Schindler's List recreates the true story of Oskar Schindler, the Czech-born southern German industrialist who risked his life to save over 1,100 of his Jewish factory workers from the death camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. Thomas Keneally's "documentary novel," based on the recollections of the Schindlerjuden (Schindler's Jews), Schindler himself, and other witnesses, is told in a series of snapshot stories. It recounts the lives of the flamboyant profiteer and womanizer Schindler; Schindler's long-suffering wife, Emilie; the brutal SS (Nazi secret service) commandant Amon Goeth; Schindler's quietly courageous factory manager, Itzhak Stern; and dozens of other Jews who underwent the horrors of the Nazi machinery. At the center of the story, though, are the actions and ambitions of Schindler, who comes to Kraków, Poland, seeking his fortune and ends up outwitting the SS to protect his Jewish employees. It is the story of Schindler's unlikely heroism and of one man's attempt to do good in the midst of outrageous evil. The book explores the complex nature of virtue, the importance of individual human life, the role of witnesses to the Holocaust, and the attention to rules and details that sustained the Nazi system of terror.
Keneally's book was first published in Britain in 1982 under the title Schindler's Ark and released as Schindler's List in the United States the same year. When Schindler's Ark won Britain's Booker Prize in 1982, it stirred up controversy, with some critics complaining that the "documentary novel" did not deserve a prize normally reserved for fiction.
The debate among critics did not affect the book's enormous popularity with readers, however. It enjoyed renewed interest after its adaptation into a feature film by Steven Spielberg in 1993. In part because of the success of the film, Schindler's List ranks as one of the most popular books ever written about the Holocaust.
Thomas Keneally was born in Sydney, Australia, in 1935 into an Irish Catholic family. He completed his schooling at various schools on the New South Wales north coast before starting theological studies for the Catholic priesthood in 1958. He abandoned this vocation in 1960, working first as a laborer and then as a clerical worker before becoming a schoolteacher. In 1964, he published his first novel, The Place at Whitton. He then left teaching and took a part-time job as an insurance collector while he continued to write. He married Judith Martin in 1965; their daughters were born in 1966 and 1967. In 1967, Keneally won the Miles Franklin Award for literature for Bring Larks and Heroes, and since then he has pursued writing as a full-time profession.
Four of Keneally's novels have been short-listed for the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious award for fiction writing. They are The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972), which explores the impact of the meeting of European and Aboriginal cultures from an Aboriginal point of view; Gossip from the Forest (1975), set during the First World War; Confederates (1979), about the American Civil War; and Schindler's Ark (1982; later published in the United States as Schindler's List), for which he won the prize. There was considerable controversy when Schindler's Ark won the Booker Prize, as many considered the book to be a work of journalistic reporting rather than a fiction novel. The following year Keneally was awarded the Order of Australia for his services to Australian literature. Keneally's other novels include A Family Madness (1985), To Asmara (1989), Flying Hero Class (1991), Woman of the Inner Sea (1993), and A River Town (1995). The Great Shame (1999), a nonfiction work, explores the fates of nineteenth-century Irishmen forced to emigrate to Australia.
Keneally also writes for the Australian press and travels widely, lecturing and presenting seminars and workshops. He lives in Sydney with his wife.
Schindler's List first appeared in Britain as Schindler's Ark. The word "ark" in the original title is in reference to the ark built by the biblical Noah, on God's instruction, to rescue people and animals from the Great Flood. Thus Schindler, simply from the original title of the work, is cast as a rescuer of men.
Schindler's List is made up of a series of stories about different people, which take place over a period of time. Keneally provides the details of the lives of many of the main characters. Events from their pasts, their experiences in the ghetto or labor camps, and their reactions to the history they witnessed are told in snatches over the course of the novel. But in the midst of these snippets there emerges the main story—of Oskar Schindler and his outrageous rescue of his Jewish workers. Keneally interrupts his storytelling periodically to offer historical commentary or to mention what happened to a character after the war was over. Thus the action of the novel does not proceed chronologically but moves back and forth in time. The summary of the plot that follows for the most part outlines the main events of the story of Schindler's rescue of his workers in chronological time, omitting the other story lines.
Keneally prefaces Schindler's List with a note describing the nature of his nonfictional novel and acknowledging his sources. He explains how he came to hear about Schindler's story from Holocaust survivor Leopold Pfefferberg when the author was browsing Pfefferberg's luggage store in Beverly Hills.
The prologue takes the reader to the heart of the story (it is Autumn 1943), setting the stage and providing a glimpse of some of the major characters. The scene takes place one evening in Goeth's quarters, as Oskar rubs shoulders with SS officers even while he is secretly undermining the Nazi system. He eats, drinks, and socializes with them but also offers kindness to Helen Hirsch, Goeth's mistreated maid. The author observes that, at this stage, Schindler is "in deep" in his "practical engagement in the salvation of human lives" but that he has no idea of what his rescue efforts will ultimately cost him.
The novel opens with the conquest of Poland by the German troops. Schindler moves to Kraków to seek his fortune. Keneally provides a character sketch of the charming, flamboyant Schindler and outlines his background: his Czechoslovakian Catholic upbringing, his parents' troubled marriage, his wild streak as a youth, his difficulties with his fresh-faced country wife, Emilie, and his desire for success within the new regime.
Schindler meets Itzhak Stern, whose advice he seeks about taking over a bankrupt business, Rekord, that produced enamelware. Stern advises Schindler to lease the estate. Schindler and Stern engage in conversation about the viability of Hitler's success and religion. Schindler says that it must be difficult for priests during this time to explain the biblical verse about God caring about the death of even a single sparrow. Stern says that the spirit of the verse may be summed up in the Talmudic verse that says that he who saves the life of one man saves the entire world. Stern always believed, Keneally points out, that it was at that moment that he planted a seed into Schindler's mind.
Schindler takes over an apartment in Straszewskiego Street, once owned by a Jewish family, the Nussbaums. It was common practice for Jews to be removed from their homes without compensation, and Schindler is allocated this apartment by the Reich housing authorities. He goes to see Mrs. Mina Pfefferberg, who was recommended by the Nussbaums as a good decorator. At Mrs. Pfefferberg's house, Schindler meets Poldek (Leopold) Pfefferberg, who is ready to kill the German if he poses a threat to his mother. Pfefferberg and Schindler become friends and "business acquaintances," as Pfefferberg procures black market goods for Schindler.
On December 3, the day he signs the papers to lease his enamelware factory (Deutche Email Fabrik, or D.E.F.; also known as Emalia), Schindler warns Stern of a pogrom that is to take place the next day. Kazimierz, the Jewish section of Kraków, is invaded. Some Jews flee in time, but others are killed in the terror that follows. Schindler feels a fundamental disgust at what happens, but not enough to do something to stop it.
- Schindler's List was adapted as a film by Steven Spielberg, starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley, Universal, 1993; available from MCA/Universal Home Video.
- Schindler's List is also available as an audio-book (abridged), read by Ben Kingsley, published by Simon and Schuster (1993).
Schindler begins his affair with his Polish secretary, Victoria Klonowska. Around Christmas 1939, he meets and has drinks with a number of German police and other officials. They talk about the current "situation" and speculate about what is to be done to the Jews.
Abraham Bankier, the former manager of Rekord and soon to be Schindler's office manager, helps Schindler to find Jewish investors for his enamelware factory. Emilie Schindler comes from Zwittau in Czechoslovakia to visit her husband. Schindler sets up his factory and employs 150 Jews; it is considered a haven in German-occupied Kraków, where Jews are routinely being thrown out of their homes.
Stern tells Schindler the story of Marek Biberstein, the president of the Judenrat, the Jewish council set up by the Germans to administer Jewish affairs. Biberstein had offered a bribe to a German official to try to allow ten thousand Jews to remain at home, and he is now serving a jail sentence.
In March 1940, a Jewish ghetto is set up. All Jews must live within its confines. Schindler's workers no longer receive wages but must live on their rations. Their payment goes to SS headquarters in Kraków. The Jews hear of Schindler's factory as a place where they will be well treated, and Schindler tells his workers that they will be safe with him and that if they work with him, they will survive the war.
Schindler returns to his hometown of Zwittau and meets his estranged father.
Conditions worsen in the Jewish ghetto, and there is great resentment towards the members of the Judenrat. Germany invades Russia, and the war intensifies.
At the end of 1941, Schindler is arrested; he suspects one of his Polish workers has informed on him. He is questioned about his factory and released after his secretary contacts his police and SS friends, who intervene on his behalf.
On April 28, 1942, his birthday, Schindler kisses a Jewish girl at the factory. He is arrested again. Obersturmbannführer Rolf Czurda, whom Schindler has met at cocktail parties, releases Schindler but warns him against this type of behavior.
Pfefferberg, who had been working as a tutor, finds he cannot get a Blauschein, an identity sticker for Jews that provides some measure of security against arbitrary deportation. He receives one after declaring himself to be a metal polisher.
Abraham Bankier and other workers are loaded into cattle cars and are about to be transported to labor camps. Schindler has them removed from the trains after threatening the officials in charge.
In the pivotal scene of the novel, Schindler and his German girlfriend, Ingrid, are riding their horses on a hilly parkland, in full view of the Jewish ghetto. They witness the liquidation of the ghetto and the murder of countless men, women, and children. Schindler is particularly moved by the sight of a little girl in red. Later, the author says, Schindler would lay special weight on this day. Schindler says, "Beyond this day … no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system."
More details of the razing of the ghetto are revealed, as well as stories of escapes and resistance.
Schindler has the reputation among Jews as a man who will assist them, and he helps the Jewish underground movement.
Schindler travels to Hungary with Dr. Sedlacek, as Austrian dentist, to report the atrocities in Poland.
Amon Goeth is installed as commandant of the forced labor camp at Plaszow. Examples of Goeth's brutality are described, including his execution of the Jewish engineer who is supervising the building of the barracks on the camp.
