1982 Booker Prize Winner

It is without a doubt that one of the darkest phases of contemporary human history is the Second World War. Nobody expected that the meteoric ascent of Der Führer, Adolf Hitler, in the German political ladder would lead to a devastation of global scale. As the Axis forces march towards and beyond their boundaries, they would leave death and destruction in their wake, stretching from Europe, to the Pacific, and to the Far East. The consequences of the war would resonate well beyond its time. With genocides, concentration camps, and slave labor commonplace, the war was a reflection of the human conditions. Its peak, the Holocaust, exhibited the extent of the darkest shades of the human spirit. It was a grim portrait.

Indeed, the Second World War brought out the worst in humanity. However, in times of darkness, there are those among us who rise to the occasion. One of them is Oskar Schindler whose story was related by Thomas Keneally in his nonfiction novel, Schindler’s List (1982). Oskar Schindler was born on April 28, 1908, in Zwittau, Moravia, Austria-Hungary (present-day Svitavy, Czech Republic) to an ethnically German family. His father was a farm machinery manufacturer. Prior to becoming a successful industrialist, Schindler worked in odd and interesting fields. After leaving school in 1924, he helped his father sell farm equipment. He would eventually work in different trades before joining the pro-Nazi Sudeten German Party (Sudetendeutsche Partei; SdP) in 1935. The following year, he started working as a spy for the Abwehr, the German Nazi military intelligence agency despite being a Czechoslovakian. One of his first brushes with death came in 1938 after he was arrested by Czechoslovak authorities on charges of espionage and was sentenced to death. He was later pardoned by the Reich as part of the Munich Agreement.

Meanwhile, the German armies were slowly making their move. On September 6, 1939, General Sigmund List’s division successfully took over Cracow (Kraków), an important city in southern Poland. A swarm of carpetbaggers began to flow into the city, eager to partake of the spoils of war. One of them was Oskar Schindler. After his application for membership in the Nazi Party was accepted, Schindler moved to Kraków where he eventually established himself as a wily industrialist. He first became active in the emerging black market before securing the lease of a formerly Jewish-owned enamelware factory he would rename Deutsche Emaillewaren-Fabrik Oskar Schindler, simply referred to as Emalia. He commenced production and as production grew, so did the number of employees, some of whom were Jewish. Jewish would comprise half of his production line by mid-1942.

“Today is history. Today will be remembered. Years from now the young will ask with wonder about this day. Today is history and you are part of it. Six hundred years ago, when elsewhere they were footing the blame for the Black Death, Casimir the Great—so called—told the Jews they could come to Krakow. They came. They trundled their belongings into the city. They settled. They took hold. They prospered in business, science, education, the arts. They came with nothing. And they flourished. For six centuries there has been a Jewish Krakow. By this evening those six centuries will be a rumor. They never happened. Today is history.” 

~ Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List

The operation of the factory was running smoothly. Despite the horrific news that started to grip the rest of the continent, the Jews employed by Schindler had little to fear as they go about their daily lives. Schindler, on the other hand, was earning a steady flow of income on the Jews’ labor. From this income, he managed to live a life of decadence. However, over the horizon, trouble is brewing. Everyone knew it would arrive; it was only a matter of when but even then, it still came as a surprise. In the fall of 1942, the Płaszów work camp was opened nearby. Jews from the Kraków ghetto were transported to the new camp which, early the following year, was taken command by sadistic SS officer Amon Göth.

Caught in dire straits, Schindler realized that he must forge a friendship with Göth to protect his interests. By sending alcohol and luxury items, mostly from the black market, Schindler managed to earn Göth’s confidence. After all, Schindler and Göth share a trait: the insatiable appetite for alcohol and other excesses. Having gained Göth’s trust, Schindler was able to obtain authorization to build a work camp separate from Płaszów in an idle lot adjacent to his factory. It was in this work camp that he housed his Jewish workers. Schindler also made sure that his workers were well looked after by providing them food, and medicine. He also saw to it that they were free from the abuses suffered at Płaszów. He stalled and intervened when there were attempts by SS officers to inspect the camp.

The first half of the novel captured the evils of the Holocaust. The readers witness what has, by now, become a ubiquitous scene. Keneally captured how the social status of Jews was transformed. It has been Hitler’s dream to re-establish the Aryan race and part of it was to purge the non-Aryan race, including the Jews and the gypsies. With Hitler’s successful annexation of Poland, the Polish Jews saw themselves being stripped of their citizenship and shipped to ghettos where they were treated as substandard citizens. With the escalation of violence, the Jews found themselves further pushed down the ladder as less than beasts. This part of the novel, however, took time to develop.

