Friday, July 22, 2011

Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945 Exhibit at the Schindler Museum

Nazis destroy Adam Mickiewicz monument in Krakow. Source
Nazis round up Jews in Krakow. source
Everybody’s talking about the “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” exhibit at the Oscar Schindler Enamel Factory Museum in Krakow.

Ruth told me about it first. She hated it. She hated it so badly she tried to backtrack and leave it via the route by which she had entered, but museum staff told her that she could not exit that way. There were photos on the walls of victimized Jews, Ruth reported to me, and recorded shouts of barking dogs, and the passageway was narrow. From what Ruth said, I concluded that she felt manipulated and terrorized by the exhibit.

Denise, on the other hand, loved it. She took the day off from class, and spent five hours in the museum “Crying the entire time.”

Agnes’ eyes grew solemn when she recommended the exhibit to me. She showed me a photo she had taken at the exhibit: marionettes made to look like Hitler and like a Hasidic Joseph with Mary and Jesus. “What do these puppets mean?” I asked Agnes. “I don’t know,” she confessed, in a low voice.

After I finally went to the exhibit, I described my experience to Dominic, a young Polish-American man from Staten Island. “It sounds like a blitzkrieg,” he said. Check.

Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory is just that – the very building in which Oskar Schindler, Nazi party member, rescuer of Jews, and subject of a book by Thomas Keneally and a film by Steven Spielberg, manufactured enamel ware. “Krakow Under Nazi Occupation 1939-1945” is a 2010 permanent exhibition. It offers an avalanche of information delivered in media directed at the senses of sight, sound, and touch. Visitors navigate a narrow passage along with many others. One is cramped and crowded. Visitors are always seeing, hearing, or touching visions, sounds, and objects that evoke the Nazi invasion and occupation of Krakow.

I was disoriented and overwhelmed by the exhibition. I kept seeking a more orderly, smoothly flowing, and systematic passage through it. I realized that perhaps the curators wanted to create this sense of overwhelm in visitors. Visitors get a small taste of what it must have been like to be invaded and occupied by Nazis.

The exhibit opens with a pleasant room on whose walls hang photographs of happy, normal people. Initially I had no idea of what this room represented. As I gazed at the photos, I realized: this was Krakow before the Nazi invasion. Normal, happy people leading normal, happy lives, just like you and me: partying, getting dressed up, playing sports, working, falling in love, buying and selling, planning a future.

This room, like most, was chock-full of period realia: There are vintage fedora hats and coats hanging on vintage clothes racks, full kitchens and bedrooms, posters – movie posters, Nazi propaganda posters, Home Army / Armia Krajowa posters – and enamelware from Schindler’s factory. There are newspapers published by the occupiers. There is a reconstruction of a Nazi uniform. The sound system pipes in, as appropriate given the accompanying display, music, barking dogs, marching boots, speeches, sirens, Polish Catholic women singing a dirge-like hymn that becomes a meditative chant.

There are time stamps throughout the museum – I think that they are actual time stamps from Schindler’s factory. The visitor can use these stamps to stamp cards, supplied by the museum, describing significant dates in the occupation. Some stamp a Nazi emblem, some a red Soviet star, some a Polish eagle, and some a star of David.

Often, there is no physical barrier between the museum-goer and these objects. I wonder how, or even if, the museum prevents visitors from pocketing items.

Subsequent to the first room, there is a room showing vintage newsreel footage of Jewish life in Kazimierz, and more everyday life in Krakow. There are straws in the wind – reports of German spies captured and executed. Poles try to raise money for armaments. On September 1, 1939, Nazis invade.

Those invested in the Bieganski stereotype insist that Polish culture and identity are, per se, guilty of being “worse than the Nazis” and must be jettisoned in favor of superior culture and identity learned from superior others. The Nazis did not see Polish culture and identity as anything like their own, and worked very hard at cultural genocide and makeover. That genocide resulted in the virtually total destruction of Warsaw, Poland’s capital.

Krakow was not as physically devastated as Warsaw was, but it was made over by the Nazis. The Nazis did destroy the Grunwald monument to the Polish-Lithuanian defeat of the Teutonic Knights at the 1410 Battle of Grunwald, the equestrian statue of Tadeusz Kosciuszko at Wawel, and the Statue of Adam Mickiewicz in Rynek Glowny, or the Main Square. They renamed the Rynek “Adolf Hitler Platz.” They planned to destroy Kopiec Kosciuszki and Pilsudski, two manmade mounds in honor of Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Josef Pilsudski. The museum lays out detailed architectural diagrams for a fully remade, Nazified and Germanized Krakow.

