Thanks to the award winning movie, Schindler’s List, most people, even those who haven’t actually seen the movie, have heard of Oskar Schindler, the German/Austrian businessman and trader who saved over a thousand Jews from the Holocaust.
In most cases, one watches the movie after reading the book (and usually comes away disappointed). In this case I saw the movie first, as a teenager, and remember being deeply moved by the movie’s portrayal of human suffering on an unimaginable scale. Reading Thomas Keneally’s book Schindler’s Ark recently, many years after watching the movie, I underwent the process in reverse, and was struck by how many additional layers a book adds to the story.
Schindler’s Ark is the Booker prize winning novel based on which the movie was made. One of the things I found most curious about the book is that Keneally claims it is a novel, although based on extensive interviews with Schindlerjuden (as the Jews rescued by Schindler called themselves) and others who knew Schindler during and after the world war. Keneally mentions at the beginning that he wrote the book as a novel because Schindler’s larger than life personality could not quite fit into any other format. However, while reading the book, I never really felt that it was a novel I was reading; perhaps the fact that the Schindler story is so well known now makes it difficult to perceive the book as fictional in any way. Moreover, although incidents are dramatized, to give readers the feeling of authenticity, Keneally interjects at so many places with phrases like “It is possible Schindler may have…” or “Perhaps he thought that…” that it is hard to ever forget the journalist’s voice. So, Schindler’s Ark did not work for me as a novel, although I didn’t find that a problem.
Instead, it is an excellent read as a very well researched, insightful account of a complex man, who put himself at great risk, for motives never completely understood. It is evident that Keneally wants the book to avoid being seen as a hagiography, so he is at pains to look at Schindler from many angles; the desire to be rich and successful, the willingness to bend rules, to dine with evil in order to accomplish some good (while feathering his own nest), his love of women and shabby treatment of his wife are all as much a part of Schindler as his refusal to toe the Nazi line on Jews and the craftiness with which he is able to save so many from death in the concentration camps.
I remember the movie as focusing on Schindler’s rescue of the Jews, but the books makes it clear that he did far more than that - he also passed on information about the situation in Poland to Jewish organisations in Hungary and Israel which were collecting evidence even during the war itself, and gave evidence at the trials after the war, and well into the 60s.
Given the mass hatred of Jews that had been whipped up among the German-Austrian population of the time, quite where Schindler derived his convictions from and what drove him to undertake such enormous personal risks (he was arrested thrice) were never quite clear, and while Keneally does his best to trace the possible influences on Schindler, he admits that some questions about the individual human mind are perhaps never fully answerable.
For anyone interested in the history of this period, or even a well-written look at an unusual man at a time of great stress and ferment, Schindler’s Ark is a book worth reading.