A Trip to Oskar Schindler's Factory in Krakow

by JoHarrington

The old enamelware factory has a venerable history. Its story retold in the movie 'Schindler's List', this real world location is now an amazing museum.

For the Jews of the Krakow Ghetto, it could be a matter of life and death to have your name on Schindler's list. It meant that you were bound to work in a certain factory on the outskirts of Krakow.

Even if you don't know your history, then Steven Spielberg helpfully made that tale the subject of a block-buster movie. 'Schindler's List' illustrated very well the danger averted for those wartime workers.

Oskar Schindler kept them from the concentration camps. He made and lost a fortune saving so many lives. His factory on Ul. Lipowa is where it all occurred.

Visiting the Factory of Oskar Schindler in Krakow

It wasn't just a plot-line for a great Hollywood film. It happened in reality and we were there at ground zero.

We had toured Auschwitz earlier in the day, and passed through the Krakow Ghetto on the way here.

Nobody could say that we weren't prepared for the visit to Oskar Schindler's Factory.

We knew precisely what the great man had pulled off. We could enter those premises in the full knowledge of what it must have meant to those walking through the doors decades before.

Maybe even guess how it felt, though true empathy is doomed to failure. How can anyone fully grasp the emotions piqued by such incomprehensible circumstances?

We'd trekked through an underpass and along a back-street to find it. People had worked here. People still did. Whole families had been saved here. Heroic actions had been wrought from seemingly unlikely sources. Inordinate kindness and compassion in profoundly ordinary surroundings.

It looked like a factory - it was a factory - in the industrial part of the city. But that frontage is so famous. Spielberg brought his camera crew here to film the exterior shots. Even if I hadn't seen it already from a dozen history books, I'd have known it from that.

This is where those poignant, daring scenes from Schindler's List had played out in reality.

Official Trailer for Schindler's List (1993)

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What Happened at Oskar Schindler's Factory?

There wasn't just one Schindler's list but several. If your name was on it, then you were able to claim the relative sanctuary of his private work camp.

When the German army invaded Poland, in September 1939, Oskar Schindler saw a money-making opportunity.

He didn't precisely follow in their wake. Business had brought him to Krakow several times in the past, as had his intelligence activities. Schindler had contributed to the war effort by providing plans and information about railway lines to the Nazi high command.

After all, he was German himself; and a member of the Nazi party to boot.

The subsequent seizure of Jewish property, homes and businesses allowed Schindler to sign a lease for an enamelware factory. The Lipowa Street concern had previously been owned by a consortium of Jews.

This was pure profiteering. The business came with a ready-made market and a huge staff of overwhelmingly Jewish workers. None of whom needed to be paid wages, due to their ethnicity.

For Oskar Schindler, this was a recipe for wealth beyond his wildest dreams. His contacts in the Third Reich ensured that he grabbed the best contracts. His bottom line was boosted by the on-going carnage of the Second World War. Particularly when he secured a deal to provide enamel goods for the German military. The riches kept on rolling in.

At its peak, Oskar Schindler's Factory employed in excess of 1,750 people. Around a thousand of them were Jews.

Schindler's bribes to his Nazi cohorts were initially to boost that ratio. There were strict guidelines regarding how many Jews could work for any company. After all, they were the desirable ones, due to the fact that they were effectively slave labor.

But Han Franz - the Nazi Governor of Krakow - had wider concerns than the net profits of a local businessman. He had to keep the Polish economy going, which required the Poles to be working too. Plus he was ultimately working towards the Final Solution. Entrepreneurs would be the first to moan, when their entire staff had been deported to the gas chambers.

Schindler's lavish gifts, which included hard to find black market goods, allowed him to edge the quota up. It wasn't altruism. It was business. More Jewish workers boosted his profits and rendered his company far more competitive than his rivals.

Books about Oskar Schindler

Learn more about the real German businessman, played by Liam Neeson in the movie. Including his private side, as described by his wife in 'Where Light and Shadow Meet'.

How the Enamelware Factory of Oskar Schindler Became a Haven

It may have started as a business concern, but it most certainly didn't end that way. In fact, Schindler set out to ruin himself in the quest to save more lives.

Nobody really knows when the sea-change came in Schindler's thinking. He hardly announced it at the time.

The movie describes the moment as coming once he'd witnessed the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto, but that wasn't him.

