Keneally states in his Author’s Note: ‘To use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story is a course which has frequently been followed in modern writing. It is one I have chosen to follow here; both because the craft of the novelist is the only craft to which I can lay claim, and because the novel’s techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar. I have attempted to avoid all fiction, though, since fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between reality and the myths… Sometimes it has been necessary to attempt to construct conversations of which Oskar and others have left only the briefest record… But most exchanges and conversations and all events, are based on the detailed recollections of the Schindler Jews, of Schindler himself, and of other witnesses to Oskar’s acts of outrageous rescue.’
In effect, Keneally succeeds beautifully. The documentary feel about it is perhaps appropriate for the subject matter.
It’s probable that Oskar Schindler needs no introduction these days, thanks to this book, subsequent books and of course the Oscar-winning Spielberg film, Schindler’s List (1993).
Briefly, before the war, Schindler worked for the Abwehr, the Nazi party’s intelligence service, where he build up a number of contacts who proved useful to him when he began an enamelware business in Cracow, taking over the Rekord works, renaming it Deutsche Email Fabrik (DEF) [email before e-mail, indeed!] His factory employed about 1,700, a thousand of them being Jews. Initially, he seemed driven by the profit motive, when he wasn’t cheating on his wife and also drinking to excess.
Then war descended upon Poland and, gradually, he saw and heard of the inhuman treatment meted out to the Jews by the German invaders and many Poles. He addressed a number of newly recruited workers: ‘You’ll be safe working here. If you work here, then you’ll live through the war.’ He was a big imposing man, and yet many wondered how he could make such a promise. Didn’t he know what was happening all around? His tone commanded belief.
Schindler seemed to be an uncanny judge of character. SS Oberfuhrer Julian Scherner would ‘sometimes be discovered wearing the smirk of his unexpected power like a childish jam-stain in the corner of his mouth. He was always convivial and dependably heartless. Oskar could tell that Scherner favoured working the Jews rather than killing them, that he would bend rules for the sake of profit…’ (p91) Often, Oskar had to deal with and bribe men in authority, and always got what he wanted.
SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Amon Goeth was the commandant of the Kraków-Plaszów concentration camp, which he had built by forced labour; here Oskar’s workers were forced to live.
‘Oskar had the characteristic salesman’s gift of treating men he abhorred as if they were soul brothers, and it would deceive the Herr Commandant so completely that Amon would always believe Oskar a friend… Oskar despised Goeth in the simplest and most passionate terms. His contempt would grow without limit and his career would dramatically demonstrate it.’ (p164)
Goeth was a psychotic killer, who thought nothing of leaning out of his window and shooting to death a passing worker in the camp. Oskar had the measure of him, however, and during one of their drinking sessions together, he risked Amon Goeth’s murderous ire: ‘… acting out of an amity which, even with this much cognac aboard, did not go beyond the surface of the skin, merely a sort of frisson, a phantom shiver of brotherhood running along the pores, nothing more – Oskar, leaning towards Amon and cunning as a demon, began to tempt him towards restraint.’ (216) And it seemed that Goeth became magnanimous, no longer arbitrarily murdering people.
Oskar’s deviousness knew no bounds. He constantly risked his position, his business, all his money and his life by protecting his workers. There is an allusion to good soldier Schweik, a First World War character created by Jaroslav Hasek, ‘to foul up the system’ (p229). That was Oskar’s Czech ancestry. Schweik bamboozled authority with his comic incompetence, puncturing pomposity and highlighting military stupidity (my copy of The Good Soldier Schweik and His Fortunes in the World War translated by Cecil Parrot proved useful in my research for The Prague Papers!)
There are many painful and memorable moments in this book. Take, for example, the three-year-old child. Even at that age she had her vanities – ‘a passionately preferred colour. Red. She sat there in red cap, red coat, small red boots…’ (p100) – more of which anon.
Rumours in closed societies can be debilitating, dangerous and destructive. Whispers about salt mines, being buried alive… ‘All this hearsay, much of which reached Oskar, was based on a human instinct to prevent the evil by voicing it; to forestall the fates by showing them that you could be as imaginative as they. But that June all the worst of the dreams and whispers took concrete form and the most unimaginable rumour became fact.’ While out horse riding, Oskar witnessed the clearing of part of the ghetto, and he saw a little girl, a toddler, being shepherded with the doomed men and women by SS guards, and the toddler was wearing a small scarlet coat and cap. Before moving out of sight, the child witnessed abhorrent brutality and murder. Afterwards, Oskar realised that the culprits ‘permitted witnesses, such witnesses as the red toddler, because they believed all the witnesses would perish too.’ (p123)
Even disallowing the moral dimension, it beggared belief that the Nazi war machine would squander so many resources on the ‘Final Solution’, diverting transport, troops, administrators, and weapons in their insane mission of extermination.
Eventually, towards the end of the war, Oskar realised he had to move his workforce out of Poland before they were selected for the crematoria. Not without much conniving, effort, and payment – kilos of tea, leather shoes, carpets, coffee, canned fish – he arranged for his Jews to be transferred to a factory in Moravia. A list was created and the authorities sanctioned the move for all on the list. There was privation and despair before they all finally arrived at the new factory, however...
Ultimately, Oskar saved 1,200 Jews by employing them– and he was such a con-man that they never produced one item that aided the German war effort. At the time of liberation, those he saved spread to countries round the world.
Keneally’s book is moving without lurching into sentimentality, and provides many psychological insights, some touched upon in the few quotations above. The writing is at times almost poetic: ‘… without the evidence of the crematoria, the dead could offer no witness, were a whisper behind the wind, an inconsequential dust on the aspen leaves.’
The film condenses much of the book, starkly in black-and-white – save for that shot of the little girl in red. The presence of Liam Neeson as Oskar dominates the screen. The other characters are faithfully acted, notably Ben Kinglsey as Itshak Stern, Oskar’s accountant and conscience, and Ralph Fiennes is horribly real as Goeth.
This film should be viewed at least once in a lifetime.
And this book should be read, too.
When Oskar Schindler died in 1974, ‘he was mourned in every nation.’ (p401).