Schindler's List | Study Guide

Thomas Keneally

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Schindler's List | Prologue | Summary

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Summary

It is the autumn of 1943. Poland has been under Nazi occupation for several years. Oskar Schindler, a Cracow businessman, attends a dinner at the villa of Amon Goeth, the Nazi official who operates Płaszów, a labor camp. On his way to Płaszów, Schindler travels by limousine through the suburbs of Cracow, past the site of the former Jewish ghetto. Because he routinely bribes them, the guards enforcing the curfew allow Schindler to travel without problems.

The dinner guests include several high-ranking Nazis: Julian Scherner, Rolf Czurda, and Franz Bosch. Like Goeth, these three men are members of the SS, or Schutzstaffel, a powerful paramilitary organization responsible for the operation of the concentration camps, among other things. Two of Schindler's friends are in attendance: factory owner Julius Madritsch and his manager, Raimund Titsch. Goeth's guests also include four female escorts.

At dinner, the men speak of current events and business matters. Bosch asks Schindler to donate an installment of his factory's kitchenware to his aunt, who has lost everything in the war. Schindler agrees, aware that Bosch will sell these items on the black market. However, he bristles when Bosch makes a comment about Schindler's wife, who tolerates his numerous extramarital affairs.

Dinner is served by Goeth's Jewish maid, Helen Hirsch. She has bruises on her face, courtesy of Goeth. Goeth jokes about Hirsch's injuries in front of the other guests. The guests comment that Schindler will never be conscripted into military service due to his influence with powerful men.

Meanwhile, Poldek Pfefferberg, a prisoner of Płaszów, and Lisiek, Goeth's teenaged servant, have snuck into Goeth's bathroom to finish cleaning his bathtub. Lisiek fears Goeth will beat him if the bathtub is stained. After dinner, a drunken Goeth catches Pfefferberg and Lisiek as they attempt to flee his room. Goeth beats Lisiek. A few days later, Pfefferberg learns that Goeth has killed Lisiek for hitching up a horse without his permission.

While Goeth is in his room, Schindler goes to the kitchen to see Helen Hirsch. She is afraid Schindler will hurt her, but instead he kisses her on the face and gives her a candy bar. Hirsch confesses Goeth's cruelty and her despair to Schindler. Schindler promises her he will rescue her from Goeth by transferring her to his factory, DEF/Emalia. Hirsch asks Schindler to save her younger sister from the concentration camps, and he agrees.

Analysis

In its description of a dinner party at Płaszów, the prologue familiarizes the reader with the situations, characters, and themes that dominate the text.

Schindler is introduced as a morally complicated character. He wears a jacket bearing a swastika, travels by limousine through an occupied, war-torn city, and spends the evening socializing with a group of high-ranking Nazis. Although he is a married man, he has a mistress and a reputation as a philanderer. He drinks heavily, engages in black market trade, and bribes Nazi officials.

Schindler seems like a scoundrel and an opportunist, living a life of luxury in an occupied country. Meanwhile, the Jewish citizens of Poland, represented here by Lisiek, Pfefferberg, and Hirsch, live in terror and slavery under Nazi occupation. They endure the daily abuse of men such as Goeth and live under the threat of being sent to one of the extermination camps.

However, Schindler is shown as morally superior to Goeth and his associates. Dinners at Goeth's may be luxurious affairs, but Schindler approaches the event "more with loathing than with anticipation." While he finds Goeth and his associates repulsive, he understands it is necessary to cultivate their goodwill. The two men at the party Schindler likes, Madritsch and Titsch, treat their Jewish employees somewhat humanely and give them extra rations. Despite being a womanizer, Schindler refuses the attentions of a female escort because the idea of sex at Goeth's house disgusts him. Instead, he sneaks into the kitchen to comfort Helen Hirsch, who endures constant beatings from Goeth. He offers her literal sweetness in the form of a black market candy bar and, for the first time in the narrative, makes a promise that will become his signature offer: he promises safety from the Nazis within the shelter of his factory.

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