Poland: Krakow, Kazimierz, and Oskar Schindler's Legacy

Kazimierz was a bustling, thriving part of Krakow before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and it was where Oskar Schindler, the German "opportunist" bought a factory and eventually used it to famously save the lives of some 1,200 Jews.

Yesterday was the bright colors of Krakow’s market square, restaurants and stained glass windows. Today is the gray, the black really, of what happened in the Jewish Ghetto, the one named for King Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir III 1310-1370), the only king of Poland who has been honored with the title “Great.”

Kazimierz the Great was a rare monarch in 14th century Europe, maybe in any century in the Middle Ages: a king who ruled not by the sword but by wisdom and reform. He strengthened the law, made peace with neighbors and governed in a way that brought prosperity to his country. He did much for the peasants and the underprivileged. And he particularly gave a welcome to the Jews of Europe. Although he has been called the “father of the Polish nation,” he left no heir. He was the last of the Piast dynasty.

Poland continued to be fair-minded about religion. It welcomed generations and generations of Jews to Kazimierz the Jewish community across the river.

Kazimierz was a bustling, thriving part of Krakow before Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and it was where Oskar Schindler, an ethnic German “opportunist” businessman, came to buy out a Polish-owned enamelware factory in what was to become the Aryanization of Polish and Jewish businesses. That’s the background to this man who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews and was so honored after World War II and so respected by Spielberg’s 1993 movie: he came to Poland to make pots and pans! But as his life changed so he accepted and paid the price. Hitler’s SS arrested him three times but couldn’t make the charges stick. In 1949, he and his wife fled to Argentina. In 1962, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial awarded him the title “Righteous Among the Nations.”

He died penniless “and almost unknown” in Germany in 1974. Many who survived because they were on his “List,” (and their descendants) financed the transfer of his body for burial in Israel. In 1993 his widow accepted a rarely given honor, his posthumous award of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum's Medal of Remembrance.

Tour director Piotr Golabek. Says one of our group who is Polish: “My relatives have told me this street Szeroka once had six synagogues; only one has survived. Some have been destroyed or turned into hotels.” A former Jewish home is now a restaurant with musicians proud to show their religion.

Seen from our coach: a little girl in front of a wedding shop in 2015 may be asking her grandmother if she will ever be a bride, a question in 1939 that could not have had a happy answer. Middle image: The remaining fragment of the Jewish Ghetto wall still standing in Krakow. Bottom photograph (and next image, top) is the 2005 memorial in Ghetto Heroes Square in the former Podgorze Ghetto. The display of 33 large empty chairs and 37 smaller ones highlights when the Nazis assembled the first 1492 women, children and elderly Jews in this square to transport them to the death camps, many pieces of furniture were left in the square when the Jews realized they could not take those with them. The Podgorze Ghetto here was liquidated on March 13, 1943 when all the Jews were sent either to the Plaszow concentration camp outside Krakow or to Auschwitz. The term “ghetto” came into use in 1519 when the Jews in Venice were forced into a separate district near a cannon foundry called Gheta.

Ghetto Heroes Square, (another view from the coach). The Plaszow camp memorial; so simple so poignant.

The Jewish Quarter today and the dreaded SS uniform whose memory will always hang over Kazimierz.

The entire factory has been turned into a city museum with 45 rooms and exhibits. Photographs of those who worked for Schindler and were saved by his actions have been donated to the museum by those involved or their dependents.

Earlier we had found our way in the mid-afternoon from the amiable Polish Radisson Blu Hotel in Krakow to the very American Sheraton Krakow. Both luxury hotels are in Old Town about 10 minutes’ walk apart. We met others in our group and Piotr Golabek our Insight Vacations tour director for the welcoming dinner that evening. Like us, most had traveled with Insight before; it evidently has a very high repeat business. The excitement is almost palpable. It is hard to imagine a more comprehensive tour of Poland than this one. We would guess that Americans without a personal or family history in Poland do not have this country much on their radar but just about everyone knows that although tonight, our first night with Insight, is walking all over the historic main square, tomorrow morning our Highlights of Poland tour really starts when Piotr and his coach driver takes us to the Schindler factory that is now a museum.

The building, we find, is not just a display that memorializes the role of Schindler during the Nazi massacre of the Jews but a disturbing monument to those years from 1939 to 1945 when Poland was Hell if your religion was different from that of your blond blue-eyed conquerors — an especially complicated and fearful situation for you if the victors had no religion.

That the museum is not just about Kazimierz’ Jews becomes evident as soon as you go to this museum’s website. And click in Films on the fifth anniversary of the museum’s opening and hear completely inappropriate merry music coming out of your computer speakers. If you wonder who thought this unfortunate musical introduction to the 45 exhibition rooms was appropriate, the website says, Krakow has a “complex wartime history.” A visitor aware of that history might respond: “It isn’t all that complex.” Hitler was mad and the Nazi party he created murdered more innocent people in its few short years than any other regime with the exception of Stalin’s. It would be interesting to have a psychologist explain the reasoning behind this musical soundtrack accompanying this brief film.

It is not easy to re-photograph exhibits in museums that show the horrors of war. You are surrounded in this museum by what historians feel has to be shown to the world “lest we forget.”

We won’t be allowed to forget. Nor should we want to. But history should be more than just the story of the brutality of war. We were horrified in Bucharest to discover the barbarism of Vlad the Impaler and that there was, in a way, a basis for the story of Dracula. It took a long time to deal with our memory of Buchenwald and we expect similar angst when we visit Auschwitz in three days but travel writers don’t always choose their subjects; sometimes their subjects, their destinations choose them. What historians don’t blanch when they discover that in 1967 the German Ministry of Justice listed more than 1,200 concentration camps in countries occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II?

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series on Krakow's Kazimierz district and the German occupation during World War II. Check back Thursday for Part 2.Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.