09 March 2013

"Schindler's List" by Thomas Keneally

Schindler's List
Thomas Keneally
Date of Publication: 18 October 1982
400 pages
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Available from Oldham County Public Library
Read from 20 February - 9 March 2013

I've seen Steven Spielberg's film thrice, but only now finally sat down to read Thomas Keneally's original novel. I was struck within the first few pages of the ease of his prose, catching the novelist's mindfulness of audience that the historical expert sometimes lacks. I encountered the same thing when I read Robert Morgan's excellent Boone: A Biography a few years ago. Schindler's List (originally Schindler's Ark) was branded a novel but in truth it's merely a casually told work of historical research presented by a novelist.

I came to Schindler's List in hopes that I may find an answer to the one question I was left with by Spielberg's film: "Just when, and why, did Oskar Schindler commit to using his business as a haven for Jews?" It's one of the first points Keneally addresses, quickly noting that there is no clear answer to that question. I was initially disappointed by that non-answer, but later I came to appreciate it. I kind of prefer the ambiguity. Maybe it's because I've become burned out on origin stories over the years as a comic book reader?

Keneally clearly did his homework and rather than presenting to us a dramatization of his findings, he has instead organized and synthesized it for us. Like Morgan, Keneally makes a point to note when there's ambiguity or disagreement in the historical record about a specific event, allowing us to draw upon the available evidence rather than avoiding or, worse, arbitrarily filling in those gaps for us. The chief benefit to Keneally of not being a historian by vocation is that he was free to insert his own biases into his writing. He champions Schindler freely; admitting his character flaws with one sentence before downplaying or apologizing for them, the next. My inner historian "tsk tsk"d a few times, but only halfheartedly.

One of the most difficult parts of historical writing is citation. I personally loathe end notes; they're inconvenient and while they make allow the main text to be read without interruption, the fact that I have to thumb back and forth to follow up on a given point makes that format much too frustrating for me as a reader. Footnotes are best, but they do clutter the page. Keneally, though, avoided the entire issue by being a "novelist" here. Rather organically, he simply invokes the source of whichever account he's referencing as an omniscient narrator. It works very well, and I have to say I'm both impressed that he managed to shift from one testimonial to the next without becoming mired in redundant segues, as well as envious that he was able to sidestep the entire citation process!

The subject matter here is, of course, the darkest and most somber. I could only read a chapter or so at a time before needing to step away from it - and this despite my own familiarity with the events described through my studies both formal and informal. If I was periodically made squeamish, then I imagine the average person who pays only a cursory amount of attention to historical events must be overcome by anxiety and disgust.

Despite all that, though, Keneally as novelist manages to find the enduring humanity at every turn. He does not hesitate to describe to us the sadism and unfathomable cruelty inflicted by the Nazis, but he's does not allow the villains to dominate his narrative. Instead, Keneally remains focused on relaying to us the accounts of how people adapted and survived; the ingenuity, shrewdness and courage behind every scheme and daring act undertaken by those whose stories he was entrusted to share with us.

To wit, I never anticipated finding in Schindler's List of all places one of the most moving, romantic stories I've ever encountered. Yet there it was, the tale of Josef Bau insisting on courting Rebecca Tenenbaum properly in the prewar tradition. Each of them in love with the other, trying desperately to avoid attracting the attention of the erratic and sadistic Amon Goeth and his underlings. There, in the middle of Hell on Earth, bloomed one of the loveliest romances ever recorded. Per tradition, even though they periodically had opportunity for physical love, they showed restraint in a time where it must have seemed the most ludicrous matter in the world. All the same, the young couple proceeded as they would have had they met not in a concentration camp but as a free man and woman. They wed in secret in the women's dorm in Plaszow, officiated by one of the elder women in lieu of a rabbi. Rebecca walked around him seven times and he stepped on a burnt out light bulb for the ceremonial glass.

Their courtship boosted the morale of some of the older women in her dorm, recruited as their chaperones in the pageant. It was a direct continuity with customs and norms that had been all but snuffed out by the Nazis, and in its way perhaps the most defiant anecdote in all the accounts recorded by Keneally in his work here. Though I was affected by the entire book, I only came close to tearing up a few times. Once was when I read of Josef and Rebecca's courtship. Another time came later, when I learned that she and Josef's mother were both sent to Auschwitz and perished there, though perhaps I misread that because Wikipedia informs me that after they were liberated, the Baus and their three-year-old daughter emigrated to Israel in 1950. I'd like to think this wasn't an instance of Keneally "taking artistic license" and choosing to murder Rebecca Tenenbaum just to make me tear up a second time.

Keneally later wrote the memoir, Searching for Schindler, about his involvement with researching and telling this astounding story. I'm eager to get to that, though it'll be a little while because I'm just not ready to continue exploring the Keneally/Schindlerjuden narrative. For now, I'm content to say that Schindler's List was every bit as engaging, touching and overwhelming as I wanted it to be, and then some.

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