‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally

268302“Schindler gave me my life, and I tried to give him immortality.” So spoke Poldek Pfefferbeg, a surviving Schindlerjuden and the man responsible for introducing Thomas Keneally to the extraordinary story of Oskar Schindler.

As a result of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film, Schindler’s List, many are already familiar with how Schindler saved some 1200 Polish Jews from the Auschwitz and Gross Rosen extermination camps in southern Poland during World War II.

A Sudeten German and industrialist, originally a member of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, Schindler was a hard-drinking womaniser who exuded charm and influence. It was opportunism and profit rather than anything significantly humanitarian that initially motivated him. With the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he acquired Emalia, the enamelware factory in Krakow that was to save the lives of so many. Using contacts and bribes, he built up the factory to include the making of armaments – a financial windfall but also key to its protection as the war dragged on.

Initially disillusioned, progressively more and more angered and disgusted with the inhumanity of Nazi policies towards the Krakow Jews, Schindler established, at great personal expense, protective factory policies for his ‘highly skilled workforce.’ He witnessed the cleansing of the Krakow ghetto and treatment of men, women and children alike. Thousands were murdered whilst those with the all-important work card were transferred to the Krakow-Plaszow work camp under the control of the monster, SS-Hauptsturmführer Amon Göth (“When you saw Göth, you saw death.”).

Availability of land, diamonds and a great deal of luxury black market foodstuffs facilitated Schindler in the building of a camp for his inmates separate from Plaszow – with no SS guards allowed on the premises. At a time when starvation rations were doled out (Goth sold much of the camp supplies on the black market), Schindler purchased bread and chickens for his workforce.

He repeated the building of a camp at Brunnlitz, close to his birthplace of Zwittau, when, in July 1944 and with the threat of the Red Army, the Germans began to retreat west. Instead of incineration or the long death marches of the Final Solution, the Schindlerjuden found themselves in a second work camp in the Sudetenland foothills. The workforce survived, liberated by the Russians in 1945. As a member of the Nazi Party and Abwehr, Schindler risked execution but had already fled west.

Keneally’s novel, based on numerous eyewitness accounts, is a desperately moving testament to the horrors of Hitler’s attempted genocide of European and north African Jewry. The horrors of action are almost unimaginable – thousands of people killed daily, thousands others barely alive. But in telling Schindler’s story, Keneally focuses on the memories of the survivors and the fragility of that survival.

It’s a true story, a remarkable story of a remarkable man. Schindler wasn’t perfect – Schindler’s Ark is a reality of a man who was neither ”good” nor ”virtuous”. But he was humane, principled, charming and a chancer – for years he managed to make Göth believe they were friends, plying him with alcohol, cigars, foodstuffs to ensure the possible survival of a secretary or maid.

It’s a hard story to read. And not just emotionally of the mostly harrowing individual stories. In documenting the eye-witnesses accounts, there’s a great deal of detail which is important to the validity of the story but unfamiliar to German military titles, for example, can get very confusing (Oberführer, Oberstgrüppenführer, Hauptsturmführer, Standartenführer and more).

But, at its core, Schindler’s Ark, whilst diluted in impact 35 years after its writing, is an extraordinary achievement. It was awarded the 1982 Booker Prize.

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‘Powidoki’ (‘Afterimage’)

afterThe final film of one of the great European directors – Andrzej Wajda (Man of Iron, Danton) – focusing on one of the great and influential post-war European artists – Wladyslaw Strzeminski.

An individualist who rejected social realism, internationally renowned Strzeminski was undermined and ultimately destroyed by the Polish state system. Wajda quietly and economically tells his story, choosing to focus on the last few years of Strzeminski’s life in Lodz and his fall from professorship at the Art Academy to his work being destroyed by the authorities.

In its quietness there is power, in its nuanced understatement there is anger. And while Afterimage may suffer slightly from its staginess, the strong performance from lead Boguslaw Linda (Summer Love, Pan Tadeusz) helps the film tell its story cleanly and respectfully.

Screened in the Melbourne International Film Festival.

Rating: 64%

‘The Innocents’

innocents_eflyerA spate of pregnancies in a post-war Polish convent, the result of Russian liberation from the German army, leads to the questioning of faith by many of the nuns. The arrival of the French Red Cross in the form of Mathilde Beaulieu (Lou de Laage – Breathe, Jappeloup) brings matters to a head.

Based on a true story, this authentic, quietly dignified telling, shot in the limited palette of a Polish winter, focuses primarily on the evolving friendship between Mathilde and Sister Maria (Agate Buzek – Redemption, The Reverse).

But the film, directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Gemma Bovary), would have been the stronger without the ‘three months later’ ending.

