It was in early 2015 that I acquired this book in Folio edition. A pristine copy was available on eBay and I bought it just to expand my collection of Booker Prize-winning books. I knew it was non-fiction, so I suspected it might be too heavy for me – despite the movie being one of the greatest ever made. As a result, I had no immediate plan to read Keneally’s book.
Then in July I watched The Labyrinths of Silence, a real-life story about how a prosecutor goes after post-war Nazis to take them to trial. This somehow pinched my interest in Nazism and the Holocaust, and it was then that I finally was keen to read Schindler’s Ark.
My impressions about this book? It is perfect.
Oskar Schindler’s story is inexorably intertwined with the horrors the Jews were subjected to. So, while this book is about Schindler, it is also a very comprehensive account of what the Jews were made to go through. The book showed me just how much of this infamous part of history I ignored: I thought the Jews were sent to Auschwitz from the beginning, but the way they were treated changed over the years, going from bad to worse every time. I never knew, for instance, that it was the failure of the Madagascar plan that prompted the Nazis to use the Final Solution, which was the decision to exterminate all Jewish persons on German territory. Neither was I aware of the obsessive degree of organization of the Nazis. They had plans for every situation and the Schutzstaffel (major paramilitary organization under Hitler) counted an impressive number of departments that would cater to any problem.
Part of the reason why Schindler’s Ark is such a powerful and troubling read is the way it impacts on you. Unless you’re well versed about this part of history, you will definitely be shaken by what happened to the Jews. We like to believe we know what happened, but we don’t even have the slightest idea. If I list everything here, it will somehow mollify the impact and be unfair to future readers. That being said, some of the most memorable scenes for me were:
- what the Jewish jewelers were made to extract
- every scene with Amon Goethe, the butcher of Plaszow
- the excavation of corpses in the forest in Plaszow
- the first realization of the Jews that extermination camps were a reality
Of course, Schindler’s deeds are just as unforgettable. The book in some ways acts also as a biography of the man. We had to know about his early life in order to gauge the weight of his sacrifice. I very much like how Thomas Keneally painted an accurate, measured, image of the magnate. We could feel the warmth of the man – told by the Jews to Keneally as he was writing the book – yet we could also see that he was no saint at all.
Finally, Keneally’s writing in my opinion is what made this book worthy of the Booker. He doesn’t spoon-feed the readers with information: he assumes we already know about the SS, Hitler’s most important officers, the War, etc. However he takes his time to paint a vivid picture of what happened to the Jews – how the people went from horrors to greater horrors. I vaguely knew about the Holocaust, but reading this book opened my eyes on the Jews’ suffering. Keneally also lets us know when he is being purely speculative and when he is not. To be honest, it was very interesting to see how the mind of a biographer speculates when he is devoid of any concrete material.
I’ve written quite a bit here, but that’s understandable, for Schindler’s Ark is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is unforgettable. It is a solid and very accurate non-fiction book, yet it also has that humane touch that will rock any soul. A must-read.