Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally

Fiction — print. Touchstone, 1993. Originally published 1982. 400 pgs. Purchased.

Winner of the 1982 Man Booker Prize and adapted into a film in 1993 produced by Steven Spielberg, Keneally’s novel recounts the efforts of Oskar Schindler, a Czechoslovakia-born German who saved over 1,100 Jewish workers from the Nazi concentration camps by employing them in his factory in Krakow, Poland. As a member of the Nazi Party and an ethnic German from Hitler’s prized Sudetenland, Schindler had the credentials necessary to wine-and-dine SS officers, including the brutal commandant of the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp, Amon Goeth, in order to get them to turn a blind eye to his factory workforce and leave his workers off the deportation lists.

Keneally writes at the beginning of his novel that while he spent time interviewing Schindlerjuden (“Schindler Jews”) and researching about Schindler’s life, he felt more comfortable packaging this nonfiction tale as a fictional account. Yet the book reads like a nonfiction tale with a series of interviews and stories about the Schindlerjuden — Hela Brzeska (now Helen Beck),  Poldek Pfefferberg, Genia Dresen (the girl in the red coat) — sprinkled throughout.

Readers are provided with a recounting of Schindler’s life — the date of his birth, his strained relationship with his father, how he gains control of the factory in Poland — that, for any other fictional tale, would be disparaged for falling into the “telling rather than showing” trap. Meaning that Keneally tells the reader about Schindler rather than allowing Schindler’s actions to establish his character or to move the story forward.  The whole novel reads like a biography — little emotion infused within the text, lackluster descriptions to set the scene — and despite what Keneally said about wanting to have the freedom to invent, there are remarkably few scenes where the dialogue was not supported by documents or interviews with people in the room.

Had I not read his preface at the beginning of the book, I could have easily been persuaded that this was a biography rather than a fictional account. And I was left with the distinct impression that Keneally set out to write a biography yet felt he lacked the credentials to call it such. Or, did not want to be held to the higher standards of fact checking that (should) come with a nonfiction account.

This is certainly one of the rare cases where the movie is far superior to the original novel with the exception of the book’s conclusion. The movie, if I remember correctly, shows the Schindlerjuden and their numerous descendants visiting Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem on Mount Zion (the only member of the Nazi Party to be buried there) and celebrating him as one of Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations. Yet the film says nothing of how the once wealthy man died penniless having spent his entire fortune on brides and food to keep the Schindlerjuden alive through the end of World War II. He emigrated to Argentina, went through a series of bankruptcies, returned to Germany in 1958, and survived on donations sent by Schindlerjuden from all over the world until his death in 1974.

And there is a particular line in the epilogue about how the only point in Schindler’s life where he managed to be a successful businessman were years he spent trying to shield his Jewish factory workers from deportation. He may have originally utilized Jewish workers in his factory because they were cheaper than the Polish laborers, but his financial success during this time helped to save their lives and the turn about in their fortunes following the war was far more poetic to me than the conclusion of the film. Still, I would suggest skipping the book and watching the movie instead.

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