Saturday, November 1, 2008

Schindler's List

The most dramatic scene in the movie “Schindler’s List” takes place not in a cattle car or a gas chamber, but in an office. As the accountant Itzhak Stern’s typewriter clatters in the background, the names of the fortunate workers whom Oskar Schindler would ultimately save appear on a blank page that fills the screen. Finally Stern raises the stack of papers and says: “The list is life. All around its margins lies the gulf.”

In reality, this never happened. According to Mietek Pemper, a Polish Jew conscripted as secretary to Commandant Amon Göth of the concentration camp Plaszow, no single person could have kept in his head all the information that appeared on the list, including prisoners’ numbers, dates of birth and professions. Although there was a real person named Itzhak Stern, the character in the movie is actually a composite of Pemper (who typed some pages of the list himself), the real Stern and at least one other person.

But Pemper’s book, “The Road to Rescue: The Untold Story of Schindler’s List,” is no takedown. It is, rather, a deepening of the story, which Spielberg’s movie inevitably oversimplified. Pemper argues that the “crucial accomplishment” was not the list itself but “the multifarious acts of resistance that, like tiny stones being placed into a mosaic one by one, had made the whole process possible.” Though he takes the opportunity to correct a few factual inaccuracies and settle some old scores, Pemper devotes most of his carefully written book to the numerous small initiatives that, in his telling, played a part in the rescue effort. It could not have occurred without Schindler’s tremendous commitment, but its success relied also on the courage and creativity of many other people, not to mention plain luck.[...]

The Jews who survived the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, in March 1943, were transferred to Plaszow, a few miles south of the city. There, Pemper won the post of Göth’s personal secretary and interpreter. He was so terrified of working in close quarters with the volatile commandant that despite his workload he refused to ask for an assistant, unwilling to risk another prisoner’s death. Anyway, no one volunteered — the inmates were too afraid of Göth. The following anecdote, coolly related by Pemper, shows why:

“I would sit in the commandant’s office and take dictation from him. While he ­talked, Göth would watch the mirror outside his window, which he used to oversee the area in front of the barracks. Suddenly he would stand up, take one of the rifles from the rack on the wall and open the window. I would hear a few shots and then nothing but screams. As if he had interrupted the dictation only to take a telephone call, Göth would come back to his desk and say, ‘Where were we?’ ”[...]

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