Goeth and Schindler meet, and Schindler explains why his factory cannot be moved to Plaszow, as had been directed: for purely industrial reasons. Schindler is depressed after he sees the conditions at Plaszow. It is the last day of the existence of the ghetto, and the chapter ends with a description of Dr. H's nurses administering cyanide to the dying patients in the ghetto hospital to spare them being slaughtered by the German military.
More than four thousand people who resisted deportation from the ghetto are found and executed in the streets. They are taken to Plaszow and buried in mass graves. Pfefferberg narrowly escapes death.
Schindler makes plans to open his own factory camp outside Plaszow, and he obtains permission from Oberführer Julius Scherner and Goeth to do so, but he must foot the entire bill for the operation. The construction of the "subcamp" is approved.
The Emalia camp is seen as a haven, and there is competition to get into it. Although the SS have some control over it, there are no beatings and the inmates are relatively well fed. Schindler is visited by Regina Perlman, who asks that her parents be moved from the labor camp to his subcamp. Schindler does not immediately consent, in case she is a spy, but her parents are eventually moved there. Stern brings a number of workers to the camp, including the Rabbi Menasha Levartov. While visiting the factory, Goeth finds that Levartov is not making hinges quickly enough and takes him out to shoot him. His pistol does not fire. He takes out another revolver to do the job, and it does not fire either.
Schindler visits Goeth and tempts him towards being more restrained in his behavior towards prisoners—and to stop killing Jews at random from his balcony as he has been doing. Goeth likes the idea, and for a while he stops his arbitrary executions. But his clemency does not last long. It is also learned that Goeth and his clique are making personal fortunes through their corrupt dealings at the Plaszow Labor Camp.
Schindler continues to spend vast sums of money to bribe officials and procure supplies to run his factory camp and take care of the inmates there.
Details of the harsh living conditions of the Plaszow camp are given. Amid the suffering and routine executions, Josef and Rebecca Bau have a traditional courtship and get married in a Jewish ceremony. Schindler travels to Oranienberg to get assurances from officials that his subcamp will not be closed.
Goeth is ordered to burn the dead bodies around the Plaszow camp. Schindler tells Stern that he is going to get all his Jewish workers out of their situation—or at least, he says, he will get Stern out.
Goeth sends 1,400 adults and 268 children to Auschwitz as part of the "Health Action."
Goeth tells Schindler that they must be aware of a Polish partisan attack from outside the camp. Later than evening Schindler is encouraged by news that Hitler has been assassinated, but it turns out not to be true. He becomes increasingly depressed. He gets word that the camps around Kraków will be disbanded.
Schindler learns that Emalia must be disbanded and his workers sent to Plaszow for "relocation," which certainly means they will be sent to the death camps. Schindler approaches Goeth and says he wants to move his factory to Czechoslovakia. He would be "grateful" for any support—which means he will pay Goeth a bribe for allowing him to do so. Goeth agrees and says he will allow a list of people to be drawn up. Schindler "wins" Helen Hirsch from Goeth in a game of blackjack, and she is added to the list of skilled workers he will take to his factory.
Goeth is arrested by the SS for his embezzlements, black-market dealings, and other illegal activities. Schindler drives to Brinnlitz in Czechoslovakia to look at the site for his relocated factory camp. He spends one hundred thousand reichsmarks to grease the transfer to Brinnlitz. He draws up a list of names of prisoners. Marcel Goldberg, a personnel clerk, is in charge of the list and takes bribes to include names on it.
The men on the Schindler list are transported by train to Brinnlitz. It is a three-day journey in freezing conditions.
The Jewish male workers arrive in Brinnlitz. The women are transported from Plaszow and find themselves in the concentration camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Some are killed in the first days. The wretched conditions and the gassings in the camp are described. After more than ten days, Schindler manages to secure the women's return. Meanwhile, the Brinnlitz factory camp is set up. It ostensibly produces artillery casings, but this is simply a front; there is no production at the factory at all. The SS officers in charge of the camp are not allowed into the factory and may not hurt the prisoners without justification or a trial. Emilie Schindler works at the camp clinic.
One of the camp workers, Janek Dresner, is accused of sabotage of the camp machinery by a German engineer supervisor. The officer in charge of the camp, Untersturmführer Liepold, wants to make an example of him. Schindler handles the problem by cursing and hitting the boy in front of the engineer, dismissing him as too ignorant to miscalibrate a machine, as he had been accused of doing. This is an example of the "stunts" pulled by Schindler to save the lives of his workers.
Schindler manages to evade other inspections at his factory and hide the fact that it is producing nothing. He pays bribes to officials to maintain their silence. There are complaints from the towns-people about the prisoners and the state of the factory. During this time Schindler acquires an arsenal of weapons, and he trains some of the prisoners to use the firearms.
Schindler pays the authorities for the prisoners from the Goleszow quarry, who arrive at his camp near death, to work for him. Goeth, released from prison, visits Schindler's new camp.
On Schindler's thirty-seventh birthday, his workers present him with a small box crafted by one of the metalworkers. He makes a speech, saying that the tyranny will soon be over and that he will stay at Brinnlitz until they are free. He also arranges for the dismissal of Liepold from the camp. The war ends with the German surrender, and Schindler is happy but frightened by the news of the execution of German civilians. Schindler knows he must flee, and before he does, his workers present him with a ring on which is inscribed, "He who saves a single life saves the world entire." Schindler makes another long speech, urging the SS to leave quietly and for the workers to exercise restraint against their aggressors. The prisoners also present Schindler with a letter of introduction, written in Hebrew, explaining his extraordinary circumstances. The car is prepared for Schindler's departure; sacks of diamonds are inserted into the upholstery.
The SS garrison leaves the factory camp, and Schindler, his wife, and eight prisoners leave Brinnlitz. They travel through Czechoslovakia, and in Prague the car is stripped of the diamonds. In Czechoslovakia they also encounter American troops, who treat them well. When they cross the Swiss border, they are arrested by the French police on suspicion on having been concentration camp guards. The Hebrew letter of introduction has been left with the Americans, and the group is afraid of what the Allies might do to Schindler if they find out he was the director of a camp. Schindler, his wife, and the prisoners are all interrogated and eventually decide to tell the truth. When the French hear their story, they weep and embrace them. In the meantime, the Soviets liberate the camp at Brinnlitz.
After the war, Schindler and his wife move to Munich, where they share lodgings with some of his former workers. Schindler takes on a Jewish mistress, and he clings to the company of "his Jews" who had come to Germany. He hears that Goeth had been condemned to death and hanged in Kraków in 1946. In 1949, Schindler receives $15,000 and a reference from an international Jewish relief organization to whom he had made reports during the war. He, Emilie, and other Schindlerjuden move to Argentina, where Schindler becomes a farmer. His business fails, and in 1957 he leaves Argentina, and Emilie, to return to Germany. He buys a cement factory, but that too fails, and by 1961 he is bankrupt again. In 1961, several Schindlerjuden invite him to Israel. He is honored by the municipality of Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem is declared a Righteous Person and invited to plant a carob tree in the Avenue of the Righteous leading to the Yad Vashem Museum. He spends some months of every year in Israel, living the rest of the time in cramped quarters in Frankfurt in a state of loneliness and depression and with almost no money. He continues to help with the effort to identify war criminals. In 1966, he is honored by the German government for his wartime efforts. In his sixties, Schindler begins working for the German Friends of Hebrew University raising funds in West Germany. In 1972, three Schindlerjuden dedicate a floor of the Truman Research Center at Hebrew University to Schindler. Schindler dies in 1974 in Frankfurt and is buried in Jerusalem.
Abraham Bankier is the office manager of the defunct enamelware business that Schindler buys; he becomes the manager of Schindler's Deutsche Email Fabrik. He is one of a number of workers who is boarded onto a cattle car bound for a labor camp near Lublin before Schindler secures their rescue.
Josef Bau is a young artist from Kraków who, while working at the Plaszow camp, falls in love with, courts, and marries Rebecca Tannenbaum in a Jewish ceremony.
See Rebecca Tannenbaum
Bosko is a German police Wachmeister, or sergeant, sympathetic to the Jews and who, early in the novel, has control of the ghetto perimeter. He is so rebellious against the regime that he lets raw material into the ghetto to be made into goods and then lets the goods out to be sold—without asking for a bribe. He is a "man of ideas" in contrast to Schindler, who is a "man of transactions." Bosko eventually absconds from his police station and vanishes into the partisan forests, but he is found and shot for treason.
The chief of the Jewish camp police, Chilowicz works in the Plaszow camp for Goeth and the SS. He is the "hander-out of the caps and armbands of authority in the debased kingdom" and "equates his power with that of the tsars." He is also used by Goeth as an agent of the black market, and since he knows so much about Goeth's dealings, Goeth eventually must get rid of him. The commandant does this by promising him and his family an escape from the camp and then has him found with a gun and executes him.
Rolf Czurda is an Obersturnbannführer, or lieutenant colonel, and chief of the Kraków branch of the SD security service. Schindler meets him at a number of cocktail parties. Czurda releases Schindler after the latter is arrested and imprisoned for kissing a Jewish girl at his factory. Czurda warns Schindler that his behavior is no longer acceptable, saying, "That's not just old-fashioned Jew-hate talking. I assure you. It's policy." Goeth's Plaszow camp is under the authority of Czurda and his superior, Julian Scherner.
Danka is the daughter of the Dresners and cousin of "Red Genia." During an Aktion in the ghetto, she is hidden in the wall by an irrational woman who insists that she cannot fit Mrs. Dresner in also.
Mrs. Dresner is the mother of Danka Dresner. She and her daughter are on the list to go to Schindler's Brinnlitz camp, but they are sent to Auschwitz. Mrs. Dresner almost dies but is nursed back to health by Emilie Schindler.