That was another local company owner, who acted in much the same way as Schindler ultimately did. Spielberg just liked the story and co-opted it for his movie.

In reality, Schindler's priorities gradually seemed to shift. He began to introduce workers into his factory, who ordinarily had no business being there. People with no experience; then small children, the elderly or the disabled, who couldn't physically do the work.

Each time officials attempted to snatch back any one of his workforce, Schindler forced an exemption. A quiet word here, a present there, the threat of involving a superior elsewhere. His network of contacts allowed him to do such things.

Yet even as late as 1940, Oskar Schindler was still supplying information to the intelligence agencies. In the autumn, he even traveled into Turkey to expose corruption amongst German ambassadors there!

Two years later, he was using those skills - and the factory - to benefit the other side. He visited Budapest to talk with Jewish resistance movements, providing information and testifying as an eye-witness to atrocities. He used his business as a cover to sneak funds and other supplies to the same in Poland.

Most significantly of all though, Oskar Schindler built his own work camp within the confines of his factory grounds. Here all of his own Jewish workers, plus hundreds from a nearby factory, were housed.

While their peers were deported to Płaszów concentration camp, or worse to Auschwitz and Belzec, those Jews in the Schindler work camp were safe. They were well fed, received medical attention and were even allowed to observe their religious rites.

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It took all of Oskar Schindler's resources to pull off such a feat. He pulled every string, called in every favor, and spent thousands that he'd made in financing bribes.

At least three times, various authorities became suspicious of his activities and he was arrested. Influential Nazi officers stepped in to secure his release, their compliance oiled by yet more bribes.

By July 1944, those same contacts were able to tip Schindler off about the changing tide of the war, and plans for the extermination of all Jews involved in work not vital for the war effort. Schindler deftly changed the whole modus operandi of his business. His company switched to manufacturing anti-tank grenades solely to safeguard his Jewish workforce.

Even that wasn't quite enough. But Schindler had received enough warning to act.

He reached into the very last of his coffers, and asked favors of his high-ranking Nazi friends to the very limit of his credibility. With suspicion raging all around him, and the Red Army advancing fast, Schindler secured the necessary permissions to relocate his work camp entirely to his native Czechoslovakia.

In doing so, Oskar Schindler managed to save 1,200 Jews from the gas chambers. They all survived, healthy and whole, until the end of the war.

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The Oskar Schindler Factory Today

This famous historical building is now a tourist attraction in Krakow. It houses one of the best museums that I have ever visited.

Image: Wartime Museum in KrakowMy friend and I were quite unsure what to expect within the former premises of the enamelware factory.

We paid our entrance fee because we wanted to see where all that history had happened. It never occurred to us to find out what the factory is today.

The fascinating Museum of Wartime in Poland is contained within its sprawling rooms complex.

It certainly seemed popular. The entrance hall was bustling with tourists and school parties. Uncertain about the etiquette of Polish queues (there isn't one, you just push in until you reach the desk; pushiest person wins), I stood for a good while at the cloakroom counter trying to check in my coat.

Fortunately, we appeared to have timed it just right at the cafe next door. There was a lovely, sustaining cup of coffee, before we went to explore the building above.

There's very little remaining from the site's famous days as an enamelware factory. The walls, rooms and fittings are the same, but not much else. After all, the building had been the workplace for many more companies, since Oskar Schindler arranged for his Jewish workers to be bussed from it to safety.

However, those wishing to see filming locations from Schindler's List, or touch the real history too, will find a few rooms of interest. I've described those in detail elsewhere, so won't repeat it here.

Certain districts of Krakow may seem very familiar, even to those who've never stepped foot in Poland before. Steven Spielberg filmed 'Schindler's List' there.

Oskar Schindler Factory Wartime Museum in Krakow

Between allied bombs, Nazi occupation and the liberation/invasion of Stalin's Russian army, Poland suffered a lot during the Second World War. Here one city's story is told.

Image: Museum of Wartime in KrakowI am a historian. It's very safe for you to assume that I've visited plenty of museums in my time. I will categorically state that this was the best of them all.

It had everything. Exhibits of original artifacts; information displayed on the walls; computerized screens to delve further into facets that caught your eye; video footage; reconstructed scenes in rooms; audio testimony; interactive elements too.

Your journey through the Oskar Schindler Factory begins with a huge room, all about Krakow on the eve of World War II. You see a refined city, where an elegant, multicultural population exist peacefully side by side.

