10 August 2013

Oskar Schindler's factory-museum

Oskar Schindler was born in 1908 in Moravia, now in the Czech Republic but then in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many Sudeten Germans became ardent Nazis because of their resentment towards Czechs, whom they viewed as inferior as Poles and Jews. Living so close to the German Reich yet not a part of it, Sudeten Germans often became more nationalistic than the average German. So it was not unusual that in 1935 Schindler joined the Sudeten German Party; soon after that, he also became a member of the intelligence organisation of the German armed forces, Abwehr. Fortunately for Schindler, his Abwehr membership excused him from active military service. 

Front of Emalia factory, Krakow

In Sept 1938 Hitler signed the Munich Pact with Britain and France, forcing Czechoslovakia to cede German populated Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. The 2 Western democracies, allies of democratic Czechoslovakia, sought to appease Hitler's ambitions by abandoning the Czechs. When the German army occupied the Sudetenland, the local German citizens were delighted.

After the German troops had entered the southern Polish city of Krakow in Sep 1939, Schindler was ordered to move into that city and was made the trustee of a household-goods factory in Zabłocie suburb. Deutsche Email Warenfabrik or Emalia, a formerly Jewish-owned business called Rekord, was born. Private businessmen like Oskar Schindler operated factories in Nazi-occupied Poland, exploiting both Catholic-Polish and Jewish-Polish labour. Schindler’s friends in high places guaranteed Schindler a steady flow of army contracts.

Map of Krakow and the Vistula River showing 
the Jewish suburb of Kazimierz, Schindler's factory and Plaszow camp
Photo credit: Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC

3.5 million Jews lived in Poland, 10% of the population in 1939. Krakow was home to 56,000 Jews, especially in the Kazimierz suburb on the Vistula River. Schindler and his staff expanded to make products for the German munitions industry, gaining special privileges for the business and protection from death for the Jews, once work broke out in 1939. Schindler might have been a war-profiteer, but he had a financial and personal investment in his Jewish workers.

Herr Schindler, a paid-up member of the Nazi Party, told his Jewish workers: "You'll be safe working here. If you work here, then you'll live through the war." He was correct. The Jews who were deemed Essential Workers for the German war effort succeeded largely in escaping deportation to the death camps. Schindler had a 14-page, typed list of his Essential Workers, Jews he would protect at any cost for the rest of the war.

Gate into factory and administrative block

Construction works began in 1940. Schindler added offices, a small clinic, the kitchen and cafeteria, the stables for their horses, and the garages for their vehicles. Over the next few years Schindler also built the shop floor which accommodated lathes, presses and the tool-room. In 1942 the stamping room was extended into a three-storeyed building which contained the pattern-shop, warehouses, social and administrative rooms, as well as the office and apartment of the factory’s owner. The entrance to the factory’s courtyard was accentuated by two imposing pillars and closed with an openwork metal gate. Steam boilers and a new stamping shop floor designed by the Siemens company were added.

The number of Jewish employees grew from 100+ in 1940 to 1,100 in 1944. The Schindler-Jews were given permission to live in a protected sub-camp of Plaszow Concentration Camp, behind Schindler's enamel factory. Despite Plaszow Camp being very close (see map), we can assume that Schindler resorted to his usual bribery techniques to save his workers. It worked.

In 1944, when the front line rapidly approached Krakow, Schindler evacuated the factory’s staff and equipment to Brünnlitz in Moravia where it continued to operate safely, until the Germans were defeated by the Russians in May 1945 and the surviving Jews were liberated.

Schindler’s unexpected and heroic activities during the war meant he was adored and idolised by his former Jewish workers from Krakow; so he travelled to Israel many times. In 1963 Oskar Schindler was awarded the title of Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. He died in 1974 in Germany, but he had asked to be buried in Jerusalem, a hero to the entire Jewish people.

Oskar Schindler

Ideas for a film about the Schindler-Jews were proposed as early as 1963 when one Schindler-Jew, a Mr Pfefferberg, wanted everyone in the world to know the story. But nothing came of it. The legend of Oskar Schindler only came to public fame when Australian author Thomas Keneally visited Pfefferberg's luggage shop in California in 1980 and saw the surviving documentation and photos. Next the novelist interviewed surviving Schindler-Jews in Australia, USA and Israel. Keneally’s resulting book, Schindler's Ark, was published in 1982. It sky rocketed to fame when the novel won the all-important Booker Prize. Later, in 1993, Keneally’s book was adapted into the successful movie Schindler's List directed by Steven Spielberg. Appropriately it was filmed almost entirely in Krakow.


