Schindler revisited

Schindler revisited

I was one of the few people I know who did not like Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” All right, it was moving – but that was the problem. The film did not allow you to grow into knowledge and emotion – it manipulated you into tears. It turned history into mere entertainment.

And also, of course, it told the story of Jewish destruction through the romanticized story of one flawed gentile.

At the time, I thought that was a mistake. And an affront.

But after reading Eric Goldman’s masterly overview, in this week’s Standard, of Hollywood and the Holocaust – and how nervous industry heads were about overtly Jewish themes – I think perhaps there was no other way to get the story out at that time and in that political climate except to focus it on a non-Jew.

This thought was reinforced by “Searching for Schindler,” the new book by Thomas Keneally, the writer of the original “Schindler’s List” (he prefers the British title of the book, “Schindler’s Ark”).

It’s a fascinating window into how the book and then the film were made – a story largely about the passion and good humor and persistence of one Leopold Page – whose family name, before the Holocaust and Ellis Island, was Pfefferberg. Poldek, as he is called throughout the book, encountered Keneally by chance, and kept after him, and then with him, for years, helping to get the story told.

“He died a man without enemies,” Keneally writes, “and with the knowledge that his easily dismissed predictions had come true almost by his own force of personality. The Righteous Persons Foundation was quick, with Steven Spielberg’s assistance, in endowing a series of lectures at Chapman University in Poldek’s name. Many of his documents and photographs are in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington. The Los Angeles Times honored him in an obituary as the initiator of the entire process with which this tale has concerned itself.

“What did I tell you? he would have asked. What did I tell you?”

Keneally describes the premiere:

“As the film ran and reached the scenes of the liquidation of the ghetto, I was, in a way, gasping for breth. The people I watched on the screen were in a terrible flux of history, in a mincer, a shredder of dreams and attachments. And at the climax of the night massacre of those who hid during the liquidation, an officer finds an old piano and plays Mozart. The question was always this: Why was this barbarity enacted by the agents of Europe’s high culture? Why were the SS Einsatzgruppen full of philosophy and theology graduates, pastors? At first sight the brutality of the SS seems a denial of Europe’s cultural triumph and of the value of its urbanity. And yet the higher a culture is, the more refined its identity, the easier it becomes to deny any value to other identities.”

Keneally and Poldek’s enthusiastic ghost have convinced me to give the film more credit – and perhaps a second viewing.