Wednesday, April 06, 2011

I haven't blogged about Poland or Krakow for a long time, although I remain "Krakovianka"--a resident of Krakow (similar to "New Yorker").

But I have something to share that compels me to call up blogger and type away. My family and I visited a new museum recently, and most of this post was written immediately afterward, in great enthusiasm. I've been to any number of museums here in Krakow (not all of them), but this museum is unique in my experience. The Oskar Schindler factory, made well-known via the film Schindler's List, has been converted into a museum about the war years here in Krakow. The exhibits are laid out in a convoluted path which draws you through the museum in chronological order.

It begins in the pre-war era, with period photographs of entertainers and people living ordinary lives. It was the end of summer--people were just finishing up their vacations--when Nazi Germany invaded. It's really not possible to use words to explain the way the museum makes this an experience, not just an exhibit. There are areas of light and darkness. There are video clips that you view through the window of a home, or a tram. There are prison cell-like cubicles (complete with barred windows on the doors) where you can read about the arrests, and listen to first-hand accounts (in Polish, with English subtitles). Period furniture, clothing, accessories, weapons, and posters are used throughout the exhibits. The section on the ghetto is experienced between authentic walls that resemble those that surrounded that area. When you read about the labor camps, you are are behind barbed wire and walking on very rough gravel. You can duck into a basement where some Jews were hidden in the dark and damp for years to save their lives. You can walk through the main square of Krakow (the way it is evoked is truly amazing), where Nazi flags are flying, and learn with horror that on the first anniversary of the invasion, the main square was renamed "Adolf Hitler Plaza." I was shocked to see a picture of a small indoor market where I've shopped for years with swastika-blazoned banners on the front!! The exhibits lead you through the museum and through the course of the years from 1939 to 1945 in Krakow, until the liberation.

The exhibit ends in a brightly-lit circular room called the Room of Choices. Written all over the walls, in many languages, are brief comments from those who tell how they helped, or were helped by others, during the difficult years. Set within the walls are rotating pillars (each in a different language). On the rotating pillars are the words and testimony of those who did not help when they could have. The thing that struck me about all of them was that the help they were asked to give, or considered giving, was of the smallest kind. One person planned to share some food with another, but by the time they reached the person, they had eaten it all. Another saw that clothing was being collected to give to Polish prisoners, and she packed up her dead brother's clothing to donate...but left the bundle at home, and missed the opportunity. Those folks had little to share, but they could have shared...even meant to share...but they didn't. The small amount of food or the warm sweater wouldn't have fixed the evil situation they were all in, but it would have provided comfort to one person, for a little while. The excuses were tinged with regret...the remembrance that they could have helped, but failed to do so.

As I thought about it later, it seemed so easy to say, "I'd have done this or that" if I'd been living in Krakow in 1941, was those small regrets that really struck me. We don't have the power to fix, for example, the dreadful results of a tsunami in Japan, but is there something that it is in our power to do? Some small service, or sacrifice, or helping hand. Those little things count.


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