Author: Thomas Keneally
Genre: Historical Fiction, World War II
First Publication: 1982
Major Characters: Oskar Schindler, Amon Goeth, Helen Hirsch, Emilie Schindler, Abraham Bankier, Josef Bau
Theme: Virtue, The Triumph of the Human Spirit, The Difference One Individual Can Make, The Dangerous Ease of Denial
Setting: Krakow (Kraków), 1939 (Poland)
Narrator: Third-Person Omniscient
Book Summary: Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
In the shadow of Auschwitz, a flamboyant German industrialist grew into a living legend to the Jews of Cracow. He was a womaniser, a heavy drinker and a bon viveur, but to them he became a saviour.
This is the extraordinary story of Oskar Schindler, who risked his life to protect Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland and who was transformed by the war into a man with a mission, a compassionate angel of mercy.
Book Review: Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally
Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List (or Schindler’s Ark) is an account of how the Nazi member and industrialist Oskar Schindler rescued over a thousand Jews from very probable death from at Auschwitz, by protecting them as workers at his enamel ware factory. Thomas Keneally won the Man Booker Prize for Schindler’s List in 1982.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally is a true demonstration of courage and integrity that people should have followed during WWII. This story tells about the lives of the Jewish people in Poland during WWII and how by one man. Over 1200 Jew’s lives were saved by Oscar Schindler, a business man from Czechoslovakia. Oscar Schindler acquainted himself with power members of the Nazi party in order to build up favors in case he ever needed them. Jews were being forced to register and wear a yellow Star of David in order to distinguish themselves from the rest of society. Soldiers would cut off their side curls in the street to make a mockery of them.
“Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”
As the German occupation increased, Jewish residents were tossed out of their homes and forced to all live in a 16 square block walled ghetto located south of the Vistula River in Poland. The liquidation of the ghetto lead by Amon Goeth, Nazi officer, forced everyone out of their occupancy and into the Plaszow forced labour camp. Oskar Schindler with the help of Itzhak Stern, a member of the Jewish community, set up a metal works plant so that the Jews were able to escape, if only for a moment, from the brutality of the concentration camp where they were forced to fight for survival. His factory was known to all who worked there as a piece of heaven in the depths of hell.
Schindler strike a deal with Amon that included Amon receive a said amount of the profits that came in for the labour that was required to run the factory. Amon let it slip to Oscar that he was ordered to send all the prisoners to Auschwitz where they would ultimately face death. With this horrifying news, Schindler set out on a mission to save those who had become so dear to his heart.
“The principle was, death should not be entered like some snug harbor. It should be an unambiguous refusal to surrender.”
The story of Oscar Schindler is one that would not be easily forgotten. This man saved the lives of 1200 Jews and their descendants who would have other wise been killed in the massacre of WWII. Although this is a great story of survival, it gets you thinking about all the other people who weren’t as lucky to have worked for such a man. Thousands of Jews died in the worst conditions possible and for those who did survive, they faced the memories of the suffering and the violence that happened before their eyes.
It was inspiring to see Schindler when his mind set changed from making money to saving lives. Itzhak Stern had a huge part to play in the conversion of Schindler because he was in charge of the factory, so he was the one who did all the hiring. Stern worked relentlessly in making sure that as many people as possible were able to come to the ‘place of refuge.’ Schindler created a future for so many who thought there was nothing else for them.
“He was one of those men who, even in the years of peace, would have advised his congregation that while God may well be honored by the inflexibility of the pious, he might also be honored by the flexibility of the sensible.”
Steven Spielberg’s film by the same name has made the book Schindler’s List and the tale world famous so there probably is little need to outline the plot. Possibly one of the most memorable scenes in the film, partly because of the iconic girl in a red coat, the liquidation of Jewish ghetto in Krakow is, similarly, a quite brilliantly described moment in the book. Much of it is seen from the point of view of Oscar Schindler who has a high vantage point on top of a hill overlooking the town, while out riding. He notices the girl and is appalled that the violence he is witnessing is being carried out in full view of an innocent child.
There is a revelatory moment for Schindler as realizes that this is not just a few out of control soldiers but officially sanctioned actions. The soldiers do not expect to face consequences. He is shocked and sickened, and his response is a reminder for the reader of the problems of hindsight.
Was Schindler particularly naïve? Probably not. The book depicts also the fatal complacency of so many Jews in Krakow. Many seemed to expect that the ghettos would bring with them a lowering of their living standards, but would also emphasize their specialness, and there’s a nostalgic memory of ghettos from the previous century. They also expected that their position as the regime’s labour would protect them.
“It was a great gift which the National Socialist Party had given to the men of the SS, that they could go into battle without physical risk, that they could achieve honor without the contingencies that plagued the whole business of being shot at.”
Another aspect of Germany’s occupation of Poland which the book describes occasionally is the way in which non-Jewish Poles turned on Jewish Poles. In fact the violence against the Jews by their own countrymen, meant that when the Nazis said they were setting up Jewish ghettos for their own safety it’s described as being seen as credible in one passage. It demonstrates that anti-Semitism was more widespread across Europe than we tend to remember now. But it’s also a timely reminder the power of propaganda, and scapegoating of easily identifiable minorities, in times of upheaval and lawlessness.
There is much in Keneally’s rendition of this dark episode to admire. He conducted an enormous amount of research; interviewing many of the survivors and people who knew Schindler. Some of the scenes are truly harrowing. In his author’s note Thomas Keneally tells us that he has used the “texture and devices of a novel” but he had also “attempted to avoid all fiction”. He has made this decision out of respect for the witnesses and survivors and that is an entirely honourable position to take. I would recommend this to anyone wanting to know more about this aspect of the Second World War, as it serves as a reminder of the true horror of Nazi Germany in particular but the experience of military occupation more generally.