Schindler’s List Summary

Thomas Keneally

Schindler’s List

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Schindler’s List Summary

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Widely known by the American title it shares with the subsequent film adaptation by Steven Spielberg, Schindler’s List was originally published in Australia in 1982 under the title Schindler’s Ark. Thomas Keneally’s work of historical fiction is the story of Nazi Party member Oskar Schindler, who becomes an heroic figure by saving some twelve hundred Jews from German and Polish concentration camps. Firmly historically based on actual people and places, Keneally’s novel realistically contrives dialogue and events to form a cohesive narrative that fills in the details that are not known. Keneally was inspired to write the book by a Holocaust survivor named Poldek Pfefferberg. In addition to interviewing Pfefferberg, Keneally did extensive research, including meeting with many people who knew Schindler personally.

Schindler is a Czech factory owner who at the start of the book, in 1943, is on his way to a dinner engagement with Amon Goeth, the Nazi leader of the Paszow concentration camp in Kracow, Poland. As Schindler drives he sees the broken headstones of Jewish graves. When he arrives at Goeth’s villa he sees Jewish musicians, along with police and prostitutes. Helen Hirsch is Goeth’s maid;he has beaten her. She implores Schindler to locate and save her younger sister. The scene changes to 1908,to Schindler’s birth in Austria,in a small German-speaking town. He studies engineering with the intent of taking over his father’s company, which makes farming equipment. He marries, but is not faithful to, Emilie.

Schindler moves to Kracow in 1939 and becomes acquainted with Itzhak Stern, a Jewish accountant with contacts valuable to Schindler. As the final months of the year approach, Jews must register with the Nazis and the atrocities of the Holocaust begin in earnest. Schindler purchases a factory at Stern’s urging and hires many Jews as slave labor. By the end of the year, Schindler is keeping company with Nazi officers, often bribing them for their support and protection. Before long, in 1940, the Jews of Kracow are forced into a ghetto and harassed more and more. Although public statements and signs threaten anyone who helps the Jews, Schindler tells his workers that they will be safe with him. When Schindler is arrested, supposedly due to a discrepancy in his financial records, the Nazis he bribed have him freed. He is arrested again at a party thrown for him by his workers, but again the Nazis he has arrangements with see to his release.

When Abraham Bankier, Schindler’s office manager, goes missing, Schindler is able to save him from the cattle cars that are heading to the death camps. He witnesses the brutality taking place in the ghetto and sees a young girl watching the Nazis shoot and beat people to death. This is the turning point at which Schindler realizes the totality of the Nazis’ planned actions toward the Jews. He goes to Hungary and informs the Jewish leaders there about what is really taking place in the concentration camps. In Paszow, Goeth becomes the head of the labor camp. In one night alone, more than four thousand Jews are killed for trying to hide and escape being taken. Schindler makes a deal to take eleven hundred Jews from Paszow to use as laborers at his factory. There they receive better treatment and those who are taken from the camp to Schindler’s factory, Emalia, become known as Schindler’s Jews.

When it becomes evident in 1944 that the Germans are beginning to lose the war, all of the Jews who were killed at Paszow are exhumed and their bodies incinerated. In all, more that eighty thousand died at Paszow. Aware that their own safety is at stake, “Schindler’s Jews” grow increasingly nervous working at Emalia. With the Russians approaching, Schindler decides to move his workers to a safer place. In Brunnlitz, Czechoslovakia, he has them produce shell casings for the military, although no usable products are actually made. What becomes known as Schindler’s list is born when he convinces Goeth to sell him the workers he has been using at Emalia. The “list” saves the lives of eleven hundred Jews, about three hundred of whom were women. The men on the list arrive at Brunnlitz, but the women (among whom are Helen Hirsch and her sister) are sent to Auschwitz in error. Schindler is able to pay officials for their release, making this the only time a train left a death camp during the Holocaust carrying live passengers.

For the duration of the war, Schindler continues to bribe those in charge to keep “Schindler’s Jews” alive. When the war ends he encourages the German guards from his factory to return to their families with no further aggression and gives whatever supplies remain to his workers. Schindler finds little professional success after the war and relies at times on support from those he previously employed. He spends his final years in Germany and Israel and dies at sixty-six in 1974.