Dec 19, 2008

Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally

Schindler’s Ark, the book that was adapted into the film Schindler’s List, is a detailed account of how German industrialist Oskar Schindler saved the lives of over a thousand Jewish people by claiming they were skilled workers and employing them in his factory.

Thanks to the film, Schindler’s amazing story is now well-known, but this was not the case when Keneally published this book in 1983. I have to start by saying that I have no idea how I’d classify Schindler’s Ark. In a Author’s note at the start of the book, Keneally says:
To use the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story is a course which has been frequently followed in modern writing. (…) I have attempted to avoid all fiction, though, since fiction would debase the record, and to distinguish between reality and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature.
It seems, then, that we could perhaps call this a non-fiction novel. I read somewhere that there was some controversy over this winning the Booker, since that’s a prize for fiction and it’s very debatable at best if that’s the case here at all. And you know, normally I’m not someone who’s in the least concerned with labels, but in this case I felt that not quite knowing if what I had here was a novel influenced by response to the book to some extent.

Schindler’s Ark doesn’t quite read like a novel. The book is very detailed and somewhat fragmented. It’s written in a dispassionate style which I thought suited the story perfectly. The facts, after all, speak for themselves. I have to confess that at first I even found the writing a little dry, but as the book progressed that ceased to be a problem, and for the worst of reasons: what was being described was too horrific for dryness to be an issue.

Thomas Keneally doesn’t attempt to simplify Schindler’s story. He was an ambiguous figure, and he’s portrayed as one. I was particularly interested in the fact that this is a story from the perspective of someone who was working inside the system. Most Holocaust stories, for obvious reasons, are told from the perspective of the victims. Oskar Schindler was a member of the Nazi party, and it was the fact that he didn’t turn against it openly that allowed him to save so many lives.

Another interesting thing is how the book looks at circumstances. What was it that allowed Oskar to become what he became? And why did others, from similar backgrounds, ended as devoted members of the SS? I think that madness or badness are too simple as ways of explaining something this big, something that involved so many people. Keneally makes a few suppositions about how the people who committed acts of unspeakable cruelty justified them to themselves, and I found that quite interesting.

Schindler’s Ark is an incredibly moving story, but also a horrifying one. I’ve read quite a few books about the Holocaust, but no matter how much I read there’s something that never ceases to surprise me (and that’s probably a good thing): how the death of a human being became so unimportant, so ordinary, so much a matter of routine.

And because you must be wondering, I will try to answer the question "how does this compare to the movie?" I'm actually not sure which one I prefer. The movie works better as a narrative, I'd say. The book is more fragmented, but it seems to be a much more faithful historical account. So I guess the easiest answer is that I appreciate each for what they are.

Memorable passages:
The resistance claimed that ten thousand murders on a given day were within the capacity of Auschwitz Two. Then, for the Łódź area, there was the camp at Chelmo, also equipped according to the new technology. To write these things now is to state the commonplace of history. But to find them out in 1942, to have them break upon you from a June sky, was to suffer a fundamental shock, a derangement in that area of the brain in which stable ideas about humankind and its possibilities are kept.

It was clear as she went upstairs to get Danka that when murder is as scheduled, habitual, industrial as it was here in Crakow you would scarcely, with tentative heroism, redirect the overriding energy of the system. The more orthodox of the ghetto had a slong – “An hour of life is still life.”

The immense complex at Auschwitz, in its safe ground in Upper Silesia, would complete the great task in the East, and, once that was concluded, the crematoria would be ploughed under the earth. For without the evidence of the crematoria, the dead could offer no witness, were a whisper behind the wind, an inconsequential dust on the aspen leaves.
Reviewed at:
Leafing Through Life
books i done read

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32 comments:

  1. Interesting. I didn't know Schindler's List was based on a book. I have a hard time reading books about the holocaust because they shake me up so much. I'm not sure I could handle this one.

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  2. I plan on reading this very soon. It looks so good!

    Lezlie

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  3. That looks like pretty heavy reading for this time of year.

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  4. Amanda, I totally understand.

    Lezlie, I really look forward to comparing notes with you!

