– Book Review: “Searching for Schindler” by Tom Keneally

In 1980, Tom Keneally (author of "Schindler’s Ark") was looking for a briefcase when he came to a halt in front of a store called the Handbag Studio in Beverly Hills: "I hesitated, always a nervous shopper. But the shopkeeper soon appeared beside me, having stepped out from within. Atlanta Driveway repair . He had a stocky Slavic look, and resembled the great character actor, Theodore Bickel – a touch of Tartar in the cheeks, a barrel chest, powerful arms, a wrestler’s neck. He wore a white shirt, a conservative tie and a good jacket with an Eagle Scout pin nested in its lapel. There was a glitter of fraternal amusement in his eyes. Even then, I believe I preceived that he had dealt in markets beyond my knowing." Excellent visual writing, isn’t it? It immediately produced strong pictures in my mind.

The shop owner, a Polish Jew by the name of Leopold Pfefferberg, introduced himself as Leopold Page (the name was foisted on him at Ellis Island in 1947) but Keneally soon took to calling him Poldek. Poldek had a story to tell and he wanted Keneally to write if for him. Poldek told him, "it’s a story for you, Thomas, It’s a story for you, I swear." Keneally reflected on the fact that "every writer hears that exhortation. People without any idea of how long a book takes pass on the tale of an amusing uncle or aunt, along with the strange addendum: I could write it if I had nothing else to do. The suggestion is sometimes made tentatively, sometimes with the sincere expectation that the writer will answer, Wow! That he will drop to his knees and embrace this jewel of a story."

However, in the case of Leopold Page/Pfefferberg/Poldek it was all different. "He opened two filing cabinets, selecting documents – a piece on Oskar Schindler from the Los Angeles Examiner , copies of postwar speeches by former Jewish prisoners made in Oskar Schindler’s honor, carbon copies of letters in German, and documents partly yellowed, old enough for the staples in them to have rusted somewhat even in Southern California’s desert climate." Of Schindler, Poldek said, "This guy Oskar Schindler was a big masterrace sort of guy. Tall and smooth in his suits … the cloth! He drank cognac like water And I remember, when I met him the first time, he was wearing a huge black and red Hackenkreuz , you know, the Nazi pin." Well, it is of course a Hakenkreuz , and not a Hackenkreuz . Moreover, labor camps are Arbeitslager and not Arbeitslagen , and the destruction camps are Vernichtungslager and not Vernichtungslageren . The worst mistake in his German expressions probably occurred when he said, "The cinema, when we got there for the premiere, was in chaos, and Judy, Jane and I were manhandled to our seats by a muscular security woman yelling, ‘Das Buchauteur.’" To be correct, he should have said Der Buchautor . Don´t pretend to understand foreign languages if you do not.

"Searching for Schindler" (Vintage Books 2008) is a memoir. When Keneally set out to become a writer, Australians thought that writing and the arts "were something which happened elsewhere, in Western Europe." However, when Keneally met Poldek (in October 1980), he had already "been a writer for some seventeen years or so."

Upon returning to Australia from California he told his family that he "had encountered the most wonderful story imaginable," but didn’t know if he was able to write it. Ultimately, he decided to give it a try. "Back in Sydney’s northern beaches, from the desk in my office, I began composing an account of Schindler’s activities, the basis of a possible advance from Nan Talese. I could see the husky, non-verbal surfers riding their boards on the beach below." I had never given a thought to where "Schindler’s Ark" had been created, but knowing now, it feels somewhat strange that it was begun at an Australian beach.

Keneally goes to see former Schindlerjuden (Jews saved by Schindler), first in Australia, and then together with Poldek in the US, Poland, and Israel. "I knew…that I would try to write the book in the spirit of Tom Wolfe, in what Truman Capote or his publisher called faction. I knew, too, that things that were said by one interviewee would have to be matched or weighed against what the historic record said, against context and the memories of other former Schindlerjuden ."

However, this is not only a book about how "Schindler’s Ark" was written, it also discusses the Booker prize, American book tours, and the writing of the screenplay of "Schindler’s List" (Spielberg eventually sacked him). Moreover, it reveals Keneally’s involvement with rebel Eritrea and with a new republican movement in Australia that wanted to turn the country into "an official republic with its own head of state," teaching at UCI, going to film premieres in Washington, New York, London and Vienna and so much more. It makes for supremely entertaining, interesting and informative reading.

I especially warmed to the following varied and telling tidbits:

* "Even at meals Spielberg was always asking questions. He liked having people around to discuss things with, even while the technicians changed the lighting or the camera crew set up for a new shot. Many of the survivors who visited the set were astonished by the extent of the questions Spielberg asked them. Part of his strength as a director, says Palowski, was his willingness to seek input from just about anyone who had any connection with the story."

* "In lunchtime conversation we revisited the issue of where in Oskar altruism ended and opportunism began. I made the claim that it was actually important that that question could not be answered, that the abiding attraction of Schindler’s character was wrapped up in the very conondrum."

* "The plane taxied past the sign on the runway that says No Turn Before the Ocean – a sign which always rather disturbed me, since I thought that any pilot worth his salt might already know that."

* And last but not least, when Keneally asked Spielberg whether the film could be called "Schindler’s Ark," Spielberg replied he’d do it "except that he wanted to use lists throughout. Lists were visible, metaphors weren’t."

 

 


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