The German army marched into Kraków on 6 September 1939 and, by November, all Jews over the age of 12 were commanded to wear armbands. This was the beginning of the occupier’s segregation of the population. Synagogues were closed and non-Jews were discouraged from using Jewish shops. By May 1940 more than 40,000 had been forcibly removed from the city. Only 15,000 Jews, of a population of 68,000, were allowed to remain within the city and, in March 1941, the same 15,000 were moved into a few streets within a walled area in Podgórze – a district of Kraków on the other side of the River Vistula that was to become the site of one of the five major Jewish ghettos.
Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory lay at 4 Lipowa Street in Podgórze. The entire area was, until recently, run-down, renowned only for its dilapidated buildings and squatter housing. But, since the conversion of Schindler’s factory in June 2010 into a contemporary art museum, Podgórze has seen a real renaissance, with a flurry of bar and restaurant openings, and a steady stream of tourists keen to see the place where the horrors of the Holocaust seem to have been distilled into an historical microcosm.
Today, Schindler’s Factory houses the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art, as well as a reminder of the city’s tragic past with the permanent exhibition – Kraków During Nazi Occupation 1939-1945 – a fascinating, if heart-breaking, walk through pre-war Kraków to the German invasion in 1939 and what followed, and includes documents, photos and testimonies of ‘Schindler’s Jews’, along with a broader history of the resistance movement and eventual Russian invasion. But the story of how the museum came to be also bears telling.
Writer, Thomas Kenneally, was in LA on his way back to Australia and, having a bit of time on his hands, thought he’d buy himself a new briefcase. He stepped into Leopold Pfefferberg’s store. In his short story, ‘The Handbag Studio’, Kenneally describes Pfefferberg, or ‘Poldek’, as a talkative man, full of questions and keen to make a sale: ‘a soul so vivid, so picaresque, so full of life…’
On finding out that Kenneally was a writer, Poldek told him ‘I know a wonderful story. A story of humanity, man to man’. He goes on to say ‘I was saved, and my wife was saved, by a Nazi… Not that he was a saint. He was all-drinking, all-black marketeering, all-screwing. Okay? But he got Mischa out of Auschwitz, so to me he is God.’
Oskar Schindler was that man. He was supplying his enamelware factory with free labour from the ghetto, and Poldek and Mischa were two of those under his control. As the Russians advanced, Schindler persuaded the SS to let him send his workers to Brünnlitz but, owing to a mix-up, Mischa found herself on her way to Auschwitz: ‘It was an accident. They sent our train the wrong way. I was thirsty and reached up to the window of the cattle truck to break off ice, and saw the sun was in the wrong place for us to be going south to Schindler’s place. We were going west. Oswiecim. Auschwitz’. Oskar realised the error and arranged for his workers to come back from Auschwitz, even waiting on the platform at Brünnlitz. Poldek and Mischa married and, after the war, moved to Los Angeles.
Following his meeting with Poldek, Kenneally went on to write Schindler’s Ark. Stephen Spielberg’s award-winning Schindler’s List was filmed in Kraków, in nearby Kazimierz. Many of the shots were made inside the Schindler Factory, which reopened in 2010. Today another part of the factory hosts MOCAK, the contemporary art museum, which opened in 2011.