"Red Genia," as she is called, is the young girl in red whom Schindler, from his horse, sees amid the confusion during the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto in March of 1943. Schindler does not know who she is, but it is learned that she is staying with the Dresners after the Polish couple living in the countryside find it too risky to look after her; her parents had been rounded up by the SS and taken away. "Redcap," as she is called by the Dresner boys, is a first cousin of Mrs. Dresner. She is schooled by her Polish caretakers to pretend not to be Jewish but Polish. Schindler wonders why the SS men do not execute her immediately but steer her back in line when she breaks free. He later realizes that this means that they recognize that she—like all witnesses—is to be executed.
Commandant Amon Goeth
Commandant Goeth is the SS Untersturmführer, or second lieutenant, who liquidizes the Kraków ghetto and takes command of the resultant forced labor camp at Plaszow. "Mad Amon," as he is called, is the embodiment of evil in the novel. He takes pride in extinguishing the Jewish ghetto and rules the labor camp without mercy. He also uses his position to do illicit business and make himself a fortune. Goeth is referred to as Schindler's "dark brother" because they are very similar in some ways. Like Schindler, Goeth is raised Catholic; in school he studied engineering, physics, and math; he is a practical man, not a thinker, but fancies himself something of a philosopher; he has a weakness for liquor and has a massive physique. But unlike Schindler, Goeth is a cruel man who is physically abusive—the Plaszow camp is a place of terror because Goeth shoots prisoners at random from the balcony of his villa overlooking the barracks. Schindler mistakenly thinks himself as a philosopher, but Goeth is completely deluded about his personality because he thinks of himself as a sensitive "man of letters." He is violent and unspeakably barbaric yet is sentimental about his children (from his second marriage), whom he has not seen for some time. He beats his Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch, but when he is arrested, he writes to her thinking she will give him a positive character reference. Goeth is a deeply troubled man, plagued with insomnia. There are allusions to him being a demented king or emperor whose sense of power has made him completely insane. Pfefferberg says of him, "When you saw Goeth, you saw death." Goeth is arrested by the SS on black-marketeering charges in 1944. After the war he is handed over to the Polish government, condemned, and hanged in 1946.
Goldberg is the personnel clerk at the Plaszow camp who takes bribes to put prisoners' names on the list of workers who will go to Schindler's relocated Brinnlitz camp. He is described as "a man of prodigious and accidental power" who keeps people in the dark about the list.
Goeth's Jewish maid, whom he badly abuses and calls "Lena," is approached by Schindler in Goeth's villa, and she confides in him and tells him about Goeth's treatment of her, including the daily beatings. She gives Schindler her nest egg of 4,000 zloty to buy back her sister, who works in the camp kitchens, if she is ever put on the cattle cars; her sister's survival is Helen's "obsession." Schindler "wins" Hirsch from Goeth in a game of blackjack, and so she goes to work in his relocated camp factory.
Oberscharführer Hujar shoots Dr. Rosalia Blau while in the ghetto, and Diana Reiter after the foundations of the barracks collapsed. He falls in love with a Jewish prisoner.
Ingrid is Schindler's German girlfriend.
Schindler's beautiful Polish secretary works in his front office. Klonowska looks "like one of those lighthearted girls to whom the inconveniences of history are a temporary intrusion into the real business of life," but she is also hardheaded, efficient, and adroit. When Schindler is arrested, Klonowska negotiates with German dignitaries for her lover's release from the SS prison.
Rabbi Menasha Levartov
The young, scholarly city rabbi, masquerading as a metalworker in Plaszow, is brought by Stern to work at the Emalia camp. Stern tells Schindler that Goeth will certainly kill Menasha, as he was drawn to "people of presence." Goeth had attempted to murder the rabbi one day when he decided the latter was not making hinges quickly enough in the metalworks. The commandant fired his gun at Menasha, but it failed to go off. A second revolver also fails to fire. When Menasha is at his factory, Schindler urges him to leave work to honor the Shabbat, and the rabbi goes behind the barracks and recites Kiddush over a cup of wine.
Edith, one of the Jewish women workers in Schindler's factory, finds herself believing Schindler's "godlike promise" when he tells her and other Jewish women on their arrival at the factory that "You'll be safe working here. If you work here, then you'll live through the war." Schindler, she says, infects her with certainty.
Liepold is the SS commanding officer at Schindler's Brinnlitz factory camp.
Madritsch owns the uniform factory inside the Plaszow camp. He is a Viennese who managed to get himself released from the police force and took up the post of a Treuhänder, or supervisor, of a plant manufacturing military uniforms. Later, he opens a factory of his own in the suburb of Podgórze and, on Goeth's instructions, moves the camp to Plaszow. He is an "enterprising but humane" man who illicitly feeds and protects the four thousand workers in his camp.
Majola, Goeth's girlfriend, is a secretary at a factory. She has "sensitive manners," and it is rumored that she threatened not to sleep with Goeth if he continued arbitrarily gunning people down in the labor camp.
Pemper is a studious young prisoner who works for Goeth as his typist. With his photographic memory, Pemper eventually contributes to Goeth's downfall by testifying against him—and remembering key facts of his illegal dealings at Plaszow.
Regina Perlman is a Jewish woman who lives in Kraków on forged South American papers. She visits Schindler and asks him if he would bring her parents to his camp. Schindler does not acknowledge her request, in case she is a spy, but within a month her parents come from Plaszow to his enamelware factory camp.
The colorful Leopold Pfefferberg—Polish war commander, teacher, black market dealer, and organizer—is the man from whom author Keneally first hears the story of Schindler. Before the war, Pfefferberg—young, confident, and "built like a wedge"—was a high school teacher. Before the action of the novel begins, he had been a company commander in the Polish army and had been taken prisoner by the Germans. He manages to escape by his wits, waving an official-looking document to some officials and taking the trolley home. Several times in the novel, Pfefferberg narrowly escapes death and imprisonment by thinking quickly on his feet. He has Aryan looks, so he sometimes roams through the ghetto freely, running illegal goods (for Schindler as well as others). He works for a time with the OD (Jewish Police) but leaves it after it becomes an instrument of the SS. During the Aktion, Pfefferberg encounters Goeth, who is almost certainly going to kill him. Pfefferberg tells the commandant he is under instructions to put the bundles together on one side of the road and so manages to live. He and his wife, Mila, get on the list to work at Schindler's Brinnlitz camp.
Leopold Pfefferberg's wife, Mila, is a small, nervous girl in her twenties, a refugee from Lodz whom Pfefferberg had married in the first days of the ghetto. She is from a generation of physicians, lived a sweet childhood, and began medical education in Vienna the year before the war. She is the last surviving member of her family. She is quiet, clever, and wise; she has a gift for irony and is very different from her outgoing husband. Mila refuses to escape the ghetto by going into the sewers with Leopold.
See Leopold Pfefferberg
Philip is the Waffen SS Standartenführer (colonel) whom Schindler meets in prison and who had been arrested for being absent without leave after he and his Polish girlfriend "lose themselves in each other."
Diana Reiter is the architectural engineer and prisoner who is assigned to the construction of the barracks at Plaszow. She is ordered to be executed by Goeth when she argues with an officer, Albert Hujar, about the construction of the barracks. Before she dies, Goeth recognizes a "knowingness" in her eyes that say, "It will take more than that."
Richard is the young German chef/manager who befriends Henry Rosner and helps to hide Rosner's son, Olek, during an Aktion.
As the chairman of the Judenrat (Jewish council) and president of the OD (Jewish police), Rosenzweig sought to protect the interests of the Jews. "Decent" Rosenzweig is replaced by David Gutter, who does the bidding of the SS.
Henry Rosner is a violinist and prisoner at Plaszow. He and his family moved from Warsaw to the village of Tyniec before the Warsaw ghetto was sealed up. In Tyniec, and later in Kraków and the Plaszow camp, Henry and his brother Leopold, an accordionist, play for Goeth and the SS. While playing during a dinner party at Goeth's villa, Henry "fiddles up the death" of an SS officer. Goeth does not let Henry go to Schindler's camp because he appreciates his music too much. He is later transported to Auschwitz with his son, Olek, but they both survive.
Olek is the son of Henry and Manci Rosenberg. He is hidden by friends in Kraków and then brought unregistered to Plaszow and shipped off to Auschwitz with his father.
An SS Oberführer (rank above colonel) and the final authority for all Jewish matters in Kraków, Scherner is a middle-aged man who looks like a nondescript bureaucrat, likes to talk about business and investments, and is interested in liquor, women, and confiscated goods. He wears the smirk of his unexpected power "like a childish jam stain in the corner of the mouth" and is "always convivial and dependably heartless."
Schindler's convent-schooled, fresh-faced wife, Emilie, marries at a young age and almost from the beginning puts up with her husband's infidelities. She knows her husband is not and will not be faithful, but she nonetheless does not want evidence of his affairs "thrust under her nose." One of Emilie's close friends as a girl was a Jew, Rita Reif, who is executed in 1942 by local Nazi officials. This might be an explanation for her willingness to help tend the sick Jewish workers at the Brinnlitz camp. Emilie nurses back to life several sick women and tends to the needs of dying patients. Some speculate that Emilie's kindnesses may have been "absorbed" into the legend of Schindler "the way the deeds of minor heroes have been subsumed by the figure of Arthur or Robin Hood." Emilie flees Czechoslovakia after the war with Schindler and eventually moves with him to Argentina. He continues to have affairs and finally leaves her and returns to Germany in 1957.
