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"Schindler's List': Finding truth beyond exactitude

In the fall of 1980 Thomas Keneally walked into a luggage store in Beverly Hills and met Leopold "Poldek" Pfefferberg. Pfefferberg was a Schindlerjuden, one of hundreds of Jews saved from the gas chambers by one man: Oskar Schindler. The shop owner had been telling any customer who would listen the remarkable story of the German Catholic entrepreneur who rescued more Jews than any single person during World War II.

But this time his customer did more than listen. Keneally, a self-described "goy from Australia," returned to Sydney and eventually wrote a celebrated book about Schindler that has recently been turned into an award-winning movie: Schindler's List.

"I still don't know exactly why I wrote that book _ it's a bit of a mystery," says Keneally 13 years later from his home in Irvine, Calif., where he teaches creative writing at the University of California. He thinks it had something to do with Pfefferberg.

"How could anyone believe it essential that Poldek be gassed?" he asked himself after listening to the shop owner's story. "It sounded absurd to me. I found it preposterous that anyone would think that Jews were so dangerous that they should be destroyed. Jews were part of Western civilization. Could anyone really believe that Mendelssohn or Einstein were viruses on Western civilization? How could these people be considered by an entire culture as so dangerous that the only recourse was to take their breath away?"

Keneally returned to Australia, "on the edge of the European diaspora in the land of Oz," to contemplate this and try "to figure out why it happened."

When his account of the Holocaust and the extraordinary heroics of this strange "German bon vivant, speculator, charmer and sign of contradiction" was published in 1982, the book won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, and the Los Angeles Times Book Award for fiction.

Fiction? In his introduction, the novelist takes great pains to say that he "used the texture and devices of a novel to tell a true story," but that he avoided "all fiction, since fiction would debase the record."

"I would call it a documentary novel," Keneally says now. All of the book's dialogue _ and even the thoughts of the characters _ are taken from testimonies and documents by the actual people involved in this tale of heroism and atrocities, including Schindler Jews, Schindler's wartime associates and Schindler himself who left behind a large body of papers and letters.

Despite all the painstaking research he did, however, Keneally doesn't consider Schindler's List a biography. "In fiction writing there is always a heightened form of imagery which would not be considered _ if you will excuse the word _ "kosher' in straight biography," he explains. "I think there are certainly my interpretations in the book."

Still another interpretation of the Schindler story is, of course, director Steven Spielberg's recent movie version of Schindler's List. "I liked it," says Keneally who points out that a 3\-hour movie cannot hope to encompass the entirety of the story, but that the film was true to the Schindler myth. His own view of Schindler _ whom he calls "a flawed hero" _ is perhaps a bit harsher than Spielberg's final view of the man. "I would have put in a few scenes showing that Schindler was a black marketeer until the end," says the author, "but the film was concerned with showing a growth of character. It's easier to do that in a book: You can say what's happening inside people."

The real test of the veracity of the film, however, was the reaction of the survivors themselves, says Keneally. Did they find the storytelling to be true to their own experiences? "They were bowled over," he says, adding, "There is a truth beyond exactitude."

As an Australian, Keneally was in a unique position to reflect on the horrifying events of the Holocaust. "With all the racist problems that Australia has with its indigenous people, the Aboriginals, as well as with immigrant groups (which are often Asians or Middle Easterners), we don't have the classic European anti-Semitism which burst forth with such obscene results in Europe in the '30s and which lies unrepentant in this decade in Western, Central and Eastern Europe," Keneally explains. Yet as an Irish-Australian, he recognizes that he is very much part of the European culture that produced the Holocaust.

"It is our European culture which produced this peculiar example of race hate _ no one else has done it to that level," he says. "Christians produced it. That is something that cannot be forgotten."

A novelist, playwright, screenplay writer and political activist, Keneally is not a stranger to attention. When I talked to him, he had just returned to California from Sydney where he was busy rewriting the Australian constitution. He is the founding chairman of the Australian Republican Movement, a group which supports cutting the last remaining constitutional ties with Britain. Many of his works _ including novels, travel books, children's books and plays _ have received awards and/or been optioned for films. Martin Scorcese, says Keneally, told him that the film version of his 1972 novel The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, was "the best movie he had ever seen." Keneally's latest novel is Woman of the Inner Sea.

When the film version of Schindler's List opened in December, Simon & Schuster issued a movie-tie-in paperback version of Keneally's novel. In the Tampa Bay area copies were sold by volunteers from the Holocaust Center in Madeira Beach before screenings in various theaters. Recently Keneally appeared with Spielberg at the film's premiers in Britain, Austria and Australia. Keneally was especially moved by the film's showing in Vienna. "It was exactly the right time to show this film in Austria where the neo-Nazis are emerging," says Keneally. "Young Austrians were reduced to sincere tears."

Keneally, who calls himself a "lapsed Catholic," insists he wrote his book for Gentiles. "The Holocaust is a Gentile problem. They ought to remember it. Gentiles are exasperated when Jews bring up the Holocaust. "Why can't they just forget it? It's past history,' they say. Then they happily celebrate the resurrection of Christ in the 1st century A.D., which is mildly contradictory."

His book, however, had an impact on Jews, and especially on survivors of the Holocaust and their families, that took him totally by surprise. "The book served as a kind of depth charge _ it resonated profoundly with survivors and operated as a trigger for reminiscence," says Keneally.

In writing the book, Keneally interviewed 50 Schindler survivors from seven countries. Many of these survivors, who up until then had kept silent about their experiences, began to talk to their children about what had happened. When the book was published, a similar exchange began in many other families of Holocaust survivors.

"During the Irish famine, many people boarded up their homes and died quietly within their homes _ they were ashamed to be seen dying," he says. "I think this tale is a metaphor for what was happening to survivors of the Holocaust. Some Jews plagued by the obscene shame of having survived _ why they should feel shame I don't know _ have boarded themselves up and are dying within for fear that someone could see their shame. Some families at least _ I don't want to make too broad a claim _ are tearing those boards off and letting the light in."

Keneally to appear

Thomas Keneally will be in the Tampa Bay area Thursday to speak at a benefit for the Madeira Beach Holocaust Center. The event, which costs $18, will be held at 8:30 p.m. at the Pasadena Community Church, 112 70th St. S in St. Petersburg.

Margo Hammond is book editor for the Times.