Schindler's Ark, by Australian author Thomas Keneally is the source material for Stephen Spielberg's film, Schindler's List.

It tells, in a fictionalised format, the true story of Oskar Schindler, a fast talking, more-or-less corrupt German businessman, who sets up shop as a manufacturer of enamel ware in Krakow in the wake of the Nazi occupation of Poland. He's a womaniser, a hard drinker, a very fallible human being.

His labour force is made up of Polish Jews, initially in order to maximise his profit from the investment, and his customers, whom he woos with gifts and kickbacks, are high ranking Nazi officials, including the Commandant of the city's labour camp, Amon Goeth.

Oskar is an opportunist. He has no ideological attachment to the Nazi cause, he simply wants to turn a quick buck. His social contact with Amon leads him to observe and become gradually more appalled by the commandant's casual brutality, sybaritic lifestyle and venality, and he becomes more and more sympathetic to the plight of the Jews who work for him. Much of this sympathy is built from his relationship with the Jewish accountant who manages the finances of the factory, Itzhak Stern.

He begins by providing them with decent food, and treatment, and over time his factory becomes a refuge as he builds accommodation for them and provides ever more jobs for 'specialist workers' -- in fact children – "their small hands are ideal for polishing the insides of shells", rabbis "I have a place for any man who can turn out a hinge in less than a minute", musicians, etc. Basically all those in greatest danger from the Nazis can be found a place at Oskar's factory.

Over time, Oskar takes bigger risks, showing his sympathies more openly and becoming a target for the SS himself, but escaping prison or worse by simply being too valuable to the powers that be.

Almost inevitably, he finds himself acting the role of hero, not because he is a heroic type, but simply because basic human decency demands it.

As the war draws to a close, the position of the Jews becomes ever more tenuous. They are living evidence of atrocity, and soon are being shipped to death camps. The ark of the title (or the list, later, in the movie) is Schindler's move to save 'his' Jews from the deluge, by labelling them as essential war workers and shipping them to a new camp, which will in the end absorb the huge fortune he has amassed. The effort spreads beyond his own workers, and eventually becomes the stuff of legend.

Schindler's Ark is grippingly written, well-paced and beautifully drawn. At no point are we allowed to forget that Oskar was a very human man, not a saint, and we like him all the more for it. Other heroes emerge too, including the quiet, scholarly Stern, and Oskar's forgiving and long-suffering wife Emilie.

A wonderful read, the book won the 1982 Booker Prize, and was republished, after the release of the movie, as Schindler's List.

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