Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Review: Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally
It's hard to believe that there was a time, not too terribly long ago, that Oskar Schindler was not a widely known figure. Sure, he was recognized his his deeds numerous times after World War II, but it took a absolutely chance meeting between an author who needed a new briefcase and a store owner who was touched by the fairness of Schindler years earlier to bring him to the general public's attention. Of course, Steven Spielberg making a movie about him helped, too.
I, like most people out there, had seen the movie. I had never read the book, though, and actually didn't even know that it existed. I was definitely looking forward to reading it when the RNG chose it for me. I was hoping for a change in pace from Treasure Island, and I received it. Schindler's List (also known as Schindler's Ark) won the Booker Prize for Fiction in 1982. To simply categorize it fiction, however, does a disservice not only to the extensive research on Schindler and his actions during WWII by Keneally, but an even greater disservice to those who lived and died in the context of this period. It may be considered fiction in that it describes true events in a narrative format, but the author states clearly in the introduction that he takes as few creative liberties as possible in telling this story.
I am not going to delve extensively into the plot of this story. Schindler's List has become so ingrained in popular culture that most people (even those who haven't seen the movie or read the book) know the overall theme. During WWII, Polish Jews are being rounded up into ghettos and, subsequently, into work and extermination camps. Oskar Schindler is a businessman in Krakow who, after he realizes what the "final solution" will be takes it upon himself to save as many Jews as he can, putting his personal safety at risk and financially ruining himself.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the whole story is how unlikely of a candidate Oskar Schindler would seem to be as one responsible for the saving of over 1,000 human lives. Schindler was always motivated as a youngster and seemed to succeed in anything he undertook. Much of this motivation was born from a hatred of his father and a need to be a bigger and greater than him. Not exactly driven by a humanitarian philosophy. He got into the war industry business as a way to make money hand over fist with cheap Jewish labor. He was, in all honesty, a profiteer, an adulterer, and a drinker. Despite the inherent unfairness of his early business using Jewish labor, he treated his workers well and kindly. To say that Schindler was a complex man would be an understatement.
It wasn't later into the war, when the Eastern Front was pushed back by Soviet forces and the "final solution" was defined, that Schindler had a "come to Jesus" moment. Once he realized that the Nazis, against all rational thought, would begin to exterminate all Jews rather than use them to prop up the war effort, he knew that he couldn't sit idly. It is then when the famous "Schindler's List" begins to be drafted. Those lucky enough to be on this list will be brought to a new factory compound that would be owned and operated by Schindler. This factory would be outside the concentration camp system and isolation in a rural area. In other words, it was a relative safe haven.
This is a great novel. The amount of time interviewing those familiar with Schindler during this period is obvious in the extreme detail of the individual anecdotes that fill the pages. This book isn't merely a biography of Oskar Schindler. The stories told, while including Schindler, reveal just as much about the more1,300 men, women, and children he kept safe during this horrific period. It tells deeply personal stories while avoiding much of the melodrama that the film version and many other Holocaust books and films rely on. It tells you what happened in all of its gruesome and saddening details, but it leaves the emotion to the content itself. With a topic like the Holocaust, there is really no need to amplify the pain and suffering of those who lived through it.
The novel kept me enthralled throughout its entirely, even though I had seen the movie. It was hard to read, not because of the writing, but because the content. One can only take so much of this devastating of a topic in one sitting.
When reading, it is difficult to remember that the amazing heroics displayed by Schindler and others saved just over 1,000 people. While this was occurring, thousands upon thousands of other people in positions of authority did not have the courage or moral integrity to do what he was doing. While it may be easy to scoff at the tiny percentage that 1,300 or so individuals makes up of the total number of people who were brutally murdered by the Nazi regime, one quote comes to mind. This was a quote which was engraved on a ring given to Oskar Schindler before he fled the coming Russian troops after the war ended. In Hebrew, it stated "He who saves a single life saves the world entire". What Schindler did was bigger than saving 1,300 individual lives, though this is nothing short of amazing. He showed that even when the world is going crazy and morality is being turned upside down, anyone, even the least likely individual, can step up and do what is right.
I give Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally, #41 on the Radcliffe Rival 100 list, four and a half out of five stars.
Next up is Orlando by Virginia Woolf. This will be the first novel I've read by Woolf, which is intimidating, but supposedly this is one of her more accessible works. I hope so.