Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory

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What do you do when an occupying force moves into your beautiful city?  You resist, of course.  Just how mightily the Poles resisted Nazi occupation was made abundantly clear to me at Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory.

It was a damp morning in Kraków, but I didn’t want to waste one of my few remaining days in the city.  I had an imperfect understanding of the location of Schindler’s Factory, but I alighted from the tram, south of the river, and began my search.  I knew that I was in the right vicinity when I entered a huge square, full of sculpted seats and a sad photographic display in black and white. Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square) commemorates the Polish Jews who were imprisoned and died in the Kraków Ghetto between 1941 and 1943.

Oskar Schindler was a Nazi party member and a war profiteer, who earned the gratitude of 1100 Jews by giving them a second chance at life.  It is a remarkable story and one that touches me deeply.

The museum is a little off the beaten track, and my map reading skills sadly lacking, so I went inside the tiny art gallery on the square. The proprietor kindly gave me precise instructions (in English!) and I found my way around the excavations and building work to Ul. Lipowa.  It was raining steadily and I fell into step with a young Polish couple with an umbrella, who were also going to the museum. It being Monday, admission was free from 10-2.00pm, and understandably the museum was busy.  Initially I was a little confused by the layout, and the number of students clustered around, but once I found the correct door I was hooked.

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Just a handful of the former workers saved by Oskar Schindler’s intervention.  The museum takes you through the years 1939-45, starting with life before the war.  Then comes German occupation, with its restrictions and consequences.  People are evicted from their homes with nothing but a few personal possessions.  A curfew is imposed and it becomes necessary to queue for hours to obtain the most basic food.  Polish secondary schools and universities are closed.  The Polish press is liquidated.  Any figure of influence or authority is regarded as a threat and dealt with accordingly.  The use of home radio sets is forbidden.  Loud hailers broadcast propaganda twice daily, and eventually the names of those sentenced to death.  Inexorably the rounding up of the Jews into the ghetto begins.

And the Polish response to this?  ‘Secret’ schools conducted in defiance, though involvement was punishable by death or consignment to a concentration camp.  An underground press and formation of a resistance movement to sabotage German efforts wherever possible.  The gallery below features a ‘secret’ teacher and messages from pupils.  The first face reminds me so much of photographs I have seen, from that era, of a deceased family member.  Many stories, both of pathos and of heroism, are featured throughout the museum.

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Up concrete stairs to the first floor, the museum really comes to life, introducing a pre-war Kraków photographic studio and a cast of characters. Before the war Jews accounted for over 25% of the community, and both Christians and Jews sat together on the City Council.

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A narrow corridor leads to the Stereoscope- a device used for looking at individual stereoscopic photos.  They rotate inside a drum, giving the illusion of three-dimensionality.  This one dates back to the late 19th century.  It was a revelation.

On 1st September, 1939 war broke out, and on 6th September the Nazis entered Kraków. The Wehrmacht flag flew over the sacred site of Wawel, and from the outset the prohibitions and orders began.  Jewish shops had to be marked, and were plundered by the Germans, and all Jews over the age of 12 had to wear armbands with the Star of David on the right arm.  Racial segregation had begun.

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And then the nightmare of the Ghetto.  Intimidation, round-ups in the streets, imprisonment and interrogation in the Gestapo HQ on Ul. Pomorska and the prison at 7 Ul. Montelupich.  I read a few of the accounts of life in the ghetto, and the tram that ran through but didn’t stop.  There were sympathisers, of course, like Tadeusz Pankiewicz and his staff at the Eagle Pharmacy, who smuggled letters and messages to and from the ghetto.

17,000 people were contained within the ghetto walls, where 250-300 calories was the daily allowance for a Jew.  Details of the resettlement can be found here.  I had not realised that the arched shapes of the ghetto walls were intentionally designed to resemble Jewish tombstones.  How sick!

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Residents worked both within and outside of the ghetto, the luckier ones at Oskar Schindler’s Deutsche Emailwarenfabrik- DEF. These were taken to and from work under armed escort.  If you were not fit to work you would eventually be deported to an annihilation camp.

