Krakow and Schindler's Factory

Jul 10 2015 Published by under eastern europe, Uncategorized

Krakow, the small parts of it that I saw, is a tourist place, like other medieval city centers.  It reminded me of Tallinn, Riga, Ronne. The food was interesting, and I had 20 kinds of pierogis over the 3 days we were here.

Schindler's factory is now a museum of "Krakow during  WWII".  Actually, there is a good deal about the lead-up to the war and some about the communists and post-war. The Poles I have met, guides and the like, for whom I hold suspicions of pandering to Americans, seem to despise the Soviets, along with the Austro-Hungarian empire. Every guide we had took time to point out the sad state of affairs in the 19th Century when Poland did not exist as a nation and was divided amongst other hungry, rapacious entities. I suppose it is not different from the American pre-occupation with the Civil War. It is a bit sad to me to watch the Vietnam War era fade into the category of history-we-didn't-live, much the way I looked  at the Korean War and WWII. But today's children will have other atrocities to look back on.

One of the perspectives I got on the issues of the early-mid 20th century came from  visiting the Old Synagogue, the first synagogue in Krakow, that now exists as a museum and concert space. The main exhibit was an introduction to Judaism. But there was another, special exhibit on the cultural and civic changes that occurred in Krakow from about 1850s through to about 1930s. These were led by wealthy Jews, who built schools, and infrastructure, and cultural institutions. Jews were 30-40% of the population of greater Krakow, and seemed to be integrated into civic life, and were councilmen and leaders at nearly every level. The exhibit would have you believe that they were accepted. The pictures show at least this leadership looking assimilated, having discarded the orthodox garb that others in the area still maintained.

Of course these people did not leave Poland in the late 1800's, as did my peasant ancestors. These people, as did many of the professional and owning class Germans, could probably not believe that anything would change this way of life and send them off to Concentration Camps. Indeed, if you asked me whether I thought that in ten years someone would be systematically trying to kill all the Jews of America, I would laugh. I would say that yes, I believe it is possible, because my mother was absolutely paranoid about Nazis and saw them behind every pillar and that the potential is always there. But I would also say that I think this is only my culturally transmitted paranoia, and not realistic. I am sure that Jews thought this could not happen in the land of Beethoven and Bach, let alone Chopin and Copernicus. The ones who left were the poor, illiterate and often from small Jewish villages that no longer exist.

Back to Schindler's factory: There was little about Schindler, and mostly about Krakow. It was the best museum so far. While there was still the obsession with detail and preserving and presenting every single piece of paper, there seemed to be more organizing principles and context than the museums in Warsaw. Within each room, there was  more of a story into which the details were embedded. There was still a lot of computer based displays, of which 10-20% were not functional. There was a rather boring movie with interviews of people who worked in Schindler's factory. Which brings me to the next point: boring real history vs. the somewhat fictionalized account of Spielberg (who is quite revered in Krakow - where ever he went, people mention that "Spielberg was here").

I have not read the book about Schindler that moved Spielberg to make the movie in the first place. If this bears further thought, I ought to read it. In the museum there were two rooms (of 20-ish) that were about Schindler - his office and an anteroom. The information pointed out that Schindler never had a list, and that the scene in the movie of typing the list was fiction.

What, then, is the value of the movie? Absent the movie, not 1 in a million Americans, Europeans, Jews would know of him. Yet now , the museum was packed, as in can't move shuffle forward, get on the airplane lines.

[we just crossed border into Slovakia. Listening to music from the Tatra Mountains. Hopefully this is a non-difficult crossing, so says our guide. The music is not so great. Or perhaps an acquired taste - accordions and violins and a relentless snare-bass-line].

The museum gets upwards of 1000 visitors a day and has a limit on the number of tickets it sells. People are learning. This is probably a drop in the bucket, as it were, for people who have seen the movie, and believe that it is true. Much of the movie is, but parts of it are not. The little girl in the red coat was actually a real person, and after the movie wrote a book about it. The ending, with people walking over the hill into Israel infuriated my father. We had an argument about the role of visual art. Is it better to give many people a little history, even if its tweaked at the edges to making it art, to make it more palatable? The 30 min movie in the museum talking about Schindler was not going to change, move, or upset anyone. Much of it was interviews, and edited ones at that. But the movie changed people. It had speeches that changed people. It was not living history.

What I am left with, right now, leaving Poland, is a sense of the overwhelming banality of the what happened. How did this happen? The image is of the bored Nazi Officer, casually standing by while people suffered. The people of Poland don't want to forget what happened. It feels that it is still real for them. For me, here and there, now and then, I reached something, something reached in to me, and and felt very strongly about what happened.


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