Schindler’s List: A Novel, by Thomas Keneally
The best advice I can give for reading a book like this is not to read it like a novel, but instead to read it like a true crimes story like Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” The more you expect this book to show novelistic flourishes, the more you will be disappointed by its grim focus on reality, at least how it can best be reconstructed. This is not to say that the book is uninteresting–it is deeply interesting, if rather grim reading, but rather the book has the style of someone who is attempting to write the truth and doesn’t want to exaggerate anything or pretend to know anything that isn’t true and to weave a way through various stories and myths about what happened rather than someone who is writing a novel. There are many autobiographical works or works which present themselves as writers of nonfiction that are gloriously fictional, but this book labels itself as a novel and speaks truer than many such a work. To some respect, it was the author’s reconstruction of conversations that must have happened, even if we do not know exactly how they happened, that makes the author view this as a novel, but he would have been better to label it as nonfiction and to have commented that like in ancient history works, the content of conversations was made up, to some extent.
The content of this book is probably familiar to many people, given the popularity of the film adaptation of the novel some twenty-five years ago by Steven Spielberg. The contents, some 400 pages long in the paperback edition of the book that I read, do not make for very enjoyable reading, but they do reveal a fascinating story that deserves to be well-known and that demonstrates both the extent and limitation of heroism. Schindler was born for the sort of circumstances that provided themselves in World War II, a place where a corrupt wheeler dealer could influence the course of history, but it is also clear that while he was not a person of many moral virtues in his life, the stress and trauma and burden of war made it impossible for him to live a good life in peacetime. The author looks at his deeds with a high degree of fairness and does not pretend to understand the instinctive and decent but also somewhat careless way in which Schindler sought to protect “his” Jews, not even talking about the list itself until about 3/4 of the way through the book, and pointing out the complexities of who was involved in Schindler’s efforts and how often it was that he was arrested or brought into questioning by the Gestapo, and how fortunate he was to avoid trouble for his closeness to Canaris and his circle of brave and patriotic Germans opposed to Hitler.
Indeed, this book not only brings to light Schindler’s bravery, but it also points out that he was engaged from even before World War II in highly dangerous intelligence work. A part of Canaris’ circle, he seems to have been in favor of the Valkerie plot that attempted to assassinate Hitler in 1944 and traveled to inform Jews about the workings of the final solution as it was beginning its horrors in Poland. Schindler was certainly willing to risk a great deal to try to save the lives of as many Jews as possible, and in large part because of his relaxed attitude to rules and laws, he managed to do more than most, saving more than 1000 people from the extermination camps. The book makes it clear why Schindler was one of the more notable righteous among the Gentiles, and that while he was a German himself, he had a bit of the Czech in his approach as well, and was a human in both the flaws and the virtue that are implied by that in the most inhumane of times, and it is a moving discussion of the way that heroism in such times often ruins someone for the enjoyment of peace, especially in a society like postwar Germany that was slow to recognize the evils of its own anti-Semitism.