History of the Krakow Ghetto

Krakow Ghetto emerged as the culmination of the systematic persecution of the Jews of Krakow during World War II. German forces invaded Poland in September 1939 and soon established Krakow as the capital of the General Government. The widespread oppression of Krakow’s Jewish community began soon after: synagogues were closed and relics plundered. Many were sent to forced labour camps and those of 12 years and above had to wear armbands bearing the star of David. The Germans seized Jewish property and possessions, and companies and shops were put out of business. The Governor General, Hans Frank, took up residence in the regal surrounds of Wawel Castle and in April 1940 made the morbid declaration that Krakow was to become the ‘cleanest’ city in the General Government, which meant in effect the mass deportation, forced labor in the Krakow Ghetto and surrounding camps and ultimately the extermination of Krakow’s Jewish population.


At the time of the German occupation, Krakow was home to over 68 000 Jews: most were subsequently deported to neighbouring villages and towns, but approximately 16 000 were allowed to remain to bolster the economy. On 3 March 1941 the Governor of Krakow announced the opening of a separate Jewish living quarter: all 16 000 of Krakow’s remaining Jews were to be crammed into a small area in the district of Podgorze, the seat of the Crakow Ghetto. Many Jews made the short journey to Podgórze by crossing bridge over the Vistula river from the old Jewish distict of Kazimierz. Previously inhabited by a little over 3, 000, the Krakow Ghetto was spread over a few dozen streets in and around Zgody Square (since renamed Bohaterow Getta Square), containing some 320 tenement buildings. A 2-3 metre high wall was raised along the perimeter of the Krakow Ghetto, crowned by a line of arcs reminiscent of Jewish tombstones, tragically prophetic - portions of which remain today (see Limanowskiego Street). Windows facing onto the outside world were bricked up and the gates were strictly policed. Krakow Ghetto became desperately overcrowded: each new resident was allocated a mere 2m2 of living space. Life in the Krakow Ghetto was a constant struggle: food was scarce and hunger became the gravest affliction; sanitation was sorely inadequate and the German command grew increasingly brutal and inhumane.


eagle_pharmacy_krakow_ghetto2.jpgKrakow ghetto found some relief via ‘The Eagle Pharmacy’: situated at the heart of Podgorze (18 Zgody Square, now Bohaterow Getta Square), the German authorities made the almost unprecedented ruling of allowing the business to continue even once the area was ghettoized. Its owner, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, inhertied the business from his father in 1933 and was the only gentile to live in the Krakow Ghetto on a permanent basis. The Eagle Pharmacy quickly became a hangout for the Jewish intellegensia, who would gather there to debate, sociailse and even entertain. During selections for deportations, many were able to hide there and if needs be escape by the rear exit. Food, valuables, and letters were smuggled in and out of the Krakow Ghetto via the pharmacy, which was treated as a kind of depository. In 1983 Tadeusz Pankiewicz was honoured by Israel by being made one of the Righteous Among Nations. And in 2004 with aid from both Roman Polanski (who escaped the Krakow Ghetto as a child) and Steven Spielberg, the pharmacy enjoyed a complete restoration and is now a branch of the ‘Historical Museum of the City of Krakow.’ Shortly after the War, Tadeusz Pankiewicz published a book of memoirs entitled ‘The Pharmacy of the Cracow Ghetto.


liquidation_of_krakow_ghetto.jpgBut worse was yet to come. In January 1942 the Wannsee conference in Berlin determined upon the ‘Final Solution’: the systematic annihilation of the Jews of Europe. In 1942 two transports took some 11, 000 Jews from the Krakow Ghetto to Belzec concentration camp – none of whom would emerge alive. And on 13 March 1943, orders were given for the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto. Initially, around 6, 000 able-bodied workers were deported to the nearby Płaszow concentration camp. Then many of the remaining children, elderly and infirm were gathered and murdered in the streets, an atrocity that came to be known as the Krakow Ghetto Massacre. Others were sent to Auschwitz – the only transport to be sent there from the Krakow Ghetto. Those killed in the liquidation of Krakow Ghetto were buried in mass graves at the Płaszow labour camp. However, Amon Göth, the commandant of Płaszow, later received orders from Berlin to exume, incinerate and destroy the incriminating remains. In the classic film ‘Schindler’s List’, directed by Steven Spielberg and adapted from a novel based on the Krakow Ghetto (‘Schindler’s Ark’ by Thomas Keneally), the sight of smoke arising from the burning remains was a moment of epiphany in which Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist and former member of the Nazi Party, resolved to do everything within his power to save Jews from the Krakow Ghetto associated with his enamelware factory. Schindler’s factory stands to this day, situated at 4 Lipowa Street and is in the process of being converted into a museum and contemporary art gallery. Close to 1, 200 Jews are thought to have survived the Holocaust as a direct result of Schindler’s intervention at the Krakow Ghetto. In 1967 he was honoured by Israel as one of the Righteous Among Nations.

Krakow has been a historically important centre for Jewish culture since the end of the thirteenth century. Anti-semitism was also a factor at the outset of Jewish history in Krakow: a series of pogroms in the fifteenth century culminated in 1494 when a devastaing fire raged through the town and blame fell upon the Jews. With violent reprisals mounting, King John I Albert of Poland ousted the Jewish community from Krakow and resettled them in the neighbouring district of Kazimierz. A ‘golden era’ of Jewish art and spirituality followed, and much of Jewish life was still focussed there at the outbreak of World War II and the formation of the Krakow Ghetto.

Krakow Ghetto was not situated in the old Jewish district of Kazimierz, as is commonly thought, but across the river Vistula in the district of Podgorze, many seem to overlook the great loss suffered by Kazimierz - a historical enclave of Jewish culture for over 600 years. Though undeniably real, the Krakow Ghetto was a twilight place, a shadowy realm of adversity, horror, and human depravity only fleetingly illumed by acts of great courage and compassion. Although Kazimierz has now a only a residual Jewish presence, the portrayal of Kazimierz as distinctly Jewish is somehow expressive of Krakow’s awareness of the rich and prodigious Jewish tradition in Krakow for over 600 years, and the tragic episode of Holocaust, of which the Krakow Ghetto remains a stark reminder.