Thomas Keneally on how he wrote Schindler's Ark: 'I knew where the good stuff was'
In writing Schindler’s Ark, winner of the 1982 Booker Prize, Thomas Keneally found himself in the unique position of both author and archivist
Thomas Keneally’s remarkable, Booker-winning historical fiction about the unlikely hero who rescued thousands of Jews from the Nazi death machine.
In the shadow of Auschwitz, a flamboyant German industrialist continually defies the SS and becomes a living legend to the Jews of Krakow. This is the story of Oskar Schindler, a womaniser and drinker who was transformed by the war into a man with a mission, risking his life to protect beleaguered Jews in Nazi-occupied Poland. The book was published as Schindler’s List in the US and subsequently turned into a hugely successful film, which won seven Oscars, including Best Picture.
I actually don’t think it is my best book, although I think it is a good book. But it was always a story worth telling
It took more than a decade and multiple writers, including Keneally himself, to bring the book to the screen, and initially, Spielberg was reluctant to take on the project. At one point, Spielberg handed the project to Martin Scorsese to direct, but even when he took back the reins, there was still uncertainty from many.
‘Survivors would come up to me in Poland and say, “What a strange choice,”’ Spielberg told Entertainment Weekly in a 1994 interview, ‘and I’d have a sinking feeling in my heart, (worrying that) the world wouldn’t accept Schindler’s List from me.’
In the end, the film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won seven, including best picture and the best director Oscar for Spielberg.
Without the film, Spielberg said in an interview with NBC News, the foundation would not have existed.
‘The Shoah Foundation does its best to counter hate through basically reaching out and trying to teach people about empathy and respect and understanding through testimony,’ he continued.
His 1982 win did raise some questions about whether the book was fiction or not, but, said Keneally, he was ‘delighted that I don’t have to answer that question’.
‘The judges are going to have to answer it tomorrow,’ he continued. I’m astounded that they had the courage to put themselves in such a position; I wish them well with the task.’
Keneally made a point to thank Poldek Pfefferberg, also known as Leopold Page, the Polish-American Holocaust survivor who told Keneally the story of Oskar Schindler and inspired him to write the novel.
‘Although I think that in all good conscience I think the book is a literary work and a novel, it is necessary to thank the people, the characters who are actually alive,’ said Keneally. ‘One of the characters is a luggage merchant from Los Angeles - Poldek Pfefferberg or Leopold Page - not only could I recommend his merchandise but he was the man who gave me the story.
‘And I’m the extraordinary position akin to that of a Hollywood producer when he humbly accepts his Oscar and thanks so many people. Normally a writer doesn’t have to thank so many people, but most of my characters are still alive and I’d also like to remember the extraordinary character whom Oskar was.’
This book has behind it a powerful organising and speculative mind, exercising great tact and restraint in the presentation of its terrible story— Professor John Carey, chair of the Booker Prize judges 1982