    Bermudaonion: Definitely, and if it hadn't been for a quickly approaching challenge deadline I wouldn't have picked it up now. But then again, stories like this help us appreciate what we have.

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  5. I was thinking about reading this one. In fact, I went to considerable effort last night to find it among my stacks in the closet. Maybe in January? Who knows!

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  6. Thanks for bringing this title to my attention Nymeth, I was not aware of it. Is the book Schindler's List different from Schindler's Ark? I have watched the film countless times and I never fail to be absolutely horrified at what these poor people went through. You said it best here:

    'I’ve read quite a few books about the Holocaust, but no matter how much I read there’s something that never ceases to surprise me (and that’s probably a good thing): how the death of a human being became so unimportant, so ordinary, so much a matter of routine."

    I can not imagine how people were able to treat other human beings like that and like you I never want to. There has to be something intrinsically wrong with someone to be able to do that. I cry each and every time I watch the film. I pray that nothing like this ever happens again.

    Sorry to take up so much space. Obviously a subject that stirs up much emotion. If this novel is different from Schindler's List then I definitely would like to read it.

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  7. I remember telling myself after seeing the movie that I should read the book. I never did. Thanks for bringing it to my attention again.

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  8. I have owned this book forever and still not read it! I am such a slacker!

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  9. As always, thanks for the insightful review. I don't think this will go on my TBR list though. I read lots of WWII and Holocaust books but for me, one time hearing a story is enough - I don't want to revisit it again. Since I've seen the movie, I think I've had all I can take of this particular story. I can only stand to be horrified by the particular details one time.

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  10. Becky, I hope you get to it. I'd love to read your thoughts on it.

    Dar: Sorry about the confusion concerning the title! It's the same book as Schindler's List, yes. The book was originally published as Schindler's Ark in the UK and Schindler's List in the US. Then after the movie, the UK edition was changed to Schindler's List as well. Then apparently it was changed back, because I bought this last year...it's a new edition and it's called Schindler's Ark. And you have absolutely nothing to apologize for! Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Care: It took me years too, but I'm glad to have read it now.

    Kailana: You're not...we all have books we've owned for years but haven't read :P

    Heather: Like I was telling Amanda, I really understand. Somehow I never have that problem mysef, though. I promise I'm not a sadist, and the book did make me very sad. I know I can be insensitive, though, and I wonder if it has to do with that.

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  11. I didn't know that Schlinder's List was based off of this book. Thanks for bringing that to my attention because I would like to see how the book and movie compare side-by-side. I definitely agree with you on many things you said about the Holocaust, especially "how the death of a human being became so unimportant, so ordinary, so much a matter of routine." Well-said. I am also with you on how interesting it was to witness the Holocaust through the eyes of a Nazi member. Once again, I commend you on another strong though-provoking review. :]

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  12. I have a copy of this on my shelf as well; I tried to read it once and it just felt too dry, but I do mean to make another attempt. Mine has the same title as the film, too: Schindler's List.

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  13. This is a great review of a book I'm so afraid to read. While I don't shy away from serious reads, after I've seen Schindler's List I knew that the book would be far more difficult to go through.

    I agree with you on the same part that Dar quoted earlier on. And the part quoted from the book "An hour of life is still life." just breaks my heart.

    I read your review with scenes from the film flitting through my mind. Maybe one day I'll get the courage to pick this up and read to honor and remember the lives lost in the war.

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  14. I've read a few on this topic and one of them is by Elie Wiesel. I don't think I could stomach another Holocaust story, but your review is compelling.

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  15. Orchidus: The movie has more of a plot, which is understandable because otherwise it wouldn't work as well as a movie. It dramatizes events more, but the basic facts are the same.

    Jeane: It gets better after the first 100 pages or so. Well, "better" is probably not the word. It definitely stops being dry, though.

    Lightheaded: That part broke my heart too...especially considering what comes before it.

    Alice: I read Night earlier this year, and wow, it's a powerful book.

