This is the original book on which Steven Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List, was based. Keneally is both a historian and a novelist, and this book combines both approaches with enormous skill. It’s really a documentary novel, since Keneally based the story on years of research and interviews. It tells the unlikely tale of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist. At the beginning of World War Two he was a fully paid up Nazi but by the end he was willing to risk his entire fortune, as well as his life, to help his Jewish factory workers escape the death camps.
Empathy is the overriding theme of the book (as well as the film). Starting out being indifferent to Jews, and willing to exploit them to make himself a fortune at his enamelware factory in Krakow, in occupied Poland, Schindler begins making friends with some of his workers, particularly his accountant Itzhak Stern. Gradually, through these personal encounters and conversations, he comes to see Jewish workers as unique individuals, as human beings of equal worth to himself.
The question that Keneally is really grappling with, as he tells the story, is why Schindler did it. And I think Schindler’s essential motive was summed up in a remark he once made when asked to explain his actions: ‘I knew the people who worked for me. When you know people, you have to behave towards them like human beings.’ For me, it is this seemingly simple act of ‘knowing’ people that is vital to empathy, and one of the most fundamental ways to overcome prejudices and stereotypes.