A visit to Oscar Schindler’s Enamel Factory inKraków
By Motti Verses
When Queen Elizabeth’s death was announced, we were in Kraków, Poland standing in the ticket queue at the Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory – today a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. Standing in front of us were a group of English ladies – a clear giveaway from their accent.
“Where are you from?” I asked politely.
“From Northern Ireland,” they eagerly replied.
“But your Queen has just passed away. Why are you here?” I asked.
Their collective reply was poignant and prescient:
“Nothing will stop us from visiting this place. Nothing.”
Observing the masses of visitors inside speaking in countless languages, I understood how powerful the Oskar Schindler name is. Although this October Oskar Schindler passed away 48 years ago, his legacy keeps growing in popularity contributing enormously to educating about the Holocaust. Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s 1993 Oscar award winning “Schindler’s List”, Oskar Schindler was transformed from relative obscurity into a global hero, while the movie careers of Liam Neeson (as Schindler) and Ralph Fiennes (as Amon Goeth, the SS commandant of the notorious Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp) skyrocketed.
A permanent exhibit entitled “Krakow under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945”, was riveting as it was equally horrifying. Comprising 45 exhibition rooms, every minute was literally hair-raising – little wonder I and others walked around with goose bumps! Numerous black and white documentaries of Jewish life in the ghetto take you back to a dark time, reinforced by the dark ambiance.
This experience includes a ride in a historical tram of the period, holding a leather strip attached to its ceiling rail. The black and white movies seen from the windows, reflect ghetto street scenery. The visitor experiences going back in time -a dreadful excursion into a dark past.
Unlike Jewish Holocaust memorials I have visited in the past, this exhibition is different as it presents Poland as the core focus, emphasising that both Polish Christians and Jews as one collective were victims of Nazi atrocities. There is a major focus on the part played by the Polish military trying to resist the German Nazi invasion which although resulted in total failure, the Polish soldiers are presented – throughout the exhibition – as war heroes. Clearly, what is in play here is to revise the history of Poland’s role in WWII so as to crush any suggestions or intimations of Polish collusion. The official announcement of the exhibition states the following:
“The exhibition is primarily a story about Kraków and its inhabitants, both Polish Christians and Jews, during World War II. It is also a story about Nazi Germans – the occupiers, who arrived here on 6 September 1939, brutally disrupting Kraków’s centuries long history of Polish-Jewish relations”.
As part of the exhibition, the visitor walks along the Ghetto’s dark streets, on cobblestones with darkened light, resembling the winter weather. The walls have arched designs, similar to bible scrolls. This was the architecture set by the Nazis to identify the ‘people’ locked within – isolated from the rest of Polish society. Some visitors interpreted the design of the walls as resembling tombstones in a Jewish cemetery, implying there was little to no chance that any of the residents would ever leave alive.
Oskar Schindler’s heroism is naturally a significant part of the experience. A walk inside his former office is intensely emotional as this historic room located in the factory’s administrative building has been preserved intact. The most impressive exhibit in the office is the symbolic “Survivors’ Ark”. It is made of thousands of enameled pots, similar to those manufactured by Schindler’s employees during the war. An extraordinary work.
History marks the following facts. After the German troops entered Kraków, Schindler moved to the Polish city and took over the former enamel factory “Rekord”, converting it into the Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik. The factory also provided for the German munitions industry, which guaranteed its owner special privileges. Schindler employed more and more Jews by the year, saving them from death in concentration camps.
In 1944, Schindler evacuated his employees to Moravia, where the factory functioned until the Red Army entered on May 8th, 1945. Schindler, who saved over one thousand Jews, was awarded with the title of the Righteous Among the Nations in 1963. The Righteous Among the Nations are non-Jewish individuals who have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, for risking their lives to aid Jews during the Holocaust.
As an Israeli – visiting Kraków’s Jewish district known as Kazimierz, just outside the old city walls – was an experience that was both illuminating and shocking. Exploring it with a golf cart and guide is highly recommended. “Kazimierz is Kraków’s China Town,” said our guide Walter – a middle-aged Professor that worked at the University as a Mathematician – driving a yellow golf cart. At first I thought the description offensive, however on reflection, thinking about it objectively, he was right. No human story can beat what the Jewish community contributes to tourism flowing to this impressive and most recognisable Polish urban brand in the world. Nothing remained from the old Jewish Ghetto. Sixty-five iron chairs are all set permanently in its former square. Symbolically marking 65,000 Jewish lives that were sent to death camps. Families and little children play there, using the sculptures as a playground. In this way, they inter’play’ with the past, hopefully having a positive impact on the future.
A visit to Kraków must be on everybody’s bucket list, including – 70 Kilometres to the west – Auschwitz concentration camp. If you make the trip there or not, the experience of the Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory on 4 Lipowa Street is highly recommended. The sound and sight of goose steps has past but its legacy leaves lingering goose bumps as I leave.
The visit will stay with me forever.
* Feature picture – The writer standing in front of the entrance to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory with photographs of the Jewish workers he saved (photo: Motti Verses).
About the writer:
Motti Verses is a Communications Executive, Video Presenter, Writer, Marketing and PR Expert. He was Head of Public Relations for Hilton Hotels Israel for more than 30 years. Now he is the publisher of Travel Flash Tips.
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