At the beginning of World War II, Oskar Schindler was in his early thirties, a large, boisterous, hedonistic young man from a prosperous German Catholic family who was determined to profit from the war effort. In the fall of 1939 he went to the occupied Polish city of Cracow and acquired a rundown factory, which he named Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik and in which he manufactured kitchenware under lucrative army contracts. It was not long, though, before Schindler and his factory turned to a higher and more dangerous business: the rescue of Polish Jews from the death camps of the Third Reich.

By the end of the war Schindler had been directly responsible for saving more than 1,200 lives, at enormous financial expense to himself and at constant risk of imprisonment or death at the hands of the SS. Beyond any question, he was one of the most heroic figures of the resistance, one to be ranked with the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved so many lives in Budapest. But his deeds are less widely known than those of Wallenberg, who in recent years has been the subject of numerous articles, books and broadcasts; it is clearly the hope of Thomas Keneally, in whose book Schindler's "astonishing history appears for the first time in extended form," to give Schindler the due that is clearly owed him.

Schindler's story is "astonishing" for several reasons. The first and most obvious is that there is simply no explanation for what moved this rather privileged young man of no strong religious faith or intellectual depth to become "the just Goy, who could be used (by Jews) as buffer or partial refuge against the savageries of others." A second is that he succeeded in his task against implacable, overwhelming, irrational odds. And a third is that he resorted to subterfuges of the utmost ingenuity in order to carry out his mission.

His factory, which was known to its workers as Emalia, was staffed by forced labor from Plaszow, the concentration camp at Cracow, the commandant of which was an inordinately savage SS officer named Amon Goeth. In order to shelter his workers from Goeth's random, unpredictable assaults, Schindler came up with the idea of establishing his own camp, nearby the factory, which he would build and operate at his own expense; Goeth and the SS bought his argument that "I want my workers on the premises so that their labor can be more fully exploited," and thus was established what was later described by witnesses as "the only camp in the Nazi-occupied territories where a Jew was never killed, or even beaten, but was always treated as a human being." Keneally writes:

"Long afterward, Emalia people would call the Schindler camp a paradise. Since they were by then widely scattered, it cannot have been a description they decided on after the fact. The term must have had some currency while they were in Emalia. It was, of course, only a relative paradise, a heaven by contrast with Plaszow. What it inspired in its people was a sense of almost surreal deliverance, something preposterous which they didn't want to look at too closely for fear it would evaporate . . ."

But in the final months of the war, as Russian troops closed in on the Nazi army from the east and Allied troops from the west, Schindler's delicate sanctuary was placed in the direst jeopardy; the order came down from the German director of armaments to shut down the Cracow camps. Once again falling back on his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks, Schindler bargained with Goeth and came up with an alternative: He would move his factory to the village of Brinnlitz and would be allowed to draw up a list of Jewish prisoners whom he could take as his work force -- prisoners who presumably would be spared the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

This is indeed what happened. Though it required a seemingly endless succession of brave, risky moves and countermoves, Schindler carried off his improbable mission. At the end of the war, armed with a letter from his former prisoners, written in Hebrew and testifying to his heroism, he made his way to safety -- and back into an ordinary, rather unsuccessful life in which he never again really distinguished himself. His moment was over, but while it lasted he was an exalted man, a "righteous person." As one who owed her life to him said: "He was our father, he was our mother, he was our only faith. He never let us down."

His story has been told capably by Keneally, the Australian novelist best known for "The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith" and "Confederates." The narrative is flawed by the author's insistence on employing devices of the "new" journalism, especially that of placing thoughts in the minds of his characters, and a clearer identification of his sources than is contained in the author's note really should have been provided. But "Schindler's List" has about it a strong, persuasive air of authenticity, and as an act of homage it is a most emphatic and powerful document.