October 16, 2008

‘Schindler': The Tale’s in the Telling

By Don Oldenburg

When Australian author Thomas Keneally entered the handbag shop in Beverly Hills that sultry October morning in 1980, he was shopping for a new briefcase before flying back to Sydney. What he got, besides a briefcase, was one of the most extraordinary stories he'd ever come across.

The shopkeeper, Leopold "Poldek" Page, was a Holocaust survivor. And he wasn't going to let the writer leave his store without first hearing a largely unknown piece of history.

There was this German industrialist, a black-market operator named Oskar Schindler, Page told Keneally. A womanizer and unlikely humanitarian who "drank cognac like water," Schindler was a Nazi who tricked SS officials and devised heroic schemes to save nearly 1,200 Jews from the death camps during the Holocaust. Indeed, he saved Poldek's life.

For Keneally, that chance meeting began a remarkable odyssey of researching and writing the best-selling 1982 "non-fiction novel" Schindler's List (initially titled Schindler's Ark). It received the Booker Prize for fiction and later became the basis for Steven Spielberg's 1993 film, which won seven Academy Awards.

Now Keneally is telling the story behind the writing of the book and the making of the movie.

In this touching and often humorous memoir, he recounts months traveling to Germany, Israel, Austria, the USA and Poland with Poldek to interview Schindlerjuden -- the survivors rescued by Schindler. He describes walking the wintery streets in Krakow where Nazi murders took place, feeling suffocated during visits to Auschwitz and being consumed by this story that he was convinced could make the hard-to-grasp atrocities of the Holocaust into an understandable tale.

Keneally engages the reader with tales about himself as well. He writes about becoming a novelist, the creative anxieties that fueled the writing, his experiences with publishers and the toll writing the book took on him and his family.

Hollywood anecdotes about Spielberg and the film's stars, including Liam Neeson, Ben Kingsley and Ralph Fiennes, provide a fascinating insider view of how movies are made.

What's hard to fathom is that before Keneally walked into Poldek's shop nearly three decades ago, Schindler was hardly known. This is the story of how that changed forever.

Searching for Schindler

By Thomas Keneally

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

272 pp., $25 (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>