This had once been Poland's capital city. Its monarchs and saints were buried in the cathedral on the hill. Krakow was a place where the intelligentsia gathered, many of them attending one of the oldest universities in Europe.

Then Germany invaded.

Polish men and women flocked to enlist, in order to defend their city as soldiers. The English bombed ancient buildings. Nazi Occupation began in force. Dissenters were arrested, executed or disappeared. Jews were stripped of rights, homes and property, herded into the Ghetto and concentration camps, then taken for extermination. And finally the Red Army appeared on the horizon. Poland, and Krakow with it, was now a Communist state.

There is an epic tale to tell in Krakow's Museum of Wartime.

Inside the Oskar Schindler Factory, each new room or corridor has something new to fascinate and inform. The museum doesn't set out merely to explain what happened. It wants to take you there.

Even now I still get goosebumps, remembering how I wandered down a staircase to encounter a black door locked at its foot. A sturdy door, lined with bolts, and too thick to easily break down. The whispers and sobs from within. A man's agonized moan. A women's hushed, urgent voice repeating words in a cadence that could only have been a prayer. And a peep-hole that I feared to look through.

The Wartime Museum of Krakow is designed to bring moments of history to life, and it fully succeeds at that. Visit it, and give yourself three or four hours to fully explore its mysteries and treasures. You will not be disappointed.

The Museum of Wartime in the Oskar Schindler Factory

This footage takes us through the atmospheric Nazi invasion section of Krakow's Wartime Museum.

History Books about Krakow During the Second World War

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The Girl in the Red Coat

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A Wall of Two: Poems of Resistance and Suffering from Kraków to Buchenwald and Beyond

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More Articles about Places to Visit in Krakow

The Jewish Ghetto in Krakow was the last stop before transportation to a concentration camp. Its final clearance was immortalized in 'Schindler's List'.
Everywhere we went in Krakow, we found souvenirs involving a green dragon. But no explanation as to what it was all about! Let me tell you a story.
Catholic Krakow was the home city of Pope John Paul II. Tourists seeking to honor and discover more about that notable pontiff will not be disappointed.
Nowa Huta was Stalin's gift to Poland. A shiny new steelworks and model homes steeped in the ideology of Communist architecture. Crazy Guides Tours take you there.
Updated: 12/30/2013, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 12/16/2013

Brooke - Oh! It must have looked very different to you, than it was to me. I'm imagining the rooms quite bare when you were there.

cmoneyspinner - Yes, Oskar Schindler was just a man. Which shows that all of us have the capacity to do amazing things with our lives.

cmoneyspinner on 12/16/2013

So you're saying Schindler is just like everybody else!

A sinner who can become convicted in their heart and mind of their own guilt, repent of wrongdoing, switch gears and go off in an entirely different direction for their life, and drastically impact the lives of others for the good all of mankind.

OK. I get that!
"If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." (1 John)

BrookeVanBeek on 12/16/2013

No, I don't think it was there. We did the factory and other locations from the movie, as well as Auschwitz and Dachau (I think). Will definitely get there again when my girls are old enough to appreciate it!

JoHarrington on 12/16/2013

I totally agree with all that you've said. It's thrilling, moving and thought-provoking, often in equal measure. Though I admit that I shed a few tears over in the Ghetto.

Was the Museum of Wartime there, when you visited the Oskar Schinder Factory? I was led to believe that it's quite a recent installment. If not, then I recommend visiting again.

Brooke on 12/16/2013

I visited Krakow about eight years ago and it was the most amazing city. Historic, romantic, safe, colourful. We visited Schindler's factory and office and it was a moment I will not soon forget--walking up those steps that are shown in the movie, looking out his office window, wondering what he felt when he sat there, wondering if he knew how many lives he was saving and how important his actions would still be in years to come. Seeing the remnants of ghettos walls left since the war, hearing stories of lives lost and lives saved--put Krakow on the top of your "must see" places.

JoHarrington on 12/15/2013

It would be the whole gauntlet of emotions. Remember that I'm just focusing on the historical stuff, because I'm me. I'd definitely volunteer to travel over there with you, if you needed someone to go with.

Ember on 12/15/2013

All of these articles have made me really, really want to visit Poland, and it's never been huge on my list of place I have to visit, but it is now. I feel like it'd be a tad solemn, but still amazing trip.

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