By Jason Marsh
Cold Spring Harbor High School, New York
Of course, the account of Oskar Schindler is well known by now. His story of hope and benevolence during the Holocaust has been told throughout the world, due mainly to the enormous success of Steven Speilberg's motion picture Schindler's List, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1994; however, what many people do not know is that before the tale of Schindler was told up on the screen, it was told in a book written by Thomas Keneally.
Keneally first learned of Oskar Schindler from Leopold Page, born Leopold Pfefferberg, an owner of a luggage shop. Page had been among the 1,200 Jews whose lives were saved by Schindler, and he tried to tell his remarkable story to whomever would listen, hoping he would someday find a writer who would publish it. Page finally met Keneally, who was mesmerized by the story, who transformed it into Schindler's List -- the book which exposed the incredible trials of Oskar Schindler and the Schindlerjuden, or Schindler Jews.
Much of Keneally's book focuses on the attempts of Schindler to free Jews from enslavement at Nazi concentration camps. Keneally presents various examples of Jews whose lives were ravaged by the Nazis and follows these same people through their hardships. In most of these cases, Keneally shows how each character comes into contact with Oskar Schindler , and how Schindler eventually saves his life.
Schindler, a wealthy businessman of Czech dissent, was able to save these people by "buying" them from the Nazis. He tells the German soldiers that he needs the Jews for cheap labor in his artillery factory, and that he will pay for each of them. In actuality, Schindler is hiring the Jews for the sole purpose of keeping them from almost certain death at the hands of sadistical Nazi soldiers, such as Commandant Amon Goeth. His factory even produces military artillery which doesn't work. Much of this material was recounted in Speilberg's film.
However, an important area in the book which is left out of the movie is the description of Oskar Schindler's childhood. Here, Keneally tries to find what made Schindler take the courageous action that he did. Keneally tells how Schindler had a few Jewish friends while growing up, and how he had never been caught up in politics, even when he went through a stage where his closest friends were Nazis. Keneally points out that Schindler was always able to distance himself from political matters and tried to remain a humane businessman at all times. He suggests that this may have been how Oskar kept from getting caught up in the evil of the Nazis.
Although, Keneally does present some valid points to explain why Schindler did the exceptional things that he did, he admits that there is no real palpable evidence to explain Schindler's actions or that Oskar might have been driven by some intangible force that not even he knew existed within himself.
The manner in which Keneally tells each individual's story is interesting. He doesn't follow one particular person through every chapter. Nor does he give one particular Jew's story from the start until saved by Schindler; instead, Keneally opts to interweave his chapters. He follows one episode in a person's life in one chapter and then moves on to another character in the next chapter, only to return to that first character a few chapters later.
For instance, early on in the book, Keneally tells of a time when Leopold Pfefferberg almost shot Oskar Schindler out of fear that he was working with the Nazis. After writing about the incident, Keneally does not continue with Pfefferberg's story; he moves on to other happenings of the time, but returns to talk move about Leopold Pfefferberg when he crosses Oskar Schindler's path a few months, and chapters, later.
This technique could have made Schindler's List confusing to the reader; however, it is very effective. Keneally's style helps demonstrate just how unsettling those times were, and how luck played a major part in whether a person lived or died. As the characters come and go through chapters, the reader meets those who didn't meet Oskar Schindler at the right time and couldn't be saved, and those who were saved because they happened to be in the right place at the right time, which was the case with so many of the 1,200 men, women, and children whom Oskar Schindler eventually shielded from death.
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