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KRAKOW, Poland — “Schindler’s List” opened in Poland’s ancient capital city Wednesday night, a year after Steven Spielberg arrived here to begin filming.

The gala premiere was covered like a presidential visit. Like in the United States, the pic has drawn enthusiastic reactions across Europe. While the film is poised to do good box office in Europe, it is also being viewed here as an artistic film of the highest merit.

Krakow is especially important to this movie, and to Spielberg. Situated only a few kilometers from the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp, it’s a location where Hollywood and history converge.

Spielberg’s whirlwind tour of Europe — he was onlyin Krakow for a few hours — also encompasses London, Frankfurt, Berlin, Stockholm and Israel. In Poland, the film will open on 10 prime screens today.

At an hourlong press conference at Leg Studio in Krakow — a facility used in the filming — Spielberg paid a compliment to his Polish crew and the city of Krakow, without which he could not have made the film.

“This has been a tremendous year of personal growth that had nothing to do with my principal strength, which is imagination,” the director said. “This is the first time I came to a subject without my imagination, because there was no room for it, and it would have gotten in the way of the historical facts and the truth. In that sense, I came to Poland without my best ally. I created a film as a journalist and it has changed the way I look at movies.”

Spielberg called “Schindler’s List””a message film that had to be made,” adding that he wanted to honor the memory, especially in Krakow, of those who died in the Holocaust.

“I can’t make a musical or a Western or a sequel to ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark.’ I just could not do that now,” he told the conference. “I have no idea what I can or will do next. I will take a year off and think about my life and my career.”

In answer to a question about the portrayal of Poles in the film as anti-Semitic, Spielberg said: “I made the film as the way into a very difficult and controversial subject. I was concerned not with a balance but with telling the truth about Oskar Schindler.”

Polish director Andrzej Wajda told Daily Variety: “I saw this film in N.Y. and I think it’s wonderful. It looks much more like a European film than an American (one).”

Polish film minister Waldemar Dabrowski, whom Spielberg has credited with being largely responsible for his decision to film in Poland, said: “This film touches deeply on issues not just in film, but in all the arts at a time of great confusion in Eastern Europe. It’s a fine statement.”

Spielberg said he made the film for young people — those who have little knowledge about the Holocaust. Already he has supported programs in California and New Jersey to provide screenings for high school students.

Like execs at Universal, the Hollywood studio that backs Spielberg’s films, the director never expected “List” to do much business. The awards and financial success are rewards he never expected from the picture.

“This film is the first time I can say I’ve had a life experience on top of a filmmaking experience,” Spielberg said. “This went far beyond the pressures of filmmaking. Every day when I came to location, it was not like going to the set, not like going to a food wagon for your morning sandwich.

“If it changed my opinion about filmmaking, I can say I have been more stimulated and won over by reality and have found more satisfaction from this than from any film I made before.”

During the day Spielberg and his wife, actress Kate Capshaw, visited Auschwitz-Birkenau, the former Nazi death camp complex 40 miles outside of Krakow, to pay respect to more than 1 million Jews who perished there during the Holocaust.