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Recent Reading: Searching for Schindler: A Memoir by Thomas Keneally - Mo's Journal
August 24th, 2009
09:49 am

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Recent Reading: Searching for Schindler: A Memoir by Thomas Keneally
A few months ago Zara and I went to a lecture at the 92d Street Y about the making of the movie "Schindler's List," as described here. The lecturer mentioned a recent book by Keneally about the writing of the book and the making of the movie, called Searching for Schindler: a memoir and it sounded very interesting. So I put it on my library list and read it last month. It's definitely worth reading!

I think Schindler's List - both book and movie - are really essential reading/viewing. It's the rare case, for me, where I can't say that I like the book or the movie better. The movie does what movies do best, the book what books do best. They're very different and both very worthwhile (and this is coming from someone who almost never thinks a movie that's over three hours is worthwhile). They're also both really harrowing, albeit ultimately uplifting. This new book is something else. There's some of the harrowing detail that can't (and shouldn't) be avoided in any story that touches on the Holocaust, but this is a much lighter book. Most of it is quite entertaining and some of it is laugh out loud funny.

The basic story of how Keneally - not Jewish, with no particular knowledge of or interest in the Holocaust - came to write Schindler's List is told in that first book, but it's expanded to book length here, and it's a fascinating story. Keneally is an Australian novelist and while in California on business related to his writing, his briefcase broke. He stopped into a luggage shop to buy a replacement and the shop was owned by one of the Schindlerjuden: Poldek Pfefferberg, also known as Leo Page. Pfefferberg told Keneally Schindler's story, convinced him to write the book, went with him on trips all over the world to do his research, meeting survivors and seeing where the events happened. He also later convinced Spielberg to make the movie. This new book follows Keneally and Pfefferberg as they interview survivors, view important locations in the story, talk to editors and filmmakers, watch the filming of the movie, and attend some of the premieres.

Pfefferberg comes across as a kind of larger than life character. He's charming, voluble, and completely driven by what he sees as his mission in the world: making sure the world knows what Oskar Schindler did. He cajoles, entreats, begs, charms, amuses and pesters whomever he needs to to get this story out there, in a book and movie. He and Keneally have a variety of sometimes hair-raising and often amusing adventures along the way. As one example, when they are doing the basic research for the book, Pfefferberg insists that they exchange money in Poland on the black market, since the rates are better. But this is Poland during the early 1980s, when it's a client state of the Soviet Union and there are strict controls on currency exchange. When you leave the country you have to prove that anything you purchased there was done with money exchanged through official means. Keneally is very anxious about the black market currency exchange and keeps asking how they'll get out of the country, but Pfefferberg tells him not to worry. Well, they get questioned in the airport by an imposing guard with a
machine gun and they - of course - have no documentation to prove that they got the money through legitimate means, since they didn't. But Pfefferberg just charms the guard, telling him that they're researching for a major Hollywood film about Poland, that it will bring lots of money to the country, that it will win the Best Picture Oscar and that there might even be a part for someone with just that guard's looks (and he takes the guard's name and contact info). The story is amazing (and amusing) because:

- it worked; the guard let them through
- the book hadn't even been written yet, there was certainly no plan for a movie anywhere except in Poldek Pfefferberg's brain
- hyperbolic as it was, it all turned out to be true, with the exception of the guard getting a part in the movie.

And that's typical of Poldek Pfefferberg, who is very much the hero of this book. Whether he is persuading reluctant Schindlerjuden to talk to Keneally, flattering Keneally's wife and daughters, or haranguing Steven Spielberg to finish up with Jurassic Park ("Steven! Stop playing around with dinosaurs. This is important.") so he can devote his full attention to the Schindler project, he just leaps off of the page and into the reader's hearts.

Read this book!

An unintentionally funny postscript: on the back of the edition I read is a notefrom Spielberg to Keneally. I've already returned the book to the library, so I might not have the quote exactly right, but it's something like, "If I'd read this book before I made the film, the film might have been an hour longer. I owe you a great deal. The world owes you more." I'm sure he meant that he and the world owe Keneally a debt for bringing this story to the public eye. OTOH, one could read that as meaning that by writing Searching for Schindler after the movie was made, the world owes Keneally because he saved us all from a 4.5 hour Spielberg movie.

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