The writer who met Schindler's advocate

Harris is a freelance critic and the author of the novel "The Chieu Hoi Saloon."

As all the world knows by now, a hard-drinking, womanizing, black-marketing German industrialist named Oskar Schindler saved some 1,100 Jewish slave laborers from the Holocaust. Thomas Keneally turned the story into a novel -- originally titled "Schindler's Ark" in Britain -- that won the Man Booker Prize in 1982. Eleven years later, Steven Spielberg released a film version of "Schindler's List," starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, that won seven Academy Awards, including best picture.

But as Keneally reminds us in "Searching for Schindler," a memoir of how he stumbled onto the story, wrote the novel and watched the movie being made, the world might have remained largely ignorant of Schindler's heroics if it hadn't been for Leopold "Poldek" Pfefferberg, a Beverly Hills luggage dealer.

In the fall of 1980, Keneally was passing through Los Angeles en route to his native Australia after attending a cinema festival in Sorrento, Italy, where a film of his novel "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith" had been screened. Keneally discovered that his briefcase was falling apart, and chance (or fate) led him to Pfefferberg's store.

Once Keneally let slip that he was a writer, it was all over. Pfefferberg, a force of nature -- "even then, I believe I perceived that he had dealt in markets beyond my knowing" -- commandeered him to tell the Schindler story. Never mind that Keneally, an Irish Catholic from the Antipodes, knew very little about the Jewish experience in Nazi-occupied Poland. He was a writer, and Pfefferberg, one of the Jews Schindler had saved, insisted that the "greatest story of humanity man to man" needed none other than Thomas Keneally to tell it.

Bemused at first, then more and more deeply involved in the project, Keneally let Pfefferberg (who had changed his surname to Page at Ellis Island in 1947) drag him around the United States, Germany, Israel, Poland and Austria to interview other "Schindler Jews."

Once Pfefferberg had exerted his insistent, sometimes bullying charm, even those most reluctant to revisit the horrors of World War II opened up to Keneally, who feverishly recorded their testimony despite his own qualms about profiting from the Holocaust.

"Searching for Schindler" is really two books. One is Keneally's own story, which might be subtitled "Working-Class Boy From the Outback Makes Good." It describes how he began his novelistic career at a time when Australians still felt culturally inferior to England and Europe. Used to keeping his expectations low, suspicious of glamour and pretense, Keneally tried not to be overwhelmed when good fortune -- the Man Booker, a big Hollywood contract, lucrative lecture tours, a chance to hobnob with Bill and Hillary Clinton at the movie's premiere -- descended on him like a ton of gold ingots.

The second book, the story of "Schindler's List," is a bit of a hodgepodge. Keneally explains once again the roles his various interviewees played in history, but the original novel is a much clearer reference. He relays a few movie-star anecdotes, speculates no more successfully than the rest of us on how "High Europe" could have been capable of genocide and grumps that, despite the film's success, he remains "fundamentally unimpressed by cinema as compared to writing."

Pfefferberg, however, usually saves the day. Whenever Keneally evokes his voice, "so vivid, so picaresquely Eastern European . . . so engorged with life," the book regains its vitality.

Pfefferberg died in 2001 "without enemies," Keneally says, "and with the knowledge that his easily dismissed predictions" -- an Oscar for Oskar -- "had come true almost by his own force of personality." Indeed, we have only to read about the life-and-death deals Pfefferberg pulled off in the Krakow ghetto and the infamous Plaszow forced-labor camp to conclude that, for him, getting a novel written and a movie made was child's play.


Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World