Finding Oskar

 

MEMOIR:  Searching for Schindler: A Memoirby Thomas Keneally Sceptre (Hodder & Stoughton), 312pp, £20 A chance meeting with a Holocaust survivor in a shop in LA changed writer Thomas Keneally's life forever

IN 1938, OSKAR Schindler, a Czechoslovakian ethnic German, became a citizen of the Third Reich following Hitler's annexation of Sudetenland. He either was or immediately became a German military intelligence (Abwehr) agent, and provided the German army with the Polish army uniforms worn by German soldiers when they "attacked" ethnic Germans in Poland. This became the pretext for Hitler's invasion in September 1939.

Following Poland's defeat, "young, hulking, genial, not quite respectable" Schindler moved to Krakow in search of business opportunities. Here he acquired a bankrupt enamel business, took an apartment and commissioned Mrs Pfefferberg, a local Jewish interior decorator, to do it up. Though a National Socialist Party member, Schindler had somehow not acquired the anti-Semitic animus.

One evening, in the winter of 1939, Schindler was in Mrs Pfefferberg's flat when her son Leopold, "Poldek", walked in. A graduate of Krakow's Jagiellonian University, a schoolteacher, a Polish army officer and latterly a PoW, Poldek had literally just escaped from the transport carrying him west to a German prison camp.

This accidental meeting of Poldek and Schindler was the start of a long and deep relationship between the two men. Poldek became a Schindlerjuden, one of the hundreds of Jews Schindler employed and protected, first in his Krakow factory and later, after the Russian advance of 1944, in the second camp he established at Brinnlitz in north-eastern Czechoslovakia. Those who have read Keneally's novel Schindler's Ark or seen Steven Spielberg's film Schindler's List will know it was while he was in Brinnlitz that Schindler extricated 300 of his Jewish women workers from Auschwitz and certain death.

After the war, Poldek went to the US where he prospered and opened a handbag business on South Beverly Drive in Beverly Hills. He never forgot Schindler, however, believing Oskar had saved him and his wife from the death camps. In 1962, Poldek got Hollywood producer Martin Gosch and MGM interested in making a film of the Schindler story and wangled $50,000 for Oskar for the rights to his life story. He also gathered testimony from hundreds of Schindler survivors. The MGM film was never made but Poldek, now the de facto archivist of the Schindler story, held on to the material and even after Schindler's death in October 1974, continued to try to interest Hollywood producers in a Schindler film.

Roll forward now to October 1980. Thomas Keneally, a writer in "mid-career" whose repute had lost some of its "early bloom", was in Los Angeles for a few days. Needing a new briefcase he entered Poldek's shop, the Handbag Studio, then advertising its "Fall Sale".

By the time he left at the end of the day, Keneally had his new briefcase. He also had, packed inside, photostatic copies of the best bits of Schindleriana that Poldek had gathered over the years, and from which, Poldek believed, a best-selling novel could be made. Keneally took these materials to his hotel room and read them that night. They included the now famous list, Schindler's list, the list of Jews Schindler demanded and got for his Brinnlitz enterprise and thereby saved.

The trove he had stumbled on fascinated Keneally both there in Los Angeles and later at home in Sydney. One, there was the ambiguity of Schindler; here was a man who did good and simultaneously was a shameless hedonistic Lothario and exuberant black-marketeer; and two, (which Keneally spotted immediately with his beady novelist's eye) "using Oskar as a lens" a writer could tell an "intimate" Holocaust story and not be "defeated by sheer numbers".

Keneally decided to commit to the book and in February 1981 he and Poldek visited Poland, Germany, Austria and Israel to get more testimony. Keneally's account is both hilarious and so painful it's nearly unreadable. The stories Poldek harvested were terrible but the really disconcerting revelation, Keneally grasped, while watching Poldek interact brilliantly with Poles and Germans, Austrians and Israelis, was that the Holocaust wasn't simply a tragedy because six million died. It was also a tragedy because of the impoverishment Europe suffered as a result, and which, because an entire people had been eliminated, it was impossible to ever repair. WG Sebald (from whose novels Poldek might easily have stepped) is the only other writer to have investigated this miserable truth.

By December 1981, first draft portions of Schindler's Ark were ready. The book, in proof by the autumn of 1982, was submitted to the Booker Prize and short-listed even before it was published. It scooped the award later in the year. It was then bought by Amblin, Steven Spielberg's production company at Universal. Keneally wrote two dud screenplays before he was fired ("nicely") and the job of writing the screenplay given to Steve Zaillian. The film went into production on March 1st, 1993 and was premiered in Washington in November with president and Mrs Clinton in attendance. At the subsequent Oscars the film netted two gold statues for Spielberg, one for direction.

Poldek, to whom, along with his wife, this memoir is quite properly dedicated, died in March 2001. Keneally, who owes the irrepressible Poldek so much, didn't see him before death (something, he says, he does not easily forgive himself for), nor, because of his own health, was Keneally able to attend Poldek's funeral. But he has atoned in the way only writers can: he has written this book and as long as it's read (and I don't doubt it will be - it has charm, narrative torque, and heart-rending testimony) the extraordinary Leopold Poldek Pfefferberg, without whom it's doubtful we would ever have heard of Oskar Schindler, let alone have Keneally's Booker-winning novel or Spielberg's Oscar- winning film, will live on.

Carlo Gébler is an author and the 2008-2009 Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Queen's University Belfast. He is the current Chairman of the Irish Writers' Centre