Whatever happened to Oskar Schindler?

This week I had a long-anticipated visit to the former factory of Oskar Schindler, the German who courageously saved more than 1000 Jews who worked at his Emalia Werken, the enamel works in Kraków. It’s just a stone’s throw from the Kraków ghetto and a short walk from Płaszów, the concentration camp so infamously portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.

I find original sites helpful in gaining a deeper understanding of historical events.  When I place myself in the topographical and architectural environment, a combination of ambience, tone, flow, and energy all add to a greater sense of the spatial context.  It more than answers the question ‘where?’ – it also gives a much better sense of ‘how’, ‘what’ and ‘who’. I was particularly eager to see the factory as almost twenty years ago, I had looked up the staircase that appears in Schindler’s List, and was looking forward to seeing the inside of the building.  Maybe my expectations were too high.  Certainly they were doomed to disappointment.

The factory today contains and exhibition, which was the purpose of the visit.  On entering the building and seeing the old metal truck full of tin plates and offcuts from the tin press my anticipation was heightened.   It turned out that the reception area was to be the highlight.

For some reason the museum does not deal with the history of the building or the unique events that took place there.  There is no attempt at historical preservation, but rather instead a heavy-duty installation fills the original spaces with all manner of synthetic environments.

As I spend a great deal of time in museums I have a technique I use to review an exhibit.  First I walk through it – fast and without stopping.  I see and feel the environment, get a sense of the story line or the key installations. Then I start over (or leave if I have satisfied my curiosity or if it is so hopeless not to merit more of my time).  I walked through all three floors of the Schindler Factory. Once I got to the end, I was not quite sure what I had just seen.  The mishmash of environments from a waiting room, to tram car, to ghetto street, were arranged in a bewildering way with no clear narrative or visual strand.   I know WWII history fairly well and Holocaust history better, but I could not make sense of what was being said.  Moreover, I asked myself whatever happened toOskar Schindler?

To be fair there is one room that has a desk and a wall map and a few personal effects, as well as a dignified reflection space with the names of those on the now famous typed up ‘Schindler’s List’. But that room was a digression from the main route through the museum.  A kind of add on.

The exhibit underscores the confusion there still is around Polish-Jewish historiography in Poland today.  The attempt to weave together the history of Poland under occupation with the experience of the Jews during the same time period was courageous but either completely naïve or consciously revisionist.  The visitor leaves with no clarity about the complexity, but a rather Polanized  goulash of historical ingredients thrown together to indulge a local audience with martyrdom, heroism, and alignment with the Jewish experience.

I went through quickly again, this time just to jot down the headings of each new phase of the exhibit, which had titles associated to the walking tour numbers.  The schematic made more sense and theoretically one could imagine an exhibit that dealt with the range of themes proposed by the list of headings (these included war, new order, Nazi posters, general government, ‘Juden Verboten’, university professors arrested, the Nazi perspective, ghetto, etc.).  I imagined what I might do if given such a schematic as the brief for an exhibit.  I would have been uncomfortable and would have argued for an altogether different approach to the exhibit, but given no option I could probably work with the framework, as odd as it is.

What was concerning was just how badly the exhibit designers and curatorial team had managed their task, creating a narrative that places Polish and Jewish suffering on a par and intertwined in a way that was not historically the case. It confuses the role of victims, perpetrators, bystanders, collaborators, and resistors in a way that is noteven sophisticated enough to deal with the grey areas. One cannot even say the whole exercise is back door antisemitism, at least that would be clear.   In actual fact it is not antisemitic, it is just badly put together with competing narratives vying for attention throughout.

My biggest disappointment was the absolute disregard and desecration of the historical space. The installation fills every wall and floor, transforming the space into a horrific immersion with fittings that ruin the building.  The total disregard for preservation of the historical site can only be described as reckless.

Moreover, everything they were trying to say in the historical exhibit could have been told through the lens of the life of the factory itself.  It was a living-breathing microcosm of WWII in Poland – Germans, Jews and Poles under one roof figuring out their lives in the mosttesting of times.  The worst of it is, in a country that is plagued with sites of killing and death, this is one historical site that has a story oflife and hope.  The opportunity was missed to make a genuine statementabout the power of goodness in that rarest of historical places where such goodness flourished. With everything on offer – an existing structure, a powerful story, global recognition of Schindler’s role – still the exhibition team could not resist turning it into another carbuncle of horrific martyrdom and indicate Polish resistance and Jewish death.

Unfortunately Oskar Schindler never lived to find out just how much his actions were eventually appreciated.  Fortunately though, he will never have to see what the factory that changed his world forever has been turned into.

The litmus test at such a place is a very simple one – how would someone who had worked there, as a slave laborer, or a hired worker – even Oskar Schindler himself – feel about the way the building hasbeen used?  Would they feel it is serving its purpose well and representing the experience and it’s meaning?  I think not.

About the Author
Stephen D Smith is Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation in Los Angeles, whose Visual History Archive holds 52,000 testimonies of eyewitnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. He founded the UK Holocaust Centre, The Aegis Trust for the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide. He was Project Director of the Kigali Genocide Centre, Rwanda. Smith, who trained as a Christian theologian, is an author, educator and researcher interested in memory of the Holocaust, and the causes and consequences of human conflict. Views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of USC Shoah Foundation.