Zabłocie was an industrial area, with successful factories dealing in wire, mesh and iron products, soap, and enamelware and metal products. During the war a production plant for aeroplane parts and radiators, a crate factory and a barrack builders were added. Schindler took over receivership of the enamelware company, which was in financial straits, and with the aid of Jewish capital set about expansion.  A munitions section was added, to make mess tins for the Wehrmacht, and shells and fuses for artillery and air missiles, to assist in the war effort.  Working conditions were hard, but by steadily increasing his Jewish labour force from the ghetto, Schindler saved around 1100 grateful souls.

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In Schindler’s office a glass cube designed by Michal Urban is the centrepiece.  It contains metal cylinders, inscribed with the names of the 1100.

He was no saint, Schindler.  Perhaps that makes his story all the more remarkable.  I have included links that will enlarge on the story if you are interested. The museum is over 3 floors, in the original factory building.  I found it to be charged with atmosphere.

The Historical Museum website brings together information on all of the Kraków museums.

120 comments

  1. My daughter and I visited this museum a few summers ago (like you, we got a bit lost in the neighborhood!), and we found it to be a fascinating glimpse of Krakow life for Jews as the war progressed. It was a sobering place, and a complex one, but it was certainly more uplifting than our previous day’s journey to Auschwitz. 😦 I enjoyed your post and learned something new: that those metal pots and plates are inscribed with names – I did not catch that while there!

    1. I’ve never wanted to go to Auschwitz. Just reading about the experience is more than enough. Schindler intrigued me, and I could pick and choose a little what to look at in the museum. The kids get to me. What must it have been like to live through this as a child? I’m so glad you liked my post. Many thanks for your company. 🙂

  2. I would like to see this Jo but when I went to Krakow I was just a few days too early ahead of opening day. The Schindler story is a good one but there were a lot of other Schindlers and to some extent he was fortunate that Spielberg choose to make a film about him. He might, for example, have chosen the story of Carl Lutz who was the Swiss Vice Consul in Budapest (Hungary) who together with the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg are generally acknowledged with saving over sixty thousand Jews through the issue of Swiss/Swedish documents and ‘protective letters’ which enabled them to leave Budapest and travel to Palestine. They were responsible for the largest rescue operation of Jews of the Second World War but few people know of them.

    1. It’s true, Andrew. You need to write the piece! 🙂 Meg pointed me to a very interesting Guardian story concerning Thomas Keneally and how he became involved. I would have included it if I’d had the link sooner. Thanks for your company. Enjoy your English Sunday morning 🙂 🙂

      1. I wrote about it in a visit to Budapest – The Shoes on the Danube is a memorial that remembers the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were lined up and ordered to take off their shoes and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away by the current.

        The Arrow Cross was a national socialist party which led a government in Hungary known as the Government of National Unity from October 1944 to March 1945. During its short rule it is estimated that up to fifteen thousand people were murdered on the streets and eighty-thousand people were deported to their deaths in the Auschwitz concentration camp. It is said that they were so nasty that even Adolf Hitler thought they were extreme!

    2. I remember the memorial shoes, Andrew, but I don’t think I’d registered scale. Down the years there’ve been more than enough bad guys, haven’t there. Trouble is, we’re not out of the woods yet 😦 Just done Sunday lunch and ready to watch Murray. Happy Father’s Day 🙂

  3. Thank you Jo for this informative post. I recently watched the movie again but am fascinated with this museum and your detail of the town, the history, the reality. It is a period that we must never forget and I hope ours and future generations can learn from. Best wishes to you.

  4. You’ve done a marvellous job with this post, transferring your emotional reaction to us, and telling the story with absolute clarity and detail. Did it take a long time to write, or did it just flow because you were so caught up in it?

    1. Hello sweetheart 🙂 Feet up for a bit? I knew very much what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it, Meg, but I wanted the facts to be correct and as full as I could make them without lecturing. All of yesterday and most of Wednesday evening, so yes, relatively long. I was glad when it was finished- a bit the same reaction I had when I came out of the museum. There is a perfect bar selling natural wines just a few steps away and I was happy to just sit and let it go. How about you- good day? 🙂

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