Oskar Schindler, the subject of the novel, is a Czech-born industrialist who saves more than 1,100 of his Jewish factory workers from the death mills in German-occupied Poland. Schindler is flamboyant, a man of "magnetic charm," who uses his considerable skill to make friends with and grease the palms of SS officials so that he keeps his workers alive. Schindler is the unlikely hero of the novel: a womanizer and spendthrift, he comes to Kraków to make his fortune in wartime Poland (setting up an enamelware factory) and ends up performing a tremendously courageous act that saves the lives of hundreds of people. Schindler cheats on his wife with not one but two mistresses; he spends lavish amounts of money on liquor, cigars, and cars; and he comes to Kraków to become a tycoon off the free labor of Jews. But he risks his business to save his workers and eventually bankrupts himself by setting up a nonproductive factory so that they may be safe from the death camps. The author of the novel does not make very clear what Schindler's motivation is for his actions, but he does indicate that a turning point in his life was the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto, when he saw Jewish men, women, and children being murdered in the streets. "Beyond this day," Schindler says, "no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system." Schindler is a complex character, the author says, because his is an unconventional type of virtue. Not only does he have indulgences, but he is a character of ambiguity. It is not clear what Schindler sees on the day of the ghetto liquidation that makes him act in the way he does. For sure, Schindler is not a thinking man (although he fancies himself a philosopher) but a practical one, and his methods are those of a man of action. But still there is a mystery as to what in him changed so that this congenial, apolitical man suddenly felt he needed to risk his life to save others. As his wife, Emilie, says, before and after the war Schindler's life was unexceptional, but in the short era between 1939 and 1945, he met people who "summoned forth his deeper talents." After the war, Schindler is honored by the Israeli government as a Righteous Person.
Sedlacek is the Austrian dentist who works for a Zionist rescue organization in Budapest and who elicits Schindler's help to gather information.
Spira is a new force in the OD (Jewish police) after it is controlled by the SS. He takes his orders from SS headquarters and rules the ghetto with a misguided sense of power. He extorts people and makes out lists for the SS of unsatisfactory or seditious ghetto dwellers. He is referred to as "highbooted" Spira, the "Napoleon" of the ghetto. He is eventually executed by the SS.
Itzhak Stern is Schindler's accountant, friend, and "confessor." In contrast to Schindler, he is a thin, scholarly man who has the "manners of a Talmudic scholar and a European intellectual." Schindler meets him when he seeks advice about buying a factory. Stern thinks of Schindler as dangerous and resents his gestures of equality, and the first thing he tells Schindler is that he should know that he is "a Jew." Schindler responds that he is a German. During their first conversation, Schindler remarks on the difficulty that priests must have during these times talking about the verse in the Bible that talks about God caring about the death of even one sparrow. Stern replies that the sentiment may be summed up in the Talmudic verse that says that he who saves the life of one man saves the whole world—the verse that the prisoners later have inscribed on the ring they present to Schindler as a goodbye gift. Stern is well connected and practical besides being learned. He gets Jews into Schindler's factory and helps him with the details of the factory. He also, ironically, comforts Schindler before a coming Aktion and is Schindler's strength when he is depressed. Even when he works at the Plaszow camp, he is invaluable to Schindler's work and continues to be his confidant at Brinnlitz.
Rebecca is the young woman who works as Goeth's manicurist and is courted by and marries Josef Bau in a traditional Jewish ceremony in the labor camp.
The Madritsch supervisor in Plaszow, who smuggles in truckloads of food for prisoners in the uniform factory, is a quiet, clerkly Austrian Catholic man. He plays chess with Goeth (and loses) to improve the commandant's mood—and so save the prisoners' lives by preventing random executions. Tisch types the list of prisoners that will go to Schindler's camp. He is eventually honored by the Israeli government.
In the opening pages of Schindler's List, Keneally says explicitly that it is the story "of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil" and of the story of a man who is not "virtuous" in the customary sense. Writing about evil, he goes on to say, is fairly straightforward, but it is more risky and complex to write about virtue. The hero of the novel, Oskar Schindler, is complicated because he seems to be at once virtuous and immoral. Schindler is married but keeps house with his German mistress and maintains a long affair with his Polish secretary. He is outgoing and generous but has even greater personal indulgences, including good cigars and cognac. He excels in profiting from shady dealings, procuring goods from the black market and bribing officials, through which he saves his workers' lives. From the beginning of the novel, Schindler seems to treat the Jews he encounters with respect, but for a long time he seems oblivious to the cruelties they face, being more interested in his business than the political situation around him. Also, after the war, and after his heroic rescue of his Jewish workers, Schindler leads an unremarkable life: he does not do good works or act as a champion of the powerless, but rather he again cheats on his wife, spends money lavishly, fails at his business ventures, and bankrupts himself. Yet, he is honored by the Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority (Yad Vashem) Museum in Israel and declared a "Righteous Person." Perhaps the most difficult and interesting question raised by Schindler's List is, in fact, in what way Oskar Schindler is considered a "Righteous Person." Is he righteous simply because of his actions? His motivations? His personality?
Throughout the book, Keneally draws attention to the difficult nature of virtue (again, seen most obviously in the character of Schindler), to the not-so-obvious contrast between good and evil (Schindler is compared repeatedly to his "dark twin," the clearly evil Amon Goeth), and to what exactly constitutes morality. For example, the Austrian bureaucrat Szepessi has "a humane reputation even though he serviced the monstrous machine." Keneally also illustrates certain warped conceptions of goodness and morality that are entertained by various characters. The German prisoner Philip, whom Schindler meets after he is arrested for kissing a Jewish girl in his factory, complains about the corruptibility and thievery of the SS but seems unmoved by the fact that they routinely murder Jews. Goeth's conception of good and evil is perhaps most distorted, as seen when Goeth is "tempted" toward restraint and goodness by Schindler and entertains the idea the he might be seen as "Amon the Good."
Lists of various kinds figure throughout Schindler's List. The Nazis use lists to keep track of Jews, and they keep lists (such as invoices, manifests, and vouchers) to sort the loot they plunder from their victims. When Schindler's office manager, Abraham Bankier, does not turn up at his factory and is put in a cattle car bound for a labor camp, Schindler confronts a young Oberscharführer who holds an enormous list of names of those who are to be transported. The official refuses to release Bankier and Schindler's other workers because "they're on the list." Schindler retorts that "it is not my place to argue with the list," demands to see the official's superiors, and thus gets around the system and frees his workers. It is through the use of such lists that the Nazis create a seemingly clean, orderly system to rid Europe of Jews. Lists make individuals seem less than human, like objects that can be counted, categorized, and dispensed with. Even the Jewish police, such as Symche Spira and other OD members, make out for the SS lists of unsatisfactory or seditious ghetto dwellers; in this way they aid the Nazi in their systematic annihilation of their brethren. Other Jews, such as Marcel Goldberg, a clerk in charge of lists ("labor lists and transport lists and the lists of living and dead"), receive bribes for putting Jews on favorable lists, including a list of those who work at Schindler's factory. Schindler, however, is not at all partial to lists. He does not like paperwork, preferring under-the-counter work and leaving details to his managers and secretaries. But, ironically, it is by creating a list of workers that he extricates and saves them from the labor camps and almost certain death. It is by creating this list, which Dolek Horowitz thinks of as "a sweet chariot which might swing low," that Schindler saves more than 1,100 Jews from the well-oiled German machinery whose purpose it was to exterminate them.
Topics for Further Study
- Research the "death camps" set up by the Nazis during World War II. Examine four in detail and compare them to the Plaszow labor camp described in Schindler's List.
- Research the lives of at least three other "righteous ones" honored by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, for their rescue efforts during World War II.
- Compare the characters of Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth. In what ways are they similar and in what ways different? How does Keneally use the similarities and differences between the two men to underscore the themes in his novel?
- Set up a mock trial for Amon Goeth, trying him for his crimes against the Jewish prisoners at Plaszow. What punishment should he receive?
- Compare Keneally's account in his novel to the treatment of Schindler's story in Steven Spielberg's movie. How do they differ?
- Why do you think Keneally wrote his book as a novel? Use textual evidence to explain the effects of Keneally's strategy and his possible motives.
The importance of the testimony of witnesses is stressed in many discussions of the Holocaust. Witnesses are survivors who tell the world of the horrors they experienced so that perhaps history will not repeat itself. Schindler's List is a story that is reconstructed through the eyewitness accounts of fifty Holocaust survivors. As characters in the novel, many of them are represented as being distinctly aware of their status as witnesses. As Schindler observes the Aktion in which the Jewish ghetto is decimated, he has the sense of being a witness. It is at this stage, too, that he recognizes that the SS officer's leniency to the little girl in red means that the Nazis believe that all witnesses will perish—that is, that all Jews and Jewish sympathizers will be exterminated. Poldek Pfefferberg, too, when he moves among the dead bodies after an Aktion, "sensed why he had been placed there. He believed unshakably in better years to come, years of just tribunals." For many Jews, the need to recount their stories and to let the world know what happened helped them to continue to fight for survival. As one of the women at the Auschwitz camp says to Clara Sternberg as the latter looks for the electric fences on which to electrocute herself, "Don't kill yourself on the fence, Clara. If you do that, you'll never know what happened to you."
Schindler's List is a "documentary novel," a novel that recreates events that actually took place in real life. The events described in the book are based on interviews with fifty Schindler survivors and enriched by extensive research as well as by the author's visits to Kraków, Plaszow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Keneally goes to great lengths to describe characters as they were in real life and to create a sense of realism. But he uses the texture and devices of the novel—a form normally used for fictional accounts—to tell the true story of Oskar Schindler because, he says, "the novel's techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar." Keneally stresses, though, that he attempts to avoid fiction in his work because "fiction would debase the record." He says that, although he has recreated some of the conversations, all events are based on detailed recollections of witnesses to the acts described. The result is a work that moves back and forth between simply telling a story and embellishing or commenting upon that story by examining how the author came to know the facts, how the facts may be disputed, or how the witnesses feel about certain events. For example, the author sometimes intrudes into a story to mention that another witness has a different account of those events, how a particular survivor says he or she felt about Schindler, and so on. The effect of this authorial intrusion is always to return the reader to reality, to make it plain that the events described are not merely a novelistic fantasy but a true account that impacted people's lives in ways that can barely be imagined.
