectacular Hollywood depictions of the world and its growing tendency to see the world through a moral paradigm shaped by the Holocaust . . . our greatest cultural producer had taken on the story of ultimate suffering." There are twelve essays, not all of which are complimentary to the film. This collection of essays ranges from questions such as "What does it mean to have the genre of the Hollywood epic shape Holocaust memory?," asked by Barbie Zelizer, to descriptions of the different ways the film was received in different countries. Final judgments vary.

Stone continues by saying that Americans see Schindler's resistance to Nazism by using the tools of the regime as possessive individualism—an individual acting alone as the only way to resist evil. This individualism is of more interest to Americans and an American director than the idea of collective resistance, such as a story about a resistance group. Schindler's individual and private transformation is easily understood by Americans. He saves individuals he knows, achieving this goal as a good businessman with a good accountant, and does not go underground to fight Nazism.

Lastly, Stone points out that Schindler, with his apolitical character, "fits tightly into an American sense that history is driven by things other than politics." The film presents only the good Nazi, Schindler, and the bad Nazi, Goeth, and gives no explanation of Nazism or the Holocaust or of how one led to the other. The film "presents Nazism and the Holocaust as events based in individuals outside larger systems of power and politics, an explanation that is ultimately too narrow, too limited, and without causality." Stone concludes by saying that because modern life gives the film Schindler's List extraordinary power, it also has a special responsibility, and that further debate on how to remember the Holocaust as it moves into wider areas of daily American and Jewish American culture is appropriate.

Schindler's List enjoys wide public approval. In a poll conducted on the Internet site, the film was one of the top eighteen released between January 1990 and December 1999, as reported by Wendy Woods for Newsbytes, January 3, 2000. It will remain a tool for teaching about the Holocaust and a tribute to a man who saved a nation, one person at a time.

Media Adaptations

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Schindler's List was adapted as a film by Steven Spielberg, starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley, Universal, 1993; available from MCA/Universal Home Video.

Schindler's List is also available as an audiobook (abridged), read by Ben Kingsley, published by Simon and Schuster (1993).


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Brecher, Elinor J. Schindler’s Legacy: True Stories of the List Survivors. New York: Penguin Books, 1994. An inspiring tribute to the Schindler Jews, thirty in particular, and the extraordinary accomplishments in their lives since being rescued by Oskar Schindler.

Crowe, David. Oskar Schindler: The Untold Story of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List. New York: Basic Books, 2004. This extremely thorough biography of Oskar Schindler, almost twice the length of Schindler’s List, fills in many details about Schindler’s early life, the war years, and his life after the war.

Keneally, Thomas. Searching for Schindler. New York: Doubleday, 2007. In this invaluable adjunct to his novel, Keneally describes the extraordinary process of interviewing at least fifty Schindler Jews from around the world and discusses his novel’s adaptation into one of the most lauded films of all times.

Pemper, Mietek. The Road to Rescue: The Untold Story of Schindler’s List. New York: Other Press, 2005. Serving as Amon Goeth’s personal secretary and as a friend to Oskar Schindler during and after the war, Pemper is best qualified to offer a fascinating first-person account of the inner workings of the Nazi leadership and the creation of the life-giving Schindler’s list.

Sauerberg, Lars Ole. “Fact-Flirting Fiction: Historiographical Potential or Involuntary Parody?” European Journal of English Studies 3, no. 2 (August, 1999): 190-205. This journal article examines the intersection of historical fiction, fiction, and history as it manifests in the novels, including Schindler’s List, of writers such as Keneally.

Schindler, Emilie. Where Light and Shadow Meet: A Memoir. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996. A useful first-person account, by Schindler’s wife, of day-to-day life with her husband, focusing on his great deeds but also on her own assistance in helping the Jews at Brünnlitz.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Drury, John, Creating Poetry, Writer's Digest Books, 1991.

Gaffney, Carmel, "Keneally's Faction: Schindler's Ark," in Quadrant, Vol. 29, No. 7, July 1985, pp. 75-77.

Glastonbury, Marion, "Too Grateful," in New Statesman, Vol. 104, No. 2694, November 5, 1982, p. 25.

Hollington, Michael, "The Ned Kelly of Cracow: Keneally's Schindler's Ark," in Meanjin, Vol. 42, No. 1, March 1983, pp. 42-46.

Hulse, Michael, "Virtue and the Philosophic Innocent: The British Reception of Schindler's List," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 163-88.

Johnson, Manly, "Thomas Keneally's Nightmare of History," in Antipodes, Vol. 3, No. 2, Winter 1989, pp. 101-104.

Keneally, Thomas, Schindler's List, Touchstone, 1993.

Kirby, Farrell, "The Economies of Schindler's List," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 163-88.

Loshitzky, Yosefa, ed., Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on "Schindler's List," Indiana University Press, 1997.

Petersson, Irmtraud, "'White Ravens' in a World of Violence: German Connections in Thomas Keneally's Fiction, in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, October pp. 101-104, 160-73.

Pierce, Peter, "'The Critics Made Me': The Receptions of Thomas Keneally and Australian Culture," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, May 1995, pp. 99-103.

Quartermaine, Peter, Thomas Keneally, Modern Fiction series, Edward Arnold, 1991.

Thornton, William H., "After the Carnival: The Film Prosaics of Schindler's List," in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 1996, pp. 701-708.

Wilson, A. N., "Faith & Uncertainty," in Encounter, Vol. LX, No. 2, February 1983, pp. 65-71.

Zweig, Paul, "A Good Man in a Bad Time," in New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1982, pp. 1, 38-39.

Further Reading
Fensch, Thomas, ed., Oskar Schindler and His List: The Man, the Book, the Film, the Holocaust and Its Survivors, with an introduction by Herbert Stenhouse, Paul Eriksson, 1995.

This casebook includes two postwar journalists' testimonies about Schindler, three pieces on Keneally's book, more than 140 pages of reviews of and reportage on Spielberg's film, and more than 50 pages of journalistic discussion on the Holocaust that the movie's success provoked.

Lengyel, Olga, Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz, Academy Chicago Publishing, 1995.

This true story by a woman who lost her husband, her parents, and her two young sons to the Nazi exterminators tells of her work in the prisoners' underground resistance and her need to recount her story, which kept her fighting for survival.

Quartermaine, Peter, Thomas Keneally, Modern Fiction series, Edward Arnold, 1991.

In this account of the work of Thomas Keneally, Quartermaine provides a wide-ranging introduction to Keneally's novels, including Schindler's Ark.

Roberts, Jeremy, Oskar Schindler: Righteous Gentile, Holocaust Biographies series, Rosen Publishing Group, 2000.

This biography of Schindler ends by exploring the question of his status as a righteous man.

Schindler, Emilie, Where Light and Shadow Meet: A Memoir, W. W. Norton, 1997.

Schindler's widow, Emilie, presents an unflattering portrait of her husband as erratic, immature, and self-serving to deflate the myth that has evolved around her husband's life since the phenomenal success of Spielberg's movie.




Critical Essays