Commemorating the Ghetto
Blajb gezunt mir Kroke
Farewell, my Kraków! Fare thee well, the cart is hitched up, waiting in front of my house. The savage enemy drives me cruelly from you as one would drive away a dog* – in 1940, these were the final words uttered by Mordechai Gebirtig, the influential Yiddish poet and songwriter, as he was cast out of Kraków’s Kazimierz district. Two years later, together with scores of other Jews, he was murdered by the Nazis during one of the many deportations from the ghetto.
Kraków was one of the oldest aggregations of the Jewish Diaspora in Poland. Jews settled here as early as during the crusades, fleeing to avoid persecution in Western Europe. The first documented mentions of their permanent presence in the city date back to the second half of the 12th century, during the reign of Mieszko III the Old. In the early days, the Jewish community mainly lived near today’s Main Market Square, initially in the vicinity of today’s Św. Anny Street, later moving near today’s Szczepański Square. In the wake of the fire and the unrest that spread across Kraków in 1495, Cracovian Jews were ordered by the King to move to the nearby town of Kazimierz, in the region of the former village of Bawół – today’s Szeroka Street. With time, the area was surrounded by a wall to form a separate Jewish town (oppidum iudaeorum). For centuries, it remained one of the most important Jewish cultural and spiritual centres in Europe. During the 19th century, Kazimierz was incorporated into the City of Kraków, slowly evolving into an Orthodox centre and destination of Jewish pilgrimages from across Poland.
Fish market in the Kazimierz district in front of the Isaac Synagogue, photo by Adam Karaś, ca. 1926; from the collection of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków
On the threshold of war
During the 1930s, Jews made up around a quarter of Kraków’s population. This 60,000-strong community was extremely diverse; alongside those engaging in traditional trading and craft activities, there were also many intellectuals, mainly lawyers and doctors, highly assimilated with the rest of the city’s population. There were 66 Jewish periodical publications, including 34 in Polish, 24 in Yiddish, and the remainder in Hebrew. An important publication of the Zionist movement was the “Nowy Dziennik” [“New Daily” – trans.], the oldest Polish-language Jewish newspaper in Poland (published between 1918-1939). Cracovian Jews were represented in Parliament and the local authorities. Traditionally, its commissioner was assigned the office of one of Kraków’s deputy mayors. Cultural life blossomed: the city was home to numerous Jewish cinemas, theatres, libraries and cafés. In the days preceding the Second World War, there were also over twenty Jewish sports clubs with various political and ideological orientations, including the most famous – the Zionist Maccabees – whose playing field was located on the corner of Dietla and Koletek Streets.
Nazi occupation: beginning of the terror
In the wake of the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, Kraków became the capital of the General Government (GG), formed in October on the former lands of the Second Polish Republic which were not assimilated into the Third Reich. Wawel Royal Castle became the seat of Governor-General Hans Frank. From the earliest days of the occupation, the Nazi authorities introduced ordinances aimed against the Jewish population, permitting unregulated acts of aggression against it. The plans strived for the gradual isolation, mental and physical destruction, enslavement, and eventual annihilation of the Jewish people. In occupied Kraków, assaults were commonplace (such as cutting off the beards of Orthodox Jews), as were robberies, beatings, round-ups, raids and arrests. As early as 8 September, Jewish shops and cafés were ordered to display the Star of David, making it easier for soldiers to carry out robberies and attacks. In November, Jewish businesses and workshops were taken over, savings accounts over a certain amount were seized, and Jews were ordered to wear armbands bearing the Star of David (from 1940, transgressions were subject to the death penalty). All Jews between the ages of 12 and 60 were required to work, even on Saturdays and during Jewish celebrations. Jewish schools were closed, and Jewish pupils, students and professors were expelled from all public educational establishments. Jewish government officials also lost their jobs. During the Sonderaktion Krakau (6 November 1939), aimed at Kraków’s intellectuals, over a dozen Jewish scholars were arrested; despite protests from academic circles around the globe, they all perished in concentration camps. All pensions and benefits received by Jews were abolished by December. Ritual slaughter was banned, synagogues and prayer houses were closed, and Jewish press was liquidated; the use of Hebrew was also prohibited. After the confiscations of cars came the prohibition on travelling by rail without a special permit, followed by limits on the use of trams by Jews. Entry to the Main Market Square (renamed Adolf-Hitler-Platz) was forbidden, as was movement around most of the Planty Park; Jews were also banned from entering non-Jewish cinemas, theatres, cafés and restaurants. Each day brought new regulations aiming to torment the Jewish population; in the end, all of its traditional ways of life were suppressed.
By the end of 1939, the occupying forces formed the Jewish Administrative Council (Judenrat), whose job it was to ensure its orders were carried out quickly and efficiently. Its members found themselves in an extremely difficult and dangerous position of constantly having to navigate their way between the demands of the Nazis and protecting their own people. Kraków’s Judenrat comprised widely respected members of the Jewish community; they tried to represent its interests as best as was within their power, for which two of Judenrat’s leaders paid with their lives. In June 1942, the council was dissolved and replaced by a commissary board fully in the service of the Nazis.