The tentacles of war, however, were making its presence more felt with the passage of time. In the twilight years of the Second World War, the purge of Jews sped up as the pressure from international observers was pushing the regime to remove traces of its atrocities. Schindler’s workers were yet again in fear of being slaughtered; Auschwitz, that citadel that has become synonymous with death, was just a couple hours away. Sensing the inevitability of danger, Schindler yet again pulled strings – bribing, charming, and greasing the higher-ups at the SS headquarters – to ensure that his Jewish workers will stay safe. His factory was decommissioned in August 1944 but he successfully obtained permission to transfer his factory to Brnĕnec (Brünnlitz) on the hills of Czechoslovakia, near his hometown.

“The moral universe had not so much decayed here. It had been inverted, like some black hole, under the pressure of all the earth’s malice—a place where tribes and histories were sucked in and vaporized, and language flew inside out. The underground chambers were named “disinfection cellars,” the aboveground chambers “bathhouses”.”

~ Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List

To facilitate the transfer, a list of “skilled workers” was carefully drawn up by the Plaszow camp authorities. This forms the inspiration behind the book’s title. To be part of the list is a whole new lease on life. These “skilled workers”, however, were no ordinary skilled workers. Among them are rabbis, children, women, and anyone Schindler could think of. In the fall of 1944, cattle cars carrying between 1,100 to 1,300 Jews – the estimates vary – made their way across Poland, not into the killing fields, but into the safety of the Czechoslovakian hills. The Jews saved by Schindler would, later on, be referred to as Schindlerjuden, or Schindler’s Jews.

The novel introduced a vast and diverse cast of characters. However, the focus of the narrative was between Oskar Schindler and Amon Goeth. In the story, there was a dichotomy between what is essentially good and what is evil, that was personified by these two primary characters. Goeth represented everything evil. The war churned out a selfish and heartless sadist who found delight in inflicting pain on the Jews. Ironically, he lusted after his Jewish maid. Schindler, on the other hand, was portrayed as the Good German. He didn’t believe everything that the Nazi regime was saying against the Jews. He was, however, a man of contradictions. Despite being depicted as the epitome of goodness, he lived a self-indulgent lifestyle, which included proclivity towards the bottle and women. His infidelities have been a constant source of pain for his wife, Emilie. He also uses his connections to gain the upper hand in negotiations; it would also be a seminal part of his campaign to save the Jews.  

Schindler’s motivation for protecting his workers was rarely ever clear, especially at the start. Questions still hound his true intentions. He, after all, brazenly took advantage of the cheap labor the Jews offered at the start of his enterprise. Is Schindler an anti-hero? The answer can be found in Keneally’s extensive research. Through interviews with surviving Schindlerjuden and different Second World War archives, he managed to identify the point in which Schindler decided to protect the Jews. While horseback riding on the hills surrounding Kraków, he witnessed an SS Aktion unfold on the Jewish ghetto below. The Jews were forcefully taken out of their houses. Those who resisted were shot dead, even in the presence of children. Witnessing the atrocious acts firsthand turned Schindler’s stomach. It was then that he resolved to save as many Jews as he can.

The amount of research poured to recreate the story of Oskar Schindler was astounding. And the starting point to this is as interesting as the novel itself. As noted in the Author’s Note, a chance encounter in 1980 led to the novel. Keneally, already an established author, was in Beverly, Hills, California looking for a briefcase when he chanced upon a luggage store owned by Leopold Pfefferberg, one of the Schindlerjuden. Pfefferberg immediately recognized Keneally and, while waiting for Keneally’s credit to process the payment, started telling him the story of Oskar Schindler: “It was beneath Pfefferberg’s shelves of imported Italian leather goods that I first heard of Oskar Schindler.” The rest, they say was history. Keneally managed to conduct first place interviews with 50 Schindlerjudens from seven nations.

“Oskar knew people would catch that trolley anyhow. Doors closed, no stops, machine guns on walls—it wouldn’t matter. Humans were incurable that way. People would try to get off it, someone’s loyal Polish maid with a parcel of sausage. And people would try to get on, some fast-moving athletic young man like Leopold Pfefferberg with a pocketful of diamonds or Occupation złoty or a message in code for the partisans. People responded to any slim chance, even if it was an outside one, its doors locked shut, moving fast between mute walls.”

~ Thomas Keneally, Schindler’s List

Published in the Commonwealth as Schindler’s Ark, the book won the 1982 Booker Prize. It was a breakthrough win for Keneally whose works have been previously shortlisted three other times. However, the book suffered from structural defects that weighed down on the story of Oskar Schindler. There was an avalanche of characters, most of which showed little to no personalities to make them stand out. Each page brimmed with names and there was no delineation to identify who was inconsequential and who was relevant to the story. There were even names that were mentioned just once. While each one had a story to tell and a voice to be heard, the manner in which they were woven together was disjointed.

