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Although officially classed as fiction, this book tells the very true story of Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist, who during World War 2, saved the lives of some 1200 (officially, although the actual number may well be far higher) by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.  It is the basis of the 1993 film, Schindler’s List; having seen the film years ago, when I thought it was wonderful, I would like to see it again, as I believe that reading the book would make me appreciate it even more.

I honestly don’t think that any review I could write would do this book justice, but nonetheless, I’ll give it a go!  The book tells an incredible story of bravado, resilience and determination, under the most horrific circumstances.  Keneally is almost at pains to point out that Schindler was far from perfect.  He was a womaniser who seemed incapable of being faithful to his wife, he drank too much, and he was not above mixing with people who he didn’t like, simply because he could get something he wanted from them.  This latter skill of course came into play to magnificent effect during his mission to save lives, which actually makes it an asset.  And in fact, this just makes what he did, all the more heroic.  It would have been easy for such a man – who counted SS members amongst his ‘friends’ – to use the war to his own advantage, and to profit from cheap labour, but the fact that he chose to save lives, even when it meant endangerment to his own, and when it certainly would have been easier for him to ignore what was happening, just makes the story even more magnificent.  When someone is portrayed as a superhero, we expect them to do good things – that’s what their role is.  But Schindler was not an obvious candidate for heroism.  A hero is most certainly what he is though.

Initially, Schindler just wanted to make money, but as the war proceeded, he saw for himself the horrors being committed against Jews, Poles and Gypsies.  (The famous scene in the film where he sees a little girl dressed in red was actually based on a real event.)  Although the people he employed were officially prisoners, he was kind to them, and the arbitrary beatings and executions which occurred in other labour camps had no place at Schindler’s premises.  He also paid over the odds to ensure that his workers had adequate food and premises, even insisting that his workers were able to sleep on his site, rather than living in another camp and being marched to his premises by SS soldiers.  Although he was supposed to only employ people with the necessary skills for the work, he also took on people who had no such skills, because he knew that otherwise, they would be killed.

Towards the end of the story, when we come to the famous list of people who he moved to Brinnlitz, another supposed labour camp, he actually gives up all pretence at being in the business for money, deliberately turning out substandard artillery shells.  His brazenness was in fact almost his undoing.

The book gives details of individual cases and names specific people who Schindler helped, and pulls no punches in describing the sort of favours he did to ensure that he got what he wanted.  There is a LOT of information given, and admittedly I sometimes had to check back to remind myself who someone was.  However, all the information is essential to get the full picture.  Despite being written as a novel, I was concerned that the writing might be a little dry (it is after all a true story, and I sometimes find that non-fiction can be less readable than fiction).  In actual fact however, it was quite easy to read, and I found myself getting through huge chunks at a time.

If this review has not tempted you to read the book, that’s my fault.  Not only would I recommend this book, I would urge everyone to read it.  It moved me to tears on several occasions, and at other times I had to put it down simply to digest the horror of what I had read.  But it was totally, absolutely worth it.  Simply wonderful.

(For more information about this period of history, or to learn more about Oskar Schindler, please click here.)

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