Cities / Towns Visited: 50
Countries Visited: 15
Steps Taken Today: 20,241
Steps Taken Around the World: 1,796,738
Awaking with somewhat of an emotional hangover, we rose knowing that there was still one more place we had to visit in this pilgrimage of remembrance; Schindler’s Factory. Thus after a quick breakfast and a lengthy walk we arrived and joined the rather extensive line of people waiting to buy tickets. Eventually we made it through, and the furthering of our education continued.
To give a brief history to those who, like me, have never watched Schindler’s List, Oskar Schindler was a rather wealthy German businessman, and member of the Nazi Party, who opened an enamelware, metalworks, and ammunitions factory in Krakow during the German occupation of Poland. As with many German owned factories of the time he was given concentration camp prisoners as cheap labour, the inmates of course did not get paid, instead the money went to the Reich. The lucky few who were placed in Schindler’s factory were treated relatively well, being granted more food and care by their employer than most others. Although he was initially motivated by profits, eventually Schindler became aware of just how badly these men and their friends, families, neighbours, and fellow inmates were being treated. Instead of being vocal about his disagreement with the Nazi’s actions he used his position to do something spectacular. He firstly complained that because the inmates had to travel so far on foot from the camp to work, they weren’t productive, thus insisting they be moved to a smaller camp closer to the factory, a camp that was less likely to result in their murder, or death from overworking. He also bribed the Nazi’s with hard to obtain black market luxuries to keep him workers safe. Eventually he purchased a bigger factory in what is now the Czech Republic, and he insisted on taking his workers with him because they were skilled. He was granted this request, but when he wrote the names of the inmates down he wrote many more names alongside them, most often them family members of his workers. As it was during the war years, and the Nazi party was somewhat preoccupied with World War Two, the discrepancy slipped through administration unnoticed. In this one act of deception he saved 1200 Jews from almost certain murder at Auschwitz. Was he a perfect person? Of course not, he still willingly used slave labour to make himself rich, but in the end he spent most of his fortune on bribes to protect his workers and save hundreds of others, and such he will be remembered as a man who risked his reputation and his life to save countless lives.
The exhibitions in the factory are fascinating, not just focusing on Schindler, but instead showing how life was for Jews in Krakow during the German Occupation. From the building of the Jewish Ghetto, and the horrendous conditions they lived it, to the closure of schools and universities and the suppression of education of not only the Jewish population, but all Polish residents. It was shocking to hear that numerous professors who tried to continue teaching were arrested and sent to the concentration camps for a number of years as punishment. The Nazi’s basically turned teaching into an underground, black market profession, but many persisted in secretly educating the youth right through the occupation period.
There are countless horror stories posted around from the Jewish people who lived through this hell, people who had their homes commandeered by the Germans, and were forced out in the middle of the night and into the walled ghetto where they literally had maybe 1 square metre of living space per person in houses with strangers. They were forced to leave behind the majority of their possessions, which were used by the new Nazi residents, or sent back to Germany to provide funds for the Reich.
There are stories about some of the other saviours who aided in hiding Jews, risking their lives in the action, and there is a replica of the cellar of a Polish man who hid a family of Jews for a lengthy period to protect them. It was comforting to know that there were still good people willing to do anything to uphold what is right.
There was a whole display on the underground journalists who illegally published news within the Jewish Ghetto, and around Poland, explaining the situation to a country of people who had been cut off from all but the propaganda of the fascists. They also wrote about the movements of the Polish government which had sought asylum in England.
Please don’t think Polish people just laid down and accepted the German takeover, there was massive underground resistance groups who organised uprisings and riots and caused the deaths of many Nazi’s, but they were often quashed as they were understandably lacking in fire-power.
It was heartbreaking to read the stories of the horror and constant state of fear the Jewish people lived in, even before being sent to the concentration camps. But even more shocking was the last room of the exhibition, which houses rotating pillars with the regret filled stories of people who had perpetuated the stigmatisation of the Jews at the time. Stories of Krakow natives who recount ignoring Jewish former classmates and colleagues on the street after they were placed in the Ghetto. People who bought into the propaganda and inadvertently supported the genocide with their actions, or lack thereof.