In 2005 the Emalia premises became the property of the City of Krakow. After many debates over the future of Oskar Schindler’s factory, the decision was made in 2007 to place the space under the control of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. The former administrative building became the heart of the museum which opened in June 2010.

Inside the factory-museum

There have been many criticisms of the curatorial focus, particularly because the museum carefully examines on the city of Krakow itself during WW2, rather than focusing on Oskar Schindler or on the Jewish experience. However visitors clearly love seeing the recreated shops, flats, streets, pre-war and wartime photographs, household objects, newspapers, personal and official documents.

An original, typed list of Schindler's Jews came up for auction in July 2013 and would have been a perfect object for the Schindler Factory Museum. Alas this list was so rare that it was too expensive to buy.

Schindler's list of Jewish Essential Workers
showing names, birth dates and trades.
Photo credit: METRO


Viola said...

Oscar Schindler was certainly a great hero, but I didn't know about the museum. Thank you so much for the interesting article.

jeronimus said...

Hi Hels.
Amazing to see the actual factory building.

I saw a TV doco on the Abwehr the other day. Apparently the head of the Abwehr, being at the hub of intelligence gathering, soon found out about the atrocities being perpetrated in the East, and grew very disillusioned with Hitler. He made sure that the people working under him were of like mind. So Schindler may have been influenced by this atmosphere, or may have been hired because he had already shown anti-Hitler sympathies.
Ultimately Hitler got wind that the Abwehr was working against him, and it was replaced.

Dina said...

Thanks for this post, Helen. I was not aware of this museum.

Hels said...


I feel I know Oskar Schindler on a personal basis :) I read the book the day it received the Booker Prize and have met two Melbourne families whose parents were Schindler Jews. But I too had never heard of the museum until well after it opened.

Hels said...


Amazing indeed to see the actual factory building!! You would think it might have been destroyed after the war. But the museum said that from 1948-2002, the retooled plant actually made parts for telecommunications equipment produced by Telpod.

Interesting point about Abwehr. But how did Abwehr being the centre of intelligence gathering for the armed forces, not know about the atrocities being perpetrated in the East?

Hels said...


Despite Oskar Schindler being one of the most important Righteous among the Nations in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, a major problem has arisen.

Poland has banned all kosher and halal abattoirs in their country, so travel agents feel they cannot organise GROUP tours to the museum. Individuals who don't mind eating non-kosher meat can of course visit anytime they want.

Joseph said...

Where is Schindler's List of names, if not in the Krakow museum?

Hels said...


Of the seven typed versions of the list created for Oskar Schindler, only four are known to have survived — two are at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem; one is in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC; and the fourth (put up for auction in mid 2013) is in private hands.

jeronimus said...

Hi Hels. I didn't intend to suggest that the Abwehr was not aware of the atrocities, in fact they were amongst the first to find out about it. As far as I can tell from Wikipedia, Canaris, the Abwehr chief, was not privy to the plans for exterminations in Poland - they were carried out under direct orders from Hitler to the death squads - but he found out about them through his agents in the field, and was deeply shocked (probably not so much because of the murder of Jews, but because Polish nobility and clergy were on the hit list.

Andrew said...

Do you think Schindler behaved entirely for altruistic reasons? I don't know, but he had a good work force and it was well worth looking after regardless.

Hels said...


I didn't know the first thing about Abwehr a year ago, and am finding the entire discussion fascinating. Thank you! Schindler may very well have been influenced by the atmosphere in the organisation he joined, even before war was imminent.

Hels said...


I don't think he was anything other than a canny businessman, looking after his own business interests. There was no hiding the truth - he was a hard drinking, very hard womanising, war profiteering businessman!

There were quite a number of private German businessmen like Oskar Schindler operating factories in Nazi-occupied Poland. So the question is - did any of the others fight soooo hard to save the lives of their Jewish Essential Workers?