As one Krakovian recounted in a televised interview, Nazis inundated Krakow with anti-Semitic propaganda. You think Jews are your friends? Are okay? Think again. They are pimps, liars, typhus carriers, lice.

In video interviews of Krakovians who lived through the occupation, complex relations between Poles and Jews are described. There were anti-Semitic incidents committed by some Krakow residents and these are recorded with candor and without excuses. There were also significant and mutually beneficial interactions between Poles and Jews and these are reported as well.

Shortly after the museum goer is exposed to the invasion, she enters a room simulating the room at the Jagiellonian University where professors were summoned by the Nazis to be denounced and shipped off to concentration camps. A recording recreates the speech. Photos of the professors line the walls.

In another room, Krakovian survivor Roman Polanski’s written childhood reminiscences line the walls.

One room recreates a vintage tram. Out the tram window, one sees footage shot by the Nazis.

Another room recreates in detail the grim, cramped setting in which a Pole sheltered ten Jews. You look at this tiny space and say to yourself, “Ten people. Ten people.”

Upon entering one room, the visitor is confronted with two Nazi flags suspended from the ceiling. I’d never been so close to a life-size Nazi flag before, and I stopped dead in my tracks. I very much wanted to spit on the flags. I strategized spitting on the flags in a way that would not be detected by museum staff. I thought all visitors should spit on these flags, and that that in itself would make an profound exhibit. I realized that the sight of these life-size Nazi flags, so close, was bringing out a side of me that would cause the museum workers trouble and get me thrown out. I walked swiftly past.

Another room was more challenging. Wall to wall, inescapably, the floor was covered with floor tiles, each emblazoned with a swastika. I hesitated before entering the room. I wanted no contact with the contaminating symbol. I finally stepped into the room and realized what the curators were saying to me. If you lived in Poland 1939-1945, you could not escape Nazism.

Some rooms replicated cells where Nazis tortured prisoners. There were actual whips and shackles, and photos of those tortured and killed. One room screened, amazingly, actual footage of the Plaszow concentration camp when it was still operational. The film was shot by an amazingly courageous Home Army / Armia Krajowa spy.

There is no happy ending to this story, at least not in the museum itself. One of the final items in the exhibit is a giant oil painting of Uncle Joe, that great liberator of people, Stalin. Krakow went from the hands of one genocidal monster into the hands of his Soviet counterpart.

The exit of the exhibit is, appropriately enough, a black, tunnel-like hallway with a spongy floor. Hey, this exhibit says to visitors. We lived through these hells. You are here only for a simulated taste of them. Count your blessings as you open the door marked “EXIT.”

Photo by Adam Kowalski


  1. Wow. Thank you for such a detailed description of this exhibit. I couldn't stop reading it once I started. Such an exhibit, whether you love or hate it, makes a very profound impression on all who experience it. Thank you for allowing me to "experience it" through your blog.

  2. It sounds an amazing museum, but I am slightly bewildered as how it represented Oscar Schindler. This sounds like it is a museum about Krakow during the war. I visited the Schindler museum when it was barely open and there was plenty of information about the factory and how Schindler employed Jews and also how he tried to get his employees families employed in order to keep the families together. I'm confused. Has the Schindler factory been hijacked and made into something which it does not actually represent?

  3. Nancy and Krystyna, Thanks for your comments. My description is incomplete. I am reporting what I remember most strongly. There are certainly many exhibits focusing on Oskar Schindler.

  4. Danusha, thanks for posting this. As always, you tell me something I didn't know. I will pass this information on to my friends. By the way, here's a link to the museum's site:

  5. John, thanks for letting me know that the posts worked for you, and thank you for the link. You have admin privileges, I think -- you can add it to the bottom of the post, if you like. If not, that's fine.

  6. Thanks Danusha for posting this. None of this museum or exhibit existed in Krakow when I visited in 1986. I am glad the museum is attempting to make it clear just what exactly happened across the country after the Nazi invasion by focusing on what happened in Krakow.

    Christina Pacosz

  7. Dear Danusha,
    Thank you for your direct response lately by email. I would like to express my public admiration for what you are doing with your blog and overall efforts. After finding your blog I believe I read the entire listing over the course of several days. I now live and work in South Korea but can't give up my Polish core. I am a Bohunk (Polish) American who got the wake-up call duing 4 years of living and study in Poland duing the late 70's early 80's at UMCS and KUL in Lublin. I don't have easy acccess to your books here, but I'll get them via US shipment in time.
    BR, Michael Bobkowski

  8. Christina and Michael, thank you so much for your comments. It's nice that people can connect over the miles via the internet. :-)

  9. Hey, great article ,have you got any more of those war pics?

  10. War is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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