Australian authorsBook ReviewsNon fiction

Searching for Schindler by Thomas Keneally

Searching for SchindlerBut for serendipity, the world may never have heard the remarkable true-life story of Oskar Schindler, the man who saved the lives of more than 1,000 Jewish people during World War 2.

It would never have become a novel that went on to win the Booker Prize for Thomas Keneally in 1982.

It would never have become an Oscar-winning film directed by Steven Spielberg in 1993.

The fates however determined that one evening in 1980, the Australian author Thomas Keneally would walk into the leather goods shop in Beverley Hills in search of a replacement briefcase. Discovering that his customer was an author, the elderly, very talkative and inquisitive Polish proprietor pitched him a story he said the world needed to hear.

In Searching for Oskar, Keneally looks back at the unusual genesis for his award-winning novel and his many subsequent meetings with Leopold Poldek. Poldek owed his life and that of his wife to Schindler. In gratitude he wanted the world to know how Schindler had risked his own life to protect many Jews from concentration camps and certain death.

In essence this is a memoir of how Schindler’s Ark came to be written, the battle with the publishers over their preferred title for the American edition (it came out as Schindler’s List in America only), Keneally’s struggle to write the screen play (Spielberg eventually gave the job to someone else) and the long gap before the film version got into production.

For much of the early section of the book he traces the steps he and Leopold took together to track down some of those survivors and capture their stories. There were times when this threatened to become a dull list of names and places but fortunately Poldek is such a remarkable individual that whenever he is present, the book comes alive. Keneally is more than once mortified by the behaviour of his travelling companion but is also charmed by him. On one trip to Warsaw (still part of a Soviet state) Keneally is terrified that Poldek’s insistence he change his currency on the black market will land him behind bars. Another time he waits in acute embarrassment when Poldek remonstrates with a hotel clerk that had the temerity to charge them for photocopying (the bill seemed to be less than $5).

The Independent newspaper in the UK was less than flattering about Searching for Oskar, implying that it was written because Keneally wanted to cash in on the success of Schindler’s Ark. The reviewer calls it ‘tedious’, ‘banal’, ‘cliched’ and ‘clumsy’, a book in fact that should never have been published.

I think that’s too harsh a critique. Searching for Oskar does have its faults – for example, Keneally dwells far too much on some famine relief trips he made to Ethiopia while waiting for Speilberg to begin filming, These sections felt as if he was just padding out of the book. But I did find some other insights interesting – like the issue of whether in writing Schindler’s Ark he was producing a work of fiction or a biography – and some of the insights into Schindler’s character that were not captured in the novel or film. I finished reading Keneally’s memoir with a huge admiration for the determination shown by Poldek in ensuring the story came to public attention and Schindler got the credit he deserved.



What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

16 thoughts on “Searching for Schindler by Thomas Keneally

  • Judy Krueger

    It sounds like an interesting story indeed. I never knew the original book was called Schindler’s Ark in Britain. I think that is the better title.

  • I don’t know, I’ve never been excited by books that tell the stories of how something came to be. It seems to me that many of those books could have been articles, sometime long, like what gets published in The New Yorker, for example. In the end, were you glad you read this book?

    • Interesting question… On the whole I’m glad I learned more about the book’s origin. Would I have been satisfied if it had been an extended article? Now I think about it, yes I probably would have – it would have covered the salient points but wouldn’t have had the padding.

  • I think I may have borrowed this from the library once, long ago, but not persisted with it, or only scanned parts of it because I haven’t listed it in my journal which I’ve kept since 1997.
    I think, with the rise of Holocaust deniers, it probably has a value now that it didn’t have when it was written…

    • He talks a little about the deniers and extends that to talk about a similar reaction he had to a book he was writing about (I think) Irish history.

      • That would be The Great Shame? I have it on the TBR but its 700+ pages is a bit daunting…

        • Thats the one. I knew I had made a note of the title so,where but couldn’t find it yesterday. Given my Irish ancestry I was interested when I heard him mention it. But now I’m not so sure. He’s not a historian so how authoritative an account will this be? I. might try and get a copy and dip into it but I can’t see me reading 700 pages…..

        • Keneally is renowned for doing comprehensive research and turning it into something readable. He’s written two massive histories of Australia, which are quite well-regarded I think. I should try and read it myself, because I have Irish ancestry too…

    • The fact there was a need for people like Schindler is chilling but more so is the fact that despite his courage, there were millions more that he could not even begin to save

      • So sad and true. I just hope one day, our world really does finally learn from history.

        • Would that it were possible but every day I hear of some stupidity which shows we really haven’t learned much…..

  • The book sounds interesting, and I do love learning more about that era. Thanks for sharing.

    • It doesn’t really talk much about Schindler other than how he was treated after the war was over. He lost all his money of course but the Jewish community came to his aid

  • Faults or not, I can see this would be a fascinating book. I loved Schindler’s Ark.

    • I didnt know anything about Schindler until I read Keneally’s book and I was just swept away by the story. Now if I read it again I wonder whether I would react to it in a different way – would I evaluate it as a piece of writing for example


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