WARNING: This post contains Nazi emblems and imagery of graphic violence.
Last night, I couldn’t sleep. Each time my head hit the pillow and my eyelids fell shut, all I could see were the images from Auschwitz, while my imagination ran roughshod with nightmarish stories emerging from the shadows of the past.
Moments like this were made for melatonin.
Today’s quest was to continue our exploration of the stories from the Holocaust; however, our agenda remarkably contrasted with that of yesterday’s, for today, our destination was Oskar Schindler’s factory.
Muzea Krakowie has established sites all over the city of Krakow dedicated to its long and illustrious history, many of which are understandably devoted to the period from 1939-1945. Schindler’s factory is one of the largest exhibits in this collection, and the way it is set up is astoundingly brilliant.
As we entered the factory, moving beyond the cafè and bookshop, time moved back to the years just before the war in Europe broke out. We were transported back in time and immersed in the 1930s through audiovisual displays, artifacts such as letters, posters, and various objects, along with a cinematic parade of witnesses telling their stories on camera.
Krakow was a vibrant city prior to the Nazi occupation, full of life and wonder, so as the German forces invaded, the exhibits turned predictably dark and foreboding.
First, they came for the intellectuals. One of the rooms featured a collection of “work cards” given to professors and other educators, many of whom were the first to conveniently disappear from the city.
There were recordings of SS officers making proclamations regarding the closing and shuttering of schools and universities, seeing as how their teachings contradicted the German way of life:
Testimony from radio transcripts was also especially disturbing, given the similarities in some ways to nationalistic messages being broadcast today:
Seeing the change in atmosphere for Poles in their home country put into stark perspective how rapid and violent the transformation really was.
As our family continued the tour, it began to show the deadly transformation from city to prison, as the Jews were moved into the ghetto, walled in, and separated into two camps: the ‘A’ side, where employable workers lives, and the ‘B’ side, where they kept the elderly, sick, and children.
Descriptions from residents of the ghetto regarding work life, home life, and the constant threats of violence and death began to make us realize that what we have seen in movies and such were mere slices of that life that failed to capture the true enormity of it all.
And then, we arrived at the night of March 13, 1943: Liquidation of the ghetto. The notoriously sadistic commandant of the Płaszów forced labor camp, Amon Goethe, felt operations in the camp were too inefficient, and he ordered the liquidation of the entire ghetto, with all able-bodied workers to be transferred to the camp immediately.
The stories that follow are first-hand accounts.
Anyone who has seen the Oscar-winning film, Schindler’s List, will immediately recall this scene, as it is the one with the little girl in the red coat. It was also the moment in the story where Schindler saw the girl from atop his horse, perched on the hilltop overlooking the ghetto, where we can derive that his conscience finally understood the gravity of what was happening. As the pharmacist above stated, the curtain of lies had finally been lifted, removing all doubt as to their fates.
This was also the point where Schindler committed to action. I won’t recall the entire story of the list here, but instead, I’ll skip to the conclusion: Schindler’s actions saved the lives of 1200 Jews who would have otherwise died at the hands of the brutal Nazi regime. His actions came at a significant risk to not only his life, but also the life of his spouse, Emilie, and for that risk and the subsequent outcome, the couple were awarded Righteous Among the Nations by Israel in 1993.
As we walked up the stairs so familiar from the film, knowing that this was the exact spot where lives had been saved as the result of compassion for one’s fellow humans filled us with joy.
Seeing the desk where his secretaries sat and potentially, where Itzhak Stern may have typed portions of the list, only multiplied the warmth of that goodness.
But, the pinnacle of this tour had to have been walking into Oskar Schindler’s office and seeing his original desk, with original pictures on display. This is where he may have met with SS officers to make deals and bribes to save more lives. This is where he concocted plans to expand his operation by adding on to the factory and opening a new one closer to the work camp, thereby liberating and protecting even more.
On our way back to our apartment, we passed through Ghetto Heroes Square, where there sit 70 oversized metal chairs, perpetually empty. This square was where registration and selection took place, where the able-bodied were separated from those who were deemed unfit and thereby deported and doomed. Each chair is said to represent 1000 Jews who were deported from Krakow during this time period.
But, across the street, on the Schindler side of the square, sits one lonely chair, which is said to represent the 1200 lives saved and the generations of others born as a result.
The stories from the Schindler Jews and their descendants balanced the scales toward justice and righteousness, which complemented our visit to Auschwitz yesterday.
Tonight, I might sleep a bit easier, knowing that, despite the apparent evil in the world, good will always rise up to confront it, and in the end, it is that goodness that we celebrate triumphantly.
“Whosoever saves one life, saves the world entire.”