The story of Oskar Schindler and the rescue of the "Schindler Jews" unfolds through a series of stories about dozens of characters. The narratives are pieced together by the author so that they are interesting anecdotes or character sketches on their own, but they also weave into the larger story about Schindler. The effect of this technique is that what becomes of most importance in the book is people, the minute details of their lives, the ideas they held and intimate moments they cherished. Unlike the film version of Schindler's List, Keneally's novel is memorable not so much for the backdrop of the labor camps and atrocities of war but for the realistic description of people and the personal sufferings or victories they experienced. There is, for example, the story of the courtship and marriage of Josef and Rebecca Bau in the barracks of the Plaszow camp, that of Henry Rosner playing the fiddle so magically that an SS officer kills himself, that of the young man who escapes Belzec by hiding for three days in the pit of the latrines, and that of young Janka Feigenbaum dying of cancer. That the novel is constructed in this way conveys a sense that the story of the Holocaust is made up of stories of individuals, each one a human life.
Symbols and Imagery
Despite its factual tone, Schindler's List uses a number of symbols and images, some of them recurring, to underscore its central questions and ideas. One of the most memorable scenes in the book is when Schindler, sitting on his horse, observes the destruction of the Jewish ghetto and, amidst all the turmoil, the figure of a small child wearing a red dress. It is after witnessing this event that Schindler vows to do everything he can to defeat the system. The red dress makes the young girl stand out, and it seems, for the first time, Schindler really understands that the Jews in the ghetto are individuals—humans—who are being subjected to the most inhuman treatment imaginable. The smallness of the child may be seen to represent innocence and the red to represent the blood of the Jewish people.
Other ideas that are used repeatedly in the book are those of gods, kings, and heroes. Oskar is referred to as a "minor god of deliverance, double-faced" who brings salvation to his Jewish workers. This ties in with the question of the complex nature of morality, for Schindler is not a conventional type of god. He is like Bacchus, the god of wine, who loves to indulge in good food and drink, but he also performs good acts. The imagery of kings is used often when describing Goeth, who fancies himself an emperor. He is compared to the Roman emperor Caligula, famed for his cruelty and excesses. Also, when he plays blackjack with Schindler over the fate of Helen Hirsch, Goeth draws a king and loses the game. The notion of heroism is explored not only with the unlikely heroism of Schindler but in the description of many of the Jewish characters. During the Aktion in which the Jewish ghetto is razed, for example, Dr. H's nurse administers cyanide to his dying patients so that they can "escape" being murdered by the SS. "The woman is the hero of this," the doctor says to himself.
Hitler, WWII, and the Jewish Holocaust
The mass murder of European Jews and others under Nazi rule during World War II has come to be known simply as the Holocaust. "Holocaust" literally means "massive destruction by fire." It is thought that eleven million people were killed by the Nazis. These included political opponents (particularly Communists), Slavs, gypsies, mentally and/or physically disabled, homosexuals, and other "undesirables." An estimated six million men, women, and children were killed merely because they were Jews. The destruction of the Jews in Europe stands as the archetype of genocide in human history.
Jews had been the subjects of persecution in Europe at least since the seventeenth century. When Adolph Hitler, the charismatic, Austrian-born demagogue, rose to power in Germany during the 1920s and early 1930s, he rallied the German people with a message that included notions of "Aryan," or white, superiority and the inferiority of other races. The Jews were a special target of his hatred, and they were incorrectly represented during this time of social, political, and economic upheaval as being wealthy and in control of the country's economy. In 1932, Hitler ran for president of Germany. He did not win, but he did well, and when the party in power was unable to end the depression, its leaders turned to Hitler for help. He became chancellor, or prime minister, of Germany in 1933. Within weeks, he set into motion a series of laws that destroyed the nation's democratic government. He eliminated all opposition and launched a program of world domination and extermination of the Jews. His government, like all totalitarian regimes, established complete political, social, and cultural control over its subjects.
In Hitler's program for the "Aryanization" of Germany and world conquest, Jews were subjected first to discrimination, then persecution, and then state-condoned terrorism. This had as a turning point, the "night of the broken glass" also known as Kristallnacht, which took place in Munich, Germany, in November 1938. Nazi storm troopers burned down synagogues and broke into Jewish homes, terrorizing men, women, and children. Over twenty thousand people were arrested and taken to concentration camps. After Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were expropriated, employers were urged to fire Jewish employees, and offices were set up to expedite emigration. Jews could buy their freedom and leave the country, but they had to abandon their assets when they left. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, half of Germany's five hundred thousand Jews had fled, as had many Jews from other German-occupied areas. When the Nazis invaded western Poland in 1939, two-thirds of Polish Jews—Europe's largest Jewish community—fell into their hands. As is described in Schindler's List, Polish Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos, where it is estimated that five hundred thousand people died of starvation and disease.
After Soviet invasion in June 1941, the Nazis launched a crusade against the supposed Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Police battalions called Einsatzgruppen (operations groups) moved from town to town, rounding up Jewish men and suspected Soviet collaborators and shooting them. They then began to target Jewish women and children as well. The Einsaztgruppen murdered some two million people, almost all Jews.
While these massacres were taking place, Hitler's Nazi government was planning a "Final Solution" to the "Jewish question." Death camp operations began in December 1941 at Semlin in Serbia and at Chelmno in Poland, where people were killed by exhaust fumes in specially modified vans that were driven to nearby sites where bodies were plundered and burnt. At Chelmno and Semlin, 265,000 Jews were killed in this way.
More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in western Europe for deportation to labor and concentration camps such as those at Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor. The largest of the death camps was at Auschwitz. It was originally a concentration camp for Polish political prisoners but was expanded in 1941 with the addition of a larger camp at nearby Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau and its subcamps held 400,000 prisoners, including 205,000 Jews. In the spring of 1942, gas chambers were built at Birkenau, and mass transports of Jews began to arrive there. Some were held as registered prisoners, but the great majority was gassed. These gassing operations were expanded in 1943, and four gas chamber and crematorium complexes were built. Before they were killed, the victims' valuables were stripped from them. Their hair was used to stuff mattresses, and any gold in their teeth was melted down. In total, about one million Jews died at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The Final Solution moved into its last stages as Allied forces closed in on Germany in 1944. The camps were closed and burned down. Prisoners remaining at concentration camps in the occupied lands were transported or force-marched to camps in Germany. Thousands of prisoners on these death marches died of starvation, exhaustion, and cold, or they were shot. When the war ended and the concentration camps were liberated by Allied troops, thousands of unburied corpses and tens of thousands of sick and dying prisoners were found crammed into overcrowded barracks without food or water.
Much of Europe was destroyed in the war. Survivors of the camps were in terrible condition, both physically and psychologically. Trials were held in Nuremberg in 1945 at which top surviving Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes. Similar trials followed, but thousands of war criminals eluded justice. Israel was established as a state in 1948 and opened its doors to all Jews, and many of them who survived the Holocaust migrated there, as well as to the United States, Australia, and elsewhere.
Compare & Contrast
- 1940s: The dictator Adolph Hitler is the supreme ruler of Germany.
1980s: The dictator Augusto Pinochet is the supreme leader of Chile.
Today: The dictator Saddam Hussein is the supreme leader of Iraq.
- 1940s: European Jews must carry passes and are marked by the Star of David so they may be identified as non-Aryans.
1980s: Under apartheid, Black South Africans must carry "passbooks" to identify who they are.
Today: Non-Muslims must wear markers to identify themselves as such under the Taliban government in Afghanistan.
- 1940s: The Nazi regime carries out a program of genocide against European Jews, gypsies, and other groups.
1980s: In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan military, acting on orders from the country's highest authorities, carry out genocide against the country's majority Mayan population.
Today: The World Federalist Association and other human rights organizations campaign to end genocide forever, beginning in the twenty-first century, by reforming United Nations (UN) decision-making and by creating early-warning structures within the UN before the genocide starts.
When it was published in Britain in 1982 as Schindler's Ark, Keneally's book was widely and prominently reviewed. Even before its publication, it had been short-listed for the Booker McConnell Prize, and there had been some mention in pre-publication reviews that the documentary style of the book made it an unusual contender for a fiction prize. The day after its official publication, Schindler's Ark won the Booker Prize, and a storm of controversy erupted. A number of critics felt that its deficiency in the fictional aspect undermined its quality. As Michael Hulse explains in "Virtue and the Philosophic Innocent: The British Reception of Schindler's List" in Critical Quarterly, Steven Glover, writing in the Daily Telegraph compared
it to a "tiresome television documentary" and D. J. Enright in the Times Literary Supplement found it to be on a par with second-rate adventure-style documentaries and "not a great literary novel." Many reviewers spent a great deal of time wondering whether the book was a novel, although others praised Keneally's considerable literary skill. One reviewer, Marion Glastonbury of the New Statesman, objected to the portrayal of Schindler as a man of virtue. Despite the controversy, however, Schindler's Ark was popular among British readers, selling forty thousand copies in two months.
American reviewers of Schindler's List also noted the book's documentary style but were less concerned with whether its nonfictional status meant it was or was not a novel. Paul Zweig in the New York Times declared that Keneally "has chosen a subject that art can contain," and numerous other writers found the work to be "remarkable." Schindler's List was soon an international bestseller, and the book cemented Keneally's status as a major writer and Australia's most prominent author.
Universal Pictures obtained rights for Steven Spielberg to turn Keneally's book into a film soon after it was published, but it did not reach development for about ten years. Before the release of the film, Keneally's book continued to have modest success and sales. There was some interest in the work among academics, and a handful of articles appeared that discussed its status as fiction and the character of Schindler. However, after the release of the film version of Schindler's List in 1993 and particularly after it earned seven Academy Awards, the book enjoyed renewed popularity. Articles on the work appeared, many of them comparing Keneally's treatment of the story with that by director Steven Spielberg. But the phenomenal success of the movie has also overshadowed Keneally's accomplishment, and there are certainly more discussions in print on Spielberg's Schindler than on the work by the Booker Prize-winner. No volume of criticism has been devoted to Keneally's prose version of the work, for example, but there have been several books and countless articles analyzing the film, including the 1997 collection Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on "Schindler's List," edited by Yosefa Loshitzky. The film also regularly appears in high school curricula as part of the study of the Jewish Holocaust. While Spielberg's work has certainly eclipsed Keneally's, it has also made the story of Oskar Schindler part of the American cultural imagination, and the novel has become a fixture on high school reading lists. It also continues to enjoy a wide general readership and has sold over a million copies since its publication.