Overall, what didn’t work was the manner in which Keneally related the story of Oskar Schindler. As the story moved forward, it became clearer that Keneally was unsure of how to deliver the story. His resolve to remain loyal to Oskar’s story was commendable. He endeavored to do just that but it never fully came across. The result was an amalgamation of fiction and historical textbook. The strange mix muddled the story and the result was a perplexing work of historical fiction: “So the story of Oskar Schindler is begun perilously, with Gothic Nazis, with SS hedonism, with a thin brutalized girl, and with a figure of the imagination somehow as popular as the golden-hearted whore: the good German.”

Not all stories end the way we want them to. The years following the end of the war were difficult for Schindler. He separated from his wife and his business ventures failed. He spent the rest of his years living off on donations from the Schindlerjuden. In 1974, he passed away in a small one-room apartment in Frankfurt where he was living alone. While Schindler’s List suffered from literary blunders that significantly weighed down its impact, it cannot be denied that the story of Oskar Schindler needs to be heard. Each story emanating from one of the darkest phases of recent human history needs to be heard, after all, and that includes Schindler’s and the Schindlerjuden’s. Ultimately, Schindler’s story showed how war brings out the best and worst in mankind. Goeth exhibited monstrosity. Schindler, on the other hand, showed his innate goodness: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”

Ratings

63%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 22%
Writing (25%) – 11%
Overall Impact (15%) – 10%

A lot has been said about Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List. In fact, an officemate keeps singing songs of praise for the movie. Because of these accolades, and the positive feedback the book and the move received from almost everyone, I was really looking forward to reading the book. I even included it in my 2021 Top 21 Reading List. Such was my expectation of the book that I had to ensure that it is going to be a part of my 2021 reading journey. Soon enough, I started reading the 1982 Booker Prize-winning novel, as part of my February 2021 Booker Prize Month. I have to admit, I struggled with the book, especially at the start. I appreciate the story of Oskar Schindler and his heroics during a period that was covered in darkness. He was basically sacrificing himself to save a couple of lives. However, the way his story was related was a strange convergence of fictional story, and historical text, and these two elements would constantly clash against each other. It was the writing that really weighed down on me. I do appreciate the extent of Keneally’s research but the number of narrative threads muddled the main story. It is an important piece of history and Schindler’s story is an inspiring one. However, the writing did not do it justice. Nevertheless, Oskar Schindler’s story must still be read.

Book Specs

Author: Thomas Keneally
Publisher: Touchstone Book
Publishing Date: 1993
Number of Pages: 397
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

A stunning novel based on the true story of how German war profiteer and prison camp Direktor Oskar Schindler came to save more Jews from the gas chambers than any other single person during World War II.

In this milestone of Holocaust literature, Thomas Keneally uses the actual testimony of the Schindlerjuden – Schindler’s Jews – to brilliantly portray the courage and cunning of a good man in the midst of unspeakable evil.

About the Author

Thomas Michael Keneally was born on October 7, 1935, in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. He was raised in the timber and dairy town of Kempsey, New South Wales. In 1942, the family moved to 7 Loftus Crescent, Homebush, a suburb in the inner west of Sydney. He was enrolled at Christian Brothers St Patrick’s College, Strathfield where he studied Honours English for his Leaving Certificate in 1952. He also won a Commonwealth scholarship. At the age of 17, he entered St Patrick’s Seminary, Manly, to train as a Catholic priest but he left before his ordination. Before pursuing a career as a writer, Keneally worked as a schoolteacher. From 1968 to 1970, he also worked as a lecturer at the University of New England.

Under the pseudonym Bernard Coyle, Keneally published his first story in The Bulletin Magazine in 1962. Two years later, his first novel, The Place at Whitton, was published. His third novel, Bring Larks and Heroes (1967), has cemented his reputation as a historical novelist, and even won him the 1967 Miles Franklin Award. He would win the award again the following year with Three Cheers for the Paraclete (1968) while An Angel in Australia (2000) and The Widow and Her Hero (2007) would be shortlisted and longlisted, respectively. His works were also shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize, starting with The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1972) in 1972. It would be succeeded by Gossip from the Forest (1975) in 1975 and Confederates (1979) in 1979. He made a breakthrough in 1982 when his nonfiction novel, Schindler’s List (1982), published as Schindler’s Ark, in the UK, finally won him the elusive Booker Prize in 1982. The book was eventually adapted into a film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993; it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Keneally, along with his daughter Meg Keneally, also wrote a historical crime series that would later be called The Monsarrat Series. The first installment to the series, The Solder’s Curse, was published in 2016. Other books in the series include The Power Game (2018) and The Ink Stain (2019). His latest novel, The Dickens Boy, was published in 2016. Keneally has also written plays, nonfiction books, screenplays, and essays. Keneally also won the Los Angeles Times Prize, the Mondello International Prize. He was also named a Literary Lion of the New York Public Library and made a Fellow of the American Academy.

Keneally married Judy Martin n 1965. They have two daughters, Margaret and Janet. He currently resides in Sydney.