Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List (Book Review)

Schindler's List, Thomas Keneally's 1980 non-fiction "novel" about Oskar Schindler's transformation from a bon vivant German (actually, Sudeten German, born in what is now part of the Czech Republic) war profiteer to savior of over 1,000 Jews during World War II, is one of the most fascinating accounts about the darkest chapter of that global conflict, the Holocaust. It vividly portrays the horrors of the Nazi effort to exterminate the Jewish inhabitants in German-occupied Europe while at the same time proving that one person, no matter how flawed and contradictory in nature he or she is, can rise to the occasion and make a difference.

In his Author's Note, Keneally explains that he uses the oft-used technique of telling a true story in the format of a fictional account, partly because he is primarily a novelist (Confederates, Gossip From the Forest) and "because the novel's techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar."

He also acknowledges the persistence of Leopold Pfefferberg, a Los Angeles leather-goods store owner and one of the "Schindlerjuden" -- the handful of mostly Polish Jews saved by Schindler from the SS by Oskar's use of his charm, connections with high Nazi Party officials, and ultimately, the fortune Schindler had gone to make in Krakow after Poland's surrender in the fall of 1939.

The "novel" (for that is how Keneally categorizes the book) depicts the horrors of the Holocaust -- the herding of the Jews into ghettoes, the forced labor camps, the seemingly random acts of cruelty, especially those of Amon Goeth, the SS Kommandant of Plazow Labor Camp, and the misery inflicted on men, women and children by the Nazis in their mindless crusade to eradicate the Jews from Europe.

The flip side of the story -- what makes it appealing -- is Kennally's description of Oskar and the relationships he has with Goeth and other leaders of the Nazi Party as he realizes that his workers are destined to die in concentration camps unless he, Oskar Schindler, uses his influence and especially his money to save them.

While Spielberg's movie faithfully captures the novel's account of the Holocaust years, Keneally's book gives the reader more details about Oskar's life before and after the war, including a short account of his prewar activities and his postwar business failures in Europe and Argentina. However, Keneally's focus is on Schindler's inspiring transformation from shameless and charming entrepreneur to "Righteous Person," proving that decency and righteousness can triumph over even the most implacable tyranny and hatred.

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