A Man for Others: Maximilian Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz, in the Words of Those Who Knew Him
When Oskar Schindler first visited Israel, in 1961, he was given a tumultuous welcome; when the West German government finally got around to honoring him, in 1966, Adenauer presided over the ceremony; when he died in 1974 The New York Times ran a piece about him. And his story has certainly not been overlooked since then. The gist of it can be found, for example, in Benjamin Ferencz’s admirable study of Jewish forced labor under the Nazis, Less Than Slaves.1 Yet it also remains true that he is seldom mentioned in general books about the Holocaust and that, in the English-speaking world at least, few people seem to have heard of him until the appearance of Schindler’s List.
Quite what this proves I am not sure. Possibly it should be taken as a reminder of just how vast an atrocity the Final Solution was, so vast that even the most dramatic or appalling episodes are liable to remain untold. Possibly historians of the Holocaust are reluctant to make too much of an exception while they still have to establish (and establish in the public mind) the full hideousness of the prevailing rule. Or perhaps it is simply a matter of chance—in which case chance redressed the balance when an Australian novelist wandered into a luggage store in Beverly Hills, fell into conversation with the owner (a Schindler survivor), and learned for the first time who Schindler was and what he accomplished.
That Thomas Keneally should have seized on the story is not to be wondered at. A German industrialist, a Catholic, arrives in Cracow in the wake of the Wehrmacht. Secretly disgusted by what he sees his countrymen doing, he sets up a factory, and although it is part of a murderous prison-camp complex he manages to protect his Jewish laborers and their dependents by means of bribery and bluff, to keep them supplied with food from the black market, and to ward off the threat of deportation by paying the SS for the necessary work cards. As the German retreat begins, he sets up a second factory in his native Sudentenland and succeeds in transferring his work force there, including the women, whom he has to rescue after they have been shunted off to Auschwitz; still keeping the SS at bay, as the war ends he has the satisfaction of knowing that he has saved well over a thousand lives.
It is an extraordinary tale, even when it is told in the barest outline, but no summary can adequately convey the stratagems and reverses and sudden twists of fortune, to say nothing of the grinding repetitions, which are an essential part of the story. For Schindler’s heroism was not of the kind that expresses itself through a single irrevocable action or an unambiguous taking of sides. He could only have achieved what he did by playing along with the system, adjusting to its constraints, renewing his decision to oppose it from one day to the next.
When Mr. Keneally decided to write about Schindler, he also decided to avail himself of the techniques that he had mastered as a novelist, and the result is a book poised somewhere between lightly fictionalized biography and that increasingly familiar genre, the true-life novel. In Britain, indeed (where it is known as Schindler’s Ark) it has recently won the country’s major annual award for fiction, though not without a good deal of controversy about whether it really qualifies, and it is listed under fiction in the Library of Congress catalogue. But whether we think of it as a novel or not—and perhaps rather more if we do—the first thing we are likely to want to know when we read Schindler’s List is whether it all happened the way Mr. Keneally says it did. It would be hard to forgive him if it turned out that he had used his novelist’s license to doctor his material in any significant way. (It could be a nuisance, too, at a time when analogies with the Holocaust are bandied about so freely for the purposes of political propaganda, and when there are “revisionists” like the French writer Robert Faurisson lurking in the under-growth intent on denying that it ever took place.)
Fortunately there is no reason whatever for doubting Mr. Keneally’s assurance that he has tried “to avoid all fiction, since fiction would debase the record,” and done his best “to distinguish between reality and the myths which are likely to attach themselves to a man of Oskar’s stature.” The main facts of the Schindler story are well attested (the evidence has been thoroughly sifted by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem), and in addition Mr. Keneally has interviewed scores of survivors from seven different countries, and shown several of them an earlier draft of his manuscript for double-checking. But it is not just that he gives every sign of being as scrupulously accurate as the circumstances will allow. His narrative feels true: it is consistent, it makes sense, it carries its own conviction. A notable achievement, especially when one considers that it was only in 1980 that he first heard of Schindler, and that all the material—from another time, another place—was assimilated and written up within a year or two.
The whole question of how to write about the Holocaust is a large and vexed one (beginning with the term itself, which is unsatisfactory on a number of counts, but which usage—reinforced, alas, by the success of that wretched television program—has more or less forced upon us). It would be absurd to maintain, as some commentators used to do, that it lies beyond the proper confines of imaginative literature. By now there is simply too much evidence to the contrary, from the stories of Tadeusz Borowski to the poetry of Jacob Glatstein—to take only two examples from among many. Yet it is undeniably a subject with some peculiar pitfalls for writers, especially when they come to it without direct or fairly direct experience, and the history of attempts to render it artistically is littered with worthy failures.
The first watchword of anyone who wants to write about the Holocaust should be the cry of the great historian Simon Dubnow as the Nazis took him away to his death—“Varschreibt!” “Set it down for the record!”—and a novelist in particular ought to feel very confident that he has something to add before he ventures beyond the acknowledged facts. So I am sure that Mr. Keneally knew what he was doing when he abjured “fiction,” even though Schindler’s List often has the texture of a novel, and is designed to be read as a story.