In August 1940, on the orders of the Gestapo, the Judenrat founded the Jewish Ghetto Police (Jüdische Ordnungsdienst). With time, it became independent of the board to be staffed with people entirely loyal to the occupying Nazi forces. The officers usually zealously supported the regime, surveillance, and later deportations. However, after the liquidation of the ghetto, the majority of them were shot.
Photo: German occupation; Nazis cutting off an Orthodox Jew’s sidelocks, Kalwaryjska Street, author unknown, ca. 1940; from the collection of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków
The order for mass deportation of Jews from Kraków was issued in May 1940. According to the plan, just 15,000 would remain in the city. As a result of the deportations, according to various estimations, between forty and sixty thousand Jews were expelled from the city by February 1941. They were mainly taken to Lublin and its surrounding lands, where they met their deaths in camps at Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka. On the other hand, large number of people moved to Kraków from surrounding villages. Others were deported from lands assimilated into the Third Reich. Scores of Jews coming out of hiding arrived at the Kraków ghetto in the wake of the November 1942 announcement proclaiming Kraków, Bochnia, Przemyśl and Rzeszów as the only towns within the Cracovian GG district where Jews were allowed to live and work. In reality, the increasing concentration of the Jewish population in ever smaller surroundings was a step along the way to the planned annihilation.
“Jewish living quarter”
On 3 March 1941, the occupying forces issued a proclamation forming a “Jewish living quarter” in Podgórze. The resettlement date was set at 20 March, although Jews were forbidden from using any forms of transport from the 15th. The 320 houses, previously home to three thousand people, now held the over 15,000 Jews remaining in the city. The ghetto was surrounded with barbed wire, and a tall, stone wall was erected soon after, topped with a motif resembling Jewish tombstones (matzevas). The ghetto walls had four gates; the main one, bearing the inscription Jüdischer Wohnbezirk, was located where Limanowskiego Street joins the Podgórski Square. Trams ran along Lwowska and Limanowskiego Streets, although there were no stops within the ghetto. From October 1941, leaving the ghetto without a pass was punishable by death. The same penalty was imposed on all those offering help to those who managed to escape. In autumn 1941, the closed district saw the arrival of a further six thousand people resettled there from former Cracovian suburbs. By the end of the year, ghetto inhabitants were forbidden from using post, and all ground floor windows on the Aryan side were bricked up to prevent any food from being smuggled in. The overcrowded district, isolated from the rest of the city, was increasingly riddled with hunger.
Photo: Krakusa Bridge, author unknown, 1939-1940; from the collection of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków
The plans for “the final solution to the Jewish question” (Endlösung der Judenfrage) were finalised on 20 January 1942 during the Wannsee Conference. In spring 1942, Nazi forces began to put the plans in place throughout the GG under the code name Einsatz Reinhardt. This involved deportations from the Kraków ghetto to concentration camps, mainly to Bełżec; from autumn onwards, Jews were also taken to nearby labour camps in Płaszów (turning into a concentration camp in summer 1943), Bieżanów and Prokocim. In June and October 1942, the ghetto was witness to particularly brutal deportations, when scores of people died during round-ups and transport. The people allowed to remain in Kraków were generally selected on the whim of Gestapo officers. Many were simply murdered on the spot, mainly hospital patients and children at orphanages, which also housed numerous children whose parents worked. Some of those who were deported were shot by the side of the mass graves dug by inmates of the Płaszów camp. The area of the ghetto was reduced several times during 1942. By the end of the year, a barbed wire fence marked a division within the camp, with district A reserved for people able to work and district B for children and the sick and the elderly. The boundary ran along the Zgody Square (today Bohaterów Getta Square). The atmosphere of increasing terror drove scores of people to suicide.
Nazi forces carried out the final liquidation of the Kraków ghetto on 13 and 14 March 1943. Around six thousand inhabitants of district A deemed fit for work were taken to the Płaszów camp, while their children up to the age 14 were forced to remain at the orphanage. The following day, all inhabitants of district B were gathered at Zgody Square; around a thousand people were shot right there, including the sick and elderly from the hospital, doctors who cared for them, children, and any mothers who refused to abandon them. Those who were spared were taken to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. Finally, Gestapo officers searched the abandoned buildings, killing anyone trying to hide. Very few managed to escape to the Aryan side in sewers. Many of them were shot as they emerged out of the hatch by the railway bridge in Zabłocie, after Nazi officers were alerted by informants. The tragic events of March 70 years ago are recalled through the installation at the Bohaterów Getta Square (then Zgody): chair sculptures evoke the vision of the deserted ghetto, filled with abandoned objects and furniture. Every year the liquidation of the ghetto is commemorated by a March of Memory, under the honorary patronage of the Voivode of Małopolska, Marshal of the Małopolska Voivodeship, Mayor of the City of Kraków, and the Leader of the Jewish Community of Kraków. The participants in the march cross from the Bohaterów Getta Square to the area of the former concentration camp in Płaszów, the final route taken by Cracovian Jews to their death.
