The Canonization of Oskar Sue: “Schindler’s List/Ark” Book Review

The Rest Is History…As In This Is Not

This is a feelgood book for anyone who wants to feel like they’ve done something for Jews, but hasn’t. It doesn’t bring honest awareness to anything. It doesn’t attempt to give any kind of complete picture, and it lionizes a Nazi while trying to get you to ignore that Jewish slave labor was the dirt cheapest available and he was a businessman.

Thomas Keneally’s “Schindler’s List” (originally published as “Schindler’s Ark” in 1982) became the basis for Steven Spielberg’s 1993 sensory overload “Schindler’s List” film. Today we’ll be discussing the book; I have a YouTube video encompassing a large body of literature on the myth, the myth, the myth, and the man Oskar Schindler and Steven Spielberg’s film later, which I will link once I have uploaded it. There are over two thousand pages to read, and in Keneally’s “non-fiction novel,” we have a mere eighth of that, but it’s what started it all, Oskar Schindler’s posthumous face-lift and escalated the Good Nazi/Western Savior view of the Holocaust in the United States, something that continues to plague the Jewish community today. Steven Spielberg played no small role in that, but he’s a topic for another day.

The Keneally “non-fiction novel” (more on that shortly) has much to offer in terms of explaining itself, and Keneally even wrote a memoir in 2007, “Searching for Schindler: A Memoir” that helps explain how we got here, and oh my, is how we got here ever a question:

Short synopsis (spoilers!): Oskar Schindler’s origin story from his childhood in Moravia (“that ancient empire” according to Keneally), where he was not like the other Germans but Austrian, and where he married. How he grew into his alcoholic horndog father but oh-so-romantically resented his father for treating his good, Catholic mother poorly. Oskar’s good, Catholic wife stays home and struggles while Oskar’s father buys him things. “Dear Oskar,” who is just too childish to understand monogamy (I wish I were making it up that Keneally describes Oskar as childish when it comes to relationships, but I’m not, and it happens over and over again), is useless until opportunity knocks with war. He turns into a shrewd yet charitable businessman who admires Jews — the right kind of Jews, not the “village Ashkenazim” — and regards close employee Itzhak Stern with the air of a “Talmudic scholar” (was not expecting to have to deal with so many bad characterizations of the Talmud, but here we are). Oskar does business with everything that moves; we’re not to think he’s antisemitic after dear Keneally depicts him saying antisemitic things, and eventually Oskar settles his operation in Plaszow Labor Camp with the infamous SS man-child Amon Goeth. While in Plaszow, Schindler starts employing his employees’ family and loved ones. They later transition to Moravia, and en route the men are waylaid in Gross-Rosen for a few days while the women are waylaid in Auschwitz for several weeks, if not months. A dramatic scene of Oskar negotiating for the release of his Jewish slaves ensues. He gets them back; some of the men and children wind up at Auschwitz and the women see them on their way out. At some point, Oskar sells out Goeth instead of being a witness for him, and I think the reader was meant to stand and cheer, but instead it plays as bone-chilling (without Goeth allowing Oskar to run his operation in Plaszow, this story would not have played out and more people would have been murdered). At liberation, Oskar gives a speech totally motivated by his moral character, not by fear of retaliation, about choosing not to retaliate as he goes to flee with his wife. They leave and are just so entertaining to everyone around them in disguise. The Jews from his factory encounter a few SS and are liberated. Oskar lives out his life being Oskar.

This is not a history book. Keneally writes about how he wanted to tell this story and he set out to do it in a way where it wasn’t just a history book, but in my mind, a history book with dramatic reenactments or scenes. It just doesn’t work, because on one hand, we have these scenes, but sometimes Keneally tells us not to believe them, such as one with Nazis sitting around, having an antisemitic conversation, but they saved some slave laborers (aka Jews) who they’d have to pay the government less than they’d have to pay German or non-Jewish employees, so don’t believe their antisemitism. If this were a memoir or a fictional memoir of some fictional character recounting the events and expounding upon them, this would have worked. If this were a history book without the weird scenes we’re shown and then told not to take at face value, it would have been much less exhausting to read. Best case scenario, if this were just a dude-bro’s fictional lionization of a Nazi, it would have been easier to digest. Instead, it fails as history and as a novel: we’re not given history and we’re given some novelesque scenes and told not to believe them. (If you’re interested in the actual history of Oskar Schindler and the list, I recommend David M. Crowe’s “Oskar Schindler: The Untold Account of His Life, Wartime Activities, and the True Story Behind the List”).

