You may have read some of my previous posts from the series I did on books about the Holocaust (Why?: Explaining the Holocaust; The Legacy of Anne Frank; The Promise; As Long as I Remain Alive) that I read in preparation for a trip to Austria to honor my grandfather, a concentration camp liberator.
Unfortunately, COVID put an end to our trip, but not before I did more reading about the Holocaust to prepare myself.
I saw Schindler’s List in high school while studying the Holocaust. I understood its importance. But, I never realized it was based on a book. Nor was I familiar with Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (published as Schindler’s Ark originally in Australia).
It’s a novel. Fiction. Keneally describes fictional events and constructs imaginary conversations. It reads like a novel in many parts.
But it’s based on a true story, and Keneally did years of research to write the book.
Keneally notes how hard he strived to paint the scenes as accurately as he could. But then why not just write a straight nonfiction book about Schindler?
Wikipedia categorizes it as a “biographical novel,” whatever that is . . .
I couldn’t figure out the genre of this book. Normally, that would frustrate me, but I think the nebulous lines between fiction and nonfiction are appropriate because of Keneally’s subject matter. Keneally invents dialogue and pathos to keep readers invested but strives to incorporate the facts and firsthand accounts he unearthed throughout his research process.
“To use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story is a course that has frequently been followed in modern writing. It is the one I chose to follow here — both 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. . . .I have attempted, however, to avoid all fiction, since fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between reality and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature”Keneally 10
Plus, sometimes, the grand-scale of the Holocaust’s horror seems like it has to be fiction.
I mean, if we had no idea what the Holocaust was and someone explained it to us, wouldn’t we wonder if it was fiction because of how horrific it sounds? How could something so heinous be real?
I’ve written about why we can’t romanticize the Holocaust. It’s essential that what we say and write about it is factual lest we ever forget how the atrocity came to be and the destruction it left in its wake.
I appreciate Keneally taking this story about Oskar Schindler — a Nazi party member who subversively saved the lives of roughly 1,2000 Jewish people — and “photographs” him while engaging readers at the same time.
“the thing about a myth is not whether it is true or not, nor whether it should be true, but that it is somehow truer than truth itself”Keneally 232
Schindler is a tricky figure to capture. Was he a hero for saving as many lives as he did? For putting his own life and safety in danger many times? For sacrificing his personal wealth to ensure the survival of Schindlerjuden? Many say yes, and I’m inclined to agree because if that isn’t a hero, what is?
“Some friends would in fact came to say that generosity was a disease in Oskar, a frantic thing, one of his passions. He would tip taxi drivers twice the fare on the meter. But this has to be said too — that he thought the Reich housing authorities were unjust and told Stern so, not when the regime got into trouble but even in that, its sweetest autumn”Keanelly 52
“The Aktion of the night of December 4 had convinced Stern that Oskar Schindler was that rarity, the just Goy. There is the Talmudic legend of the Hasidei Ummot Ha-olm, the Righteous of the Nations, of whom there are said to be — at any point in the world’s history — thirty-six. Stern did not believe literally in the mystical number, but the legend was psychologically true for him and he believed it a decent and wise course to try to make of Schindler a living and breathing sanctuary”Keneally 68
But, he was also a Nazi and an opportunist. He found privilege, luxury, and success with the rise of the Nazi party. In contrast, his employees found themselves struggling to live in the ghetto. He employed Jewish people in his factory not because he wanted to save their lives but because he could pay them less.
“God knew Oskar was neither a Communist nor a Social Democrat. Oskar was a salesman”Keneally 38
“Oskar Schindler . . . was still the prototypical tycoon. He looked sleekly handsome in the style of the film stars George Sanders and Curt Jürgens . . . . He looked like a man to whom it was profit all the way.”Keneally 212
“It was Oskar’s nature to believe that you could drink with the devil and adjust the balance of evil over a snifter of cognac. It was not that he found more radical methods frightening. It was that they did not occur to him. He’d always been a man of transactions”Keneally 217-18
“One of the commonest sentiments of Schindler Jews is still, ‘I don’t know why he did it’”Keneally 281
“Oskar had done nothing astounding before the war and had been unexceptional since. He was fortunate, therefore, that in that short fierce era between 1939 and 1945 he had met people who summoned forth his deeper talents“Keneally 396-97
We cannot forget this side of Schindler. To do so erases his humanity as well as the humanity of the people he saved. To do so would overshadow the perseverance and resilience of the people he helped save. For me, that means muddying the waters that surround one of the only fragments of beauty I can find in stories about the Holocaust — the strength of the human spirit.
