Sunday, December 31, 2006

Fabrika Schindlera Amelia

I had no idea how much of 20th Century history found its epicenter in Krakow.

One of Europe’s oldest universities was founded here in 1364 by King Casimir III. Among the school’s graduates were Copernicus and Pope John Paul II. Because of the welcoming policies of King Casimir, many Jews made their way to Krakow and they became a significant force in the city’s commercial, artistic and intellectual life over the course of over 500 years. Their vibrant community was centered on the Kazimiercz District, named in honor of King Casimir. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, most of the 68,000 Jews living in Krakow were forced to leave their homes and settle into a walled ghetto comprised of 320 homes. Less than 5% of those individuals survived the end of the war.

Of the 3,500 who did survive the Holocaust, over 1,100 of them owed their lives to Oskar Schindler, whose list was memorialized in Stephen Spielberg’s epic film. Schindler had bought the large enamel factory across the Vistula from the Kazimiriercz District, and I was able to hire many of the Jews who were living only a few hundred meters away in the new walled ghetto. Schindler’s humane treatment of his workers and his courageous actions during the war saved the lives of those whose release he purchased.

On Friday, my son Tim took me and my sister with him to the site of Schindler’s factory. The building is being renovated and turned into a proper museum. It is due to open to the public next week. Tim was able to persuade the watchman to let us get a sneak peek inside the museum. We were the first persons to view a short documentary film about Schindler and the making of the movie, “Schindler’s List.” We climbed the stairs and spent time in the Schindler’s office, where his life-saving list was compiled.

The story of what Schindler accomplished in sparing the lives of the 1,100 workers is one of the few “feel good” stories to come out of the horrors of the Holocaust.

As we returned to the Kazimiercz District, Tim brought us to see the Jewish cemetery there. A wall has been constructed using broken pieces of gravestones that had been desecrated during the Nazi occupation. We also visited a museum dedicated to tell the stories of the Jews of Galacia – now part of Southern Poland and Western Ukraine. Most of the Jews of Galacia were annihilated during the Holocaust, many of them dying in the death camps surrounding Krakow.

As you can imagine, this visit to Krakow has been full of learning and of deep emotional responses to the sad history that occurred in and around this beautiful city.


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