HowIwroteSchindler’ss­tory

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 Jewish Chronicle - - FEATURES -

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

PHO­TOS: COUR­TESY OF STEVEN SPIEL­BERG AND LUD­MILA (MISIA) PAGE

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

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