As Holocaust survivors and their relatives gather on Tuesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, it's worth remembering again one man who did his best - risking personal safety, fortune and fate - to stem the horrors of the ghetto and gas chambers in Krakow and Auschwitz respectively.
It has been 22 years now since Steven Spielberg brought 'Schindler's List' to the screen, and the ‘children’s director’ proved that, not only was he very grown up, but could be trusted with the legacy of one of the world’s greatest human tragedies, as well as some singular heroism.
Nowadays, the city of Krakow, in the south of Poland, where the actual events took place, has, according to one local, been transformed more in the 20 years since Spielberg filmed there, than in the previous half-century since the actual events took place.
It is a smart, thriving East European city, where you have to know where to look to be reminded of what has gone on before - the removal of the city’s Jewish population, first to the walled ghetto, and from there to the camps.
You can visit the factory of Oskar Schindler (played in the film by Liam Neeson), where this effervescent, hedonistic businessman employed 1,100 Jews, and kept them from the gas chambers of Auschwitz. A trip to the Lasota hill at the side of the town reveals the view of the ghetto taken in by Schindler, out with his girlfriend for a horse-ride in the film, as the full horror of the Jews’ treatment was revealed to him, and his conscience was stirred.
A little way out of town is the villa of Amon Goeth, the capricious Nazi commander played so uncannily by Ralph Fiennes in the film. Although a visit here proves that, technically, he would have been unable to take pot shots at camp prisoners as shown in the film (the balcony of his house was too low from the open ground of the camp), it is still chilling to see where he held court, and partied with the likes of other Nazis and businessmen like Schindler. The house is currently for sale.
Most movingly, you can visit what’s left of the ghetto and pause for thought at the memorial placed there in 2005. 33 steel and iron cast chairs stand in what was once the market square. More chairs have been placed at local bus and tram stops, to remind passers-by that anyone can be a victim. The empty chairs denote ‘absence’. It is extremely effective, simple and sad, but sits harmoniously with the Krakow of today.
Any idea that this city has fully escaped its history, however, is rendered in sharp relief by a visit to the camps of Auschwitz, and its neighbour Birkenau. The contrast between the beautiful sunlit day and the history being recounted by the knowledgeable guide is all too marked. There has been much academic study done on how we become less compassionate when faced with tragedy on a large scale (why, for example, a genocide far away can somehow have less impact on us than the tragedy of one missing child), but it remains impossible not to be moved by the huge piles of shoes, spectacles, even hair, when each lace, frame and strand have their own story. It was estimated at the Nuremberg trials that approximately three million people died here, although more recent calculations have put the figure somewhere between a million and a million and a half.
It feels self-indulgent to be too upset - the only thing to do is to mark, and remember. And the guide guards, too, against painting history here in colours of only black and white. "There were many heroes, and villains, but also people who were both, and made different decisions every day of the week," he explains. "Lives were lived here, for years, with all the complications that they would normally bring."
"Spielberg made it acceptable to bring these things out into the open"
Back in Krakow, and the rare opportunity to meet one of Schindler's actual list - Niusia Horowitz. An elderly lady of beauty and spirit, she remembers little of Oskar Schindler himself, whom she encountered as a child, and her life was complicated by the fact she told no one, not even her family, about her extraordinary background, until Spielberg came along.
"He made it acceptable to bring these things out into the open," she explains over dinner in one of Krakow’s liveliest restaurants, where the cast and crew of ‘Schindler’s List’ often dined together. But it is clear, too, that Niusia is not consumed by the past, talking about her makeup, her hair, her life in America. She lives in the present, which is the biggest victory anyone with her history can claim. There are an estimated 7,000 descendants of the names on Schindler’s List living in the world today.
And Niusia was delighted when Spielberg turned up. "I sat on his knee," she confides, with the grin of a teenager. Another era, another hero.
Schindler’s List 20th Anniversary Edition is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Universal Pictures. Some stunning stills below see Spielberg, Neeson, Fiennes and the rest of the cast and crew in action, 22 years ago...