In the scope of our visit to Krakow, this day was quite significant in numerous ways. Although the morning unfolded rather treacherously due to the fact that most of us were still exhausted from the night before (getting lost in the city for hours on end), the day progressively improved as we made our way to the Galicia Jewish Museum. Upon arrival, Gina, the tour guide, gave us an enthusiastic greeting, and the receptionist exclaimed over what a quiet group we were—ironic because we (and the Poles of Krakow) had previously acknowledged our loud and boisterous American behavior!

Following a quick stop at the coat rack, Gina led us into the exhibit. The Galicia Museum was created in 2004 thanks to a fascinating and beautiful joint project carried out by photojournalist Chris Schwarz and anthropologist Jonathan Webber. Webber, who had been studying and documenting traces of Jewish life left in the Galicia region of Poland (Galicia was the southwestern Polish land annexed by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the latter half of the 18th century), met and decided to work with Schwarz to compile both photographic and written documentation of remaining Jewish history in the area. Eventually, Galicia Jewish Museum emerged as a permanent home for the collection of photographs later known as the Traces of Memory.

Within the exhibit, five sections separated and categorized the pictures: Jewish Life in Ruins, Jewish Culture as it Once Was, Sites of Massacre and Destruction, How the Past is Being Remembered, and lastly People Making Memory Today. For me, this display became exceptionally important as Gina explained that many of the places or objects that Schwarz photographed have now disappeared or more than likely will in the coming years, making it an important aspect of Holocaust memorialization in modern-day Krakow.

At the conclusion of the tour (which was amazing—Gina was very informative and friendly!), our speaker had just arrived. Ms. Stefania (as she was referred to) is a recipient of the Righteous Among the Nations Award, given to those who risked their lives, and occasionally the lives of their loved ones, to protect and ultimately save Jews during the Holocaust. Barely fifteen years old at the outbreak of war, Ms. Stefania and her family took in the Silbermanns, a Jewish family of six: mother and father, grandmother, and three daughters. While they were hidden in the attic, the household suffered and stressed through countless searches by German soldiers and intrusive inquiries from the Gestapo. Incredibly, Ms. Stefania recounted how, despite Nazi suspicion and increased inspections, her small town neighbors never turned her or the Silbermanns in—though she supposed they were aware of the situation.

By the end of World War II, the entire household had emerged with their lives from the merciless destruction and tragedy thanks to the unbelievable compassion of Ms. Stefania. I realized the overwhelming power of this astonishing act as she passed around present-day photographs of herself and two of the Silbermann daughters (with whom she remains good friends); gazing upon the faces of those who may have otherwise perished and seeing their smiling faces hit me with the true beauty of her deed. Addressing the common question “why did you do it?,”  Ms. Stefania smiled herself and simply remarked that one must think with their heart, not their mind, to realize why. 

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After wrapping up with our speaker, some of us did a bit of shopping in the bookstore of the Galicia Jewish Museum, followed by lunch at a charming, but rather stereotypically Jewish, restaurant. Surprisingly, as a vegetarian in Europe (particularly Krakow, Poland) I am amazed at the menu options available for my kind! Everything I’ve eaten has been veggie-friendly and crazy delicious—who knew? Today’s lunch of traditional potato pancakes with a vegetable sauce looked rather appetizing:

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Around three o’clock in the afternoon, our group met up once again to journey to Fabryka Schindlera, Oskar Schindler’s wartime factory turned museum in the heart of Krakow. During World War II, Schindler came to the city as a war profiteer looking to catch a quick buck off of utilizing Jewish slave labor. Upon returning to Germany years later, he was penniless, having used the profits he made to save the lives of nearly 1,100 Jews. Using the now famed list containing the individual names of people he wanted to save (under the guise of needing an increased number of workers for a new factory), he paid Nazi commandant Amon Goeth for each person.  

While the museum was brilliantly designed and the tour an excellent experience, I also found it quite ironic that Oskar Schindler was only mentioned once, at the time when we entered his former office.

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The exhibit itself focused mainly on the Nazi atrocities that Schindler witnessed within the town, which did in turn lead to his change of heart and desire to save his workers. However, I had expected more information on his life and deeds, rather than the history of the Holocaust in Krakow, though that is obviously just as important. Had the Krakow Ghetto and Płaszów concentration camp not existed in this town, the story of Schindler and the Schindlerjuden would not have occurred.

Nearing the end of another fulfilling but tiring day, we returned the Columbus Hotel where some of us stayed and others (including myself) left once more for last minute shopping in Krakow’s main square. As our last day in the town, it has been wonderful but a little bittersweet. I personally have come to love Krakow and am sad to leave it behind. Alas, new and interesting adventures (or maybe misadventures, but hopefully not) await us in Berlin! Before that point however, we must endure the day at Auschwitz-Birkenau…Wish us strength and courage for the experience!

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