Eventually we passed the photos of all of the lucky ones who were saved by Schindler, and headed on to our next location. It was time to quickly visit the last Holocaust related location for our trip; the Eagle Pharmacy. This site now sits as a museum, but during the German occupation of Krakow it was a working pharmacy in the Jewish Quarter of the city, run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz and his staff (the only non Jewish people allowed to live and work in the ghetto). Now it’s important to note that Schindler was in no way the only person who risked his reputation and safety to save those being persecuted. There were countless Schindler like saviours, and many Anne Frank like refugees. During the liquidation of the ghetto, where large numbers of Jews were marched out to be sent to the concentration camps, the lines trekked on mass past this small pharmacy. Pankiewicz and his staff managed to hide and smuggle out quite a number of lucky souls who managed to peel off from the line and duck into his shop unnoticed. Letting them seek refuge in his back room before escaping out the back door when it was safe. They also helped provide medications, food, and falsified travel documents in order to help save the Jewish community.
The museum keeps the same layout of the store at this time, with bottles of tinctures lining the shelves. In order to make the exhibit interactive you are able to open bottles and smell things, and open all of the countless drawers, many of which hide snippets of information as well as a collection of photos of the Jews saved here and the conditions of the ghetto. There is a glass display case displaying a bottle of Luminal, a sedative which some Jewish mother’s used to hush their babies so they could be hidden in bags to prevent them being taken away. Something which would most certainly be considered child abuse in any other situation, may have ended up saving these innocent infants. Pankiewicz’s office had been left set up, but now includes an interactive phone which links to the audio of the movie playing in the faux picture frame behind the desk. The back room which used to house the area where medicines were mixed still has its fume hood, but most other equipment had been removed and an art installation of photos hanging from the ceiling has been added. Although brief, our visit was informative, and it helped restore our faith in humanity to know that kind and brave souls like this exist in this weary world.
The day was wearing on, and we decided it was best to try and fit in some of the quicker sightseeing we hadn’t managed to squeeze in yet, thus off we trotted, pausing on the way to admire both St Andrew’s Church, a somewhat aged looking building but fronted with some stunning stone statues of saints atop its front fence; and the soaring spires of St Mary’s Cathedral in the main square. Our travels also passed by the clock tower fronted by its two rather amusing lion statues on the opposite side of the square, but decided not to pay to climb to the top as we would be getting sweeping views of the city from Wawel Castle the next day. Finally we reached the barbican which protects Florian’s gate, one of the prior entryways to the medieval city when it was walled. This hulking brick fortification with its four bronze topped towers was surely a deterrent to invading forces trying to reach the equally as beautiful gate into the city.
Having a little spare time, and with the attraction open late, we decided to fit one last thing into this jam packed day; the Rynek Underground. Now Rynek is Polish for market, and Rynek Glowny is but one of the few names the main square has had throughout its history; during the occupation it was known as Alter Markt, then Adolf-Hitler-Platz as the German’s tried to rid the country of Polish place names. Thus the Rynek Underground is the fascinating historic museum located in the labyrinth of cellars beneath the bustling old market square.
This excavated site houses the uncovered remains of the old streets and foundations of buildings which used to be at the surface in medieval times. It was amazing to see these undisturbed paths of cobblestones which had remained preserved underground for so long. The plethora of information thoroughly runs you through the ins and outs of life in Krakow back in the day, and includes many artifacts found in the archaeological digs, from pieces of ceramics, to coins, tools, metalwork, jewellery, and even a few skulls. It was refreshing to see some information about this area which wasn’t related to some tragic time in its past, but instead to when it was a thriving and prosperous city.
After our long and education filled day, it can confidently be said that we were exhausted, thus the only remedy was a quick and easy stop for pizza, followed by another of the country’s ridiculously tall soft serves, and a short walk home.
Before we knew it we were collapsing into bed. As I reflected on my day my heart was warmed by the thought that people like Oskar Schindler and Tadeusz Pankiewicz existed, that there were and still are people who would risk it all for strangers, and for what is right; that in a world where we are told to avoid and fear strangers, that there are some who would prove the assumption of evil intent false. There aren’t many of us who would fight our instinct of self preservation when faced with danger simply to save another. These people are a special breed, they are the ones who fill our emergency services ranks; the ones who run towards the danger when everyone is running away from it. They are the white people marching at black lives matter rallies; the men standing up for feminists; the straight people fighting for LGBTI rights. They are the people who stand up and risk abuse, both verbal and physical, for a cause which does not directly affect them as a person. They are an inspiration, and the kind of person I aspire to be. I hope that if placed in a situation where I could stand up in defense of the vulnerable that my legs would not falter, that I would call out the wrong even if my voice shakes. These are the people the world needs; they are our only chance at world peace.