It’s quite a walk from our apartment to the southern side of the river where Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory was situated during WWII. Krakow had a big freeze in the days before we arrived so the river is partially frozen and there’s plenty of snow still on the ground. This in itself makes for an interesting experience for us.
Like many of my generation I learned about Oskar Schindler through the movie Schindler’s List. Whatever criticisms might be laid at that film, without it I wouldn’t know to come here to this museum on the outskirts of Krakow’s city heart. It’s still in an industrial estate with factorie all around and it would be easy to wonder whether you are even in the right area. In summer pre-purchase of tickets is recommended because that many people want to see this place. Even now, in the middle of winter, over 200 tickets have been sold during the period of our visit (there is a counter).
A word on Polish museums: they are massive and every minute detail of the events they mark is recorded there. Leave yourself at least 3 hours if you want to do this museum justice. Inside you will see photos, walk through rooms set up in period style including alleyways with cobblestone floors, and plenty of other artifacts. If there’s any criticism I can raise is that there’s almost too much detail. So if you are an ADD person like me, don’t spend too much time at the start of a Polish museum or you’ll be exhausted by the end. 🙂
The museum at Schindler’s factory tells the story of life in Krakow before and during German occupation. It’s heartbreaking to see photos of a lively city and content Jewish people in the beginning of the museum and then to see the way it changes throughout the story. These street signs were erected by the Nazis in an attempt to Germanify the city of Krakow. All the original Polish street names were changed by the Germans during the occupation.
Oskar Schindler saved 1,200 Jews by employing them in his factory. There is a moving display of the names of those he saved.
The museum tells of Schindler as an ordinary man with plenty of failings. He came to Krakow to make money because he saw an opportunity to employ cheap Polish labour and then discovered that Jews are cheaper still. The war gave him a market for his enamel products. He didn’t set out to be a hero. But that’s just what he became. At a time when plenty of people closed their eyes to the plight of the Jews in wartime Europe, Schindler came to see his workers as people. He chose not to turn a blind eye as so many others had. And it is at this part of the museum’s story that I felt emotion well up. Because today the world is facing the worst refugee crisis since WWII and every day I see my Facebook feed filled with hatred against Muslims, people from the Middle East and refugees. I am filled with revulsion every time I see status updates and memes calling for “boat people” to be sent back home, when I see posts that dehumanise Muslims and when I read about how the government of my country has banned anyone from disclosing what happens in off-shore detention centers where the world’s most vulnerable people are held like criminals when all they’ve done wrong was lose the lottery of birth. And it makes me wonder: as I any different to those who stood by and did nothing when Hitler dehumanised the Jews? And what about my friends who actually sprout vile anti-Muslim clap trap? We judge those of WWII who did nothing to stop anti-Jew propaganda and policies but what do I do today to help the refugees fleeing war, persecution and certain death?
We leave the factory museum and walk towards the Jewish Ghetto. It was here that Jews were forced to live under the occupation. It was here that they were subjected to constant terror, starvation and murder. Even before they got to the concentration or death camps, tens of thousands of Jews were killed in undocumented numbers. Before WWII started, Poland had the second largest Jewish population in the world with over 3 million Jews (about 10 per cent of the total Polish population). By the end of WWII there were fewer than 300,000 Polish Jews who survived the war. That’s less than one in ten who survived.
There’s a few monuments in the ghetto including these 47 empty chairs that are intended to show that anyone could have been a victim of the ghetto liquidation and war crimes committed during the Holocaust.
The WW2 history of Poland is rough and intense. It was thought provoking and caused us to have many discussions between ourselves. I worry about the future (not in a lay awake at night way) because we don’t know what the next decade will bring. I hope that the world’s leaders and citizens calm down to avoid full blown war. I also hope that all people start to see human problems as human problems, rather than seeing the world through racially prejudiced eyes (regardless of what colour those eyes are). Hatred breeds hatred. Violence begets violence. And the propaganda machine seems to be doing its thing again as it has in the past. If I take anything away from Schindler’s factory it’s that I will not allow myself to ever believe that any one race of humans is lesser than others.