How much difference would it have made if he had settled for a straightforward biography? Few of us are likely to have ready access to the documents on which he draws, but his account of the Aktionen or roundups for deportation in the Cracow ghetto reminded me that I had come across one of them—a long extract from the diary of Tadeusz Pankiewicz which Jacob Robinson reprinted in And the Crooked Shall Be Made Straight2 his critique of Hannah Arendt’s book on Eichmann.
Pankiewicz, who was not himself a Jew, owned a pharmacy inside the ghetto; he witnessed a number of Aktionen and described them in harrowing detail—even more harrowing, I find, than the corresponding scenes in Schindler’s List. It is not that the actual incidents he records are worse than those in the book. “Worse” has little meaning in this context: who would like to decide whether, say, Pankiewicz’s account of the gleeful torturing and tormenting of a blind man and a cripple is more or less sickening than Keneally’s description of what happened when an elderly woman patient was dragged downstairs from her hospital bed and her leg got caught between the banisters? And if there is a “worst,” I suppose it must be the scene in Keneally’s book where a woman who has been hiding her child is pulled into the street by a police dog tearing at her hip, while the child is killed by being slammed against a wall. Yet rereading Pankiewicz confirmed my impression that the impact of the horrors of Schindler’s List is somewhat muffled. The fictional devices have a distancing effect, and with Schindler at the center of the action the underlying drive of the book is toward a happy ending.
All this is decidedly relative, however Mr. Keneally avoids glib consolations, and he looks the monstrosity of so much of his subject matter full in the face. If a Rip Van Winkle knowing nothing of the history of Europe between 1939 and 1945 picked up the book, he would of course conclude that it was the work of madman. It describes, and describes with unflinching intelligence, a world where the most deadly malice never stops flowing, where the unspeakable has become so familiar that half the time it scarcely seems worth speaking of. A corner of hell, in fact, with its presiding devil in the person of Amon Goeth, liquidator of the Cracow ghetto and commandant of the huge Plaszów slave-labor camp set up just outside the city.
Goeth is Schindler’s dark counterpart in the story. Superficially the two men had a number of things in common—massive physique, a Catholic upbringing, a fondness for liquor and good living. They were roughly the same age, both around thirty at the beginning of the war. (By and large the Holocaust was a young man’s game: Eichmann was only in his mid-to late thirties at the height of his career.) And like Schindler, Goeth had specialized in engineering at his Realgymnasium, although through family pride—he was the son and grandson of printers in Vienna—he preferred to describe himself on official documents as a Literat, a man of letters. He was also an unbridled sadist of both the personal and impersonal variety, capable of inflicting limitless misery on his slaves. (He had a particularly vicious grudge against engineers.) A great deal more could be said, but perhaps it is enough to mention his habit of sitting on his balcony with a loaded rifle and shooting individual prisoners without warning if he thought that they were not putting sufficient effort into their work.
When Goeth fell from favor (he was eventually arrested on charges of embezzlement and black marketeering), there were other Goeths ready to succeed him, Goeths plying their trade all over occupied Europe. We see some of them at work in Schindler’s List, including Rudolf Höss of Auschwitz; and confronted once again by the full enormity of their crimes, we may well feel that there is little new to be said. But the book does bring out one aspect of Nazism particularly clearly. Precisely because most of it takes place against the background of a labor camp, rather than an extermination camp, it underlines the futility of trying to explain the camp system in normal socioeconomic terms. Slave labor may be a “rational” form of exploitation, and a lot of people may have made a lot of money out of it during the Nazi period; but no one could suppose that a camp like Plaszów was run on rational lines, or geared single-mindedly to the profit motive. Its main product was pain, though it was also part of a larger process whose end product was death, could only have been death once it was set in motion. Commandant Goeth saw the point when he gave orders for a road running through the camp to be made out of broken gravestones from a nearby Jewish cemetery.
With systematic evil so firmly in the ascendant, virtue had to find such openings as it could—and virtue, old-fashioned though it may sound, is Mr.Keneally’s theme. Not in any conventional sense, since Oskar Schindler was worldly, self-indulgent, notoriously unfaithful to his wife. Nor was there anything much in his early years to suggest a hero in the making. He liked taking risks—his one outstanding talent was for motorcycle racing—and a certain basic decency made him start backing away from the Nazis when they took over Czechoslovakia. (Before that he had briefly belonged to the pro-Nazi Sudeten German party.) But he was still willing to gather intelligence for Admiral Canaris’s Abwehr on business trips across the Polish border—not the least appeal of the Abwehr connection was that it exempted him from military service—and he could contemplate the invasion of Poland with patriotic equanimity. As Mr. Keneally says, “he must still have approved of the national business, though he did not like the management.”
For the rest, he was astute, energetic, a rather coarse-fibred man, a cool operator. He could be witty, and he clearly had a smooth Continental charm, but it is easy to imagine that one might not have been particularly drawn to him if one had met him under ordinary circumstances. But that is scarcely the point. It is almost inconceivable that someone with austere moral scruples or an exquisite sensibility could have been in Schindler’s position in Cracow in 1940. He found himself where he did because he was an opportunist: the remarkable thing is that what he seized on was the opportunity to do good.