Schindler, before the war, was glamorous and self-serving. Upon arrival in Cracow, Poland in 1939, Schindler opens an enamelware factory, Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik.
“‘You’ll be safe working here. If you work here, then you’ll live through the war’”Keneally 91
“Coming to Emalia is the same as being given a Lebenskarte — a card of life”Keneally 206
His wife, Emilie, stayed behind in Czechoslovakia, giving Schindler the freedom to womanize, drink, and live a bachelor-like life in his lavishly decorated apartment.
“both Emilie and Oskar were amazed by this strange marriage disability — that he could offer and deliver more to strangers, to workers on his factory floor than he could to her”Keneally 94
“his prisoners could sense that he would ruin himself for them if that was the price. Later — not now, for now they accepted his mercies in the same spirit in which a child accepts Christmas presents from its parents — they would say, Thank God he was more faithful to us than his wife”Keneally 225
Through his decorator, Mila Pfefferberg, Schindler meets Leopold (Poldek), her son. Poldek became Schindler’s contact with the black market, a connection he first used to serve his tastes but ultimately uses in his efforts to save his employees. Poldek served as guardian of Schindler’s story and tried to get it published and turned into a film.
Another contact and friend Schindler made as he began to fill his factory with workers was Itzhak Stern, an accountant.
“He was so thin, and there was a scholarly dryness to him. He had the manners of a Talmudic scholar, but also of a European intellectual”Keneally 43
“Stern was the only father confessor Oskar even had, and Stern’s suggestions had a great authority with him”Keneally 293
It was Stern’s idea for Schindler to lease the factory, which enabled him to hire Jewish employees. This was attractive to Schindler since he could pay his employees less. Still, the employment opportunity also protected the Jewish employees from deportation and ultimately death.
Once DEF begins to make enamelware for the military, Schindler makes several convenient connections that ultimately serve him in protecting Schindlerjuden throughout the length of WWII.
“though the SS may have set the limits to the life people led in Emalia, Oskar set its tone. The tone was one of fragile permanence. There were no dogs. There were no beatings. The soup and the bread were better and more plentiful than in Płaszów — about 2,000 calories a day, according to a doctor who worked in Emalia as a factory hand”Keneally 202-03
Despite the protections of working at DEF, the Jewish people of Cracow had to relocate to a ghettoized neighborhood and then to Płaszów, a concentration camp in the suburbs of Cracow. Inhabitants who were not fit to work or serve were sent to death camps. Only some workers were able to stay in the DEF factory during the ghetto liquidation.
“Krautwirt, like others in Emalia, called the place Schindler’s camp, but by taking Krautwirt away to Płaszów for an exemplary hanging, the S.S. demonstrated whose camp it really was, at least for some aspects of its existence”Keneally 215
Through visits to employees at Płaszów, Schindler met the camp commander, SS-Hauptsturmfüer Amon Goeth.
“Hauptsturmfürer Amon Goeth, a sadist when drunk, was an exemplary Viennese gentleman”Keneally 19
“‘And we saw the Herr Commandant come out of the front door and down the steps by the patio, right below us. And there on the steps, he drew his gun and shot a woman who was passing. A woman carrying a bundle. Through the throat. Just a woman on her way somewhere. You know. She didn’t seem fatter or thinner or slower or faster than anyone else. I couldn’t guess what she’d done. The more you see of the Herr Commandant, the more you see that there’s no set of rules you can keep to. You can’t say to yourself, If I follow these rules, I’ll be safe’”Keneally 28
“No one escaped Amon unless it was a sort of destiny”Keneally 246
By befriending him and placating Goeth, Schindler protects his workers from the commander’s wrath.
