Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp
Kraków-Płaszów in 1942
|Operated by||Nazi Germany|
|Commandant||Amon Göth (until September 1944)|
Arnold Büscher (September 1944-January 1945)
|Operational||28 October 1942-January 1945|
|Number of inmates||Mostly Polish Jews|
|Liberated by||Red Army, 20 January 1945|
The Płaszów (Polish pronunciation: [ˈpwaʂuf]) or Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp (German: Konzentrationslager Plaszow) was a Nazi German labour and concentration camp built by the SS in Płaszów, a southern suburb of Kraków (now part of Podgórze district), soon after the German invasion of Poland and the subsequent creation of the semi-colonial General Government district across occupied south-central Poland.
Originally intended as a forced labour camp, the Płaszów concentration camp was constructed on the grounds of two former Jewish cemeteries (including the New Jewish Cemetery). It was populated with prisoners during the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto, which took place on 13–14 March 1943 with the first deportations of the Barrackenbau Jews from the Ghetto beginning 28 October 1942. In 1943 the camp was expanded and turned into one of many KL concentration camps.
Structure and Function
The Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp was divided into multiple sections. There was a separate area for camp personnel, work facilities, male prisoners, female prisoners, and a further subdivision between Jews and non-Jews. Although separated, men and women still managed to have contact with one another. There was also a private barracks for the camp's Jewish police and their families. While the primary function of the camp was forced labor, the camp was also the site of mass murder of inmates as well as prisoners brought in from the outside. The main targets were the elderly and the sick. There were no gas chambers or crematoria, so mass murder was carried out by shootings.
Under Arnold Büscher the camp's second commandant, prisoners did not experience any shootings or hangings. However, by 1943, the camp was notorious for its terrors. Amon Göth, an SS commandant from Vienna, was the camp commandant at this point. He was sadistic in his treatment and killing of prisoners. "Witnesses say he would never start his breakfast without shooting at least one person." On Göth's first day as camp commandant, he killed two Jewish policemen and made every camp inmate watch. On 13 March 1943, he oversaw the liquidation of the nearby Kraków Ghetto, forcing those Jewish inhabitants deemed capable of work into the KL Plaszow camp. Those who were declared unfit for work were either sent to Auschwitz or shot on the spot. People were told to leave their children behind and that they would be cared for. In reality, they were all put in an orphanage and killed. Others snuck their children into the camp. If a prisoner tried to escape the camp, Göth shot 10 prisoners as a punishment. Göth would also release his Great Danes on prisoners if he did not like their expressions. He oversaw a staff that was mostly non-German. It consisted of 206 Ukrainian SS personnel from the Trawniki, 600 Germans of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (1943–1944), and a few SS women, including Gertrud Heise, Luise Danz and Alice Orlowski.
The female guards treated the prisoners as brutally as the men: "When we were loaded on the train in Płaszów, an SS woman hit me on the head. They were so vicious and brutal and sadistic, more than men. I think because some of them were women and you expect kindness, it was shocking. But of course, some were fat and big and ugly."
Jewish police were recruited by the camp personnel. They were provided with double rations of thick soup, as opposed to the standard watery soup, and a full loaf of uncontaminated bread. However, the benefits came with cost of having to whip inmates with the whips that the Nazis provided.
On 13 September 1944, Göth was relieved of his position and charged by the SS with theft of Jewish property (which belonged to the state, according to Nazi legislation), failure to provide adequate food to the prisoners under his charge, violation of concentration camp regulations regarding the treatment and punishment of prisoners, and allowing unauthorised access to camp personnel records by prisoners and non-commissioned officers. Camp administration was assumed by SS-Obersturmführer Arnold Büscher. He improved the inmates' diets by allowing eggs, sugar and powdered milk.
Life in the Camp
The camp was an Arbeitslager ("labour camp"), supplying forced labour to several armament factories and to a stone quarry. Most of the prisoners were Polish Jews. There were also high numbers of women and children compared with other camps. A large degree of the Hungarian prisoners were women. The death rate in the camp was very high. Many prisoners died of typhus, starvation, and from executions. Because the work facilities were designed for men, the women had a lower chance of survival. Płaszów camp became particularly infamous for both the individual and the mass shootings carried out at Hujowa Górka: a large hill close to the camp commonly used for executions. Some 8,000 deaths took place outside the camp’s fences, with prisoners trucked in three to four times weekly. The covered lorries from Kraków would arrive in the morning. The condemned were walked into a trench of the Hujowa Górka hillside, ordered to strip down and stand naked, and then were finally shot. Their bodies were then covered with dirt, layer upon layer. During these mass shootings, all other inmates were forced to watch. In early 1944, all corpses were exhumed and burned on a pyre to obliterate the evidence of the mass murder. Witnesses later testified that 17 truckloads of human ashes were removed from the burning site and scattered over the area.
