Schindler’s Ark

Schindler’s Ark (aka Schindler’s List), Thomas Kenneally, 1982

  • Australia, #16
  • Paperback, Alibris.com, $0.99
  • Read October 2014
  • Rating 3.5/5
  • Recommended for: Human beings

Featured image
Untitled, 2012

Schindler’s Ark is the original title of the book that became Schindler’s List, the basis for the movie and though classified as a novel, essentially a work of non-fiction. I’ve been trying and failing to write this post for days; I keep starting and restarting, writing paragraphs and erasing them. Here’s the problem: How can I write about Schindler’s List? Because what could I say that hasn’t already been said more eloquently, but, more to the point, how do you respond with words in the face of such incredible horror? I mean, it doesn’t seem right to just critique the book strictly on the basis of the writing (although I did rate The Diary of Anne Frank only four stars on goodreads because while it’s an incredible historical document and she was very brave and amazing, still, let’s face it, it’s not a great literary work—and we shouldn’t really expect a great literary work from a fourteen-year-old girl writing in her diary—but I nevertheless still feel guilty fornot giving her five stars, as if she might care that some random reader sixty years after her death found her prose less than perfect). I can’t dispassionately evaluate the quality of the writing because the truth is, this book made the holocaust real for me in a way that other books and movies and history classes have not. And it doesn’t seem like, in the face of that, you can just say, well, Keneally did a good job with his research and there’s a nice flow to the writing, but the density of detail can make the story hard to follow and there are too many minor characters (there are too many minor characters, a lot of names that appear once or twice and then disappear, and you never know who is going to be an important character and who you’re never going to hear from again, but these are real people who died in the war or made horrible sacrifices to live through it, and to not include their names would seem so profoundly disrespectful, so what was Keneally supposed to do?).

I haven’t seen the movie. I was twelve when it came out, and I wasn’t allowed to watch R-rated movies. As I remember it, my history teacher wanted to take the class to see it, and my parents refused to sign my permission slip. And so I never saw it, and by the time I was old enough to make my own decisions about what movies to watch, all of my friends had already seen it and no one wanted to watch it again. Even now, if you’re settling in for a movie night with your friends or your spouse or your family, and you suggest Schindler’s List, you’re unlikely to be met with a resounding yes vote. It isn’t the type of film people want to watch again. On the other hand, I think the book is the kind of book you read again, though, if only to try to understand those minor characters, what their lives and deaths were, to try to memorize the details of every heroic act and every failure, every human being that Oskar Schindler and Itzakh Stern saved and every human being they failed to save.

Oskar Schindler is a character that any writer would be proud to have created: flawed, childish, lucky, brazen, greedy, sensual, not the classic hero in any sense, and yet capable of an act of such bravery and heroism that it is hard to think of any comparable examples. He saved 1200 people from horrific death, at great risk, constant risk, for years. It is a story worth telling. But the part of the story that stands out most in my mind, six months after reading the book, is one in which Schindler is an observer, not an actor: the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto. Schindler is out riding with a girlfriend on a hill above the town and they look down to see the SS and the OD (the Jewish ghetto police, controlled by the Nazis) rounding up the ghetto’s inhabitants. They can see it all unfolding beneath them like a film, or an animated “medieval siege painting”, people spilling out of their houses into the street, being formed up into straight lines and marched away out of sight around the corner. He describes a child in a red coat being gently shepherded by an SS officer (“Had he been asked by his officers to do something to allay the sentimental concern of watching civilians, he could not have done better”) while less than a block away men and women and children are being torn from their hiding places by dogs and shot in the street. It’s shocking, the audacity of it, and this is what appalls Schindler as well—

[I]f there was no shame, it meant that it was official sanction. No one could find refuge anymore behind the idea of German culture, nor behind those pronouncements uttered by leaders to exempt anonymous men from stepping beyond their garden, from looking out of their office windows at the realities on the pavement…Later in the day, after he had absorbed his ration of brandy, Oskar understood the proposition in its clearest terms. They permitted witnesses, such witnesses as the red toddler, because they believed all the witnesses would perish too.

Keneally’s presentation of this scene is masterful. It’s cinematic and gut-wrenching. Schindler is the perfect witness—in the right place, at the right time, to see what others miss or willfully ignore. It happens so quickly; at one moment the Jews of Krakow are being rounded up and moved into the ghetto, and some of them are relieved (“We’ll be inside, the enemy will be outside. We can run our own affairs. No one will envy us, no one stone us in the streets. The walls of the ghetto will be fixed. The walls would be the final, fixed form of the catastrophe.”). The next moment, they are being pulled from their houses and brutally murdered. The reader is forced to wonder—would I have acted? Would I have protested? Would I have been paralyzed by the actions of my own government, not knowing to whom to turn when the figures of authority began killing people in cold blood? Would I have rationalized that they must have done something to deserve it? Would I have had the courage to stand up to the entire force of government and police and army, as Schindler did? And if so, at what point would I have acted, and would it have been too late?

Schindler was dead before Pfefferberg found someone to tell his story. Keneally couldn’t have interviewed him, couldn’t have learned what he saw or what he thought, and so he reconstructed and imagined. This is what makes the book a novel, rather than a work of pure history, but this is also what makes it such a fantastic testament to the horror of the holocaust. In those gaps, bridged by Keneally’s imagination, we get the fullest, most visceral idea of what it was like to be there. He enables us to imagine being an inhabitant of Krakow—Jewish or not—and to understand how so many people allowed this atrocity to happen, while at the same time showing us the mind of a man who did not stand by, who recognized the turning point and resisted, who steadfastly remained human in the face of overwhelming inhumanity.

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Paris, 2012
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