Author: Thomas Keneally
Call it a morbid fascination if you like, but I love reading books about World War II. Some of my all-time favourite novels are set during this era – Charlotte Gray, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Suite Francaise, The Reader, and of course, The Diary of Anne Frank to name just a few. The common thread of these novels is the amazing ability of humans to survive through the most horrific events of war. Although Schindler’s Ark is often quite brutal in describing some of the events that took place during World War II, it was the remarkable capacity of prisoners to survive against all odds that really stood out.
Written in 1982, and winning the Booker Prize that year, I guess Schindler’s Ark is somewhat of a modern classic. It is one of those books that had been on my TBR pile for a while and, thanks to my friend Judy who nominated it for this months’ book club, I finally got to read it.
Oskar Schindler is a debonair German-Czech businessman living in Zwittau, Czechoslovakia at the beginning of the Second World War. He is a big drinker, a heavy smoker, has a wife, a mistress and a girlfriend, and comes across as quite unfriendly. He is wealthy, wears double-breasted suits, and is chauffeur-driven in a BMW. In 1939, Schindler visits Poland, looking for a factory to invest in. He finds an enamelware company that has gone bankrupt, buys it, and begins the Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik Company. Schindler wins a contract with the Armaments Inspectorate and begins to supply equipment to the German Army. He meets the Jewish accountant, Itzak Stern, who recognises something of the saviour in Schindler. Schindler, who has become disillusioned with humanity, hears of a Talmudic verse that says “he who saves the life of one man, saves the entire world”. Stern believes that this was the point where Schindler decided it was worth trying to save people from the atrocities of war.
Governor General, Hans Frank, soon announces his intention to make his beloved Czech capital judenfrei (jew-free). A few thousand are permitted to stay as skilled workers, but the rest are shipped off to other Polish towns. Schindler has many Jewish workers employed in his factory when the SS decides to set up a Jewish ghetto, making it compulsory for Jews to live inside its’ walls. Life rapidly becomes dangerous for these Polish Jews, and in 1941 Schindler is horrified when he is witness to an Aktion that slaughters thousands. It is after this that Schindler was ”resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system”. By dealing in the black market and bribing German officials with alcohol, food and cigarettes, Schindler manages to keep his factory workers safe from execution.
When Commandant Amon Goeth decides to set up a forced labour camp at Plaszow, on the fringes of Cracow, Schindler decides to set up a subsidiary camp within his factory on the pretence that he needs skilled workers to keep his factory going. The 1200 Jewish workers that he houses there call themselves Schindlerjuden. At the same time, Schindler becomes part of the resistance, providing information to the Zionist movement in Hungary. Nearing the end of the war, Schindler compiles a list of Emalia workers that he manages to relocate to a camp in Czechoslovakia. In a lovely completion of the circle, Schindler’s factory workers give him a ring at the end of the war. It had been melted down from the gold fillings of one of the workers, and inscribed with the same Talmudic verse that Schindler had heard at the start of the war.
Even amongst all the horror and loss of life, I was struck by the fortitude of the workers and the lengths some of them went to in order to survive. Some prisoners escaped the constant round-ups by building fake walls in their houses – carting in bricks one at a time in wheelbarrows, hidden underneath goods that were allowed. Others escaped into the surrounding forests by crawling through the sewers – risking the fact that a German soldier may be guarding the exit at the other end. Some who had been imprisoned in the concentration camps, escaped execution by hiding down the hole in the ground used as a toilet.
Schindler’s Ark is a confronting, gritty novel. At times it is overwhelmingly brutal and sad, but ultimately portrays a message of hope. Although categorised as fiction, it often reads more like a biography, and is a fascinating portrayal of one man’s’ attempt to save as many people as he could. It is impeccably researched and richly detailed and I highly recommend it.
My rating: 8.5/10
This is the first book read for The Classics Club Challenge.