American’s learn about the Second World War through the lens of our own mythology. From early isolationism through the attack on Pearl Harbor, through the scale-up of production and mustering of troops, ending with decisive battles and the Marshall Plan.
My real knowledge of day-to-day life in Occupied Europe is pretty thin as a result. Dutch friends have told me their family stories and I’ve gone back to read more detailed histories of the period. In Arnhem the ring road is filled with monuments and reminders of the very difficult war years. I especially find the personal stories moving and extremely saddening.
I similarly knew little of the occupation of Poland before my visit to Krakow. To learn more, we decided to visit Schindler’s Furniture Factory, just across the river from the Old Town Center. I haven’t seen Spelberg’s eponymous movie, the Holocaust is profound human tragedy, not entertainment, so I really didn’t know what to expect.
The museum is a chronicle of the years of Occupation, from before the fall of Poland through the end of the war. It’s mostly told through artifacts, letters, first-person interviews, and reconstructed environments to give an intense feeling of ordinary people daily trying to hold onto their lives and families. It takes about three hours to walk through it all, reading and reflecting.
In many way’s, it’s like watching the Titanic sink: Things start badly, get steadily worse, and then end tragically. It is remorseless, there is no light to the narrative other than glimpses of resistance and ingenuity that salvage occasional lives. Schindler himself is only fleetingly glimpsed, I still didn’t know what his famous List was until I looked it up on the Internet afterwards.
Among many affecting areas was a reconstructed University lecture hall containing the words of a German commander taking the lecturers in hand. It’s so precise and stark: I can absolutely imagine the spirit that drive their initial resistance and the utter hopelessness that this speech must have driven home.
As happens at international conferences, our group attending the museum had German, Dutch, British and American participants.’ In the conversations afterward, we all struggled to talk through what we’d seen. What would an individual with a family do, torn between fleeing (to what) or enduring (to what)? How did the Polish Occupation differ from the Dutch one? How could the Germans reconcile their national character, their own family heritage, with their past deeds? Why didn’t the West act sooner?
I didn’t go to Auschwitz to witness the end of the stories. But I met an American who’s family emigrated from Poland near the beginning of the war. They had been dispersed and lost touch, but he’d assumed that they’d all survived. Now he found the names of five of them at Auschwitz.
It as, and remains, an unspeakably tragic point in history.