"Schindler's List" author on literature, conflict and Sino-Australian relation

Li Shiyu China Plus Published: 2017-05-17 19:50:04
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This is a small batch from the weekly literature program Ink&Quill.

Directed by Steven Speilberg,Schindler's List is listed by many as one of the greatest films in the 20th century. [Picture:baidu.com]

Directed by Steven Speilberg,Schindler's List is listed by many as one of the greatest films in the 20th century. [Picture:baidu.com]

In 1993, Steven Spielberg's film "Schindler's List" hit movie theatres. Once released, this historical drama became a global sensation. 

Capturing the soul-disturbing terror of the Holocaust while demonstrating the power of the human spirit, this emotionally-intense movie, won seven Oscars. 

But just like many great motion pictures of our time, this cinematic masterpiece is actually based on a book. Originally titled "Schindler's Ark", the book is a Man Booker Prize-winning novel written by Thomas Keneally. 

Schindler's Ark makes its author the first Australian to win the Booker Prize.[Cover:amazon]

Schindler's Ark makes its author the first Australian to win the Booker Prize.[Cover:amazon]

In an interview with ChinaPlus, this Australian author explains why he as a non-Jew was interested in the Holocaust in the very first place: "Because I knew it happened particularly in eastern and central Europe, which was very anti-Semitic. Meeting my friend Poldek Pfefferberg, now, such an endeavour to kill all these people by technological means just seems ridiculous. But I had worked out why it happened and how would I reacted if I had been conditioned to believe that."

Thomas Keneally at a panel discussion during the 2017 Australian Writers Week in China.[Photo: Courtesy of Australian Embassy to China]

Thomas Keneally at the 2017 Australian Writers Week in China.[Photo: Courtesy of Australian Embassy to China]

Born in Sydney in 1935, Thomas Keneally is one of the brightest stars in the world literature community. In more than half a century, this prolific and diligent writer has published more than fifty books. The first Australian to win the Booker Prize, he is also a two-time winner of the Miles Franklin award, Australia's top literary prize. 

Among all the works of Keneally, "Schindler's Ark" is no doubt the most well-known. Yet few know that the author stumbled into the story because he wanted to buy a new briefcase. 

Also known as Leopold Page, the Holocaust survivor Poldek Prefferberg was the promoter of Schindler's story. Before he met Thomas Keneally, this Polish-American had spent years in persuading filmmakers in Hollywood to make the tale of Oskar Schindler into a movie. [Photo:quickiwiki.com]

Also known as Leopold Page, the Holocaust survivor Poldek Prefferberg was the promoter of Schindler's story. Before he met Thomas Keneally, this Polish-American had spent years in persuading filmmakers in Hollywood to make the tale of Oskar Schindler into a movie. [Photo:quickiwiki.com]

On a hot autumn day in 1980, Keneally wandered into a small handbag shop in California. There, the then 45-year-old bumped into the shop owner Leopold Page, a Holocaust survivor who's close friends knew him as'Poldek'. Eager to make a film about the man who saved his life, this Polish-American shared with Keneally the story of Oskar Schindler and convinced him to put pen to paper. 

As Keneally recalls, the pair traveled around the world to talk to people who knew or were saved by Schindler:"Poldek the survivor was with me the whole time. He's the pain in the neck but he was both a wonder human and the central to this book. He knew it was an ultimate story of humanity, as he used to say, humanity man to man. He was my entry to all these people who gave me interviews and documents. Without him, I wouldn't be able to do it, because as a Gentile, a non-Jewish, I came from Sydney, Australia. Therefore, I began to feel I was Jewish from mixing with these people."

Oskar Schindler was played by Liam Neeson in the movie.[Photo:ent.163.com]

Oskar Schindler was played by Liam Neeson in the movie.[Photo:ent.163.com]

In 1982, Keneally's documentary-like novel came into being and won the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Nine years later, Poldek's dream came true, as the tale of his savior finally hit the silver screen. 

"I knew there were too many subplots in the book to make into the movie and I knew the movie would had to have a simpler line of narration. It does. The only thing I disagree with is when Schindler says in that tear-jerking moment: 'I could have sold this badge, I could have sold the Mercedes, I could have saved more. 'In fact, his factory was at capacity and he could not have had any more in there without the SS closing it down. What he had already had was under suspicion. " 

Thomas Keneally believes that, compared with the image portrayed in the movie, the real Oskar Schindler was a paradox: "In the movie, you can say he didn't make a single sell in his shell factory. But the reason was, you can tell in the book (and) you get room to tell, because he was making so much money on the black market and he did it severely, desired to be rich. He was only becoming rich in that turbulent, upside-down time in Poland (and) Czechoslovakia. That makes him interesting too."

Despite the discrepancy between history and fiction, the movie "Schindler's List" has received numerous accolades, which also helps its source material gain wider recognition. 

"The Daughters of Mars" revisits the first World War from the perspective of two sisters. [Cover:goodreads]

"The Daughters of Mars" revisits the first World War from the perspective of two sisters. [Cover:goodreads]

But Thomas Keneally didn't rest on his laurels. From "The People's Train" to "Three Famines", many of his other works are also about race, historical conflict, and calamity. 

"I got a few books that deal with East Africa. I got a few books that deal with the Irish Famine, which was a great calamity. Sadly, I don't know what is said about me psychologically. But perhaps I have got an interest in catastrophes. Australia is so safe and this is the problem. We all want to live somewhere like Australia that is pretty safe, but we are aware of what the ancestors went through. I think ancestor worship is the true religion of the human kind. We have become more ancestor-veneration for what they went through. Sometimes, I have written books about ethnic groups in Australia, who come from terrible places. That tension fascinates me, the tension between the safe life and the dangerous world. "

In "Napoleon's Last Island", the author tries to find out what happened during the Emperor's exile. [Cover:goodreads]

In "Napoleon's Last Island", the author tries to find out what happened during the Emperor's exile. [Cover:goodreads]

The desire to poke into the chaotic past of human history has driven Thomas Keneally to write more. From an Antarctic expedition to the life of Joan of Arc, the author has never confined his writings within the border of his native Australia. 

When being asked why he chooses such diverse topics to explore, he gives us a brief answer: "I tell you what, the whole world is connected."

His longing to bridge different cultures has also fuelled his interest in China. 

Thomas Keneally meets his Chinese readers during the 2017 Australian Writers Week. [Photo: Courtesy of Australian Embassy to China]

Thomas Keneally meets his Chinese readers during the 2017 Australian Writers Week. [Photo: Courtesy of Australian Embassy to China]

In 1979, Thomas Keneally was among the earliest batch of Australian delegates to visit the Middle Kingdom.

"When Australia opened its diplomatic relations with China, I had the honor of being on the Australia-China Council and we were appointed by the government. We came here and organized academic exchanges. We even tried to get a film off the ground. We went out to the Tomb of Warriors (which were also known as Terracotta Army) and I believe we were the first country to organize a tour of the Tomb warriors about 1981, 1982. We were involved in helping initiating the newspaper China Daily. "

Since then, he has come back to China a number of times. Though the film he wanted to make about Chinese immigrants in Australia has never quite taken shape, this official "Australian living treasure" is determined to push the bilateral relations further. 

"Australians are fascinated with two countries: America, for our alliance with them, and China, for our need of China. You know, I hope the need moves into understanding and I think it's on the way. "

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