The Schindler Museum and the Question of Culpability

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After our morning in Kazimierz, we headed to the Schindler Museum. It's called the Schindler Museum because it's in the old Schindler building, and it ends in Schindler's office, but other than that there's not much concerning Schindler himself. The museum is mainly dedicated to the Nazi occupation of Poland, including the deportation of Roman Catholic Poles and Polish Jews to the camps.

    German forces crossing the Polish border.

A transcript of the speech given to Polish University students and professors. The men were all taken to the camps for attempting to continue studies despite the occupation.

Self-important teenagers.

Copy of a notice posted by the Nazi government announcing members of the public who were killed or deported for no particular reason.

Polish men executed in public.

Segregation of the Jews (sign reads "For Jews, For Non-Jews.")

If I recall correctly, this is a poster showing Nazi estimates of how many Poles could be drafted into slave labor.

Ghetto life.

Schindler's List

The Katyn massacre, which Russia admitted to in the 1990s. Thousands of Polish soldiers were killed and buried in mass graves.

Political cartoons.

Forced labor camps.

The museum ends on a cheerful note: Stalin is here! (I stole that joke from our tour guide.)

The museum's bent is definitely Polish: the focus is on the country, with the Jewish narrative as a side-note. It doesn't really pose the question on the minds of so many arm chair historians: what was the role of Poland in expediting the murder of so many Jews?

On the one hand, Poles weren't winning any award for religious tolerance prior to the start of WWII. There were a series of pogroms in the Inter-War period, although none were officially led by the government, and in some cases the instigators were disciplined. However, the situation was better than Russia and Ukraine, a fact that caused many Jews to immigrate to Poland during that time. At Yad VaShem, we learned that countries that were more tolerant to Jews weren't forced to create ghettoes, but in Poland this wasn't viewed as an issue by the Nazi government. 

Conversely, as the pictures above show, Polish people's lives were treated as entirely dispensable by the Nazi government. The Milgram Experiment showed us that most people will fatally injure another person if a man in a lab coat tells them to do it. Exchange the lab coat for a military uniform, and add a gun pointed at the head of the person with their finger on the button. To me, the remarkable thing isn't that so many people didn't do anything, it's that some people did. 

For all the people who wanted to kill the Jews, there were likely many more who felt that what was happening was unfair. In the Nazi hierarchy of the races, Poles were only one step above Jews, meant to create a kind of Serf class for the more advanced races. They were routinely rounded up and killed or sent to the camps alongside the Jews. Hiding a Jew in your home in Poland meant certain death, whereas in France a person would be rewarded for cooperation if they came clean. This didn't stop the French people from offering more than the requested amount of Jews onto train cars bound for Auschwitz. But it's cool, there's a tiny plaque Paris somewhere that says they're "trés desolée" about that stuff!

Many Jews believe that Poles are deeply anti-Semitic, more so than any other people. True, Poles will complain that Jews received reparations from the German government after the Holocaust, but the Polish government didn't get anything. They complain that this is part of why their economy struggles to this day, which may be right, there's no control group for history so we'll never know. There was also the struggle of displaced survivors to get their homes back, which weren't always successful. Taking a survivor's home and refusing to give it back is completely inexcusable in my mind. Of course, there's a big difference between theft and mass-murder. There are also alarming reports of contemporary anti-Semitic attacks, most of which unfortunately haven't been prosecuted as hate crimes. Memorials have been spray-painted, and Jewish soccer players have been screamed at: "Get in the oven!" As the Jewish Week puts it, the lack of prosecution is more worrisome than the actions themselves, because it suggests something endemic to the government instead of a few dumb teenagers. 

There's also a recent ADL study that shows 45% of Poles to be anti-Semitic. I'm not sure how the survey was conducted, though, or what qualifies as an anti-Semitic view. It's hard not to take the survey with a grain of salt, since the ADL has a vested interest in continuing to report anti-Semitism in order to receive funding. Still, that's almost half of the population, and it can't be disregarded. 

Despite all of the negative reports of continuing anti-Semitism, we saw so much positive interest in the Jewish people. Two of our tour guides were extraordinarily knowledgeable about Jewish rituals and history, but neither of them were Jewish. There was an episode of This American Life that chronicled the excitement of non-Jewish Poles re-discovering Jewish music, which is quite a phenomenon. And there was no gate or guard in front of the JCC in Krakow, something that could never happen in the US. 

My point is this: I think that Poles get the short end of the stick in the casual Jewish observer's mind when it comes to the Holocaust. So many people expressed concern that I was going to Poland, and that I should be careful. I've heard a lot of stories like, 'I was in the store in Poland, and this woman was looking at me angrily, I'm sure it was because I was Jewish.' But if we prime someone to experience something, they are much more likely to report feeling it, and we do some priming for Jewish trips bound to Poland within our community. However, anti-Semitism hasn't been eradicated in Poland, and it's still a cause for concern. It may not be the worst place in Europe to be Jewish, but it's not perfect, either. Even if Poland isn't at all responsible for the Holocaust, the aftermath was somewhat in their hands, including digging for gold fillings in the ashes of Treblinka. The situation is complex, but we need to continue to build positive relationships in the Polish community. More on that in the Krakow JCC post. 


Marina Gafni

Marina Gafni is a 28-year-old speech pathology student. She lives with her husband in San Jose, CA.


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