Book review: Schindler’s Ark

This is my penultimate book from the Semi-Charmed Winter Books Challenge I started in October! It’s the second half of the pair of books one by an author whose first name is the same as the last name of the author of the other book – the other half was Going Out by Scarlett Thomas.

A beautiful Folio Society copy of Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Kenneally

While I did always intend to read Schindler’s Ark eventually it has been sitting on my shelf since 2010, which is when I ordered it alongside four other beautiful editions from the Folio Society, each a Booker Prize winner and each of which I’ve managed to read before now. So why was I putting it off? I’m not sure that I was, at least not consciously. Subconsciously, I’m probably squeamish.

So I have no idea how to review a book like this. It’s a novel, but just barely. The people mentioned in it really existed and for the most part, their real names are used. The facts and figures are accurate. Poldek Pfefferberg, a Holocaust survivor who worked for Schindler, had been keeping files on his experiences and trying to persuade a novelist to write the book that would eventually become Schindler’s Ark, and he succeeded with Thomas Kenneally (later he would also succeed in persuading Steven Spielberg to make the Schindler’s List movie).

So it’s all based on eyewitness accounts from the Schindler factories and camps. Sure, some of the dialogue must have been guessed at, and when Keneally writes, for example, “Schindler was furious” after a given event, he doesn’t necessarily know that for sure although, given that this is Nazi-occupied Poland, it’s probably a fair summation.

It’s not melodramatic though, it gives the history of Schindler’s enamel works in Cracow and what he does to look after his employees there. Over the course of the war, these employees steadily have their rights stripped and become prisoners, their numbers grow and eventually Schindler moves his factory/camp to Zwittau to avoid having all the Jews that work for him lost to Auschwitz or Gross-Rosen. When the war eventually ends, Schindler is forced to flee, but by that time he’s saved the lives of more than 1200 Jews.

The book doesn’t attempt to make Schindler sound like a perfect person. He’s criticised as a womaniser and a drinker and for being reckless, but it also doesn’t play down his remarkable successes. How could it? There’s a tendency for the narrative to simply describe the events, note the statistics and occasionally speculate – although when speculation is going on it’s clear that this is happening.

What struck me was the denial in the early chapters. The characters telling each other that people were simply getting a little carried away and that they’d calm down soon. That an unreasonable policy would be allowed to slide after a few months. Even when the Jews were moved to the first ghettos, the reader was told that some welcomed it, because it would be a safe haven from the violence they risked on the streets and because everyone still thought it would be temporary, that things would blow over.

I’m glad I’ve read this. I should have read it sooner.

5 thoughts on “Book review: Schindler’s Ark

  1. I read this when it first came out in the (short-lived) days when I read every book on the Booker shortlist. Not many were as readable as this! However, it wasn’t until years after the film came out that I could force myself to watch that. The same squeamishness as you with the book I suppose. They are both harrowing but very worthwhile.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Reading every book on the shortlist has been a failed ambition of mine every year for about the last 10 years! Maybe one day…
      The film is still on the to-watch list, but now I’ve read the book I might leave it a while.

      Liked by 1 person

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