A survivor's legacy

25 years after its publication, author turns his attention to the man who inspired 'Schindler's List.'

November 19, 2007 10:18
3 minute read.
keneally book 88 224

keneally book 88 224. (photo credit: )


Dear Reader,
As you can imagine, more people are reading The Jerusalem Post than ever before. Nevertheless, traditional business models are no longer sustainable and high-quality publications, like ours, are being forced to look for new ways to keep going. Unlike many other news organizations, we have not put up a paywall. We want to keep our journalism open and accessible and be able to keep providing you with news and analysis from the frontlines of Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish World.

As one of our loyal readers, we ask you to be our partner.

For $5 a month you will receive access to the following:

  • A user experience almost completely free of ads
  • Access to our Premium Section
  • Content from the award-winning Jerusalem Report and our monthly magazine to learn Hebrew - Ivrit
  • A brand new ePaper featuring the daily newspaper as it appears in print in Israel

Help us grow and continue telling Israel’s story to the world.

Thank you,

Ronit Hasin-Hochman, CEO, Jerusalem Post Group
Yaakov Katz, Editor-in-Chief


Searching for Schindler By Thomas Keneally Knopf Australia AU $45 The name Leopold Pfefferberg was too much of a tongue twister for US officials, so at Ellis Island in 1947 they changed it to Leopold Page. The Nazis, however, had no such quandary. They had reduced him to a number: 69006. To his family and friends, Pfefferberg was known simply as Poldek. Without this Holocaust survivor's perseverance, author Thomas Keneally probably would not have won the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler's List, and film director Steven Spielberg would not have collected his first Academy Award in 1994 for the book's movie version. More importantly, if not for Poldek's never-say-die spirit, Spielberg might never have established the Survivors of the Shoah Foundation, an archive of more than 52,000 testimonies from 56 countries in 32 languages. Now, 25 years after writing Schindler's List, Keneally has written a semi-autobiographical sequel, Searching for Schindler, which tells the story of how a chance 1980 encounter with Poldek in his shop, the Handbag Studio in Beverly Hills, spawned the incredible chain of events that touched millions around the globe. "Poldek was the spark plug and I was just one piston in the machine," Keneally, 70, says modestly at his home in Sydney. "I see myself as a mere catalyst. I was not the great heroic instigator." Poldek was an irrepressible shopkeeper who for decades had been trying to foist his story of survival on any writer who entered his shop. When he encountered Keneally, whose book review he had just read in Newsweek magazine, Poldek became effusive. "I know a wonderful story," Poldek told Keneally. "It is not a story for Jews, but for everyone. It's the greatest story of humanity, man to man." The Australian author was incredulous. "I had never heard the words come from the lips of a soul so vivid, so picturesquely Eastern European, so endowed with baritone and basso subtleties of voice and inflection, so engorged with life, as Leopold Pfefferberg/Page," he writes in the opening chapter of his new book. Poldek, No. 173 on Schindler's famous list, told Keneally how he and his wife, Misia, were saved by the "all-drinking, all-black-marketeering, all-screwing" Oskar Schindler, the German industrialist who risked his life to save 1,200 Jews at the close of World War II. Keneally, who spent six years in a seminary studying to become a Catholic priest before deciding to become a writer, says two elements drew him to Poldek's story. "With someone larger than life, such as Poldek, I looked at his big honest face and thought, 'What is it about him that made the metropolitan Europeans believe he was a virus on European civilization and that he had to be obliterated?'" writes Keneally, who was born to Irish immigrants. Keneally was equally fascinated by Schindler, whose heroic act of decency had its roots in the businessman's avarice and venality. "Oskar was a scoundrel savior," the author wrote. "Writers love paradoxes - the fact you couldn't tell where his altruistic intentions ended and his opportunism began." It took two years for Keneally to interview dozens of Schindler survivors - in the United States, Israel, Australia and Europe - and review thousands of documents before he could complete the book. Another decade passed before Spielberg made the movie, despite the overbearing efforts of Poldek, who frequently lobbied Spielberg's mother in her kosher restaurant and never gave up repeating his mantra, "An Oscar for Oskar!" History proved Poldek right - seven times. Schindler's List scooped the '94 Academy Awards, and the two quirky characters who helped make that moment a reality were on hand: the unpretentious Australian author with the pirate-like guffaw and salt-and-pepper, mustache-less beard, and the Jewish kvetch from Krakow. Poldek died in 2001. For Keneally, the 25 years since Schindler's List was published have been life changing. The author won international acclaim, met US president Bill Clinton and was introduced to Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal on the night the movie premiered in Vienna. Police were so fearful of neo-Nazi violence that evening, they surrounded Spielberg's entourage with security personnel. Keneally now posts a mezuza at the entrance to his office. "Part of being Jewish is trying to honor the people that are gone," he says. "I feel that I should stand in for the people who are gone, too, even though I'm a gentile." Keneally also has sympathy for the Palestinians, saying they "were the ones chosen to pay the price for the great European crimes against Judaism." The author's new book posthumously fulfills one of Keneally's promises to Poldek. "There always has been a story behind the story," Keneally says. "When Poldek was alive I used to say, 'I'll write about you one day.' Searching for Schindler is the result.

Join Jerusalem Post Premium Plus now for just $5 and upgrade your experience with an ads-free website and exclusive content. Click here>>

Related Content

Sarah Silverman
August 26, 2014
Jewish women take home gold at 2014 Emmys