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  16. Thank you Nymeth. I think it is so important that people still share experiences in books like this. Unfortunately we as a people have not learned from our mistakes and such atrocities are still occurring all over the world, not least in Sudan, the DR Congo and Myanmar. Sometimes I wonder what it will take for the world to truly intervene again. But its stories like that of Oskar Schindler that inspire hope that one person can make a difference in the face of adversity. I have only seen the film once, but remember it so vividly, like it were yesterday.

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  17. Thanks Nymeth, I didn't know that the film was based on a book... I'll definitely get this - I'm oddly attracted to books about World War II and am compelled to read the better literature on the subject, even though I usually cry my way through it and have nightmares for months. I know I watched the film but I must have blocked most of it out...

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  18. This does sound like an emotional read. I do remember seeing the film Schindler’s List.

    I wouldnt be able to read this, I think it would be too upsetting due to the nature of the book.

    great review as always.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  19. Mariel: It's definitely important that these stories are remembered, though that doesn't make them any easier to read, of course. And you're right, it's not a thing of the past. So much of it is going on right now.

    Joanna: Earlier this year I did the themed reading challenge on WW2, so I read quite a few of them. This is definitely one of the most detailed accounts.

    Naida: It was upsetting, yes. Like I was saying before, I can have nerves of steel in some situations (though not at all in others). It's not that I don't care, but I manage to separate my emotional and my intellectual reactions somehow.

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  20. I tried to read this last year, but couldn't make it after the first few pages. Maybe I'll try again :)

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  21. Wow I actually haven't seen the movie (although I have heard of it), but this book sounds really good. I don't have a large appetite for Holocaust reads since they tend to be so horrifying, but it sounds like this one is definitely worthwhile!

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  22. Great review, Nymeth. The movie, Schindler's List, really touched me, although I admit I hadn't considered reading the book it was based on. It sounds like it might be worth doing so.

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  23. Fantastic review, Nymeth. I've got a copy of Schindler's List, but I keep putting it off (I guess they changed the name of the book when the movie came out?). My eldest son tried to read it and found it too depressing, but I expected that. He's a sensitive guy.

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  24. Thanks for the great review, Nymeth! Frankly speaking, I don't know if I want to read this book, especially one which is written in details. Can you believe that I haven't even watched Schindler's List yet?!

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  25. Alessandra: I found the first few chapters hard to follow because of all the names and details...but it got much easier after that.

    Kim: They are horrifying, and this is no exception, of course. But I did think it was worthwhile.

    Literary Feline: I cried like a baby when I first saw the movie...it was ages ago, but I still remember it so clearly. The book is very touching as well, though in a more...contained sort of way.

    Bookfool, thank you. What I read was that the title was always Schindler's List in the US and Schindler's Ark in the UK. It really is a depressing book, but also not one without hope.

    Melody: I really understand. In a way I think the movie impressed me even more than the book, because it's always harder to actually see things like that.

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  26. Great review! I might read this for our WWII challenge next year.

    Would it be okay for me to post a link of this review on War Through the Generations: Reading Challenges?

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  27. Anna: Yes, feel free to link to it! I look forward to comparing notes with you if you do read it.

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  28. I've had this in my stacks for ages, but the movie was so moving I just haven't felt in the right frame of mind to read it. I'm interested to hear your thoughts on the difference and how the book is a more faithful historical account. I will have to finally read it one of these days.

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  29. I had no idea that *Schindler's List* was based on a book; and I would have been looking for a book with the same title (not *Schindler's Ark*).

    Thanks for sharing your review (and another book gets added to the wish list!)

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  30. Thanks, Nymeth! I posted the link here:

    http://warthroughthegenerations.wordpress.com/book-reviews-wwii

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  31. Beautiful review, Nymeth. I guess kind of like Lolita I'm both apprehensive and curious about this book. I saw the movie years ago--long enough that I couldn't compare them if I read the book, but I remember being absolutely horrified. Reading and watching films about the Holocaust makes me so infuriated, but on the other hand I feel that it is incredibly important to know...and remember that this happened not too long ago. I think I need to work up a little courage before tackling this one.

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  32. Terrible book... too dry to read it. Can't read even two pages. I have read a few books written by holocaust survivors themselves. Wish a good author had taken up this material.

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