Tuesday, March 12, 2013

First Impressions of Krakow

Arriving in Krakow three hours later than we had anticipated, what we saw upon arrival was darkness, which meant we were too tired to make our first attempts at Krakow at 10 o'clock at night. 

Getting up this morning, we went downstairs for breakfast, enjoying incredibly strong coffee, bread, cheeses, fruit, and ham.  Knowing that we had a full day ahead of us, we sat out for the other side of the Vistula River.  Home to Oskar Schindler's Factory, the Jewish Ghetto, and Plaszow Camp, we went in that direction first. Planning to walk, we quickly learned that it was much too far, and well, since it was raining and cold, we opted to take a tram. 

One of the main reasons I chose to visit Krakow because of its place in history concerning the Holocaust. Here, you had the infamous Plaszow Camp where Amon Goth was the horrendous Nazi guard [portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List]. You also have the original Jewish Ghetto where so many were herded out of their homes and into a small area of town. Lastly, Schindler's  Factory at Lipowa 4. 

Oskar Schindler was born in Czechoslovakia. Joining the Nazi Party early on, he decided to come to Poland to make his fortune. An entrepreneur, he took on the opportunity to fund an enamel factory. Hiring poles to work for him, many in the area were Jewish. Inside, factory workers created pots, pants, armory, and more. 

During the occupation of Krakow by the Nazi's, Schindler made sure that his workers had proper documentation that would not allow for any of them to be arrested by authorities. However, Plaszow Camp was not far, and if any workers were caught without papers, they could easily be picked up and sent to the labor camp, under the rule of Amon Goth. 

Providing his workers with a place to sleep [in barracks], running water, bread, and extra food, he also paid them depending on their skill sets. Because of this factory, many Jews were saved from the horrors of the Holocaust. Their lives were saved while so many were lost in the ghetto, at Plaszow, Auschwitz, and others nearby. 

Oskar Schindler was viewed as a hero to many of the Poles and Jews because of his willingness to save lives during such a difficult time. Some of the products made were meant for the German Army; however, they were meant to be sabotaged so they never properly worked.

Entering the factory, you are given a background about Krakow and life long before the Nazi occupation. Jews played chess, children played in the streets, Jewish shop owners flourished, and men and women walked down the street without being hassled. 

As we moved forward, we watched a short documentary featuring some of Schindler's workers, some Polish and some Jewish. Providing a deeper look into the time period, these people's stories told of the true conditions which so many lived, yet, the opportunities they were provided because of Oskar Schindler.

With each room we entered, the closer we grew to the Nazi occupation. Replicas surrounded us of what a normal room in the ghetto would look like -- 5 or more people sharing one room; the material items that were taken away from the Jewish people during the liquidation of the ghetto; the ransacking of rooms as Jews were rounded up and either shot in the streets or taken to various camps. 

Even quotes from Roman Polanski could be found on the wall. Eight years old at the time of the Jews moving into the Ghetto, he remarked of his sadness and fear. 

Learning more of Schindler's motives, we entered his office. Before us stood a floor to ceiling plexiglass mold, filled with the pots, pans, and cups made by his workers. Stunned by the amount inside, it was just a small portion of the overall creations. Pots were not a common item that could be found in the area. Given the opportunity, Schindler gave coupons to workers who wished to sell some of the items made within the shop, for extra money. 

By the time we finished the tour, we walked into a memorial room, complete with polish writings, many of which were translated to English. People shared their thoughts and feelings of those who provided bread, water, cigarettes and blankets in times of need, as well as their thoughts of Schindler. 

Leaving the museum, there was no doubt that people praised Oskar Schindler. By employing so many Poles and Jews, he saved thousands upon thousands of lives. 

One of his final wishes was that when he died [in 1974], he wished to be buried with "his people," which means, if one travels to Jerusalem, his grave can be found in a private Catholic cemetery. 

Walking the streets of Krakow, outside of the museum, it was as if the government had done nothing to improve this area of town. Streets remained broken, trash covered areas of the road, and buildings continue to look run down and even abandoned. 

As we walked to the Jewish Ghetto, I looked down and thought to myself, "I could be walking in the steps of those who died in the streets at the hands of the Nazi's." Thinking back to the videos I had just seen, I looked around and envisioned luggage scattered, bodies laying lifeless, and soldiers screaming orders -- an eerie feeling in a part of town that looked as if these things could have happened just yesterday. 

Stepping onto the street of the former Jewish Ghetto, we spotted what looked as if it might have been the former wall of the ghetto. Although not marked, it was the only wall that looked as if it could have been what kept Jews from the outside world. 

On a cold, rainy day, I remarked to my mom, "Look at us. Here we are, complaining about how cold we are and we're bundled up in heavy coats, scarves, gloves, and hats. Think about those who were stripped of almost all of their possessions, made to walk miles and miles, and those who spent winters in much harsher conditions, with much less...I can't imagine."


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