Rating: 68%

‘Too Many Men’ by Lily Brett

41h8gacb38l-_sy346_Take every conceivable neurotic stereotype of a 40 year-old Jewish woman, multiply it by five and put it into one individual character. Meet Ruth Rothwax, a second-generation Holocaust survivor. She is obsessed in visiting Poland with her 81 year-old father, Edek, to discover, through his eyes, the country of his (and her deceased mother’s) birth and to try and understand the devastating loss of family and position in the Holocaust.

Ruth is a relatively successful New York businesswoman three times divorced (but one, according to Ruth, does not officially count as the first was a business transaction to enable the Australian obtain a green card to live in the US). Edek lives in Melbourne, the city he and his wife, Rooshka, settled following World War II.

The two meet in Warsaw for a journey through Polish Jewish history – the Warsaw Ghetto, the city of Lodz (her parents’ home city) and Krakow (for the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau from which her parents miraculously survived). It is the first time Edek has been in Poland since the war.

Too Many Men is the fictional story of this journey, a confronting journey for both protagonists as they deal, in their own personal way, with the history of events in the context of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Poland today. Edek is the more sanguine of the two – he is a survivor who will never forget but who knows he cannot change anything that happened. Ruth as a second-generation survivor has not witnessed but learned everything second hand through silences, questions that could never be asked or screams deep in the darkness of night. By confronting her parents past, Ruth can confront her own future.

It’s a long journey. Lily Brett is not an author who uses one word when twenty seems better. It’s also a soapbox from which she can educate and then berate the world. Not only is Ruth a stereotype, but so is every Pole, guilty of anti-Semitism before they have even spoken a word.

Painfully and in detail, events in the Ghettos of Warsaw, Lodz and Krakow are spelled out. Contemporary Poland and its attitudes are equally presented – Auschwitz Museum rather than Auschwitz-Birkenau Death Camp, the historic Kazimierz district of Krakow catering for Jewish cultural tourism yet devoid of Jews (even down to the ‘they look Ukrainian’ klezmer musicians playing in the Jewish cabaret). And the bizarre Holocaust denier in Krakow claiming the Jews had fled Poland with all their gold to Russia at the arrival of the Nazis.

Too Many Men is written as a stream of consciousness mixed with a political treatise. From the outset, Ruth is not a particularly likeable character who gets progressively more and more unpleasant. Even Edek challenges her rudeness and confrontational manner. That it is confronting for her, to experience this world so alien, to witness even today the level of anti-Semitism, is unquestionable. Her dealings with the grasping old couple that have lived for 60 years in a subdivided apartment of her grandparents old home, hoarding belongings of the dead Rothwaxes in the hope of a financial visit, is telling and devastating.

But Ruth ultimately becomes too much. Everyone is guilty (and in Too Many Men everyone is. There’s not one empathic Polish character – Ruth sees even Zofia as being on the make). Lily Brett’s novel becomes nothing more than an unpleasant, vitriolic attack on Poland and the Poles rather than a deeply personal, family-oriented perspective of the Holocaust. And the introduction of the spirit of SS-Obersturmbannfuhrer Rudolf Hoss, commandant of Auschwitz, in a post- execution limbo ultimately made little sense other than as another device to educate readers to the horrors of the Holocaust and the inhumane rationalisation of the Final Solution.

The author herself is a Jewish second-generation Holocaust survivor of Polish Jews from the city of Lodz. How much Too Many Men is autobiographical is unclear. Her interest in the legacy of the Holocaust, intergenerational trauma for survivors and the continuance of anti-Semitism is overt and prevalent. However, my personal preference is not to be educated by an overwrought Ruth Rothwax whose answer to emotional biliousness is copious amounts of Mylanta indigestion tablets and whose emotional stability can range from ups to ‘depression’ in minutes. Anger – yes. Disbelief – yes. But the constant use of ‘I was depressed’ is ultimately self-defeating.

Having undertaken a similar journey with a second generation Holocaust survivor (Krakow, Lublin for Majdanek death camp, Warsaw), I can certainly understand many of Lily Brett’s concerns and issues (and like her, welcomed the presence of groups of young Israelis at the camps). But agit-prop stereotypes is counterproductive.

Its premise is a good one (although interestingly, reading the précis on the back cover, it’s interesting that the word ‘Jew’ or ‘Jewish’ does not appear. I’m sure Ruth Rothwax would have something to say about that) but the final delivery is overlong and disappointing.

Too Many Men was shortlisted for the 2000 Miles Franklin award but lost out to the joint winners of Thea Astley’s Drylands and Benang by Kim Scott.