Płaszów camp, author unknown, ca. 1942; from the collection of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków
The labour camp in Płaszów was created in the late 1942 on the site of a Jewish cemetery. The main street was paved with tombstones taken from the graves, known as matzevas. The camp was intended mainly for Jews from Kraków and those arriving from ghettos being liquidated in other cities across occupied territories, as well as Poles and the Roma. There were as many as 25,000 people kept in unspeakable conditions, forced into gruelling labour and starved. They made uniforms, printed documents for the Nazi authorities, and laboured in electrical, ironwork and mechanical workshops, as well as at the nearby “Liban” stone quarry. Camp commander, Amon Goeth, was a cruel and brutal man, personally torturing and murdering many prisoners. In 1943, Płaszów became a sub-camp of the Lublin concentration camp (Majdanek), and in 1944 it became an independent concentration camp. Estimates show that around eight thousand people were buried there in mass graves following executions. As the Eastern Front approached, in August 1944 the bodies were exhumed and burned as part of a cover-up operation. Prisoners were gradually taken to camps across Germany and to Auschwitz. The final transport left on 14 January 1945, four days before the Red Army’s arrival in Kraków. It is estimated that a total of around fifty thousand people passed through the Płaszów camp over the years. The location is now home to the Monument to the Victims of the Nazis.
Liquidation of the Kraków ghetto, rows of Jews being escorted out by Nazi forces along Lwowska Street towards the Płaszów camp / Lwowska Street after the passing of the prisoners en route to the Płaszów camp, March 1943; from the collection of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków
Resistance movement and aid
Even though resistance seemed impossible in such a small and heavily-guarded area, the Kraków ghetto had several underground groups operating as part of the Jewish Combat Organisation. Their aims were described by Dolek Liebeskind, one of the leaders, during the final briefing, “We are fighting for three lines in the history books, so that it is not said that our people went like lambs to slaughter”. Some of the most spectacular campaigns of the resistance movement were the derailment of a train near Bochnia, the assassination of a German officer on the Planty Park near Dietla Street, and the December 1942 bombing of a German café Cyganeria, resulting in the death of several (the exact number varies depending on the source) officers and wounding dozens more. The ghetto was also home to the Jewish Social Aid organisation distributing resources and donations from foreign Jewish philanthropic groups, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JOINT), the International Red Cross, and grants from the GG government.
Aid to Jews hiding outside the ghetto was brought by the “Żegota” Council to Aid Jews, founded in December 1942 as part of the Polish government in exile. The Eagle Pharmacy, ran by Tadeusz Pankiewicz (the only Pole residing in the ghetto) at Zgody Square, was a secret contact, meeting and aid point (today 18 Bohaterów Getta Square, branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków).
Over a thousand people’s lives were also saved by the famous “Schindler’s list”. To begin with, the German industrialist Oskar Schindler made sure that “his Jews” were treated civilly at his factory of enamel utensils for the German army, and were awarded additional food rations. After the displacements of 1942, he organised a sub-camp in Płaszów, where their living conditions were tolerable. After the liquidation of the Płaszów camp, he transferred the workers to the ammunition factory in Brünnlitz (today in the Czech Republic), thus saving them from a certain death at concentration camps where prisoners of the Płaszów camp were routinely taken to. Today, the Oskar Schindler Enamel Factory (4 Lipowa Street) – branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków – is home to a multimedia exhibition dedicated to life in occupied Kraków.
It has been estimated that of the around 60,000 Jews living in Kraków before the war, just 5-8% (three to five thousand) survived. The Holocaust put a brutal stop to more than seven centuries of joint Polish and Jewish history of our city. When the war ended, the majority of survivors emigrated to the Palestine and the United States, and later to the newly-formed state of Israel. Just a handful of elderly people remained in Kraków, scattered across its many districts. The Kazimierz district, abandoned by its previous inhabitants and deliberately neglected by the Communist authorities for decades, finally experienced a revival after the political changes in 1989. Today it is home to crowded pubs and restaurants, popular hostels and boutique hotels, and art galleries. And it still encapsulates the magic of the ancient Jewish city, enchanted in the walls, buildings and alleyways, in synagogues and cemeteries, in newly re-discovered historical locations and memorabilia, and cherished by local cultural institutions and the slowly re-emerging Jewish community. (Dorota Dziunikowska, “Karnet” monthly)
*Mordechai Gebirtig’s poem translated from Yiddish by Manfred Lemm
70th Anniversary of the Liquidation of the Ghetto – programme