Sunday, 2 December 2012

Schindler's List. By Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List

Thomas Keneally

A Touchstone Book. First published 1982.

Oskar Schindler was a Czech-Polish-German businessman, who gave sanctuary to more than one thousand Jews, otherwise destined for starvation, unspeakable horrors and death at the hands of the German SS during World War II. Schindler did this under the pretext of employing them in his enamel-ware and armament factories as slave labour, labelling their efforts as essential for the German war efforts, and supporting this classification by outrageous bribes of rare liquor, jewels and cash to all the SS officers and bureaucrats involved. He was able to bring his flock of 'Schindlerjuden' safely through the War, and was properly acknowledged for his brave and heroic efforts by post-war Jewish organisations. 

Keneally writes wonderfully, using somewhat sparse material to not only describe Schindler and his deeds, but also understand his possible motivation. In the latter endeavour he is not very successful, and we are left bewildered by the apparently random heroism exhibited in a milieu of apparently random evil. The book is not a dry documentation of what Schindler did, neither is it a hagiography. Keneally describes quite of lot of events not directly related to the Schindler narrative, but which serve to highlight the sheer madness of the entire SS operation, which sought to wipe out more than 10 million people from the face of the earth. In the event it succeeded in eliminating about 6 million. 

The Nazi quest for 'the Final Solution' has since served as the epitome of organised political evil. What distinguished it, and continues to distinguish it, from the hundreds of mass murders and genocides that continue to happen throughout the world is the following: a) It was systematically and efficiently organised with its own macabre bureaucracy and with technology specifically invented for the purpose. b) It lasted much longer than similar crimes throughout history. c) It had no economic or strategic value from the point of view of the war. d) It was not something perpetrated by people in the grip of violent and unreasonable passion. Thus while it may be specious to equate the current actions of the Israeli army against the Palestinians with those of the Nazis, the equality does not hold. The latter actions are a result of Israeli insecurity, those of the Germans were not. Israel's crimes against the Palestinians is of a different nature, and that's why they are so ill-informed by the country's own history. 

After Spielberg made the movie based on it, this book (originally called 'Schindler's Ark', but released in the US with 'List' substituting 'Ark') is among the best known examples of Holocaust literature. It is as moving and shocking as I remember William Styron's 'Sophie's Choice' to have been. But unlike the latter, Keneally's book is a celebration of goodness, not just a stark portrayal of evil.