If you haven’t experienced gaslighting, and I hope you never do, the Keneally novel is an excellent simulation: Keneally constantly shows you Schindler is a terrible guy and then attempts to browbeat you into believing he’s a saint, it’s not his fault, somebody else is worse, or “dear Oskar” (who Keneally never met) is the real victim. Schindler’s womanizing despite being in a Roman Catholic marriage is excused with a “childlike” (ick) and “wild” inability to understand monogamy. Schindler’s own illegitimate children are never mentioned, but Goeth is a bad, absentee father, tsk tsk. Holocaust survivors telling how Schindler either beat them or sent someone else to when they took too much product in the ghetto were “sticking to [the story of] their bruises]” (the nerve of them to have been bruised by dear Oskar!). And in the most r/ThatHappened story of them all, Schindler all but won a motorbiking race (he was so great a rider, totally didn’t matter that he had the best equipment): the crowd was cheering for him and everyone was waving the same way! The guy behind him crossed the line after dear Oskar had stopped short, but Oskar didn’t know, so just give darling the win, dangit! (This last detail was refreshing to read in the Crowe history book).

Dear Oskar isn’t just a Mary Sue in the Keneally book. He’s a Mary Sue radioactive bomb. Everyone’s morality, virtue, ability, beauty (except for women, of course), intelligence, etc. is totally negated in the presence of Our Lord And Goy Savior, Oskar Schindler. If someone else dare has something Schindler doesn’t, they don’t anymore, such as the Holocaust survivors having been beaten by him or an accomplice: Schindler wasn’t a Holocaust survivor who had been in a survival situation who had been brutalized for taking too much product, so they had to be wrong for it. Another Holocaust survivor had played chess with the volatile Amon Goeth for hours a day, keeping him occupied and saving lives, but was brushed off by Keneally (G-D forbid we find the idea of a man taking hours to lose in chess to a monster compelling). The level of bitterness towards everyone else and overprotectiveness towards Schindler is something I never expected. I don’t know how this won an award.

Also unexpected and exhausting was the amount of bad Talmud references. Itzhak Stern was referred to as having the air of a Talmudic scholar, extremely wise. I don’t think Keneally knows many Talmudic scholars, and I feel sorry for any Jewish person who has to deal with him on a regular basis given the way he writes about Jews. The Talmud isn’t the magic book it’s been stereotyped to be by antisemites: it’s a generations-long, excruciatingly in-depth conversation between Jewish scholars (and the occasional spirit) on the minutiae of Jewish observance. For example, when does night become day? How do we know it’s night? When do we have to stand? How many words can we miss or flub up in prayer before having to go back to the beginning? Talmudic scholars are legal authorities on Jewish life and history. They have the air of the most awesome middle school teachers ever: you’d die inside if you thought you’d embarrassed yourself in front of them, but they’re here to help you through life. And it’s pure wholesomeness when they meet each other: they’re always so honored to be in each other’s presence. They’re not wizards who do hidden rituals or are privy to something the rest of us aren’t allowed to know. Knowledge locked up in a tower isn’t Judaism. It’s Europe under Christianity.

The Crowe book does a great job contextualizing this mess and tells by far the most interesting parts of the story, which I’d venture Keneally left out as they don’t make Schindler smell like a rose. Schindler worked for Abwer and helped provide information on the Czech railway system so the Nazis would have an easier time invading Czechoslovakia and stopping Czechs from fleeing to Slovakia. Schindler had also gotten caught as part of Abwer and had been in trouble numerous times for the equivalent of drunk and disorderly conduct (in the beer capitol of Europe; let that sink in) and sat in a jail cell until the Nazis demanded the release of German prisoners: Schindler never served out his sentence for helping dismantle a democracy, and likely feared being forced to do so at some point for the rest of his life. And lastly, Schindler was a member of one of the numerous antisemitic extremist Sudeten parties and did try to join the Nazi Party quite early on. The Nazi Party struggled to accept his application due to his criminal record and bad reputation. “Dear Oskar” was too gross for the Nazis to welcome him with open arms, not someone who “waited till the last minute” or “had to” join the Nazi Party.

