Friday, February 15, 2008

Schindler's List - Megan's Review

'He who saves a single life saves the world entire.'

Schindler's List is the story of Oskar Schindler who saved more Jews during the Holocaust than any other one person. Winner of the Booker Prize in 1982, it is the only lightly fictionalized account of Oskar and the many Jews he saved. While billed as fiction, Schindler's List draws heavily from the remembrances of the people who were saved by or knew Schindler as well as from Schindler's own accounts of the period. As result, it reads more like history and its style is sometimes reminiscent of a television documentary in the way the various stories told by different survivors are assembled together.

Keneally charts Schindler's life from his youth until the beginning of World War II and speculates about what in Schindler's life could have predisposed him to be a person who would risk everything to save as many as he could from the Holocaust. Schindler was a man of loose morals, notorious for taking lovers and cheating on his wife and later even cheating on his lover with yet another mistress, all with little regard to hiding his unfaithfulness. Schindler moved to Cracow in Poland to make his fortune at the start of World War II, soon acquired an Enamelware factory and landed contracts to produce mess kits for the war effort. In short, at the beginning of the war Schindler was a hard-drinking unethical sort with an eye for profit and an uncanny means of knowing the right people and the right way to wheel and deal to achieve monetary gain. At the end of war, he was still the same Schindler but had used his talents and connections to save the lives of over a thousand Jews.

"You'll be safe working here. If you work here, then you'll live through the war."

The new women of DEF took their job instruction in a pleasant daze. It was as if some mad old Gypsy with nothing to gain had told them they would marry a count. The promise had forever altered Edith Liebgold's expectation of life. If ever they did shoot her, she would probably stand there protesting, "But the Herr Direktor said this couldn't happen."

Keneally has done a fantastic job of uniting the many personal accounts and Oskar's records into a coherent and stunning narrative of Schindler's unlikely heroics. He covers the beginning stages of Schindler's friendships with Jews in Cracow, the moment in which it seems he was galvanized to act when during an Aktion in the ghetto he witnesses brutal killings taking place in front of a young girl in a bright red coat, and his eventual use of his connections and "friendships" with various and sundry SS officers to remove Jews from the brutal environment at concentration camp Plaszow for work and protection at his factory. Schindler's larger than life personality, his immense monetary resources, and his way of knowing and appropriately bribing just the right people to ensure the survival of "his" Jews are brought strikingly to life.

Schindler, however, is not the sole focus of the book. Keneally contrasts life in Schindler's camp with the many heart-wrenching stories of Jewish survivors who witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust. These stories accentuated with Keneally's gripping prose, which adds a strangely poetic edge to even the most dire situation, create a fuller picture of the Holocaust in Cracow than one can get from the many Holocaust memoirs written by single survivors.

There in the a pile at Wulkan's knees, the mouths of a thousand dead were represented, each one calling for him to join them by standing and flinging his grading stone across the room and declaring the tainted origin of all this precious stuff.

While at times physically painful to read, Keneally's narration lays bare the Holocaust for readers and leaves no doubt as to Schindler's heroism despite his moral failings. Schindler's List is a slow and difficult read, with countless heart-breaking stories and more names and titles to keep track of than one can reasonably retain. Nonetheless, it is an incredible work which memorializes the worst of times and the heroism of one man who foresaw what would happen and chose to do something about it.

Cross-posted from my blog.

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