It had been murder trying to sleep on the “midnight express,” but we did arrive in Krakow, surprisingly still alive and kicking. After a delicious breakfast and lots of coffee and tea, we got the refreshment we really needed: Our son Levi, who was in Europe on business, flew from Munich to Krakow to spend the weekend with us! Who-hoo! Now we’re only missing our daughter Jacinda and her fiancé Kegan, but they’re busy planning their August wedding.
Our first introduction to Krakow was to visit a factory. You might ask why we would visit a factory on vacation, but this was a very special factory, previously owned by Oskar Schindler. Does that name sound familiar? Have you ever seen the movie Schindler’s List? This man was
even more of a hero, I believe, than the movie made him out to be. What impressed me most is the complete metamorphosis he seemed to make in his life from villain to hero. When Oskar Schindler arrived in Krakow, the factory, outfitted to make enamel cookware and owned by Jewish businessmen, was already in trouble. Schindler was a Nazi who knew he could take advantage of the tough times, so in 1939, he bought it for a steal. He outfitted it to make ammunition so that it would be classed as an essential part of the war effort.
At that time, 25% of Krakow’s population was Jewish. This group included doctors, lawyers, teachers, merchants, architects, and even members of the government, including a dermatologist who had been elected mayor in 1933! In April of 1941, during Passover, German bricklayers began building a wall around the Jewish quarter of the city. 320 houses stood in this part of the city, with 3,000 people living in them. This number increased to 17,000 as it became a forced labor camp. The German bricklayers shaped the walls like tombstones, thus rendering part of Krakow into a mass grave for thousands of previously vibrant lives.
It was from this camp that Oskar Schindler, womanizer and opportunist, appropriated free labor for his factory.
During our tour of this factory-turned-museum, we never did figure out what happened to transform this evil, selfish man into someone who saw Jews as people whose lives were worth saving and then someone willing to risk his life for theirs. For whatever reason, he began paying them salaries, although other Jews had to work for free. He made deals to keep them away from camp guards as much as possible. He gave them extra food, when the nutritional standard for Jewish people during occupation was between 250 and 300 calories per day. The people who worked for him felt they were treated fairly, in spite of German occupation, and they considered themselves blessed to be assigned to him.
When Jews began to be moved from the camp, Schindler saw the writing on the wall. He knew they were not being relocated but exterminated. He began letting his over 1,000 workers go, one at a time, for any reason he could think of. He would send each one away with an envelope that he promised would help them to understand later. Niusia Horowitz-Karakulska had this to say: “If it weren’t for him, there would not be me, and there would not be my family either, nor our descendants… and the children and grandchildren of the others saved by Schindler. So how many save he really then, when he saved 1,200 people? They are countless…”.
By the time World War II was over, Schindler had spent his entire fortune on black market purchases and other bribes to keep his people safe. He died in 1974 and his body was moved to Jerusalem. He is now the only Nazi buried with honor on Mount Zion.
From the factory, we headed over to Old Town Krakow. This beautiful square was surrounded with buildings that had been built almost 800 years ago. These buildings had not been destroyed by the Germans because it was surrendered instead. This was a wise decision, after what had happened to Warsaw (more on that later). We perused the Cloth Hall, which had been for centuries, and still is, a favorite for local merchants. We saw the amber and garnets Poland is known for, but, as promised bought no souvenirs.
Next, we walked around the castle, a well fortified complex that had been home to Polish kings. Krakow was actually the capital of Poland until the end of he 16th century, when it was moved to Warsaw, a larger, more central city.
We decided to stop for pierogies, since we had been told we HAD to try them. We went to Pod Aniotami, a quaint little restaurant in what we believe must have been an old wine cellar. We shared five different flavors, including sweet plum dessert pierogies, and they were to die for! Warning, though, in case you decide to do the same: Restauracja Pod Aniotami server DID think it was a little weird that all we ordered for dinner was pierogis. They think of them as an appetizer, not a meal. As we walked back toward our “home,” we heard the sound of explosions. It was fireworks! What a way to end such a wonderful day personally experiencing the Lord’s promise of a hope and a future (Jer. 29:11).