By John Hertz: (reprinted from Vanamonde 1253) I met Poldek Pfefferberg (1913-2001) as Thomas Keneally had.
In Polish “Poldek” is the familiar form — like our “Bob” for Robert — of Leopold, Pfefferberg’s given name. In 1980 he had a leather-goods shop in Beverly Hills. Keneally was looking for a briefcase. Thus Keneally wrote Schindler’s List (1982), which won the Booker Prize, and Steven Spielberg directed the 1993 movie, which won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director.
Pfefferberg, born in Cracow, had a master’s degree in philosophy and physical education from Jagiellonian University (founded 1364; among its graduates, Copernicus and Pope John Paul II; motto Plus ratio quam vis [Latin] “Let reason prevail over force”), was a physical-education professor, joined the Polish Army in 1939, made lieutenant, fought against the Nazi invasion that set off World War II, survived, married in 1941 during the thick of this, and eventually came here. Sometimes he used the surname “Page” given him at Ellis Island.
Oskar Schindler (1908-1974) saved him and 1,300 other Polish Jews by telling Nazi authority he needed them to work in his factories. On Schindler’s list Pfefferberg was No. 173; his wife Misia (1920-2008) was No. 195. Schindler was a hero. He was also a black-marketeer, a carouser, a womanizer, and an Abwehr (“ahp-vare”, military intelligence) agent. In 1947 Pfefferberg promised Schindler, over a game of cards at Munich, that Pfefferberg would make Schindler’s name a household word. In 1980 Keneally was fascinated by how complicated Schindler was. Keneally had written twenty books. Pfefferberg had spent four decades telling the story.
In 1985 I was in Beverly Hills looking for a briefcase. I soon learned who the shopowner was. He had newspaper and magazine clippings about the book. The movie took longer. Pfefferberg never doubted a moment. “An Oscar for Oskar.”
In 2007 Keneally wrote Searching for Schindler about Keneally’s part, meeting Pfefferberg, interviewing Schindler Jews and showing them drafts of Schindler’s List, visiting Schindler’s grave in Israel, working with Spielberg. Photographs show historical people and places and their movie reënactment (dieresis mark for Phil Castora). Nan Talese was the Simon & Schuster editor who commissioned Schindler’s List; she left while it was in progress; the U.S. edition of Searching — Keneally is Australian — appeared under her imprint at Doubleday. Keneally ate at Spielberg’s mother’s kosher restaurant The Milky Way. I did too. She died (Leah Adler, 1920-2017) in February.
Alexander grieved he had no Homer to sing his deeds. Schindler, who slew no thousands, nor ten thousands, but overcame some of the evil around him and, remarkably, in himself, had two.