Kukathas is a freelance writer. In this essay, Kukathas considers the narrative strategies Keneally uses in his novel.
When Schindler's List (under the title Schindler's Ark) won the Booker Prize in 1982, more than one critic objected to the fact that this work of nonfiction could win a major literary prize that had traditionally been awarded to the year's best book of fiction. Other critics complained that not only was the work not fiction, it was not good literature, mainly because of its documentary style. Schindler's List is an unusual novel, to be sure, because it moves back and forth between telling a story and reporting the facts of history—and people's very personal accounts of that history. It perhaps does not read like a literary novel because, in some sense, things are told too plainly. There are dozens of characters in the novel, but with the exception of Schindler and a few of his close associates, those characters are not "developed"; their complexities do not unfold in such a way that the reader begins to know them from their actions. Rather, the author explicitly tells their stories, narrates the events of their lives, reports what they are like, notes their characteristics, and offers a few key details about what they went through during the war and afterward. Also, because it is a true story, there is a certain lack of tension in the plot; from the beginning, the author makes clear exactly what will happen—that Schindler will rescue over a thousand Jews from the death camps through his own brand of ingenuity and charm. There are, then, few surprises in the sense that one usually expects from a novel; even in the thick of the main action of the story, Keneally offers information about who survives the war, how a particular character ultimately meets his or her end, and so on. However, while the narrative style of Schindler's List is different from traditional novels, it is far more than mere reportage and has characteristics not merely of a "good read" but of good literature. This is because of the techniques Keneally uses to suggest questions, present ambiguities, and offer layers of meaning even as he tells a straightforward, true story. Keneally uses devices found in more traditional works of fiction that make his documentary novel rise to the level of "literature," but at the same time his particular narrative technique has its own strengths for recounting the type of story he tells in Schindler's List.
In his author's note, Keneally says explicitly that his book is not fiction, because fiction would "debase the record" of the Holocaust. The stories he tells of the victims, survivors, and oppressors in Schindler's List are all based on eyewitness accounts, historical documents, and visits to the sites described in the novel. Thus, it can be assumed that Keneally does not embellish stories or infuse characters with his own authorial imagination, making them "stand for" or represent certain ideas he is trying to communicate to his reader. What Keneally does do is offer certain ideas and images throughout the novel that make the reader think about the significance of events or characters in a deeper way than might be suggested from only a strict reporting of the facts. Keneally offers surprisingly little in the way of commentary about the events that take place during the Holocaust, but he invites readers in other ways to think deeply about the meaning of what occurs.
One of the techniques Keneally uses is to repeat certain ideas and images over and over again. The most obvious one, of course, is that of the list. Nowhere does the author point out explicitly that the German war machine seems to run according to systematic directives and official lists, reducing its Jewish victims to subhuman status by cataloguing them—and their belongings—in order to dominate them. But as he describes repeatedly the German obsession with lists of various kinds, Keneally suggests that it is this type of impersonal, petty bureaucracy that enables the German military, from NCOs to SS authorities, to visit their terror upon the Jews, all the while retaining some notion of German "civilization." The members of the Jewish police, the OD, also use lists to pass information on to the SS, and they too seem to hide behind them in order to be able to betray their fellow ghetto dwellers. That Schindler finally rescues "his Jews" by drawing up a list of names of people to take to the relocated factory camp at Brinnlitz shows that he works within the confines of and by the rules of the German system, all the while undermining it. Throughout the novel, there is some sense that people can be judged by the way they use lists. Marcel Goldberg, the personnel clerk, keeps the Jews "in the dark" about the list of those to be sent to Schindler's factory; Raimund Tisch strains to remember names (he thinks of people as individuals) to add to the list and curses himself for not remembering more. The attitude toward the list thus also reflects characters' attitudes towards people as human beings. The list functions on various levels, including making readers think of these attitudes and of how people can hide behind bureaucracy and order to avoid recognizing the evil they may be engaged in.
Other ideas and images that recur in the novel are those of gods and kings. At the beginning of the novel, Keneally says that his book is about "virtue" and its unconventional representation in Oskar Schindler. In the rest of the book, the author offers no easy solutions about how to understand goodness—or, for that matter, evil. But he does explore the ideas in his descriptions of Schindler, his "dark brother" Amon Goeth, and others. Schindler, it is made clear, is far from virtuous in the traditional sense: he has mistresses, drinks heavily, and his ambition is to become a tycoon. Yet Schindler is repeatedly likened to a god. He is a "minor god of deliverance," a god like Bacchus, and he offers the "godlike promise" that his workers will survive the war if they stay at his factory. The image of Schindler as god suggests to the reader the complexity of this man who holds so much power and is, ultimately, a symbol of good despite the mystery that often shrouds his legend. Schindler's godlike qualities are often presented in contrast to Goeth's, who is often portrayed as a power-hungry king or emperor. Symche Spira, the Jewish policeman, is also referred to as a "Napoleon" and a "tsar." Both these men, with their king-complexes, do not understand the concept of mercy or goodness, but are corrupted by a misguided sense of power. Again, these ideas and images—and they recur in the novel—explore the complexity and ambiguity of good, evil, and power, not by explicitly discussing them but by making readers think about them in their own terms.
Keneally thus uses these—and other—recurring images in Schindler's List to explore difficult ground, not to offer overt explanations but to allow readers to come to their own conclusions about people and events. Exploring ideas in this manner is a technique that is generally associated with works of fiction and imaginative literature, not of reportage. The author, by using these devices, adds a layer of complexity to his story, taking it out of the realm merely of history telling to the realm of story telling. He engages the reader in such a way that the reader must "fill in the blanks" and try to understand what certain types of behavior mean, why a character might be motivated in a certain way, and so on. The author takes readers to the heart of characters and events but then offers images as clues that the reader must interpret for himor herself in trying to "understand" the story in a deeper way.
But while Keneally uses these "novelistic" methods and devices in Schindler's List, he also uses some devices that are not found in traditional novels. For example, as mentioned, many of the characters described in the book are undeveloped or "flat"; their characteristics are told to the reader by the author, but the reader does not get to "know" them from what they do or from an understanding of their psychologies or even their behavior. Rather, their characters emerge purely from a recounting of their stories, their histories. Also, throughout, Keneally "gives away" the ending of the story by flashing forward and explaining what happens after the war to certain characters, Schindler included. Keneally seems to do these things for a reason, however. It could be argued that what he is doing is presenting in the foreground the story of Oskar Schindler, a mysterious figure whose motivations and virtue are ambiguous. In contrast to Schindler is Goeth, a clear embodiment of evil and the worst of human nature. Schindler and Goeth thus represent good and evil, although not in altogether clear-cut terms. Schindler's story is the main thread of the novel, and Goeth's is told alongside it, his figure serving sometimes as a foil and sometimes as a mirror to that of Schindler. The rest of the novel is made up of the stories of the dozens of other characters, most of them Holocaust victims and survivors. Their stories and discussions of their personalities are told plainly, perhaps to emphasize the fact that it is ultimately history that is being recounted. By emphasizing the details of their lives and the facts of their personalities, Keneally stresses the fact that in this complex struggle between good and evil what was at stake were dozens of individuals, each with distinct histories that were changed forever.
Keneally, then, uses two different sets of techniques in Schindler's List. He uses novelistic techniques of "story telling" that involve using layers of meaning that his readers must uncover. He also uses techniques of "history telling" to hit home to the reader in no uncertain terms that the events described in his book took place and that the people described are flesh and blood. The two techniques complement each other and also leave readers with a sense that it is only through the use of the imagination, through trying to understand the deeper significances of events and people's behavior that history comes alive, and the horrors that people experienced become real.
Source: Uma Kukathas, Critical Essay on Schindler's List, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Kryhoski is currently working as a freelance writer. She has also taught English Literature in addition to English as a Second Language overseas. In this essay, Kryhoski considers the power of images defining Keneally's text.
In Schindler's List, Thomas Keneally treats the subject of the Holocaust with sensitivity and grace in describing the account of Oskar Schindler, a German businessman whose "bottom line" in business was the successful rescue of Jews from the gas chamber. His account of the events surrounding such rescues is skillfully rendered by the employment of a series of images. As a good poet might, Keneally's use of imagery suggests ideas by "its vividness, emotional depth, psychological over-tones, strangeness or familiarity, and connections to other images" in the work (excerpt taken from John Drury's "Creating Poetry"). The use of imagery is where Keneally's "poetic" genius lies—his presentation of images is powerful because the author has no need to draw conclusions that perhaps may discredit the sensitive subject to which he speaks. Instead, he lets these images speak for him, giving his novel voice as a powerful and historically-charged account of unthinkable horror.
The image of the scarlet child is a memorable image in Keneally's work and is a testimony to the power of the imagery inherent within the work. Little Genia, as she is initially referred to, is first introduced as a small child that has been smuggled back into the Kraków area, into the ghetto, by a Polish couple. She appears in the image of the young child indulged by peasants in her red cap, red coat, and small red boots. She is a darling vision who, in reality, is indulged by those who would just as soon hunt her parents down as they would spoil her. Although Mrs. Dresner noticed "how strangely guarded the child was in all her answers" she, "had her vanities," and not unlike "most three year olds a passionately preferred color." The reader learns that this propensity or preference for red is the defining characteristic in terms of Genia's person. Her desire for the color is the one piece of childhood she is able to hold on to, the single indication that she is three years old outside of physical considerations. Insistent talk of the child's parents only leads to the rehearsed recitation of a string of lies little Genia has been fed as to any intimate and potentially discriminatory details surrounding her parents identity or location. The reaction to such an image, these deceptions of a small child, do not go unnoticed within the text, the narrator stating "the family frowned at each other, brought to a standstill by the unusual cunning of the child, finding it obscene." It is the idea of a child mastering the art of deception at a mere three years of age that is problematic; it goes against what seem to be fairly universal sentiments toward the very young. Any appreciation of honesty, innocence, and the freely expressive qualities children normally harbor has already been violated by cruel circumstances. Genia, in a very cruel and fundamental way, is the image of childhood and, by extension, life that has been debased by circumstance.
