Schindler's Gift; He Was Immortalised for Saving Thousands from the Nazi Camps. Now, Frank Barrett Discovers the Spirit of Oskar Schindler Is Helping to Bring Krakow Back to lifeThe Trees Are Full of Rooks, Calling like Lost Souls

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), November 26, 2006 | Go to article overview

Schindler's Gift; He Was Immortalised for Saving Thousands from the Nazi Camps. Now, Frank Barrett Discovers the Spirit of Oskar Schindler Is Helping to Bring Krakow Back to lifeThe Trees Are Full of Rooks, Calling like Lost Souls


Byline: FRANK BARRETT

AS WE waited in the departure lounge for the flight to Krakow, a small child was pestering his mother with the annoying question routine. ' Where's Krakow?' 'Poland', replied the mother. 'Where's Poland?' 'I don't know,' said the mother. She dredged her memory: 'Eastern Europe ... Iron Curtain.'

'What's an Iron Curtain?' 'God! I'm not a history teacher!' She rolled her eyes and handed him a banana. History, said her expression, what's that all about?

For most of us, thank God, history is something that we have largely avoided.

For some unfortunates, history - just like an Iron Curtain - can suddenly fall on top of their heads. But even this part of history has moved on. The line which once divided Europe has started to fade to distant memory.

The collapse of the Iron Curtain in 1989 opened up new travel horizons that have only recently begun to be appreciated. We may know of Eastern European places by name but, unlike cities in Italy, Spain, France or Holland, they mean little to us.

But some places have a resonance even if we're not entirely sure why.

Krakow is somewhere that rings a bell. Krakow astonishes with its beauty.

Poland's third biggest city survived the Second World War and German occupation with surprisingly little damage and has even shrugged off the ensuing decades of crushing Soviet control.

Nowadays the locals have cause for few complaints. Some bemoan recent membership of the EU which they blame for pushing up prices; others regret that they can't find decent builders or plumbers (they're all working in Britain).

Yet, all in all, life seems very good in modern Krakow.

Thanks to the no-frills airline boom, Krakow has had a flood of visitors.

The city is Poland's bright answer to Prague: a handsome historical place where the living is easy and impressively cheap (a substantial meal for two in a good Italian restaurant will leave plenty of change from [pounds sterling]15).

Tourists come and drink the cheap vodka. They dutifully tick off the list of not-to-be-missed city landmarks extolled in the guidebooks: Wawel Castle, the Dragon's Cave, the huge Market Square lined with fashionable shops; a crop of ornate churches.

It is the tragic places of Krakow's recent history, however, that fascinate many of the new visitors.

The source of much of the interest derives from Spielberg's 1993 film Schindler's List. Based on Thomas Keneally's Booker Prize-winning novel, the story is set largely in the city. But while the Krakow tourist office is keen to promote a trail which lists the places connected with local hero Karol Jozef Wojtyla - the late Pope John Paul II - there is little official material related to Oskar Schindler.

Schindler arrived in Krakow in 1939 in the wake of the Nazi invasion. Aged 31, he made the short journey up from Zwittau in the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia hoping to cash in on the German takeover.

As a Nazi Party member he was well placed to acquire businesses seized from their Jewish owners. And while the Jews were the main target of the Nazi drive for racial Aryan purity, Slavs were also deemed 'subhuman'.

Anyone considered a Polish intellectual - such as teachers, doctors, lawyers or priests - would soon be rounded up, imprisoned and eventually executed.

For genial Schindler, who came to Krakow hoping for easy money and to enjoy the good life, this tireless tide of carefully managed hate was probably as surprising as it was frightening.

As the Nazis' persecution of the Krakow Jews gathered pace, Schindler suddenly found himself able to act as their saviour, albeit on a very limited scale.

On sensible business grounds his German Enamelware Factory exclusively employed Jews - they were cheaper than Poles and their pay went straight to the SS.

Through a deft process of bribery of SS officers and subtle lobbying of high officials, Schindler started to run his factory as a sanctuary. …

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Schindler's Gift; He Was Immortalised for Saving Thousands from the Nazi Camps. Now, Frank Barrett Discovers the Spirit of Oskar Schindler Is Helping to Bring Krakow Back to lifeThe Trees Are Full of Rooks, Calling like Lost Souls
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