So why is this book so successful (or even readable) if you don’t know what you’re looking at? Historian Tony Judt wrote “Never has Europe been so organized as after the Second World War,” and I think he was on to something. If there’s one thing the Keneally book does successfully, it’s organize people in boxes and label those boxes. Pre-Second World War Europe was messy, neater than pre-First World War Europe, but not nearly as streamlined as it would become after the Holocaust and concurrent atrocities. The Keneally book has Oskar as its protagonist, who the author/narrator tries desperately to convince the reader is uncomplicated, separate from everyone else, and uniquely good. Dear Oskar wasn’t one of those horrifically antisemitic Sudeten/Moravian Germans! He was an Austrian. Dear Oskar wasn’t like Austrian Amon Goeth! Amon Goeth was technically Austrian, but don’t get it twisted — Goeth was an absentee father.

This does not stop at Oskar Schindler. Keneally does it to the Jewish demographic Schindler saved versus those he did not. Schindler and his wife grew up knowing some Jews, but not the “village Ashkenazim” (note: that’s not how the Jewish population was separated in Moravia — there were Czech-speaking Jews and German-speaking Jews, but we were not physically segregated en masse from goyim in the Czech Lands in Austria-Hungary for centuries, unlike most other areas of Europe). I don’t think Keneally knew much about the Czech Lands, as he referred to Oskar Schindler’s Moravia, which was part of Austria-Hungary, as an “Ancient Empire.” While there was a Great Moravia, it was not a predecessor to Austria-Hungary, and Austria-Hungary was ever evolving, hardly ancient, and even so, the Czech Lands retained their own nobility, language, and culture throughout their approximately 1000 years under Austria’s boot. Nonetheless, Keneally applies what I can best describe as the German view of Jewry to sort Jews of the era: good/knowledgeable/modern Jews were assimilated, and bad/ignorant/less-virtuous Jews were “village Ashkenazim” who were visible in observance and culture. There is an anecdote where a synagogue is being liquidated and Jews praying inside are commanded to spit on a Torah scroll. The religious Jews, “more logical about it,” do so whereas the almost-never-observant one (ignorant of Judaism as this situation does not meet any condition for the very rare acceptability of martyrdom) valiantly refuses and everyone winds up dead anyway. Religious Jews are too religious, but when one who is non-religious takes a stand for his religion and winds up expediating the killing process, he’s propped up as virtuous. Likewise, secular Jews are frequently described as Talmudic-scholarly whereas religious Jews are just backwards in observance (despite that they were the ones who weren’t going to get themselves killed in the previous scenario). One is Schindler’s (and really the West in general’s) Good Jews, Jews who keep whatever semblance of Judaism they have tucked away but when they deign to defend it in overwhelmingly Christian ways, are worthy of applause, versus Bad Jews: Jews who are too Jewish for mainstream or “modern” society’s tastes, Jews who save ourselves and thank HASHEM, not the Herr Schindlers of the world, for it.

As in “The Devil In Pew Number Seven,” the material that is not part of the work-proper is always enlightening: Schindler’s wife was included on several acknowledgment lists, but she was not listed cited among those whose material Keneally used. In Keneally’s “Searching For Schindler,” Frau Schindler was allegedly unwell, but I have a feeling the woman dear Oskar neglected and embarrassed throughout most of his life, including abandoning her in South America, would not have given Keneally a shining portrait of dear Oskar.

Should you read this?

Yes

What you’re NOT getting:

  • A history book
  • A memoir
  • Historical fiction
  • Historical nonfiction
  • History
  • Anything accurate

Then why read it?

Because it’s so important to understand how this book has shaped the public’s relation to Jews and Judaism. It is also the basis for Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List,” which is how many goyim with no connection to the Jewish community relate to Jews.

Content warnings*:

Antisemitism, gaslighting, Holocaust, Second World War, intergenerational trauma, Nazism, forced labor, camps, genocide, violence, totalitarianism, etc.

*Note on my content warnings: I’ve listed some potential content warnings to help readers decide when they are ready to read a book. This does not mean the book is bad, vulgar, or gratuitous. It helps readers prepare themselves to read the book, especially those of us, including myself, who have trauma attached to certain topics.

Rifka bas Miryam, frum writer & erratic Sim erratically Simming when not erratically studying STEM nontraditionally | she/her

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