There’s a lot of sad history throughout Europe and none more so than that which occurred in Poland during World War II. For centuries, Poland had the largest and most significant Jewish community in the world which by 1939 numbered 3.25 million and comprised 10% of the total Polish population. By the end of World War II and the Jewish Holocaust, only 100,000 remained - a staggering loss of 97% due to systemic murder from the Nazi regime and it sympathisers.
A train and a bus ride from Prague has taken us to Poland’s second largest city, Krakow, in southern Poland. For most people the city is best known for the nearby Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps, and for its part in the film Schindler’s List. As it turns out, we’re staying in a modern part of town just across the road from what is known as the Old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, which features heavily in the movie. Kazimierz used to be a place of coexistence between ethnic Polish and Jewish cultures when Jews used to make up about 25% of Krakow’s total population.
Our visit to Kazimeirz began at the Galicia Jewish Museum. Galicia is an historic region which nowadays straddles the south east of Poland and the west of Ukraine. Prior to World War II, most of Galicia was contained within Poland, including what was one of Poland’s largest cities at the time, Lviv. However, at the end of World War II, the USSR annexed most of eastern Poland amounting to 20% of the country’s total area, including a large swathe of Galicia.
The Museum focuses on Jewish life in the Galician area and the impact of the War, both in its immediate aftermath and up to and including recent times. Consisting of hundreds of photographs, the majority of which are unpeopled, it is a particularly moving tribute to the Jews who used to live in the area and those few that continue to do so now. This is definite must visit for anybody in the Kazimierz district.
Just around the corner from the Museum is the first of a number of synagogues that are present in the area. The Stara (Old) Synagogue is a restored synagogue that originally dates back to the 15th century AD and now serves as a museum of Krakow Jewish culture & history. It is amazing to think that despite events that have occurred and ongoing persecuation that continued even after the war, that Jewish synagogues have managed to survive through to today. It is also heartening to realise that the surviving Jewish community is starting to become somewhat revitalised and there’s hope now that these synagogues, of which seven main synagogues reside in Kazimierz, might still be present in hundreds of years time.
Kazimierz has definitely made something of a comeback from its past and is now one of Krakow’s most happening neighbourhoods. Just past the Stara Synagogue is the pretty Szeroka Street which is teeming with cafes and restaurants, the majority of which servinng up Jewish food. The street is also home to the smallest synagogye in Kazmierz, the Remah Synagogue, which was built in the mid 16th century AD and is currently one of only a few active synagogues in the city.
At the top of the street is Szeroka Square and a monument which has been erected for quiet contemplation of events that have taken place here in the past.
In 1941 the Jewish inhabitants were forcibly relocated from Kazimeirz and other parts of Krakow by the German occupying forces across the river to the Krakow ghetto in Podgórze. In total, the Nazis put in place more than 270 ghettos across Poland alone. These ghettos varied in purpose from location to location, with the main centres usually consisting of what amounted to walled prisons in which to terrorise, humilate and commit atrocities upon its Jewish inhabitants.
Krakow’s Ghetoo was established on 20 March 1941. Prior to this, voluntary and mandatory expulsions had removed more than 40,000 Jews, so that when the remaining Jews were moved to the Ghetto, they only numbered less than 20,000. By April 1941, the ghetto was enclosed by a wall constructed by Jewish forced labour made of barbed wire and stone designed to look like tombstones. A small section of this wall still exists today, although apart from a small plaque, you’d never probably realise what it was unless you purposely went searching for it.
Before the ghetto was created, the area housed some 3,500 residents. This swelled to more than 16,000 Jews when it was first formed. The ghetto residents were “accommodated” in 320 buildings with a density designed around one person per 2 square metres. Often this meant up to four families sharing one single apartment. As residents from nearby villages were subsequently resettled to the ghetto and the size of the ghetto reduced, density increased even further over the next two years.
During the two years that the ghetto was in place there were undeniably a number of Polish who put their own lives at risk to help the Jews. In total 6,992 Polish men and women have been recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli World Holocaust Remberence Centre, Yad Vashem, which constitutes more than a quarter of all of the Rightious Gentiles. The most famous of these if the forementioned Oskar Schindler.
For those interested in delving deeper into the role that Schindler played (beyond that of the movie) there is a dedicated museum in Podgórze called the Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory which provides this and much more information. Also worth visiting is Eagle’s Pharmacy, which is dedicated to Tadeusz Pankiewicz who was the only Pole who chose to be locked in the Ghetto. From this location he provided medicine and aid to the Jewish community and likewise was recognised as a Righoutous Gentile by Yad Vashem.
The pharmacy stands on the southwest edge of the Ghetto Heroes Square. The square was known as Plac Zgody when the ghetto was operational and was a place for people to gather and relax away from the overcrowded conditions that existed within the housing blocks. It was subsequently renovated in 2005 with 70 large chairs positioned to symbolise departure and absence of the Jewish people.
The Nazis decided to liquidate the Ghetto between June 1942 and March 1943. At this point, most of the remaining Jews were sent to the slave labour camp of Plaszow or more often to their deaths at the extermination camps of Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was to the latter that we visiting next, to try and get a deeper understanding of this harrowing historical event.