The Kraków Ghetto was one of five major, metropolitan Jewish ghettos created by Nazi Germany in the new General Government territory during the German occupation of Poland in World War II. It was created for the purpose of exploitation, terror, and persecution of local Polish Jews, as well as the staging area for separating the "able workers" from those who would later be deemed unworthy of life. The Ghetto was liquidated between June 1942 and March 1943, with most of its inhabitants sent to Belzec extermination camp and Płaszów slave-labor camp, and exterminated also at Auschwitz concentration camp.
Before the German invasion, Kraków (Cracow) was an influential centre for the 60,000–80,000 Polish Jews who had lived there since the 13th century. Persecution of the Jewish population of Kraków began soon after the German troops entered the city on 6 September 1939, in the course of their invasion of Poland. Jews were obliged to take part in forced labour from September. In November 1939, all Jews 12 years or older were required to wear identifying armbands. Throughout Kraków, synagogues were ordered to be closed and all their relics and valuables turned over to the Nazi authorities.
By May 1940, the Nazi occupation authority announced that Kraków should become the "cleanest" city in the General Government (Generalgouvernement; an occupied, but unannexed part of Poland). Massive deportation of Jews from the city were ordered. Of the more than 68,000 Jews in Kraków when the Germans invaded, only 15,000 workers and their families were permitted to remain. All other Jews were ordered out of the city, to be resettled into surrounding rural areas.
The Kraków Ghetto was formally established on 3 March 1941 in the Podgórze district, not in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. Displaced Polish families from Podgórze took up residences in the former Jewish dwellings outside the newly established Ghetto. Meanwhile, 15,000 Jews were crammed into an area previously inhabited by 3,000 people who used to live in a district consisting of 30 streets, 320 residential buildings, and 3,167 rooms. As a result, one apartment was allocated to every four Jewish families, and many less fortunate lived on the street.
The Ghetto was surrounded by the newly built walls that kept it separated from the rest of the city. In a grim foreshadowing of the near future, these walls contained brick panels in the shape of tombstones. All windows and doors that gave onto the "Aryan" side were ordered bricked up. Only four guarded entrances allowed traffic to pass through. Small sections of the wall still remain today fitted with a memorial plaque.
Young people of the Akiva youth movement, who had undertaken the publication of an underground newsletter, HeHaluc HaLohem ("The Fighting Pioneer"), joined forces with other Zionists to form a local branch of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ŻOB, Polish: Żydowska Organizacja Bojowa), and organize resistance in the ghetto, supported by the Polish underground Armia Krajowa. The group carried out a variety of resistance activities including the bombing of the Cyganeria cafe – a gathering place of Nazi officers. Unlike in Warsaw, their efforts did not lead to a general uprising before the ghetto was liquidated.
From 30 May 1942 onward, the Nazis implemented systematic deportations from the Ghetto to surrounding concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were transported in the succeeding months as part of the Aktion Krakau headed by SS-Oberführer Julian Scherner. Jews were assembled on Zgody Square first and then escorted to the railway station in Prokocim. The first transport consisted of 7,000 people, the second, of additional 4,000 Jews deported to Belzec extermination camp on 5 June 1942. On 13 – 14 March 1943 the final 'liquidation' of the ghetto was carried out under the command of SS-Untersturmführer Amon Göth (his SS rank being the equivalent to a 2nd lieutenant). Eight thousand Jews deemed able to work were transported to the Plaszow labor camp. Those deemed unfit for work – some 2,000 Jews – were killed in the streets of the ghetto on those days with the use of "Hiwis". Any remaining were sent to Auschwitz.
The only working pharmacy enclosed within the Kraków Ghetto belonged to Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish Roman Catholic pharmacist permitted by the German authorities to operate his "Under the Eagle Pharmacy" there, upon his request. The scarce medications and tranquilizers supplied to the ghetto's residents – often free of charge – apart from health-care considerations, contributed to their survival. Pankiewicz passed around hair dyes to Jews compelled to cross the ghetto walls illegally. In recognition of his heroic deeds in helping countless Jews in the Ghetto during the Holocaust, he was bestowed the title of the Righteous among the Nations by Yad Vashem on February 10, 1983. Pankiewicz is the author of a book describing, among other events, the ghetto liquidation.
Movie director Roman Polanski, a survivor of the Ghetto, evoked his childhood experiences there, in his memoir Roman. Polański recalls that the early months of occupation resembled relative normalcy; although the peacefulness was sometimes punctuated by fear. Town residents dined out, listened to town bands, and children, such as Polański, socialized in the snow.
Roma Ligocka, Polish artist and author, and a first cousin to Roman Polański who, as a small girl, was rescued and survived the Ghetto, many years later wrote a novel based on her experiences, The Girl in the Red Coat: A Memoir. She is mistakenly thought to be portrayed in the film Schindler's List. The scene, however, was constructed on the memories of Zelig Burkhut, survivor of Plaszow (and other work camps). When being interviewed by Spielberg before the making for the film, Burkhut told of a young girl wearing a pink coat, no older than four, who was shot by a Nazi officer right before his eyes. Oskar Schindler was portrayed in the Thomas Keneally novel Schindler's Ark (filmed by Steven Spielberg as Schindler's List). In an especially dramatic event, 300 of Schindler's workers were deported to the Auschwitz death camp despite his efforts, and he personally intervened to return them to him.
Other notable people include Mordechai Gebirtig, who was one of the most influential and popular writers of Yiddish songs and poems. He died there in 1942. Miriam Akavia, an Israeli writer, survived the Kraków ghetto and concentration camps. Renowned dermatologist and co-discoverer of Reyes Syndrome, Dr Jim (Jacob) Baral was also a Kraków Ghetto survivor. Bernard Offen, born in 1929 in Kraków survived the Ghetto and several Nazi concentration camps.
Notes and references
- The statistical data compiled on the basis of "Glossary of 2,077 Jewish towns in Poland" by Virtual Shtetl Museum of the History of the Polish Jews (English), as well as "Getta Żydowskie," by Gedeon, (Polish) and "Ghetto List" by Michael Peters at www.deathcamps.org/occupation/ghettolist.htm (English). Accessed 21 June 2011.
- "Getto krakowskie." About Kraków Ghetto, with valuable historical photos and the Ghetto map. DWS. ISSN 2082-7431 (Polish)
- History of the Krakow Ghetto with photographs, at www.krakow-poland.com (English) Accessed 12 March 2011.
- JewishKrakow.net – A page on the Krakow Ghetto complete with contemporary picture gallery at the JewishKrakow.net. Accessed 12 March 2011
- "Trawniki men". Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved July 21, 2011.
- David M. Crowe, The Holocaust: Roots, History, and Aftermath. Published by Westview Press. Page 180.
- Schindler's List – reproduction of the original list of people protected by Oskar Schindler
- Schindler's Krakow – modern-day photographs
- Graf, Malvina (1989). The Kraków Ghetto and the Plaszów Camp Remembered. Tallahassee: The Florida State University Press. ISBN 0-8130-0905-7
- Polanski, Roman. (1984). Roman. New York: William Morrow and Company. ISBN 0-688-02621-4
- Katz, Alfred. (1970). Poland's Ghettos at War. New York: Twayne Publishers. ISBN 0-8290-0195-6
- Weiner, Rebecca. Virtual Jewish History Tour
Media related to Kraków Ghetto at Wikimedia Commons