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Schindler Factory Museum takes visitors on a journey through a nightmare

As I stood on a cracked concrete sidewalk in the Podgorze district of Krakow, I began to understand just what “wrong side of the tracks” meant. Ahead of me was a stark railroad bridge that carried commuters across the Vistula River to the city’s historic heart. Beneath it was a pedestrian walkway, claustrophobically low and forbidding.

Punctuating the end of the street, it seemed like a grim gateway of sorts, and so it was. Beyond the bridge, past a collection of featureless industrial buildings in various states of repair, was Krakow’s newest attraction — a museum set within the factory once operated by Oskar Schindler, the shady German businessman made famous by the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.”

Getting here from central Krakow had been like peeling away the layers of an onion, or maybe more like taking a journey back through time. For though the central Old Town is a magnificent collection of cobblestone squares, Renaissance façades and medieval cellars, it’s also an up-to-date tourist mecca with cutting-edge nightclubs and accomplished restaurants.

Podgorze is something else altogether, a reminder of a poorer and harsher time.

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After boarding a tram at a stop painted to resemble piano keys, commemorating the bicentennial of Frédéric Chopin’s birth, I was drawn southwest, away from the comforting Old Town.

The tram first passed through Kazimierz, the former Jewish district depopulated of its residents by the Nazis.

They were moved en masse across the river to Podgorze in 1941, where a wall was erected around the neighborhood to create Krakow’s Jewish ghetto. It was this place that was chillingly portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s movie, and I’d alighted at Plac Bohaterow Getta (Heroes of the Ghetto Place), before approaching the sinister railroad bridge a short walk to the east.

Stepping beneath it and following the street as it bent around to the right amid the industrial landscape, I finally spotted the museum — a long, low, gray-white building punctuated by neat rows of small windows. Within these walls Schindler saved as many Jews as he could from the concentration camps by employing them in the factory, turning out enamel goods such as pots and pans as well as munitions that were often subtly sabotaged in their manufacture. The flawed Schindler — a womanizer and alcoholic — was hardly an angel, but his imperfections seem somehow to make his lifesaving deeds even more impressive in retrospect.

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The Schindler Factory Museum covers more than Schindler’s story. Operated by the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, its exhibits chart the story of Krakow under Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945.

It’s a big story to tell, but the former factory proves big enough to tell it. The permanent exhibition is structured as a chronological journey through Schindler’s factory. Each stage depicts an aspect of the city during that period of fear and uncertainty.

What impressed me is the exhibits’ ability to provoke emotional reaction besides intellectual stimulation. They begin by providing much-needed context for the lively Krakow of the 1920s and 1930s, when Poland was reconstituted as a nation after being divided among empires for more than a century. Though Warsaw was the political capital, Krakow was its cultural hub and a magnet for Poles rediscovering their long-suppressed roots.

In its first exhibits, the museum uses clever devices to evoke the era between the two world wars. In the center of the room stands a huge circular wooden peepshow. Seated at one of the viewpoints, I could see a changing parade of stereoscopic images from the time, taken from old photographs. It was a mixed selection of everyday life and significant events, such as the Nazi annexation of Austria, a reminder that life is experienced as a jumble of big and small moments.

Inset in a wall, an angled screen plays video footage of daily life, including that of the Jewish neighborhood. In an adjacent theater I watched an excellent film featuring modern-day testimony from Schindler’s Polish employees, explaining the workings of the factory. “Compared to other camps, this place was a paradise,” one said.

Although this first section is fascinating, it is also unnerving. Like someone who already knows the ending of the story he’s reading, I knew what was coming next. The exhibits lead into a train station waiting room where a sign on the wall is marked “31 August 1939 — The last day of the summer holidays.” It is a mundane chamber with a bicycle propped against the wall and posted train timetables, but military mobilization posters, accompanied by remembrances of modern-day Poles, underline the fragility of that summer’s peace.

The Nazi invasion that occurred the next day is depicted in a misshapen corridor of metallic walls slashed with jagged openings, within which are images of fire and combat. Radio messages from the front and blaring sirens emphasize the transition from peace to chaos.

Subsequent rooms detail the arrest and deportation to concentration camps of leading academics, the arrival of the Nazi governor-general, the Germanization of Krakow’s place names, the transformation of Wawel Castle into a Nazi citadel, and the creeping terror of arbitrary arrests, executions and deportations.

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The Jewish ghetto is represented by a long, black corridor lined on each side with a replica of the original tombstone-shaped ghetto walls. Stones beneath my feet and above my head emphasized the sense of imprisonment.

Crowded daily life in the ghetto is depicted by life-size all-white plaster models of residents in cramped rooms brimming with personal belongings. I lingered in front of the elderly woman in a headscarf, seated in a chair with her hands clasped in her lap, eyes downcast in quiet despair. As simple as it is, for me it was the most moving exhibit in the museum.

Then I entered Schindler’s office, set with furniture of the period. Opposite his desk is an enormous glass cube, tall enough to walk into. Its exterior wall is covered with examples of items his factory produced, and within the structure are the names of everyone he saved.

The remaining rooms chart the worsening quality of life in Krakow as the Third Reich slowly crumbled. Exhibits explain the terrifying final liquidation of the ghetto, the horrors of the nearby Plaszow concentration camp and its infamous commander Amon Goeth, and the liberation of the city by soldiers of the Soviet Union, presaging a new type of imprisonment within the communist bloc.

A final, chilling room features numerous eyewitness comments from occupation survivors, plastered across the walls in several languages. A set of rotating pillars each features quotes regarding the gas chambers of Hitler’s “final solution.”

Stepping out of that last room into a sunlit courtyard was a shock, so immersed had I been in this deep, complex evil from the past. As I made my way into what now seemed a friendly and welcoming industrial landscape, it felt as if I were drawing breath for the first time in three long hours.

travel@latimes.com


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