One of the commonest sentiments expressed by Schindler survivors, we are told, is “I still don’t know why he did it.” All kinds of explanations are considered by Mr. Keneally, and no doubt they all have a certain truth in them. He had an anarchic streak, he had a sentimental streak, he was a gambler, he liked living dangerously (and he was detained more than once by the SS), he made it a secret point of pride not to be overwhelmed by the savagery around him. But none of this is enough to account for his extraordinary pertinacity, his obsessiveness, and in the end the mystery remains. Perhaps he simply could not help himself, it was something in his nature which had to come out. “The just man justices.”
The just woman, too. When Schindler moved on to his second camp, back in Moravia, he was rejoined by his wife Emilie. She was a woman only too well aware of her husband’s weaknesses—years later, on a television program, she was to describe him as nothing special before the war, and nothing special after—but she wholly supported him in what he was doing now. There are many stories of her working devotedly in the improvised clinic, performing kindnesses, nursing prisoners back to health when they had been given up for lost. Such images do at least something to blot out the memory of the hellcats of the Holocaust, the Ilse Kochs and Hermine Braunsteiners. They also testify to a sense of duty which, unlike Oskar’s, drew its chief inspiration from a source which was never in doubt. When one of the prisoners went into her apartment on the edge of the camp he noticed, hanging on the wall, a picture of Jesus with a flaming heart. He had seen the same picture in houses in Poland and he knew that for Jews it was not always a reassuring sign. But in the case of Emilie Schindler it turned out to be a pledge of true compassion, a pledge which was put to the test and honored.
Christian compassion and Christian fortitude are the twin themes of A Man for Others, a portrait of the Polish Franciscan priest Maximilian Kolbe, who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1941 and canonized by the Church last October. Quoting extensively from eyewitness accounts, Patricia Treece documents the appalling brutality to which Kolbe was subjected as a prisoner, his great courage and his unshakable faith. Under the most inhuman conditions he made many attempts to help or solace other prisoners, culminating in his stepping forward and asking to take the place of a Polish soldier, a married man with children, who was one of a group which had just been selected for execution: his request was granted, and together with the other victims he was thrust naked into an underground cell and left to starve to death.
Although the Auschwitz chapters inevitably overshadow what has gone before, Father Kolbe’s earlier career makes interesting reading. As a young man he founded a crusading group, the Militia Immaculatae, and with a gift of land outside Warsaw he established a religious community, Niepokalanow, which was to become not only the largest friary in the world but also the center of a powerful communications network, making full use of modern technology and embracing books, newspapers, magazines, and radio. After six years spent establishing a smaller center in Japan—at Nagasaki—he returned to take charge of Niepokalanow in 1936, and the years immediately before the outbreak of war saw him at the peak of his influence. His magazine The Knight of the Immaculate sold a million copies a week, an unprecedented circulation in a country with a population of less than thirty-five million; his popular paper The Little Daily sold 150,000 copies at a time when no serious Warsaw daily sold more than 50,000.
These were also the years in which the Polish government was tightening controls intolerably in an effort to squeeze out its Jewish minority, and when the Church, where it did not positively encourage the spread of anti-Semitism, did little to withstand it. It was against this background, as a number of commentators have pointed out since his canonization was announced, that Kolbe’s papers kept up a relentless anti-Semitic campaign, including a witch hunt against liberal-minded Poles who were regarded as unduly pro-Jewish. In the light of what happened subsequently, the whole story is full of tragic irony, but that does not alter the facts. In 1939, with the common enemy almost at the gate—an enemy who was not only to destroy Polish Jewry but to inflict the most grievous suffering on Polish Catholics—Kolbe was busy explaining to several million readers that if the fires of atheistic communism were raging ever more fiercely, it was because they were being fuelled by the “criminal mafia” of the Freemasons, and that behind the whole plot could be discerned the guiding hand of “international Zionism.” It scarcely cancels out the ill will which such remarks must have sown to add, as Father Kolbe’s defenders have done, that he sometimes reproved his collaborators for carrying their attacks on the Jews too far, and that he always insisted that conversion had to remain the highest goal.
There is no hint of any of this in A Man for Others, and the book is the poorer for it. A recent English book on Kolbe, Saint of Auschwitz by Diana Dewar, undoubtedly gains by edging toward the more troublesome aspects of the story, however tentatively.3 And while there is a sense in which Thomas Keneally had an easier task—since Schindler was no saint—one returns to Schindler’s List with renewed respect: for its balance, its refusal to sentimentalize, its willingness to pursue the truth down some strange and crooked paths.
Benjamin Ferencz, Less Than Slaves: Jewish Forced Labor and the Quest for Compensation (Harvard University Press, 1979).↩
Darton, Longman and Todd (London), 1982; to be published in May by Harper and Row.↩
Kolbe & Anti-Semitism April 14, 1983