The image of red serves is a bright and compelling contrast to the dark activities of the ghetto for Oskar Schindler. Perched atop his horse and from some distance, he is able to make out a line of women and children being led by guards towards Piwna Street. Schindler particularly notes "at the rear, dawdling … a toddler, boy or girl, dressed in a small scarlet coat and cap. The reason it compelled Schindler's interest was that it made a statement…. The statement had to do, of course, with a passion for red." The scene presenting itself to Schindler is laden with meaning. As a guard gently guides the scarlet child as she drifts away from the line, in a manner much like a concerned sibling, in the background looms the brutal image of SS teams working the streets with their dogs. A moment of tenderness against the backdrop of brutality presents a highly-charged emotive moment for Oskar. He aptly notes the ridiculousness of the situation, the presence of some sort of "moral anxiety" inherent in the proceedings, in the "meandering" of the "scarlet toddler." The images are irreconcilable for the reader—how can a small moment of kindness emerge from such a whirlwind of violent confusion?
What Do I Read Next?
- Schindler's Legacy: True Stories of the List Survivors (1994), edited by Elinor J. Brecher and with photographs by Jill Freedman, presents the stories of seventy-five real-life Schindler's list survivors, with personal accounts of the Holocaust, their encounters with Schindler, their experiences after the war, and their reunions with their unlikely savior.
- Hillel Levine's In Search of Sugihara: The Elusive Japanese Diplomat Who Risked His Life to Save 10,000 Jews from the Holocaust (1996) tells the story of Chiune Sugihara, a diplomat and spy who risked his career and saved as many as 10,000 Jews from deportation to concentration camps by issuing them transit visas.
- In his graphic narratives Maus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History (1987) and Maus II: Here My Troubles Began (1991), Art Spiegelman blends autobiography with the story of his father's survival of the concentration camps. The characters here have the heads of animals—the Jews are mice, the Nazis are rats, and the Poles are pigs.
- William Styron's Sophie's Choice, published in 1979 and later made into a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep (1982), is the story of a Polish Catholic woman sent to Auschwitz for nonpolitical reasons, who struggles to survive her guilt about the past.
- Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity (1947), by the Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor Primo Levi, is a narrative told with compassion and wit about the author's deportation from Italy to the concentration camp Auschwitz in Poland in 1943, where he spent ten months and witnessed unspeakable cruelty as well as miraculous endurance.
- The Voice of Memory: Interviews 1961–1987 is a collection of thirty-six newspaper, journal, radio, and television interviews given by Primo Levi, providing new insights into Levi's complex character.
- I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp 1942–1944 (1994) contains poems written by the few survivors of the fifteen thousand children under the age of fifteen who passed through the Terezin death camp. The poems record the young survivors' daily misery, courage, hopes, and fears.
The violence of the scene is defined by suitcases hurled out of windows, their contents strewn on the street, or by people hiding, flushed out of their dwellings, and shot brutally on the street where they stood. These images resonate or take on a much deeper, darker meaning in light of the vision of Genia. As an observer, Oskar Schindler notes "they were doing it within a half block of her." Schindler is taken aback with the proceedings of the SS in front of such a young audience. Genia's presence is somehow compounding the killings on the sidewalk, somehow proving the seriousness of the murderous intent of the SS. Specifically, in a particularly jarring moment, "the scarlet child" as she is often referred to, is seen turning to watch a woman be shot in the neck by one member of the SS. The child then witnesses another SS man jam a young boy's head down to the ground before shooting him in the back of the head. A fellow guard's response to the child is again absurd amidst all of the bloodshed. After witnessing a moment of sheer horror, Genia is simply nudged back into the line gently. The absurdity of circumstance dominates the scene, wild variations of emotion expressed in the randomness of the brutality, the displays of affection, and the like. Similarly absurd images will be repeated within the text of the novel.
The insanity driving these actions gives a surreal quality to the proceedings. The nature of such crimes goes beyond admonition or mild reproof. These men have no limit to the horror they will inflict. These atrocities, which seem to defy human nature, become all the more scary or real to Schindler. In the world of this scarlet toddler, random acts of violence abound, and nothing is predictable. There is seemingly no refuge anywhere, nor is there any sympathy to be found. Observing the scene, Oskar can now define "the proposition" presenting itself—witnesses are permitted because such witnesses, like the red toddler, will all eventually perish. Clearly, then, killing had become an official act, allowing these men to act without a trace of shame and without even a thought to shielding a toddler from such violence. This realization also signifies a major turning point for Schindler. The tiny image of Genia in the ghetto ultimately leads him to conclude that "no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved in my power to defeat the system."
In a similarly poignant moment, Genia's uncle sees the scarlet child sitting among the shining boots of the SS. His eyes are met by hers, eyes clouding over, mute in the knowledge that reaching out to an uncle is not the sort of attention that will comfort or save her at this particular moment. As her uncle diverts the attention of the SS with a speech, he notices his niece move with a "dazzling speculator's coolness" as she steps out from between two guards nearest to her. Unlike their encounter at the Dresners', Genia is unable to respond to her uncle with the same childish enthusiasm demonstrated earlier in the text. Her escape is also described in a heart-pounding series of images:
She moved with an aching slowness which, of course, galvanized her uncle's vision, so that afterward he would often see behind his closed eyes the image of her among the forest of gleaming SS knee boots.
Genia's performance again is strangely instinctual, that of a little toddler stumbling at a partly ceremonial "bluffer's pace" as she cautiously meanders or wanders by winding down the "blind side of the street." The image of the child also galvanizes or stimulates shock in the reader, precisely because of the conditions that give rise to it and define it.
Her story, however, proves to be a triumph in the colorless world of the ghetto. Unbeknownst to Schindler, Genia returns to the apartment safely. She then chooses to hide, and when her uncle discovers her, the scene is recorded with this image:
It was just that he knew where to look, in the gap between the curtain and the window sash, and saw, shining in the drabness of the room, her red shoe beneath the hem of the bedspread.
There is a desire represented in the spirit of little Genia, who has an instinct for survival and a passion for life. In contrast to the drabness of the room, she is that one bright shiny moment, that one chance for the future, that one hope. The narrator is quick to point out Genia's victory, that she is able to return to the place where she was first discovered. What could have meant an end for her signifies the "triumph of red Genia's return." In a world of murderous, bloody red images, the one colorful image dominating the text is that of the scarlet child. Genia's survival is now dependent on "her precocious gift for maintaining silence and for being imperceptible in red." Considering her tiny stature, she is literally a small miracle.
The miracle of such an accomplishment, the image of a three-year-old infant triumphant in her escape, is one of many incomprehensible images characteristic of Keneally's text. It also mirrors a theme supported by similar images again and again throughout the course of the work. In the world defined by Schindler's List, seemingly so much depends on a scarlet child.
Source: Laura Kryhoski, Critical Essay on Schindler's List, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Ryan D. Poquette
Poquette has a bachelor's degree in English and specializes in writing about literature. In the following essay, Poquette discusses the writing techniques that Keneally uses to underscore the profound sense of ambiguity in Schindler's List.
Schindler's List, published in England as Schindler's Ark, is perhaps Thomas Keneally's most famous novel, in part because it was awarded England's prestigious Booker McConnell Prize for fiction in 1982. However, the book is even more famous because of the controversy surrounding its eligibility for the award. Michael Hollington, in his 1983 Meanjin article, summarizes the controversy: "Crudely put the question is, is it a novel or a true story?" Keneally based his story on a mountain of factual research and recollections from survivors, and yet used fictional techniques to embellish many parts of the story, so both positions can technically be supported. In reality, Keneally relies on both techniques, in an effort to create a sense of ambiguity or confusion in the reader, which manifests itself mainly in the moral ambiguity of Schindler and the physical ambiguity of the prisoners' survival chances.
Many critics have chosen to focus on the basic issue of whether the book is fiction or nonfiction. In a 1983 article for Encounter, A. N. Wilson says with conviction that "Schindler's Ark is not a novel. It is a highly competent, workaday piece of reportage." At the same time, Wilson is disappointed that Keneally "shrunk from the task of turning it into a novel." From the other camp, Marion Glastonbury, in her scathing 1982 review of the book in the New Statesman, implies that the book is fiction, since Schindler is elevated "to a dignity unsustained by evidence." And in her 1989 essay for Australian Literary Studies, Irmtraud Petersson refers to the work as "a documentary novel."
Regardless of what category the book ultimately falls into, Keneally deliberately uses both of these contradictory writing styles to induce a sense of confusion and ambiguity in his readers. The book is filled with ambiguities. Graphic depictions of human depravity, told in a dispassionate, journalistic style that induces despair, are juxtaposed next to novelistic depictions of Schindler, who offers hope to both prisoners and readers that redemption can be found in the most unlikely of situations. But Schindler himself is an ambiguous hero.
In the first chapter, Keneally gives his initial description of Schindler as viewed from the outside. He notes Schindler's distinguished, aristocratic appearance, then warns that "it will not be possible to see the whole story under such easy character headings." Keneally proceeds to make a case that, under normal circumstances, Schindler would not be considered a moral man, for many reasons, the first of which is adultery. Although he is married, Schindler lives in Poland "with his German mistress and maintained a long affair with his Polish secretary," while his wife, a nun-like woman, lives in Oscar's hometown in Czechoslovakia. Although Keneally notes that Schindler "was a well-mannered and generous lover," he still says "that's no excuse," when considering the traditional idea of virtue. This point-counterpoint method of illuminating characters and situations continues throughout the novel.
