Schindler's List Analysis
by Thomas Keneally

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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.


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

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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...

(The entire section is 9,399 words.)