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Thomas Keneally: How I found Schindler

How the purchase of a brief-case in Beverly Hills led to Schindler’s List.

    A handbag? Thomas Keneally's account of stumbling on the story of Schindler's list in an American handbag shop irresistibly evokes the tones of Lady Bracknell .

    But that is how it happened. In 1980, Keneally was in Beverly Hills waiting for his return flight to Sydney. Wandering into "The Handbag Studio", he met the Jewish proprietor, who sold him a calfskin black briefcase and introduced himself as Leopold Page.

    Page soon realised he was speaking to the author of a book just reviewed in Newsweek. "I know a wonderful story," he told Keneally, adding that his original name had been Pfefferberg and inviting Keneally to call him Poldek, the Polish diminutive for Leopold.

    The episode is recalled in Keneally's new book, Searching for Schindler, a moving memoir which has taken years to see the light of day. "I wrote it about six years ago," he reveals, "in response to the deaths of my own father and of Poldek. But publishers were not keen after the phenomenal success of the film. I still find myself thanked by Jews as if I myself had performed an act of benevolence. Young Jews tell me that the film encouraged their parents into telling their own stories."

    Poldek told him, back in 1980, the story of Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved thousands from Nazi death-camps by getting permission for them to work in his factories: "I was a Jew imprisoned with Jews. So a Nazi saves me and, more important, saves Misia, my young wife... Not that he was a saint. He was all-drinking, all-black-marketeering, all-screwing, okay? But he got Misia out of Auschwitz, so to me he is God."

    Keneally, an Australian of Irish background, was instantly intrigued. He argues that the Jews and the Irish share "the feeling of being both chosen and despised, the knowledge that the world could be a valley of tears, and the intensity of clan loyalty and family life".

    After Poldek and his wife reached America in 1947 and moved to Beverly Hills, he told the Schindler story to scores of producers, writers and reporters. Most were indifferent until, in 1963, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer bought the rights from Schindler himself, who was still alive, living in Frankfurt, but never made the film.

    Then, with a book contract from a New York publisher, and with Poldek - who had two filing cabinets full of Schindler documents, photographs and interviews - as his guide, Keneally set out on a six months' trip, from Germany to Poland to Israel, searching out "Schindler Jews" and visiting Schindler's grave in Jerusalem, where he was buried in 1974.

    The rest is history. Keneally's book, Schindler's Ark, won the 1982 Booker Prize before its later republication as Schindler's List, the title of the film directed by Steven Spielberg.

    With Liam Neeson as the charismatic Schindler, the 1993 film more than bore out Poldek's assurance to Spielberg: "You'll get an Oscar for Oskar!" It won seven, including Best Picture and Best Director. Though Keneally's first screenplay had been rejected in mid-1983, when the film appeared, he had the gratification of finding at least some of his own phrases intact.

    "More important to me," he says, "was that the film preserved the ambiguities in Schindler's character - altruism mixed with opportunism, humanity with profiteering.

    "Yes," Keneally says, "there have been other appalling acts of genocide, some recent, others in the past."

    The British, the villains of Keneally's 1998 non-fiction book, The Great Shame, used simpler techniques.

    Famine and transportation served them to disperse the Irish all over the world. Yet, he says, "Hitler's Holocaust was unique in its industrial methods. It was not just mass killing but the use of production techniques - race disposal by technical means."

    Searching for Schindler, by Thomas Keneally, is published by Sceptre at £20

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