Australian Writer Tells Story Behind the Story

AUSTRALIAN novelist Thomas Keneally walked into a luggage store in Beverly Hills, Calif., about 13 years ago, and left with more than just a new briefcase.

During his 45 minutes in the store, the owner told him the story of Nazi industrialist Oskar Schindler, who saved nearly 1,200 Jews in his factory during World War II. The store owner, Poldek Pfefferberg, and his wife, Mila, were two of them.

That story became his book, ``Schindler's Ark'' (published in the United States as ``Schindler's List''), which includes 50 interviews and won the Booker Prize in 1982. Steven Spielberg has just released a film of the book (see accompanying review, left).

Mr. Keneally, one of Australia's most renowned writers, is a gregarious, white-bearded man who has a talent for attracting people with interesting stories and transforming them into readable novels.

He recently returned from a screening of Spielberg's ``Schindler's List'' for the Clintons in Washington. It reunited several surviving prisoners, as well as Schindler's wife and his former girlfriend, who are friends.

Now back in the northern Sydney beach town where he lives, Mr. Keneally talks about the process of writing the book about the man he refers to as a ``scoundrel savior.''

How did the story come about?

Poldek [Pfefferberg, the store owner] found out I was a writer because it took so long for my credit-card charges to clear. Poldek was one of Oskar's prisoners, and he told me he had an extraordinary story. [In the film, he plays the young black-marketeer in the church.] He showed me boxes of Schindleriana [memorabilia] he had in the back of the store. I read the material and knew it was an astounding tale.

What I liked about it from the start, and what Spielberg makes very good filmic use of, is that it approached the Holocaust from the point of view of industry, of free labor, of machinery, of confiscated factories [though Oskar insisted that he bought the factory and didn't confiscate it]. When you put the industrial contour up against what we know of the Holocaust, it's a new way of looking at the whole equation.

How did you do the research?

Poldek knew all the prisoners because he'd written all of them asking for help looking after Oskar after the war. He'd written as far away as Australia and Argentina. I went off on a research journey and interviewed people in California, New York, Long Island, Munich, Frankfurt, Warsaw, Krakow, and Vienna, as well as Australia.

In Israel, it was Itzhak Stern [Schindler's bookkeeper] and Moshe Bejski [Schindler's forger], now an Israeli Supreme Court judge. Bejski had the rubber stamps he'd made to create false documents and a huge collection of Schindleriana. Yad Veshem [the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem] also had hundreds of testimonies about Schindler.

When I got back, I covered a pool table in my office with papers. I marked every three months with a different color marker. So when I got to March 1942, I would simply go through all these documents and find the bits that were marked in that color, and I would combine them into a narrative.

How was crafting this book different from the other 23 you've written?

It was different in this respect: When you're a novelist you don't really worry about what the facts are - you're a professional liar. But this was very much a documentary novel; even the dialogue had to be validated. You'd have to have a basis for everything that was in the book because a number of [former] prisoners were going to be reading it. The prisoners were worried about two sets of people; that some Jews wouldn't believe it and that the developing school of Holocaust deniers would use inaccuracies as a basis for denying it.

How have the prisoners done since the war?

The people who disturbed me the most were the ones who'd been children, because they were the ones who obviously had been the most tormented on the subject. They were the most fragile.

Amon Goeth [the camp commandant] has a special place in the nightmares of all of them.

Many had done very well in business. Three started a construction company in New Jersey that did well. Poldek Pfefferberg has done pretty well in business. Others had disrupted careers, like Mila Pfefferberg, who had been a medical student and in normal life would have gone on into the medical profession.

Life had not defeated them. Helen Hirsch [the tormented maid in Amon Goeth's house, whom Schindler rescues] married and now lives in Tel Aviv.

Oskar Schindler's life did not turn out so well. He lost his focus, lived off the former prisoners, moved around, drank too much, and died young. What happened?

He had his glorious season but that was one of the great problems. It was almost that the grace went out of him. He had it, and then it went out of him. One of the reasons he wasn't up to post-war [Germany] was that it was a bit too regular. The new Germany didn't run on the black market.

You speak of him as having a ``strange virtue.'' How would you explain this?

It's not the virtue of a saint that says, ``I am abhorred by what is happening, and if necessary I will perish with these people.'' He wasn't that sort of saint. He wasn't interested in perishing at all. In all race wars there are such people who don't go for the majority message, and they're often unexpected people.

One of the things that may have operated with Oskar was that he was a man from the limits of the German empire, Czechoslovakia. So he was a bit of a wild colonial boy, looking towards the center ... and was shocked that the metropolitan Germans could be responsible for such barbarity.

What did you think of Spielberg's film?

The little director that's in all of our brains would have done one or two things differently, but mainly they're in terms of incidents. I think it's a remarkable piece of cinematic work.

I asked one of the prisoners, Sol Urbach: ``What did you think of the end of the film? Do you think Oskar was too idealized? And this was to a kid who'd had his quarrel with Oskar. He said, ``No, you can't overstate what Oskar did. He brought it off. It happened. That's why we're here.''

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