How I found Schindler

Bren­daMad­dox speaks to ThomasKe­neally, whose pur­chase of a brief-case in Bev­erly Hills led to Schindler’s List

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment -

Ahand­bag? Thomas K e n e a l - l y ’ s a c c o u n t of stum­bling on the story of Schindler’s list in an Amer­i­can hand­bag shop i r r e s i s t i b l y evokes the tones of Lady Brack­nell . But that is how it hap­pened. In 1980, Ke­neally was in Bev­erly Hills wait­ing for his re­turn flight to Syd­ney. Wan­der­ing into “The Hand­bag Stu­dio”, he met the Jewish pro­pri­etor, who sold him a calf­skin black brief­case and in­tro­duced him­self as Leopold Page.

Page soon re­alised he was speak­ing to the au­thor of a book just re­viewed in Newsweek. “I know a won­der­ful story,” he told Ke­neally, adding that his orig­i­nal name had been Pf­ef­fer­berg and invit­ing Ke­neally to call him Poldek, the Pol­ish diminu­tive for Leopold.

The episode is re­called in Ke­neally’s new book, Search­ing for Schindler, a mov­ing mem­oir which has taken years to see the light of day. “I wrote it about six years ago,” he re­veals, “in re­sponse to the deaths of my own fa­ther and of Poldek. But pub­lish­ers were not keen af­ter the phe­nom­e­nal suc­cess of the film. I still find my­self thanked by Jews as if I my­self had per­formed an act of benev­o­lence. Young Jews tell me that the film en­cour­aged their par­ents into telling their own sto­ries.”

Poldek told him, back in 1980, the story of Oskar Schindler, the Ger­man busi­ness­man who saved thou­sands from Nazi death-camps by get­ting per­mis­sion for them to work in his fac­to­ries: “I was a Jew im­pris­oned with Jews. So a Nazi saves me and, more im­por­tant, saves Misia, my young wife… Not that he was a saint. He was all-drink­ing, all-black-mar­ke­teer­ing, all-screw­ing, okay? But he got Misia out of Auschwitz, so to me he is God.”

Ke­neally, an Aus­tralian of Ir­ish back­ground, was in­stantly in­trigued. He ar­gues that the Jews and the Ir­ish share “the feel­ing of be­ing both cho­sen and de­spised, the knowl­edge that the world could be a val­ley of tears, and the in­ten­sity of clan loy­alty and fam­ily life”.

Af­ter Poldek and his wife reached Amer­ica in 1947 and moved to Bev­erly Hills, he told the Schindler story to scores of pro­duc­ers, writ­ers and re­porters. Most were in­dif­fer­ent un­til, in 1963, Metro-Gold­wyn-Mayer bought the rights from Schindler him­self, who was still alive, liv­ing in Frankfurt, but never made the film.

Then, with a book con­tract from a New York pub­lisher, and with Poldek — who had two fil­ing cab­i­nets full of Schindler doc­u­ments, pho­to­graphs and in­ter­views — as his guide, Ke­neally set out on a six months’ trip, from Ger­many to Poland to Is­rael, search­ing out “Schindler Jews” and vis­it­ing Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem, where he was buried in 1974.

The rest is his­tory. Ke­neally’s book, Schindler’s Ark, won the 1982 Booker Prize be­fore its later re­pub­li­ca­tion as Schindler’s List, the ti­tle of the film di­rected by Steven Spiel­berg.

With Liam Nee­son as the charis­matic Schindler, the 1993 film more than bore out Poldek’s as­sur­ance to Spiel­berg: “You’ll get an Os­car for Oskar!” It won seven, in­clud­ing Best Pic­ture and Best Di­rec­tor. Though Ke­neally’s first screen­play had been re­jected in mid-1983, when the film ap­peared, he had the grat­i­fi­ca­tion of find­ing at least some of his own phrases in­tact.

“More im­por­tant to me,” he says, “was that the film pre­served the am­bi­gu­i­ties in Schindler’s char­ac­ter — al­tru­ism mixed with op­por­tunism, hu­man­ity with prof­i­teer­ing.

“Yes,” Ke­neally says, “there have been other ap­palling acts of geno­cide, some re­cent, oth­ers in the past.”

The Bri­tish, the vil­lains of Ke­neally’s 1998 non-fic­tion book, The Great Shame, used sim­pler tech­niques. Famine and trans­porta­tion served them to dis­perse the Ir­ish all over the world. Yet, he says, “Hitler’s Holo­caust was unique in its in­dus­trial meth­ods. It was not just mass killing but the use of pro­duc­tion tech­niques — race dis­posal by tech­ni­cal means.” Search­ing for Schindler, by Thomas Ke­neally, is pub­lished by Scep­tre at £20

In Schindler’s em­brace: Thomas Ke­neally ( left) with Liam Nee­son, who played Schindler in Spiel­berg’s film

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