In search of 'Schindler's List'

October 10, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

Cracow, Poland -- And now, by popular demand: "Schindler's List," The Tour.

Here at the site of the Oscar-winning film and the events it portrayed, one can now pay about $8 to follow in the footsteps of both director Stephen Spielberg and Nazi Amon Goeth, sadistic commandant of the Plaszow Concentration Camp.

The two-hour tour also visits landmarks of the real and the cinematic Oskar Schindler, the German businessman who saved Jews from Nazi gas chambers by employing them in his factory.

The result is a bit of star-struck gawking mixed into a dutiful march through the deep shadows of the Holocaust. And when the tour begins to reveal that not all the film's locations were true to the past, it also becomes an exploration of the way art manipulates the images of history.

The tour was organized in April, soon after the movie won the Oscar for best picture. It was either that or be driven crazy by curious visitors, says Lucyna Wozniak, co-manager of a Jewish bookstore in the heart of Kazimierz, the neighborhood once home to many of the city's 68,000 Jews (now there are fewer than a thousand).

"So many people were coming in here and asking where was the ghetto, where was this, where was that, that finally to get them off our backs we said, 'OK, we'll organize a tour,' " Ms. Wozniak says. "Now we see it as a service to the town, to tell people about what happened."

The bookstore sits at the end of the cobblestoned courtyard chosen by Mr. Spielberg to depict the central square of the wartime ghetto, in the scene where the Jews are lined up for classification.

"We start the tour here," Ms. Wozniak says. "Then we go to where the ghetto actually was."

The actual ghetto was clear across the Vistula River, in the less picturesque neighborhood of Podgorze. Its cinematic potential was further damaged by the modern buildings, up to 10 stories high, constructed after the war.

Hardly anyone who takes the tour has been disappointed by the discrepancy. "They want to get the real historical information, too, but they can see from a cinematic viewpoint why it was better to film it here," Ms. Wozniak says.

The Plaszow work camp depicted in the film was also moved, constructed at a rock quarry instead of at the actual site, which is now a memorial. Mr. Spielberg's set designers used old photographs to duplicate the camp as authentically as possible, and to some locals it has become a more meaningful site than the real one.

Only a few barracks remain from the movie set, but Ms. Wozniak says proceeds of the tour are being put toward rebuilding the rest -- in effect, to construct a replica of Mr. Spielberg's replica.

About 1,000 people have taken the tour, moving between seven stops on foot and by minibus. The tour also includes stops at Schindler's factory (the film used the authentic location for exterior shots), which now houses an electronics manufacturer, and at Lasota Hill, the movie location where Mr. Schindler watched from horseback while soldiers cleared Jews from the ghetto.

Those who are more ambitious can visit other sites with the help of a recent guide printed in the Cracow monthly tourist publication, What, Where, When. Available at some of the state-run Orbis tourism agencies in town, it directs tourists to such sites as the " 'Jews forced to shovel snow' scene" and the " 'Little girl in the red coat' scene."

But the grimmest of all the sites is a little more than an hour's drive away, at the death camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, next to the town of Oswiecim.

Americans have been the most prevalent customers of the "Schindler" tour, but Germans are running a close second.

"The film and the tour is a great way for Germans to take care of their complexes about this," Ms. Wozniak says. "The young people at times have sort of a guilt complex. So when they come on these tours we avoid using the word German. We say Nazi instead, although one Dutch woman said that was hypocritical on our part."

All the Germans taking the tour have been fairly young. Ms. Wozniak can't recall a single one old enough to remember the war years -- the generation that in Germany always has the least to say about the Holocaust and its ramifications.

Nor have Poles shown much interest in the tour. Many felt the film unfairly implied that all non-Jewish Poles shared in the German guilt. Such charges are part of an old and painful debate here. Even though many Poles acknowledge a deep strain of anti-Semitism in their country, then and now, they rankle against charges of complicity because masses of non-Jewish Poles were also executed, whether for "ethnic inferiority" or for devotion to Catholicism.

"In one sense I'm disappointed there aren't more Poles who take the tour," says Ms. Wozniak, a Pole in her 30s who is not Jewish. "But Poles of my generation have just been saturated with films and scenes and history from World War II.

"Nevertheless, it should be admitted that there is still anti-Semitism in Poland. One boy told me he doesn't like Jews because they smell like garlic and onions. This was somebody who'd never had any contact with a Jew, and what do you say to somebody like that?"

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