“This picture is from August of 1939,” explained our tour guide at the Schindler Museum. “This is when the last rays of sunlight were cast on Poland.” Her country was still gaining its footing as a re-established nation after World War I, yet was knocked off its course for decades after that bright August due to a combination of German occupation and Soviet control for decades after the war.
The national memory of war that our Polish tour guide communicated was extraordinarily interesting. The museum used a striking combination of light and space to evoke certain emotions in its visitors, such as a cramped and dark display to represent the Krakow Jewish ghetto or an uneven rubber floor to show the feeling of uncertainty as Poland was “liberated” by the Russians.
All of these tools were a supplement to our guide’s description of the displays and the war itself, such as her account of the outbreak of war . After describing the helpless situation in which the fledgling nation found itself, our guide emphasized that the war would have been drastically changed had Great Britain and France sent the promised troops and equipment to Poland to continue the fight. Immediately I wondered how, even with this help, Poland they could have fended off the Germans. I was curious how plausible this could have been, especially considering the failure of British and French troops to thwart invasion in France in 1940.
The most interesting aspect of this museum tour, however, was what we heard about collaboration. Our guide tried to give us a clear picture through careful language about the different sects of society in Poland at that time, saying that there were, “good Poles and bad Poles, good Germans and bad Germans, and good Jews and bad
Jews.” What I did not know as I heard this semi-ambiguous statement was that in February of 2018, the Polish senate passed a controversial law that made it illegal to accuse the Polish state or its inhabitants of being involved with crimes committed during the Holocaust. The president of Poland described the law as a means to prevent Poland from being insulted and if broken calls for either a fine or up to three years in prison.
Bearing this in mind, it was fascinating to hear what our guide had to say. It was clear to me that she had to “tip-toe” around different subjects with her remark about the good and bad sides to war, but she in turn created a more non-biased look at this issue as a whole. Overall, our tour at the Schindler Museum provided me with an interesting look at Krakow’s history within the context of the war and subsequent liberation. Viewing the war through Poland’s eyes as an occupied country definitely offers museum guests with a unique story that is often forgotten outside of Poland, even if it may be tainted by recent laws. This tour, and the tours of museums in other nations, has left me curious to see how World War II history is taught across Europe, what information may be lacking in the US’s narrative of the war, and to what extent that nations are willing to let these tough conversations go.