The History Museum in Krakow has many branches, of which Schindler’s factory is the most famous. The museum gives visitors a unique experience: it is educational, but also disturbing and overwhelming in personal terms. It creates a strong impression, as the tour of the exhibition fully engages every human sense. It is focused on what a great man, Oskar Schindler, did. Initially motivated by profit, Schindler soon came to realize what the Nazi regime stood for. Schindler showed extraordinary initiative, saving thousands of Jews during the Second World War by employing them in his factory and helping them escape certain death.
The exhibits at Schindler’s factory are mainly dedicated to the occupation of Krakow during World War II. It guides visitors through the horror story in an engaging way. Gradually, the story starts to open up before the visitor’s eyes. It is far different from any history book you’ve read or any movie or photographs you’ve seen. Everything in the museum is set so that a visitor can experience that period of time for himself, although in a safe and unthreatening way. The exhibition is extremely interactive, and it gives you the opportunity to see, touch, hear, feel, and smell. You are actually going through the rooms of the former factory that have now been made into a museum. The rooms guide you through it, and it happens progressively.
The first room you enter is the one where you can see photos of pre-1939 Krakow, as well as family photos from private collections. You can inform yourself about the history of the town and see how everyday life looked. Then, slowly, as you go through the exhibition, you will see old Jewish passports and documents, as well as counterfeit identification cards.
You will see and live through Krakow under the occupation. You will see the testimonies of Polish soldiers who were called to fight for their country. You will see original bicycles from that time, as well as a soldier’s uniform and other items that will give you the chills, such as gas masks, weapons, and insignia of the Third Reich.
Every room you enter has a certain theme. For example, there is a room that has a leather floor that seems stuffed with air, which makes your steps somewhat uncertain. You can hear the sound of shootings, war sirens, shouts and German yells, and the temperature is lower than in the previous room. You can see life sized pictures of soldiers in battle, and it takes less than a second to realize you are experiencing the ambience of battle.
There are also rooms that show street life, and you can hear the noise of the street, people talking, barking dogs and German propaganda. In every room, there is information about everything. Germans, who simply imposed their power over Poles, started stripping them of their identities gradually.
First, they banned any sort of media. The only allowed sources of information were the newspapers, run by Germans. Radios were strictly banned. German propaganda was everywhere: posters, newspapers, and notice boards. And you can see them and touch them at the exhibit. There were megaphones installed through the whole city, which were also a means of German propaganda, as well as a way to play a certain melody, twice a day. You can read real testimonials from people who witnessed this.
Second, Poles were forbidden to pursue advanced education. At the time, there were still professors who continued teaching and were conducting exams. They were found and executed. You can see the original message from Hitler that says how Germans must make the lives of Poles only bearable. Keeping them alive, rather than letting them live. The Poles should have enough money only to buy bread for themselves. Education should not be allowed, because an educated Pole is a threat to Germany. All of this can be found in a room that has a theme of university, along with photographs of students and professors, as well as university furniture and professors’ clothes.
And the third way of imposing German power: Polish Jews were given the status of an inferior race, often referred to as lice or pests. They were often accused of spreading anti-German propaganda. Polish Jews were evicted from their homes, with the explanation that there were too many Germans who didn’t have a place to stay (in the first year of the occupation, every fourth person in Krakow was German). Eventually, they were put in the Jewish Ghetto or sent to concentration camps.
One of the most disturbing rooms in the Museum is the one dedicated to the Jewish Ghetto. The German General Government decided to create a district inside of Krakow (today, it is called Kazimierz, the Jewish district), in order to isolate the Jews from the wider community. It was a place of exploitation and terror for Polish Jews. The room dedicated to the Jewish Ghetto has a low ceiling and is dark, which makes it rather claustrophobic. You can smell the earth and clay, and the room feels colder. Here, you can inform yourself about the establishment of the Ghetto, and read old letters and diaries from people who were placed there. There is also a testimonial by Roman Polanski, a famous name in the movie industry, who was eight years old at the time. As you proceed, you will learn more about the liquidation of the Ghetto and see some disturbing photographs and personal items.
The story about imprisoning the Jews is depressing. At one point, you can go down stairs and read about the St. Michael’s prison. Behind you – you will see a prison door and hear the sounds of people and dripping water behind it. It is eerily realistic.
This is just one small piece of the whole exhibition. If you wish to visit Oskar Schindler’s factory, it is open every day of the week. On Monday, Museum hours are from 10h to 14h. From Tuesday to Sunday, Museum hours are from 10h to 16h. Keep in mind that Monday is a free entrance day, but the last time to go into the museum is at 12.30h, so you should be there on time.
You will learn a lot from your visit, and the impression you will take away will never leave you. This type of interactive education is extremely important to the process of reviving history. In a strange way, it draws the visitor’s eye towards the destinies of individuals, to real people, as opposed to the massive, almost incalculable horrors of the Second World War – which tend to turn people into numbers. It is important not to forget this horrible period in human history. We mustn’t.