Thomas Keneally wrote the novel which immortalised Oskar Schindler and his rescue of Jews in the Holocaust. Now he is paying tribute to the survivor who introduced him to the story. He talks to DanGoldberg
THE NAME Leopold P f e f f e r berg was t o o much o f a t o n g u e - t w i s t e r for US officials, so they changed it to Leopold Page at Ellis lsland in 1947. The Nazis, however, had had no such quandary. They had reduced him to a number — 69006.
But to his family and friends, he was known simply as Poldek, and without the perseverance of this Polish survivor, author Tom Keneally would not have become the first Australian to win the Booker Prize and film director Steven Spielberg would not have won his first Academy Award.
More importantly, without Poldek’s never-say-die spirit, Spielberg would never have been spurred to establish the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, an archive of 5 2 , 000- pl us testimonies in 32 languages from 56 countries.
I n s h o r t , P o l d e k was t he dr i v i ng force behind t h e n o v e l Schindler’s Ark, which won Keneally the Booker Prize in 1982, and Schindler’s List, which won seven Oscars in 1994.
Now, 25 years after writing Schindler’s Ark, Keneally’s latest book is his tribute to Poldek. Semi-autobiographical, Searching for Schindler is the story of how a serendipitous encounter in Pol- dek’s Handbag Studio in Beverly Hills in 1980 spawned the chain of events that resulted in a best-selling novel and award-laden film which touched millions of people across the world.
“Poldek was the spark-plug and I was just one piston in the machine,” says a typically modest Keneally from his home in Sydney, Australia. “I see myself as a mere catalyst. I was not the great heroic instigator.”
Poldek, an irrepressible shopkeeper who had been trying for decades to foist his survival story on any writer who stepped across his door, ushered a nonchalant Keneally into his shop.
But when he discovered Keneally was a writer, the same writer whose book review he had just read in Newsweek magazine, Poldek became effusive.
“I know a wonderful story. It is not a story for Jews but for everyone. It’s the greatest story of humanity, man to man,” he told Keneally. “It’s a story for you, Thomas. It’s a story for you, I swear.”
Keneally was incredulous. “I had never heard the words come from the lips of a soul so vivid, so picaresquely Eastern European, so endowed with baritone and basso subtleties of voice and inflection, so engorged with life, as Leopold Pfefferberg/Page,” he writes in the opening chapter of his book.
Poldek, number 173 on Schindler’s list, told Keneally how he and his wife Misia were saved his by the “all-drinking, all-black-marketeering, all-screwing” Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who risked his life to save 1,200 Jews.
As a story-teller, Keneally was smitten, but he acknowledges in the book that he stumbled upon it: “I had not grasped it. It had grasped me.”
Two factors lured him, he says. “With someone larger than life such as Poldek, I looked at his big honest face and thought: ‘What is it about him that made the metropolitan Europeans believe he was a virus on European civilisation and that he had to be obliterated?’”
Keneally says he was equally fascinated by Schindler’s ambiguities and the inverted morality of the Nazis. “Oskar was a scoundrel saviour. Writers love paradoxes — the fact you couldn’t tell where his altruistic intentions ended and his opportunism began.
“We know he sincerely wanted to be rich and he didn’t want to be a martyr; that ambiguity is what attracted Spielberg from the start and what attracted me as well.”
It took two years to interview dozens of Schindler survivors — in Australia, America, Europe and Israel — and pore over thousands of documents before Schindler’s Ark was complete.
It then took a decade before Spielberg made Schindler’s List — despite the overbearing efforts of Poldek, who frequently lobbied Spielberg’s mother in her kosher restaurant and never gave up repeating his mantra: “An Oscar for Oskar!”
History proved him right. Seven times. Schindler’s List scooped the 1994 Academy Awards, and among the glitz of the awards ceremony were two quirky characters — an unpretentious Australian author and a Jewish kvetch from Krakow who made it his mission to immortalise the flawed hero who saved his life.
The 25 years since the publication of Schindler’s Ark has been “a crucible through which I passed”, muses Keneally now. Undoubtedly, the novel changed his life — and that of his wife and two daughters — not least in the number of eminent people they have encountered: politicians, statesmen, actors, and, of course, Schindlerjuden. They have even dined at the White House with the Clintons.
“I would not like to spend my life necessarily among such notables, although it was great to be in their company for a time,” he says.
Several of the people he has met have impressed him. Among them was Nazi-hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Keneally met him before the premiere of the film in Vienna, where police were so fearful of neo-Nazi violence they surrounded Spielberg’s entourage with security personnel.
“The combination of his humility and ineluctability, his stubborn pursuit — that impressed me hugely,” Keneally says of Wiesenthal.
Keneally also cites Spielberg himself — despite the fact the Hollywood director sacked the Australian as the film’s screenwriter in 1985. “He is very driven but very genial, very polite and very focused.”
Keneally was born in Sydney in 1935 to Irish immigrants. Now 72, the stocky, affable author is unmistakable in public on two counts — his piratelike guffaw and his thick, salt-and-pepper-coloured moustache-less beard that makes him look like a member of the Amish. Or a monk.
Which makes sense, because he spent six years in a seminary studying to become a Catholic priest, but decided instead to become a schoolteacher before writing became his full-time trade.
But he says he soon learned the Irish and the Jews have much in common.
“The Irish are Jews who booze,” he quips. “We both share huge diasporas. Also, my clan life is rather like that of a big Jewish clan too.”
There are also similarities between the Middle East conflict and the conflict in Northern Ireland, he notes.
But Keneally dismisses those who argued that Schindler’s Ark legitimated Israel’s right-wing fanatics. He says the Palestinians were “the ones chosen to pay the price for the great European crimes against Judaism”.
Stressing that suicide bombing is unjustified, he adds: “Where there’s an injustice, a minority always becomes militant. I’d be less than a humanist if I didn’t feel sympathy for the Palestinians.”
But he also feels sympathy for the Jews. That is why the first thing you pass when you walk into Keneally’s office is a mezuzah.
“Part of the thing of being Jewish is trying to honour the people that are gone. I feel that I should stand in for the people who are gone too, even though I’m a gentile; there are people missing who shouldn’t be missing.”
Schindler saved generations of Jews who would otherwise have been missing, their family trees stunted by Hitler’s Final Solution.
Poldek died in 2001, aged 87, but thanks to his determination and Keneally’s words, Schindler’s story, and that of the Schindlerjuden, has been told. “But there always has been a story behind the story,” says Keneally. “When Poldek was alive, I used to say: ‘I’ll write about you one day’.” Searching for Schindler is the result. Searching for Schindler was published last month in Australia by Knopf. It will be available in the UK later this year
Thomas Keneally with Liam Neeson, who played Oskar Schindler in the film
Keneally at Schindler’s grave with Poldek ( right), the survivor whose story sparked his novel