Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally (1982) 429 p.

This is not a book which can be approached uninfluenced in the modern age, because everybody has heard of Oskar Schindler now. Apparently the book was popular enough, but I have no doubt it was the Spielberg adaptation which truly made Schindler a household name. I haven’t seen the film, though, apart from a few scenes I recall being shown in fifth grade. On that topic: does anybody else remember having the Holocaust included in their primary school curriculum at age nine? I mentioned in my review of Maus that it’s probably a misguided idea to introduce an event like that to young minds (not out of fear of scarring them, but because it’s too weighty a subject for them to properly appreciate) but I’m starting to realise that maybe my own education was an outlier; the influence of a single teacher or the ping-pong nature of politically-motivated public school curricula between left-wing and right-wing state governments.

In any case, I began this book knowing full well the rough outlines of the story of Oskar Schindler, and I was somewhat surprised to find, in Thomas Keneally’s introduction, that he was a relatively unknown figure until being brought to greater light by the book and the film. Keneally was in a luggage store in Los Angeles in 1982 and fell into conversation with the owner, Leopold Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor. Upon finding out Keneally was an author, Pfefferberg told him about Oskar Schindler and begged him to write a novel about him, after years of unsuccessfully attempting to interest Hollywood producers in his story. Keneally had never heard of Schindler, but after reading the records Pfefferberg gave him and conducting research of his own, he decided to write a novel about him. As Keneally put it, Oskar was witness to almost every step of the Jewish ordeal: “the confiscation of Jewish property and business, for the creation and liquidation of the ghettos, and the building of labour camps, Arbeitslager, to contain labour forces.” As we all know now, Schindler would go on to become a great saviour of the Jews, preserving over a thousand lives by sheltering them as skilled workers in his munitions factory. Much of Schindler’s Ark is about the deception, subterfuge, bribery and greasing of wheels Schindler had to undertake to keep the whole edifice running under the noses of the SS for the duration of the war.

There is obviously no doubt that this is a powerful subject matter, that Schindler was a man who deserves to be remembered as a hero, and that it’s a good thing that Pfefferberg finally managed to find somebody to immortalise him. Whether Schindler’s Ark is a great novel is a rather trickier beast. Keneally mentions from the very beginning that he has “attempted to avoid all fiction, because fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between reality and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature.” He accomplishes this goal rather admirably, never allowing the reader to forget that this is a fictionalised account of a very true story, in which the author undertook meticulous research, interviewing dozens of Holocaust survivors scattered across countries all over the globe. He nonetheless treats his principals as characters, with the reader privy to their thoughts and feelings and motivations, and for the most part Schindler’s Ark reads much more like a novel than a historical book.

Where Schindler’s Ark falters, as a novel, is the areas in which it brushes against a more academic work of fiction: the profusion of foreign names, foreign places, a desire to trace the chronology of this story all the way to the end, concluding with an oddly dry epilogue which traces Schindler’s life from the end of the war to his death in Frankfurt decades later. It ultimately leaves the book in an odd place; a work of art which is worthy for what it covers, what it brings to light, rather than its inherent value as a novel. For me, at least, Maus is undoubtedly superior. I’m glad that Keneally wrote this book, glad that the heroism of Oskar Schindler was finally brought to a broader audience, and I can’t say that this isn’t a good novel. But – without having seen the film – I suspect this may be one case where the movie is better.