That was my experience upon visiting a number of famous and infamous sites from WWII during my recent trip to Poland.
|Tinware prior to enameling|
As detailed in the 1993 movie Schinder’s List by Steven Spielberg, Schindler risked his own safety and that of his family by listing some 1,200 Jewish employees as “essential employees”, thereby gaining them exemptions and saving them from being consigned to one of the nearby concentration camps, including perhaps the most infamous: Auschwitz.
Schindler’s factory, at Lipowa 4, was allowed to sit idle for many years but, in 2010, the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków opened the permanent exhibition titled Kraków under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945 in the administrative building of the factory. The exhibition is open seven days a week, though hours vary depending on the season. General admission is 19 złoty, or about US$6. Admission is free on Mondays but the number of tickets is limited. More information is available here.
|Note from 8-year-old Roman Polanski|
One of those I found most moving was written by an 8-year-old boy who lived in the Jewish ghetto at the time the Nazis determined to build a wall around the area to contain its residents. The little boy’s name was Roman Polanski.
|Surviving section of ghetto wall|
Sections of the wall, with its top pieces deliberately designed to look like headstones in a cemetery, still exist and are within walking distance from the museum.
Other facets of the museum are equally moving. The walls of one room are plastered with examples of Nazi propaganda, and visitors have to wend their way through a phalanx of Nazi flags, a stark reminder of the enemy’s omnipresence.
Tadeusz Pankiewicz was a Polish pharmacist who operated the "Under the Eagle Pharmacy" (Apteka Pod Orłem) in the Kraków ghetto during the Nazi occupation. The pharmacy was situated on Plac Zgody, less than 600 meters west of Schindler’s factory, and was one of only four prewar pharmacies within the walls of the Kraków ghetto owned by non-Jews.
The pharmacy’s prewar clientele included both Polish gentiles as well as many of the area’s Jews. Pankiewicz, a Roman Catholic, was the only proprietor to decline the German offer of relocating outside the ghetto. He was subsequently given permission to continue operating his establishment as the only pharmacy in the ghetto, and to reside on the premises.
In addition, Pankiewicz supplied often-scarce medications and pharmaceutical products to the ghetto's residents, often without charge. These items substantially improved their quality of life and, in addition to health care considerations, they contributed to the residents’ very survival. In his published testimonies, Pankiewicz made particular mention of hair dyes used by those disguising their identities and tranquilizers given to fretful children required to keep silent during Gestapo raids.
Finally, the pharmacy became a meeting place for the ghetto's intelligentsia, a hub of underground activity, and a shelter for Jews facing deportation to the detention camps.
Pankiewicz’s Apteka Pod Orłem on the Plac Zgody, which has been renamed the Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes’ Square), has become affiliated with the municipal Historical Museum of Kraków and tours are available.
|Memorial on Plac Bohaterów Getta|
The memorial consists of empty chairs, seemingly abandoned without explanation. But the explanation is this: When ordered to report to the train stations for transportation to nearby concentration camps, many decided they would need a place to sit and carried chairs with them. However, the Nazis manning the trains ordered that the chairs be left behind and, when the trains departed, all that remained on the otherwise-empty platforms were scores and scores of empty chairs.
To call the memorial “haunting” would be an understatement; each chair represents 1,000 victims. An interesting side note: the memorial was financed by Roman Polanski.
In addition to whatever remains exist from the two Jewish cemeteries once located on the site of Płaczów, it is estimated that the remains of 8,000 to 10,000 prisoners are still located within the immediate area of the camp grounds, many of them interred in mass graves. The history of many of the area’s buildings, including the infamous “Grey House” at the corner of ul. Jerozolimska and ul. Abrahama, are well known, though the buildings are either closed to visitors or have been deeded to other owners who now occupy them as their residences.
The Grey House was used as a prison and torture chamber by the SS during the camp’s existence. Although it was used in the movie Schindler’s List as the purported home of camp Commandant Amon Göth who took over Płaczów in early 1943, Göth’s actual home was a short distance farther along the road and is still standing as of this writing. Göth reportedly took pleasure in arbitrarily murdering the inmates and was reputed for firing a high-powered rifle at them from the balcony of that home, which he shared with his mistress to whom he had been introduced by Oskar Schindler. The Grey House has no such balconies.
Contrary to popular belief, the ghetto itself was in the Podgórze area of the city south of the river, not the Kazimierz, or Jewish Quarter north of the river, where the bulk of Schindler’s List was filmed.
|Monument to Soldiers killed by Soviets|
In Warsaw, the Stare Miasto or Old Town was virtually leveled during WWII. Since then, it has been faithfully reconstructed to remain true to the former style of the buildings and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Plaques on many of the buildings’ corners describe their significance during the war.
Elsewhere in the city, one can hardly turn a corner without seeing some reminder of that dark period in world history. Alighting from the tram near the intersection of Stawki and Gen. Andersa, I came upon the Monument to the Soldiers killed by Soviets.
Warsaw also had a ghetto during the war, and a section of its ghetto wall has been preserved as a memorial. Located near the intersection of al. Jana Pawla II and Złota, it is within easy walking distance of Warsaw Centralna, the city’s main train station.
|Ordnance at the Warsaw Uprising Museum|
The museum is closed Tuesdays but open the other six days of the week. Admission is free on Sundays, though visitors must still obtain a ticket to gain entrance. More information is available on the museum’s website.
Finally, there is the Gestapo Museum, billed on its sign as, "The only authentic place of Nazi torture in Warsaw: the former Gestapo headquarters." I arrived on a Monday to find it was closed Mondays and Tuesdays, which was probably a good thing.
Certainly, there are too many war-related sites to be seen in a single visit to Poland. Even dyed-in-the-wool history buffs should pace themselves, plan carefully, and see first the things that are most important. Finally, seek out some of the more cheerful, non-war-related things the country has to offer so that you can return home not only better educated but uplifted as well.
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Photos by Carl Dombek
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