In “Searching for Schindler,” Australian author Thomas Keneally recalls how he came to write the award-winning novel “Schindler's Ark,” which reached global fame through Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film adaptation “Schindler’s List.”
Despite the title, and by the author's own admission, the new book fails to unravel the enigma of Oskar Schindler, a black-marketeering, womanizing Nazi who saved over 1,000 Jews from almost certain death in World War Two concentration camps. But it is a tribute to Leopold "Poldek" Pfefferberg, the Polish Jew and Holocaust survivor who encouraged and cajoled Keneally into writing Schindler's story and helped bully Hollywood into turning it into a movie.
The indefatigable owner of a Los Angeles luggage shop, without whom “Schindler's Ark” would never have been written, emerges as the real hero, and the new book is dedicated to Poldek, who died in 2001, and his wife who survived him.
“I thought this man is such a large character that he deserves a book in his own right,” Keneally told Reuters in a telephone interview from Australia.
“Poldek ... knew nothing about publishing and yet he was more correct than the publishers; he knew nothing about the film industry but again he was validated,” he added, referring Poldek's unbridled optimism in the potential of the story.
“It's particularly touching that he did it primarily to honor the memory of a man who had saved him and his wife ... Poldek was the first one to say to me he (Schindler) was Jesus Christ, and although he was Jesus Christ, a saint he wasn't.”
Schindler, through persuasion and bribery, convinced Nazi officials that the Jews who worked at his factory in southern Poland were essential to Adolf Hitler's war effort.
As Soviet troops advanced in 1944, Schindler's bookkeeper drew up the list of workers he wanted to take with him to a new factory site further west, sparing them from death. Poldek, born in Krakow, Poland, was number 173 on the list.
Searching for Schindler opens with a chance encounter in 1980 between Keneally and Poldek at his Beverly Hills store.
He tells Keneally his story, provides documents, convinces him to write the tale and accompanies him around the world gathering testimony from “Schindler's Jews,” many of whom would not have spoken to Keneally without Poldek's assurances.
Poldek also badgers Spielberg to make the film, which he did in 1993, 11 years after the novel won the Booker Prize.
“Schindler's List” went on to win seven Academy Awards and fulfilled what Poldek predicted all along: "An Oscar for Oskar."
Keneally has faced criticism from some commentators and reviewers who suggested he had profited twice from the horrors of the Holocaust and failed to honor properly Schindler's wife Emilie, a wartime heroine in her own right.
“I can see that criticism and I don't resent it,” he said.
"I had a story to tell, and if you've got a story to tell and you're a writer you tend to tell it ... It was not done without compensation to the major actors, I have to say, but on the other hand it's true it could be perceived like that."
In the book, Keneally disputes claims that Emilie went unrewarded for the book and film. He also singled out her act of kindness to a Jewish boy prisoner when she replaced his broken glasses by visiting the optician who had his prescription.
“She was treating him as a human with normal human needs at a time when he was considered a sub-human,” Keneally said.
Emilie Schindler died in 2001 aged 93.