Although food was scarce, inmates that possessed any number of zlotys could buy extra food. A food for food trading system also developed. For example, two portions of soup was equal to a half loaf of bread.
When Göth received notice of a new shipment of inmates, he would set up deportations for Auschwitz. On May 14, 1944, Göth ordered all children to be sent to the "kindergarten". This turned out only to be a precursor to deportation to Auschwitz on May 15th where the children were all gassed.
Göth entrusted documents pertaining to the mass killings and executions to a high ranking female member of the SS, Kommandoführerin Alice Orlowski. She held these documents in her possession until the end of the war, then allegedly destroyed them. Orlowski was known for her whippings, especially of young women across their eyes. At roll call she would walk through the lines of women and whip them.
Prisoners could also rely on outside help to some degree. The Jüdische Unterstützungsstelle, a support group that the Germans tolerated, would provide the inmates with food and medical assistance. The Zehnerschaft was a group of women that also supported the inmates. The Polish Welfare Organization sent food to Polish prisoners and some of them shared with the Jewish inmates. There were also individuals such as Stanislaw Dobrowolski, the head of the Kraków branch of the Council for Aid to Jews (Żegota), and Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a famous pharmacist, also aided the prisoners.
Göth and the other camp personnel punished inmates for a variety of actions. Any action perceived as sabotage, such as smuggling items into the camp, disobeying orders, or carrying an extra piece of food in one's clothes was an offense punishable by death. Prisoners were warned that if they tried to escape, every member of their family and even innocent strangers would be killed. In terms of methods for killing, death by hanging was a favored method of Göth's. For a standard punishment, twenty-five lashings were dealt to the guilty inmate's buttocks.
Hope For the Prisoners
While prisoners' daily lives were dominated by fear and starvation, there were some outlets for hope of survival. Rumors involving the Russian advancement that would lead to the camp's liberation always circulated. Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party that saved the 1200 Schindlerjuden was also a key figure. While prisoners always feared a transport to Auschwitz, one that was always sought after was a transport to Brünnlitz labor camp in Czechoslovakia. This is where Oskar Schindler's enamel factory was located. Schindler was known for being compassionate towards Jews. He never hit anyone, was always kind, and smiled frequently around the workers. Having relatives and friends that worked for Schindler gave one a better chance at being put on the list for transport.
Hiding the Evidence
During July and August 1944, a number of transports of prisoners left KL Płaszow for Auschwitz, Stutthof, Flossenburg, Mauthausen, and other camps. In January 1945, the last of the remaining inmates and camp staff left the camp on a death march to Auschwitz. Several female SS guards were part of the group that accompanied them. Many of those who survived the march were killed upon arrival. When the Nazis realized the Soviets were approaching Kraków, they completely dismantled the camp, leaving only an empty field. All bodies that had been previously buried in various mass graves were exhumed and burned on site. On 20 January 1945, the Red Army arrived and found only a patch of barren land.
Most of the numbers, including the number of inmates and killings, rely on estimation. The prisoner card index was destroyed during the camp's destruction. In terms of postwar trials, crimes committed at the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp were the subject of few. West German prosecutors took until the late 1950s to investigate these crimes. One of them was Göth's trial and sentence to death.
The area which held the camp now consists of sparsely wooded hills and fields, with one large memorial to all the victims and two smaller monuments (one to the Jewish victims generally, and another to the Hungarian Jewish victims) at one perimeter of where the camp once stood. The Jewish cemetery, where the Nazis removed all but one of the tombstones, stands on the side of the hill at the eastern end of the camp, near the Grey house. Amon Göth's villa remains there. Another small monument, located near the opposite end of the site, stands in memory of the first execution of (non-Jewish) Polish prisoners in 1939.
A version of the camp is featured in the movie Schindler's List (1993), about the life of Oskar Schindler. As the Płaszów area is now a nature preserve, the director Steven Spielberg built a camp replica in the Liban Quarry, some hundred meters away.
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