Schindler's List is a "documentary novel," a novel that recreates events that actually took place in real life. The events described in the book are based on interviews with fifty Schindler survivors and enriched by extensive research as well as by the author's visits to Kraków, Plaszow, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Keneally goes to great lengths to describe characters as they were in real life and to create a sense of realism. But he uses the texture and devices of the novel — a form normally used for fictional accounts — to tell the true story of Oskar Schindler because, he says, "the novel's techniques seem suited for a character of such ambiguity and magnitude as Oskar." Keneally stresses, though, that he attempts to avoid fiction in his work because "fiction would debase the record." He says that, although he has recreated some of the conversations, all events are based on detailed recollections of witnesses to the acts described. The result is a work that moves back and forth between simply telling a story and embellishing or commenting upon that story by examining how the author came to know the facts, how the facts may be disputed, or how the witnesses feel about certain events. For example, the author sometimes intrudes into a story to mention that another witness has a different account of those events, how a particular survivor says he or she felt about Schindler, and so on. The effect of this authorial intrusion is always to return the reader to reality, to make it plain that the events described are not merely a novelistic fantasy but a true account that impacted people's lives in ways that can barely be imagined.
The story of Oskar Schindler and the rescue of the "Schindler Jews" unfolds through a series of stories about dozens of characters. The narratives are pieced together by the author so that they are interesting anecdotes or character sketches on their own, but they also weave into the larger story about Schindler. The effect of this technique is that what becomes of most importance in the book is people, the minute details of their lives, the ideas they held and intimate moments they cherished. Unlike the film version of Schindler's List, Keneally's novel is memorable not so much for the backdrop of the labor camps and atrocities of war but for the realistic description of people and the personal sufferings or victories they experienced. There is, for example, the story of the courtship and marriage of Josef and Rebecca Bau in the barracks of the Plaszow camp, that of Henry Rosner playing the fiddle so magically that an SS officer kills himself, that of the young man who escapes Belzec by hiding for three days in the pit of the latrines, and that of young Janka Feigenbaum dying of cancer. That the novel is constructed in this way conveys a sense that the story of the Holocaust is made up of stories of individuals, each one a human life.
Symbols and Imagery
Despite its factual tone, Schindler's List uses a number of symbols and images, some of them recurring, to underscore its central questions and ideas. One of the most memorable scenes in the book is when Schindler, sitting on his horse, observes the destruction of the Jewish ghetto and, amidst all the turmoil, the figure of a small child wearing a red dress. It is after witnessing this event that Schindler vows to do everything he can to defeat the system. The red dress makes the young girl stand out, and it seems, for the first time, Schindler really understands that the Jews in the ghetto are individuals — humans — who are being subjected to the most inhuman treatment imaginable. The smallness of the child may be seen to represent innocence and the red to represent the blood of the Jewish people.
Other ideas that are used repeatedly in the book are those of gods, kings, and heroes. Oskar is referred to as a "minor god of deliverance, double-faced" who brings salvation to his Jewish workers. This ties in with the question of the complex nature of morality, for Schindler is not a conventional type of god. He is like Bacchus, the god of wine, who loves to indulge in good food and drink, but he also performs good acts. The imagery of kings is used often when describing Goeth, who fancies himself an emperor. He is compared to the Roman emperor Caligula, famed for his cruelty and excesses. Also, when he plays blackjack with Schindler over the fate of Helen Hirsch, Goeth draws a king and loses the game. The notion of heroism is explored not only with the unlikely heroism of Schindler but in the description of many of the Jewish characters. During the Aktion in which the Jewish ghetto is razed, for example, Dr. H's nurse administers cyanide to his dying patients so that they can "escape" being murdered by the SS. "The woman is the hero of this," the doctor says to himself.
In the opening pages of Schindler's List, Keneally says explicitly that it is the story "of the pragmatic triumph of good over evil" and of the story of a man who is not "virtuous" in the customary sense. Writing about evil, he goes on to say, is fairly straightforward, but it is more risky and complex to write about virtue. The hero of the novel, Oskar Schindler, is complicated because he seems to be at once virtuous and immoral. Schindler is married but keeps house with his German mistress and maintains a long affair with his Polish secretary. He is outgoing and generous but has even greater personal indulgences, including good cigars and cognac. He excels in profiting from shady dealings, procuring goods from the black market and bribing officials, through which he saves his workers' lives. From the beginning of the novel, Schindler seems to treat the Jews he encounters with respect, but for a long time he seems oblivious to the cruelties they face, being more interested in his business than the political situation around him. Also, after the war, and after his heroic rescue of his Jewish workers, Schindler leads an unremarkable life: he does not do good works or act as a champion of the powerless, but rather he again cheats on his wife, spends money lavishly, fails at his business ventures, and bankrupts himself. Yet, he is honored by the Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority (Yad Vashem) Museum in Israel and declared a "Righteous Person." Perhaps the most difficult and interesting question raised by Schindler's List is, in fact, in what way Oskar Schindler is considered a "Righteous Person." Is he righteous simply because of his actions? His motivations? His personality?
Throughout the book, Keneally draws attention to the difficult nature of virtue (again, seen most obviously in the character of Schindler), to the not-so-obvious contrast between good and evil (Schindler is compared repeatedly to his "dark twin," the clearly evil Amon Goeth), and to what exactly constitutes morality. For example, the Austrian bureaucrat Szepessi has "a humane reputation even though he serviced the monstrous machine." Keneally also illustrates certain warped conceptions of goodness and morality that are entertained by various characters. The German prisoner Philip, whom Schindler meets after he is arrested for kissing a Jewish girl in his factory, complains about the corruptibility and thievery of the SS but seems unmoved by the fact that they routinely murder Jews. Goeth's conception of good and evil is perhaps most distorted, as seen when Goeth is "tempted" toward restraint and goodness by Schindler and entertains the idea the he might be seen as "Amon the Good."