Wednesday 29 October 2008

Schindler's Svitavy

Svitavy is a town of 17,500 inhabitants about 180km east of Prague and 70km north of Brno. Its historic centre is small enough to be easily walkable and is centred on the long narrow main square.

At one end of the square stands the solid white church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, originally from the year 1250. Most of the other buildings are colourful two or three storey houses fronted with walkways of massive stone arches. About halfway along the square is the old town hall and clock tower and beside that is the friendly and efficient tourist information office.

Svitavy’s pretty square is one of its main attractions, but you might need directions from tourist info to find things like the Church of St. Jilji from 1683, the city museum and the home of Svitavy’s most famous son, Oscar Schindler. The Schindler home is at Poličská Ul. 24 but is still a family residence and therefore inaccessible to the public. It’s marked only by a small stone memorial in the park across the street.

Schindler, of course, was the Sudeten German businessman credited with saving the lives of over 1000 Jewish people towards the end of World War II. His story became well known in the mid 1980’s after the book Schindler’s Ark, by Australian writer Thomas Keneally, was made into an award winning film by Steven Spielberg, with Liam Neeson in the main role.

One block south of the main square, the Svitavy city museum dedicates an entire wing to the story of Schindler and his Jews. Most of the displays take the form of documents and photographs and are neatly displayed in white on black panels. There are also several items exhibited in glass cases- prisoners’ uniforms, identity cards, food stamps and so on - and towards the rear of the building is a small screening room with a digital projector. The museum shows two short films and the language of the subtitles can be altered as needed.

One of the films includes footage from Brněnec nad Svitavou, which is a small town about 15km south of Svitavy. It was formerly known as Brunnlitz and is the location of the factory to which Schindler moved his workers in the final days of the war. The old factory buildings still stand but are mostly disused and locked away behind high wire fences.

Earlier this year I was looking around there and by chance briefly met an old man who knew Oscar Schindler personally.
I’d been snooping around looking for an entrance or at least a place to poke my camera through the fence to take pictures, and eventually a guy called out from his garden ‘How do you like our factory?’

‘I like it, but is it really the one that belonged to Oscar Schindler during World War II?’

He confirmed that it was Schindler’s factory and pointed to the old iron gates, which were formerly the main entrance, and across the stream to the tall chimney, which was the site of the camp where the Jewish workers lived.

He then nodded back towards the elderly couple he’d been sitting with and said “Grandpa remembers Schindler. He’s 96 years old and he used to deliver the bread to the factory”.

Schindler’s famous farewell speech mentioned the same bread. “Thank the Daubek Mill, whose energetic support improved your nutrition, often beyond the realm of the possible. I wish to express sincere thanks to the brave director of the mill, who personally did everything I requested in order to get food for you”.

That part of the speech didn’t make it into the film version, but the scenes set in Brunnlitz give a reasonably good impression of how it looks there today.

The Svitavy City museum is open year round except on Mondays and public holidays and admission is a token 20Kč.


mtsvec said...

Nice piece. I don't know if you heard this but Studs Terkel died peaceful in Chicago on Friday. I enjoy your blog because it is respectful of the place and people in CZ, and in that way I enjoy your writing the same way I enjoyed Terkel's. Hope your book is progressing well.

Captain Oddsocks said...

Hi Mike,

I did read about Studs Terkel's passing; it's sad to see someone like that, even at 96 years old, pass on.

The chapters for my book are piling up slowly, but there's a long way to go. If you could see it now, I doubt you'd have mentioned it in the same breath as Studs' writing, but I thank you for the compliment.