KRAKOW, POLAND – A former factory that sheltered more than 1,000 Jews from the Nazis in this historic city is now open to the public – a Holocaust site made famous by Hollywood.
Until Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film “Schindler’s List,” few people knew the story of German businessman Oskar Schindler and the enamelware factory he ran after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939.
After the movie’s debut, “Schindler’s List” tours began to pop up in Krakow to show tourists some of the sites depicted in the film, including the Jewish neighborhood of Kazimierz and remnants of the ghetto where thousands of Jews were murdered or taken to be gassed at nearby Auschwitz.
At that time, the Schindler factory in a gritty industrial district was a faltering electronics plant. That changed on June 11, when Schindler’s Emalia Factory opened as a museum after a three-year, $4.7 million restoration.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton toured the city-owned museum on July 3 during a state visit, calling it a “factory of memory.”
The museum “serves as a reminder that when we learn of crimes that cry out against our conscience we cannot stand by in quiet revulsion, hoping the world will fix itself,” Clinton said.
A branch of The Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, the multimedia exhibit is the first permanent memorial to Krakow’s occupation from 1939 to 1945. Its interactive displays integrate the tragic fate of 65,000 Jews with the Nazis’ brutal treatment of the entire city.
The exhibits “reflect very well the threat and eeriness of the times during the Nazi occupation,” said Anna Szczygielska, a teacher from a town near Warsaw who toured the museum the week of Clinton’s visit.
The city of Krakow bought the factory in 2005. As the museum was planned, controversy erupted over its scope.
Some thought it should concentrate solely on Schindler’s story. Others argued that Schindler was one of many Holocaust heroes and the broader story of Nazi oppression needed to be told, said Edyta Gawron, a historian on the team that developed the museum concept.
Only showing Schindler’s story “was a bit too easy and in a sense dangerous – that the visitors would know only one person who saved or helped the Jews of Krakow, but they would not know the story of the other individuals and groups during the time of German occupation,” Gawron said.
Visitors have complimented the museum for its design, the balance of information and the interactive nature of the exhibits, she added.
Entering the museum, the visitor sees an aerial view of Krakow on the eve of the Nazi occupation and learns of the Nazis’ plans for this medieval city with one of the most distinguished universities in Europe.
The Nazis turned Krakow into the capital of their “Government General,” Polish lands that weren’t directly incorporated into the Third Reich.
Their fiefdom was ruled by lawyer Hans Frank, Adolf Hitler’s personal legal adviser. He was executed for war crimes in 1946 after a trial at Nuremberg.
One of Frank’s first acts was to arrest 186 professors at the Jagiellonian University on Nov. 6, 1939, sending them to a concentration camp. A docudrama in the museum depicts the faculty being evicted from the university, flanked by Nazi troops.
The Nazis killed tens of thousands of educated Poles in 1939 and thousands more in 1940, with the goal of turning Poland into a slave colony that would serve the Third Reich. Museum photos show smiling German families relocated to Poland as the vanguard of this policy
Visitors also get a glimpse of ordinary life in the besieged city: trams, traffic and Nazi patrols, the hideouts of resistance fighters, and apartments. One segment is paved with floor tiles bearing the Nazi swastika; large Nazi flags create a claustrophobic effect as the invaders display their power to control and destroy.
The Nazis’ plan for the Jews wasn’t clear at first, but signs and photos show the ominous trends: Jews are barred from using public transportation and from attending schools. They are eventually forced into a bricked-up ghetto.
By 1941, the Nazis’ “final solution” for the Jews evolved into mass murder, and the Krakow ghetto was liquidated in 1943.
Museum tableaux show poignant scenes of everyday life in the ghetto. The visitor hears the growls of German shepherds as SS patrols march nearby. Letters written by small children – including 8-year-old Roman Polanski – describe the barbed wire, the hunger and the fear.
Szczygielska, the Polish teacher, said she was especially struck by a display of the ghetto room in which four Jewish families lived – and a letter from a young girl who complains there’s no privacy at all.
“All the time she can hear somebody speaking, which was wonderfully evoked by subdued sounds of people’s conversations,” Szczygielska said.
Part of the exhibition is dedicated to Schindler and the fate of the Jews he employed.
The Nazi party member and German intelligence officer arrived in Krakow in 1939, taking over the enamelware factory set up by a group of Jewish businessmen in 1937.
Although Schindler was a party member, he was appalled by the Nazis’ treatment of the Jews, according to novelist Thomas Keneally, whose 1982 book “Schindler’s Ark” won the Booker Prize and was the basis for Spielberg’s movie.
Schindler hired Jews from the ghetto located near his factory. When the Germans destroyed the ghetto, moving survivors to the Plaszow concentration camp, Schindler convinced authorities to let him open a branch of the camp in his factory.
There, he fed people well and tried – through bribery and diplomacy – to protect them from the Nazis’ worst brutality. He also added an armaments division to support his claim that his workers were essential for the war effort.
Some of the workers’ moving stories of survival – and their gratitude for Schindler’s bravery – are told in videotaped accounts at the museum, where visitors can also see Schindler’s office, hung with a huge wall map of Europe with German place names.
The identities of the Jews that Schindler protected are inscribed in a pile of the utensils produced by the factory.
As the Soviet Army advanced toward Krakow in 1944, Schindler got permission to relocate his factory to the town of Brunnlitz in Bohemia. His assistants drew up several versions of a list of Jewish prisoners needed to work in the new factory – a lifeline that became known as “Schindler’s list.”
About 1,200 Jews were liberated from Schindler’s Brunnlitz factory by the Soviets on May 8, 1945.
After the war, Schindler and his wife Emilie migrated to Argentina, where they separated in 1957. Schindler returned to Germany alone.
In 1962, the Israeli Holocaust group Yad Vashem awarded Schindler its “Righteous Among the Nations” honor for his role in saving Jews. The award, according to Keneally, is based “on an ancient tribal assumption that in the mass of Gentiles, the God of Israel would always provide a leavening of just men.”
When the award was reported in the German press, Schindler was hissed on the streets of Frankfurt. After one 1963 incident, he was fined by a Frankfurt judge for slugging a German factory worker who accosted Schindler on the street, accusing him of being a “Jew kisser,” according to Keneally’s book.
Many of the Jews who owed their lives to Schindler continued to lobby the German government to reward his wartime heroism. German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer awarded him the Cross of Merit in 1966; three years later, he was granted a German pension.
After Schindler’s death in 1974, his body was buried in Jerusalem’s Catholic cemetery, a wish he’d declared in his final will.
In 1993, the U.S. Holocaust Museum presented its Medal of Remembrance to Schindler – a rare honor for extraordinary deeds during the Holocaust.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.