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03 April 2014

Thomas Keneally: Schindler's List

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An astounding history of Oskar Schindler
Thomas Keneally's Man Booker Prize winning novel about how Oscar Schindler saved around 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust is one of the most astounding factual historical stories I have read. Many of you will have seen Spielberg's excellent film of "Schindlers' List". The novel on which it is based gives the reader a better understanding of Schindler than can be conveyed in a 3 hour movie.

Keneally was inspired to write the book when he met Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor, who had extensive files about Schindler. Before writing the book Keneally had discussions with survivors (mostly "Schindlerjuden" - Schindler Jews) in many countries, including  Australia, Israel, West Germany, Austria, the United States, Argentina, and Brazil. Keneally uses the devices of a novel to describe the enigmatic and ambiguous character of Schindler and how he risked his own life to help many Jews and eventually to save some of them from the death camps. Keneally dedicated the book to Pfefferberg: "who by zeal and persistence caused this book to be written."

Oskar Schindler was born in Austria but moved to Cracow in Poland just before the war. There he acted as a model German as a member of a party affiliated to the Nazis and wore a Swastika lapel badge. Oskar was a salesman and a dealer by temperament who knew that at that time when you went in to a German company manager wearing the badge, you got the order. Through his many contacts Schindler profited from the Jewish demise, gaining a large apartment and acquiring an enamel factory making cooking and eating utensils in great demand by the military. He employs many Jews in his factory at low wages who are being forced by the SS to live in the cramped and increasingly dangerous Cracow ghetto.

Schindler is an enigmatic character, an entrepreneur and salesman, a womaniser, a boozer, a black marketeer, and a manipulator who is never afraid to use any form of bribery to get what he wants. His social and drinking circle includes most of the senior SS in the region many of whom are violent sociopaths involved with the ultimate solution to the "Jewish problem". Even when he gets permission to set up his own camp next to his factory and provides extra food for the prisoners at his expense from the black market he was still socialising with SS officers in charge of death camps. His womanising continues and he was even spotted by his staff when he was skinny dipping in a water tank with an attractive, and frequently brutal, female SS guard.

Why did Schindler finish up risking his life to help and save so many Jews? You will have to read this meticulously researched book to attempt an answer. One suggestion in the book is that one day Schindler saw the SS expelling Jews from the Cracow ghetto, and executing those who didn't comply. He experienced an epiphany so that “Beyond this day,” he would claim, “no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.”

This is a fascinating, memorable but frequently brutal masterpiece of a book. It is a an inside story of one of the most terrible times in human history. Keneally tells the story in a somewhat dispassionate way that allows the reader to try to understand what really happened. It is also a good news story - for the few Schindlerjuden - and is emotionally heartwarming as they supported Schindler after the war. Many of the the Schindlerjuden became successful in business, qualified as doctors and lawyers, and became Judges and influential members of their adopted countries. Israel acknowledged what Schindler did and his final resting place is in a Catholic cemetery in Jerusalem.

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