Wednesday, 4 October 2017

#27 A book based on a true story

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally

True stories are probably the hardest to read. This is one such example.

I have to admit that it took an emotional toll on me while reading and I couldn’t continue reading it at a stretch. Ironically, this true story based on the life of one German, set during one of the most terrible times of modern human history -the Holocaust, will reinforce one’s belief that despite all evil that men do, it is the good that will outlast them all.   

This Booker Prize winning novel (1982) is based on the true story of Oskar Schindler, a flamboyant, German industrialist who during the Holocaust, under a lot of personal risk, rescued a number of Jews by employing them as essential workers in his enamelware industry. Clearly, the author, Thomas Keneally,  has masterfully pieced together the character and personality of Oskar Schindler through first-hand accounts from people who knew the man. Oskar Schindler (played onscreen by Liam Neeson), is by no means painted as a saint. He is a bon viveur, lives life in a grand way, is a womanizer, frequently cheats on his loyal wife, drinks, smokes and was initially just looking to make a profit in his business during the wartime – an ambitious entrepreneur.

But as time goes on, he realizes a bigger mission and puts in all his energy and resources to ensure the continued survival of the Schindlerjuden – as the Jews he saved came to be called. He resolves to do everything in his power “to defeat the system". He uses his membership of the Nazi Party as a disguise to secretly save the lives of over a thousand Jewish prisoners during the Holocaust from almost certain death.  Through his negotiations and underhand dealings he is able to bribe, seek aide and charm his way to save many a Jewish life. 

It was heart-rending to read how the Jews were transformed from citizens to eventually being seen as less than beasts. It all happens gradually, though, and so the transformation in status was grudgingly accepted both by the Jews and many Germans as well. 

Oskar Schindler (L) is played in the movie by Liam Neeson (R)
For instance in one scene, while the SS officers are clearing up the ghetto, ordering all Jews to form lines and then separating families, discarding all their belongings, mercilessly killing any one they felt like – two doctors and a senior nurse in the ghetto’s hospital quietly administer cyanide to the comatose patients so that at least they will have a peaceful death.

 The extraordinary cruelty towards the Jews was met with an unimaginable courageous act by Schindler, who pays money out of his own pockets to keep them fed and safe. But always there are many risks involved. Because of his immense influence he is able to ensure that his mission succeeds.  
First of all he enlists the help of Ithzak Sterne, a Jewish accountant (played in the movie by Ben Kingsley) to help him to both reopen a decrepit factory and enlist Jews from the ghetto. 
The friendship that develops between the two over time is like no other that I have ever encountered in any book I have read. As Sterne poignantly reminds him: “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire.” 

 Together, with a lot of other dependable hands they also ensure that before the main camp is “liquidated” (i.e. all the inmates sent to the Auschwitz or Birkeneau to be killed), they shift the Jews on his list , Schindler’s List – to a sub-camp which is located near the Czech borders. 

There are many other Jewish and German lives we encounter in the book but which gets left out in the Academy Award winning movie adaptation – Schindler’s List  which was directed by Steven Spielberg and came out in 1993. This movie is brilliant as it is, iconically shot in black and white, since Spielberg felt all life was drained from that moment in history.

Amon Goeth played to chilling perfection by Ralph Fiennes
One other character deserves a mention for the chilling effect he will have on who reads this book – the German Commander Amon Goeth (he is portrayed onscreen by Ralph Fiennes) , who presides over the functioning of the Plaszow concentration camp for most of the book, from where Schindler has recruited his Jewish workers. He is a psychopathic, sadistic, brutal murderer. For instance, he wakes up every morning and shoots a random Jew in the camp from his balcony before breakfast. In actual history this man would be tried as a war criminal and hanged – not before he would earn the epithet the ‘Butcher of Plaszow’. The actor Ralph Fiennes plays this role to bone-chilling perfection and I was shocked to realize that he wasn’t awarded for that role at the Oscars. Well, as I always have felt, the Oscars are not always rightly awarded.

This book also goes on to show what happens after the war comes to an end. Oskar Schindler and Emilie, his wife were named  Righteous Among the Nations in 1993 and a tree was planted in Schindler's honour in the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, the memorial erected in Israel in memory of the victims of Holocaust. By his own wish, he is buried in Jerusalem, and the inscription on his grave says, 'The unforgettable rescuer of 1,200 persecuted Jews.’

It isn’t an easy book to read, but is an essential one.   

1 comment:

Amnah Rasheed said...

I'm definitely gonna read this. Thanks for such an amazing review. Do recommend me more such books :)