Others note Schindler's adulterous tendencies. For example, when Poldek Pfefferberg goes to make a delivery of black-market goods to Schindler's apartment one day, Schindler's wife unexpectedly answers. Pfefferberg does not recognize her—being used to Schindler's German mistress answering the door—and so asks, "'Is Frau Schindler in?'" using the name that Pfefferberg reserves for Schindler's mistress. Oskar's wife corrects Pfefferberg, informing him that she is Schindler's wife, and invites Pfefferberg in for a drink. However, as the wife notes, "the young man was just a little shocked by Oskar's personal life and thought it indecent to sit and drink with the victim." It is telling that Keneally uses the word, "victim," at this point, since Schindler is later considered by many of the Jewish prison victims to be their savior. It is also a curious commentary that, while Pfefferberg does not approve of Schindler's promiscuity, he has no problem making black-market deliveries. In this story, there is an ambiguous morality among many characters, not just Schindler, although his morality—or lack thereof—is given the most detail.
Adultery is not Schindler's only vice; he is also a heavy drinker. In the beginning, Keneally notes that "some of the time he drank for the pure glow of it, at other times with associates, bureaucrats, SS men for more palpable results." These results include, as the novel progresses, increasing attempts to use alcohol in bribery and trickery, two of Schindler's other vices that Keneally explores during the story. Even though these traits are not technically virtuous, Schindler uses them to achieve great good. Once again, through Keneally's narrative, he never lets the reader get a solid foothold on whether they believe Schindler is inherently good or bad. Says Keneally, "And although Herr Schindler's merit is well documented, it is a feature of his ambiguity that he worked within or, at least, on the strength of a corrupt and savage scheme."
In the beginning of the story, Schindler uses bribery and trickery to maintain and increase his business, a very self-serving activity. When speaking of Schindler's unscrupulous bribes, Keneally lumps Schindler in with other power magnates like the demonic Amon Goeth, whom he often bribes in order to get his way: "Among men like Goeth and Oskar, the word 'gratitude' did not have an abstract meaning. Gratitude was a payoff. Gratitude was liquor and diamonds." Schindler lies to Goeth, pretending to like him, and bribes him continuously. However, ultimately, bribes are the method by which Schindler is able to achieve his greatest acts of redemption—saving his chosen Jewish prisoners. In fact, by the end, Schindler has given up all plans for making money, and has instead spent most of his fortune on an unprofitable business that is merely a front for saving Jewish prisoners from concentration camps.
As Keneally notes, Schindler himself contrasts the respective outputs of his moneymaking factory in Cracow—in which "enamelware was manufactured to the value of 16,000,000 RM," and "produced shells worth 500,000 RM"—to Brinnlitz, in which "the factory produced nothing." Schindler is happy about his second factory's lack of output, however. On his birthday, he receives a telegram saying that the Brinnlitz shells have all failed their inspection tests, a message that he receives joyously. As Schindler notes, "'It's the best birthday present I could have got. Because I know now that no poor bastard has been killed by my product.'" But even here there are ambiguities. Schindler's earlier shells from the Cracow factory did pass their inspections, and were presumably used to kill people in battle. And the countless mess kits and other enamel cook-ware items that Schindler's Cracow factory produced were used to feed the German army, so while he has been helping Jewish prisoners, he has also been helping the Germans fight the war.
In the lives of the Jewish prisoners, the ambiguity goes beyond moral issues, extending to whether they will live the next day. When the prisoners are first rounded up and taken to Plaszów, many believe that this persecution will be no different than others in the past. They feel that all they have to do is wait it out until the war is over, and that in the meantime their services will be needed: "In the end the civil authorities needed Jews, especially in a nation where they were one in every eleven." However, this hope is soon crushed, when the prisoners see Goeth begin his killing spree at Plaszów, starting with a Jewish woman, Diana Reiter, who has professional training—in theory, a valuable asset to Goeth. When Goeth instructs his subordinate to kill Reiter instantly, in cold blood, for pointing out a mistake that the German subordinate has made, all of the prisoners start to question their own safety. After all, "if Miss Diana Reiter could not save herself with all her professional skill, the only chance of the others was prompt and anonymous labor."
As a result, the anxiety and ambiguity increases at the camp, and neither the prisoners nor the reader know when a certain person will live or die. Keneally underscores this feeling when calmly discussing Goeth's daily routine of random killing: "No one knew Amon's precise reason for settling on that prisoner—Amon certainly did not have to document his motives." In addition to the individual executions that are performed at Goeth's whim, the prisoners are also aware that he performs mass executions, when he need to make room for incoming inmates: "the Commandant's quick method was to enter one of the camp offices or workshops, form up two lines, and march one of them away." These cold, impartial descriptions of death are journalistic in style, merely reporting on the events and not commenting on them.
Then, in the midst of this cold despair, Schindler's Emalia factory in Kraków gives the prisoners, and readers, reason to hope. At Emalia, "no one collapsed and died of overwork, beatings or hunger." Schindler's factory becomes a goal for many in Plaszów, and "among prisoners who knew, there was already competition to get into Emalia." Later, this competition spreads to Schindler's famous list of prisoners that he is trying to save for work in his new Brinnlitz factory. However, even here, ambiguities are introduced. Just being on the list is not enough, since the SS officers do not bring the prisoners immediately to Schindler's factory. Instead, the men are shipped off to Gröss-Rosen, while the women are sent initially to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Both receive brutal treatment that saps their health and threatens to invalidate them for work in Schindler's factory.
Keneally plays on this fact, using his suspense-building ability as a novelist to offer several examples of how the men and women might not survive their respective stays in the concentration camps. For example, at Auschwitz, "the Schindler women went through frequent mass medical inspections." Some of the ultimate survivors are initially marked for death: "Mrs. Clara Sternberg found herself put aside in a hut for older women." The same anxious ambiguity is present in the Schindler men, who find out that the SS men lost Schindler's list. Goldberg, who originally typed up the list, is asked by the SS men "to type out the list from memory." Even at this late point, when the prisoners have fought and bought their way onto the list, there is some ambiguity as to whether they will remain on it, and it comes down largely to Goldberg's memory. Once again, nothing is stable, nothing is guaranteed, and Keneally draws out the tension as long as possible to increase the sense of ambiguity.
Finally, the majority of the prisoners, both male and female, make it to Schindler's new factory in Brinnlitz, but, as noted earlier, their chances of survival are constantly threatened by the many factory inspections. Even after the war is over, many inside the Schindler factory worry that they will be attacked by retreating German military units, and there is tension and ambiguity until the camp is finally liberated, anticlimactically, "by a single Russian officer."
Even the ending is ambiguous. It is not a happy ending, in the traditional sense, because the over-whelming majority of Jewish prisoners die, including some of the Schindler Jews who could not be saved. Even Schindler himself dies relatively penniless and miserable. When all is said and done, Keneally's book does not give any pat answers. Throughout the novel, Keneally alternately leads readers one way and then the other in their thought patterns. His combination of straightforward journalistic techniques with more literary embellishments serves to shake up readers, as the prisoners are shaken up. Readers are not given a solid foothold either in their assessment of Schindler or in their expectations about the ultimate destiny of the Schindler prisoners. The two contradictory styles of writing force the reader to choose what aspects to focus on from the book and, ultimately, what message to take away from it. However, by unnerving the reader with ambiguities, Keneally, in the end, gives his readers a more heightened reading experience. Next to this fact, the question of whether the book is fiction takes on secondary importance.
Source: Ryan D. Poquette, Critical Essay on Schindler's List, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.
Drury, John, Creating Poetry, Writer's Digest Books, 1991.
Gaffney, Carmel, "Keneally's Faction: Schindler's Ark," in Quadrant, Vol. 29, No. 7, July 1985, pp. 75–77.
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Keneally, Thomas, Schindler's List, Touchstone, 1993.
Kirby, Farrell, "The Economies of Schindler's List," in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 163–88.
Loshitzky, Yosefa, ed., Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on "Schindler's List," Indiana University Press, 1997.
Petersson, Irmtraud, "'White Ravens' in a World of Violence: German Connections in Thomas Keneally's Fiction," in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, October 1989, pp. 101–104, 160–73.
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Quartermaine, Peter, Thomas Keneally, Modern Fiction series, Edward Arnold, 1991.
Thornton, William H., "After the Carnival: The Film Prosaics of Schindler's List," in Canadian Review of Comparative Literature, Vol. 23, No. 3, September 1996, pp. 701–708.
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Zweig, Paul, "A Good Man in a Bad Time," in New York Times Book Review, October 24, 1982, pp. 1, 38–39.
Fensch, Thomas, ed., Oskar Schindler and His List: The Man, the Book, the Film, the Holocaust and Its Survivors, with an introduction by Herbert Stenhouse, Paul Eriksson, 1995.
This casebook includes two postwar journalists' testimonies about Schindler, three pieces on Keneally's book, more than 140 pages of reviews of and reportage on Spielberg's film, and more than 50 pages of journalistic discussion on the Holocaust that the movie's success provoked.
Lengyel, Olga, Five Chimneys: A Woman Survivor's True Story of Auschwitz, Academy Chicago Publishing, 1995.
This true story by a woman who lost her husband, her parents, and her two young sons to the Nazi exterminators tells of her work in the prisoners' underground resistance and her need to recount her story, which kept her fighting for survival.
Quartermaine, Peter, Thomas Keneally, Modern Fiction series, Edward Arnold, 1991.
In this account of the work of Thomas Keneally, Quartermaine provides a wide-ranging introduction to Keneally's novels, including Schindler's Ark.
Roberts, Jeremy, Oskar Schindler: Righteous Gentile, Holocaust Biographies series, Rosen Publishing Group, 2000.
This biography of Schindler ends by exploring the question of his status as a righteous man.
Schindler, Emilie, Where Light and Shadow Meet : A Memoir, W. W. Norton, 1997.
Schindler's widow, Emilie, presents an unflattering portrait of her husband as erratic, immature, and self-serving to deflate the myth that has evolved around her husband's life since the phenomenal success of Spielberg's movie.