Schindler's List | Study Guide

Thomas Keneally

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Schindler's List | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Thomas Keneally's Schindler's List, published in 1982, is a dramatic novel describing the heroic deeds of Oskar Schindler, a member of the German Nazi party during World War II. Defying Nazi policy—and risking bankruptcy, imprisonment, and execution—Schindler protected over a thousand German Jews from 1939 to 1945 during the Holocaust. Keneally describes Schindler's development from a self-serving businessman to a brave, altruistic man who cares deeply for the people he's protecting from the brutalities of German and Polish concentration camps.

Schindler's List is now regarded as Keneally's most influential and critically acclaimed novel. It can be read as both a historical account and a moving testimony to human compassion in dark times. The reputation of Schindler's List as a classic was further cemented when director Steven Spielberg released his 1993 film adaptation, which received seven Academy Awards, including the award for best picture.

1. Schindler's List is based on the life of a real former Nazi.

Schindler's List is a retelling of the true story of Oskar Schindler, a German national who saved over a thousand Jews during the Holocaust by employing them at his factory. Schindler spent his entire fortune housing those on his "list," as well as bribing the Schutzstaffel to look the other way. (The Schutzstaffel, or SS, was a paramilitary organization commanded by German leader Adolf Hitler.) By keeping up appearances as a war profiteer manufacturing goods for German troops, Schindler was able to shelter his employees until the end of the war. By the early 21st century, there were more than 7,000 living descendants of the Jews Schindler protected, primarily in the United States and Israel.

2. Keneally was inspired to write Schindler's List after a chance encounter with one of the Jews Schindler helped save.

Poldek Pfefferberg (later known as Leopold) was a Polish citizen of Jewish descent who fought in the Polish resistance against the Nazis before his capture in 1939. Upon escaping imprisonment, he was found by Schindler, who showed up at the family's door later that year and decided he wanted to employ Pfefferberg's mother as an interior designer.

In 1980, while Pfefferberg was working at a luggage store in Los Angeles, he met author Thomas Keneally. The chance encounter would spur Keneally to start working on Schindler's List. Keneally got stuck in the luggage store while his credit card company affirmed his card. He noted that while he waited, "Leopold had time to get talking."

3. Schindler's actual "list" from World War II was found in Sydney, Australia, in 2009.

In 2009 historians at the State Library of New South Wales stumbled upon a copy of Oskar Schindler's "list" of 801 people he sheltered during the Holocaust. The list was somewhat faded and found wedged between Keneally's research materials for Schindler's List. A partial list of those Schindler saved, the document was dated April 18, 1945. When notified about the discovery, Keneally stated, "Writing so many books is ... a storage problem. But I'm very glad the list has ended up at the State Library."

4. Keneally was plagued by nightmares while writing Schindler's List.

In an interview Keneally described how he felt extremely unsettled while researching the background of Oskar Schindler and the Holocaust. In particular, his research on the sadistic tendencies of SS soldiers and commanders troubled him deeply. Keneally explained, "I had nightmares while I was writing. Primarily about Amon Goeth, the SS commandant."

Goeth was infamous for his cruelty while running the Plaszow concentration camp. There he implemented obscene methods of torture for prisoners and used a sniper rifle to shoot playing children.

5. Schindler's List was originally released as Schindler's Ark outside the United States.

Outside the United States, Keneally's novel was released in 1982 as Schindler's Ark, a title the author preferred. It alluded to the Ark of the Covenant—a chest that holds the Ten Commandments in the Bible. However, Keneally recalled the book's marketers said of the American audience, "No one will get it." Both versions of the novel were released in 1982, and it was later rereleased as Schindler's List in Commonwealth countries as well.

6. Oskar Schindler is the only member of the Nazi party to be buried at Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

The real Oskar Schindler was the only member of the Nazi party buried at the graveyard on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. His grave lies within the Catholic cemetery. Although Schindler sacrificed nearly all his money protecting those who worked at his factory, he lived meagerly in Frankfurt, Germany, later in his life. He was supported by donations from those grateful for his heroic deeds during the Holocaust.

7. Keneally wrote carefully to portray Schindler as a flawed hero.

Keneally made sure not to portray Schindler as overly heroic, despite his modern legacy of selflessness and sacrifice. The author made sure to mention that, before Schindler decided to shelter Jews from the SS, his plan was to profit from the war effort by running a factory seized from a Polish owner. Originally, Schindler used his profits to supplement a lavish lifestyle of drinking and womanizing. One critic describes him as a man who enjoyed "the general succulence of life."

8. Steven Spielberg defied numerous filming conventions in his 1993 film adaptation.

Schindler's List was immortalized in Steven Spielberg's 1993 critically acclaimed film adaptation but was not without difficulty. During the film's creation, Spielberg made several artistic decisions that defied conventions of modern filmmaking—particularly shooting the film in black and white. Spielberg explained this now-celebrated judgment: "I pleaded my case and said this movie would be a Band-Aid in color, and more of a tourniquet in black and white." Spielberg also avoided using bright lights throughout the film and included many handheld camera shots to give the film a 1940s-era mood.

9. Critics have noted historical inaccuracies in Schindler's List.

Although Keneally researched meticulously while composing Schindler's List, he met with the problem all historical authors face in crafting fictionalized dialogue and constructing scenes of personal life. One inaccuracy historians have noted is that Schindler himself likely never wrote or even read his "list" of names. It was compiled by those working for him. Keneally has made it clear that he is a writer, not a historian, describing himself as "a novelist who nicks stories from history."

10. Before he started writing, Keneally was training to become a priest.

Born in 1935 in New South Wales, Australia, Keneally was from a devout Irish Catholic family. He trained for the priesthood for six years, but he suffered a nervous breakdown shortly before his ordination. After this, he became a teacher, a coach, and a law student before publishing his first novel in 1964. Set in a large seminary where Catholic priests are trained, The Place at Whitton is a murder story loosely inspired by his brief foray into the priesthood.

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