I really took note of the design of many of the exhibitions I saw when I was recently in Poland . There was change of pace, drama, art, and, from my German point of view, a startling lack of inhibition about using Nazi symbols to create experiences . This was probably most evident at Schindler’s Factory .
The first section of the exhibition is all about Kraków in the months leading up to when war broke out. Through photographs and sound bites, you really get a sense of people enjoying themselves, living their lives, while very slowly fears begin to creep in about the possibility of war, and the German advance. Then the Nazis arrive, and the space becomes dark and narrow, and pierced by the staccato sounds of gunfire. I remember watching a video in this section of a woman talking about how they’d initially thought it was the French coming to protect them, until they saw the SS insignia, and ran. This use of personal testimony, together with the manipulation of space and design, really worked for me. I got that desire to flee too, and yet feeling there was nowhere to go.
That feeling became even more oppressive as next, you had to walk through a narrow corridor, weaving between enormous Nazi flags of the kind you never see ‘for real’, only as pictures. And on either side along the walls were the notices that the Nazis started to put up around Kraków . Their messages, and the sheer number of them, issued in short succession, created a real sense of how the city was taken over by a foreign, and hostile force. Then the exhibition opens up into a white space, the floor tiles also displaying swastikas, and the cases full of Nazi stuff. I honestly found it very difficult to be in that space, and yet I felt it was a brave, and very powerful choice to use the symbols (especially the flags). We can often be very subtle in museums, and this was not subtle. It was brutal. It was in your face. Exactly, I imagine, like the Nazis were at the time. You couldn’t get away from it.
But at the same time, it made me think about an older blog post I read not too long ago by Gretchen Jennings on empathy in the museum. Amid numerous, thoughtful observations, Gretchen also shared the comments made by her African-American colleagues about their own and their families’ unease about the display of Klan robes in museums. I wonder what the impact of the use of all these Nazi symbols might be on a Jewish visitor? How would they feel about this? The example of the Klan robe reveals that many African-Americans feel/felt the use of the robes to be ‘highly offensive and disturbing’. I imagine that it might be similar for Jewish visitors seeing Nazi symbols that are not even artifacts (the flags were replicas). Does that mean the flags shouldn’t have been used? I do hope the exhibition designers at Schindler’s Factory discussed this with Jewish groups. All I can say is that I don’t think I personally would have truly got a sense of what happened in Krakow as the Nazis took over without this. Those flags are still with me .
The exhibition then continued to tell the story of the Jewish Ghetto in Kraków (another dark, desperate space, that was also very hot), of the transports to the concentration camps (complete with recreated gravel floor and wire fence), and finally the liberation of Poland by the Soviet Army. There was a lot going on in this exhibition, and a part of me wondered whether this was ultimately all a bit over-engineered. Now, a couple of weeks later, my answer to that is, no. I think the exhibition was brilliant . It really left me thinking, and I’m still thinking about it now. It moved me emotionally, it got me into a historic space, and it created an experience that it would have been difficult for me to have otherwise. This, finally, was also because of the intelligent and meaningful use of art:
The best, and absolutely most impressive aspect of the exhibition at Schindler’s Factory was the second to last room: a white, circular room, with black words in different languages. When I came through the first time, I only read the words written on the wall, all languages mixed: of people sharing the stories of how they’d been helped, by others, by soldiers. I felt uplifted. Comforted. When I came through the second time, I read the words on the rotating cylinders, each in one language only, situated in niches around the room. But these, I realized, weren’t stories of people helping. These were the confessions of people who had refused to help, who had looked away, out of fear, or out of avoidance. This time I did not come out of the room feeling comforted. I kept asking myself whether I really would have helped if I had I been in their shoes.
 At the truly excellent 2015 conference organized by Interpret Europe on ‘Sensitive heritage – sensitive interpretation’. This is still a fairly new organisation for professional interpreters, and that means there are lots of good discussions happening that people can be part of and shape: I really encourage you to join! I’ve let other memberships lapse, but not this one.
 A colleague wondered whether showing the Swastika is also forbidden in the context of German museums – I don’t know – do you?
 Where the exhibition isn’t really about the story of the factory and ‘Schindler’s Jews’, but more about Jewish life in general in Kraków . Oddly enough, while I had expected to find out more about the factory and that particular story, as soon as I entered the exhibition I hardly gave that another thought. The staff working there did share with us, however, that some visitors are infuriated about the lack of this story. It is there, but only presented very briefly. And never mind connecting to the building and the site itself – it’s just a (really well used) building.
 I find myself struggling for words here. The flags made me feel small, they made me feel scared, they made me feel ashamed, and they made me feel like this was the only way I could ever ‘share’ in the experience that the Polish people might have had. It’s a very complex feeling that I believe centres on the fact that intellectually, I have been taught much about the war, and Germany’s role in it, and I am familiar with Nazi symbolism and propaganda, and how to deconstruct it. But you still never quite experience it from the point of view of those that lived the experience of Nazi German invasion. I saw, and experienced those symbols differently this time. It was less about ‘what has my country done’, and more about, ‘this is what it felt like to those affected’. Therein lay the power for me, and hopefully for others that perhaps traditionally may be viewed as not a natural target of the Nazis (like me).
 And this is due to the design, and the use of replicas and original artifacts. There was very little of what we might think of traditionally as ‘interpretation’. There was no other voice (that I noticed) than that of the people who lived, and experienced this horror at the time, and of the Nazis, through their propaganda and notices.
4 thoughts on “True immersion, over-engineering, or lack of empathy? The exhibition at Schindler’s Factory”
My youth, growing up in the early 50s, American, Jewish, in a world of survivors, number tattoos on the arms of every one of my friends’ parents. I experienced the Holocaust in my own way although I was born a few years after the war ended.
This exhibition sounds brilliant to me. My reaction as a Jew is this- the story must be told, felt, experienced at the deepest level. All Jews learn- we can forgive but never forget, least it happens again. And it has, over and over. Perhaps the power of this exhibition isn’t strong enough to get into the guts of people so genocide stops, perhaps nothing is, butting is an attempt, I applaud it. PS perhaps they should change the misleading name.
Thanks for sharing your view, Gail, that’s really helpful. I wonder if any exhibition will ever manage to stop atrocities, but this exhibition seemed to have an impact on a lot of people. Even just getting people talking about different perspectives on and reactions to the exhibition is an important step toward mutual understanding, in my opinion.
Thanks, Nicole for this post. This past spring, when I was in Ukraine, there was a great deal of discussion around the new de-communisation laws, which forbid the display of either Nazi or Soviet symbols (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/apr/20/ukraine-decommunisation-law-soviet) — when first passed it was unclear even if museums would be allowed to display them, but now apparently they can. And I agree, the use of symbols can be incredibly powerful, as we’re now having in the conversation about the Confederate flag here in the US. I think it partly depends on how willing museums are to really be clear about the purposes for which they’re using such symbols and to ensure that all visitors, no matter their background, have a space to reflect.
Thanks for sharing the article about Ukraine, Linda. It highlights again how important history and memory are to identity, and at the same time how contentious and complex. The discussions surrounding the Confederate flag, and the role – or not – of museums in engaging people with what it represents, is a very interesting one also. It shows, too, that time does play a role in how we as societies, and museums as key institutions, are able to confront certain symbols.