“he’d tolerate Oskar because Oskar was such a character and the whole business would make a good dinner-party anecdote”Keneally 266
Goeth repaid Schindler by getting him out of serving prison time. Their strange “friendship” became Schindler’s leverage for transporting prisoners to his new factory in Brinnlitz, where things were safer, again under the disguise of manufacturing military gear.
“the factory produced nothing. ‘Not a shell,’ Brinnlitz prisoners will still say”Keneally 341
“There is some madness in a manufacturer like Oskar who rejoices when he does not manufacture”Keneally 342
“Stern would always say in the end that Oskar bought boxes of shells from other Czech manufacturers and passed them off as his own during inspections. Pfefferberg makes the same claim. In any case, Brinnlitz lasted, whatever sleight-of-hand Oskar used”Keneally 344
To get prisoners to Brinnlitz, Schindler hand to construct his famous list, his ark. He made a list of prisoners he hoped to save and tried to collect as many as he could get away with without incurring the wrath of Goeth.
“Oskar’s list, in the mind of some, was already more than a mere tabulation. It was a List. It was a sweet chariot which might swing low”Keneally 277
“Everyone has a story about the list”Keneally 297
However, once the war ends, Schindler is broke from all the bribery and marketeering he did to keep Schindlerjuden safe.
They offered him a ring, made from the bridgework of a willing prisoner, in gratitude. They inscribed it for him, as well:
“a Talmudic verse which Stern had quoted to Oskar in . . . 1939. ‘He who saves a single life saves the world entire’”Keneally 368
He faced charges from the allies on war crimes, especially related to his closeness to Goeth. Goeth himself hung for his war crimes, abuse of power, and sadistic treatment of Jewish prisoners. Schindler, on multiple occasions, testified that Goeth was guilty of these charges, which led to the commander’s execution.
“he went to the gallows without remorse and gave the National Socialist salute before dying”Keneally 390
The tables turned in the years following the war; Schindler failed at every new business venture and earned no reward for his humanitarian efforts as Herr Direktor of Emalia. The Schindlerjuden often took Schindler in and provided for him.
“‘He was our father, he was our mother, he was our only faith. He never let us down’”Keneally 330
“Though nobody quite understood it, it was the instant in which they became themselves again, in which Oskar Schindler became dependant of gifts of theirs”Keneally 372
“Now Oskar’s children had become his parents, his best recourse, his source of honor”Keneally 397
He died penniless in the sixties, living on the goodwill of those he helped during the war. Schindlerjuden petitioned for his burial at Mount Zion in Jerusalem. He is the only member of the Nazi party to lay there.
“in Jerusalem, he was declared a Righteous Person, this title being a peculiarly Israeli honor based on an ancient tribal assumption that in the mass of Gentiles, the God of Israel would always provide a leavening of just men”Keneally 394
Schindler’s story always makes me wonder, how far would we go today to protect our own? How far did we go to protect families separated at the border? How far did we go to save black and Asian lives when they need it? How far did we go to protect women from sexual assault?
Make no mistake: separating families, putting children in cages, murder, and rape are all atrocities that happened in the Holocaust.
It’s easy to think that when faced with evil, we will choose the side of good. But the rhetoric of evil is slippery. It creeps upon us. The only way to combat it entirely is to remain constantly vigilant.
“After all, both Oskar and the Jews told themselves, the Germans were a civilized nation”Keneally 57
“In the high rhetoric of their leaders, the Einsatz soldiers knew, a struggle for national existence meant race warfare, just as Einsatz itself, special Chivalrous Duty, meant the hot barrel of a gun”Keneally 58
“To write these things now is to state the commonplaces of history. But to find them out in 1942, to have them break upon you from a June sky, was to suffer a fundamental shock, a derangement in that area of the brain in which stable ideas about humankind and its possibilities are kept”Keneally 137
Are we willing to put on the line everything like Oskar Schindler and countless others did during the Holocaust?
Trigger Warnings: abuse; blood, gore, graphic injury; death; loss of a loved one; manipulation; misogyny; narcissistic personality disorder; racism (genocide, antisemitism); sexual abuse; sexism (misogynistic language) slavery; starvation; torture; victim blaming; violence; war (executions, genocide, the Holocaust, refugee crisis)