Loathed by some, admired by many, Roman Polanski is unquestionably one of the most significant names in cinema. The director of game-changing movies including Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown, his life has matched, if not exceeded, the drama and horror of his cinematic output – and its opening chapter took place in wartime Krakow, where he survived life in the ghetto and precarious years in hiding from the Nazis.
Born Rajmund Roman Thierry Polanski to a Polish-Jewish father and half-Jewish Russian mother in 1933, his family moved from Paris to Krakow in 1936. Following the Nazi occupation of Krakow in 1939, the Polanski family were walled up in the ghetto established in the Podgorze district along with the rest of the city’s Jewish population.
The young Roman witnessed both his mother and father being dragged away to concentration camps. His father survived, to be reunited with his son years later, but his mother, Bula, was murdered soon after arriving in Auschwitz. He recalled watching German newsreel films being shown Podgorze’s market square from behind the ghetto wire – one of his earliest experiences of the power of film.
Following the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943, Polanski survived thanks to the sometimes-willing, sometimes-bought assistance of Catholic Polish families in the countryside around Krakow. He lived in Krakow with his father again after the war, before attending the famed Film School in Lodz, and then going on to an international career that took him all the way to Hollywood.
Polanski’s experiences in Krakow have strongly influenced his creative career throughout. His very first short film, Bicycle (Rower) made in 1955, was based on a traumatic incident in which the young Polanski was severely injured by a Krakow serial killer.
Forty seven years later, Polanski released The Pianist, based on the wartime experiences of Polish-Jewish musician Wladyslaw Szpilman. Although Szpilman had survived the Holocaust as an adult, not a child, and in Warsaw rather than Krakow, Polanski drew on his own memories for telling moments in the narrative. In the 2012 biopic Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, the director recalls basing the scene in which Szpilman greedily gulps down the liquid from a jar of pickled gherkins on a vivid recollection of his childhood privations.
Surprisingly, there are no monuments to or statues of Polanski in Krakow. Various buildings are identified as having been the Polanski’s family home before the war, though it’s hard to be sure which, if any of them, have a genuine claim. The haunting sculpture of multiple chairs in the Heroes of the Ghetto Square (Plac Bohaterow Getta), recalling the furniture abandoned by Jewish families ejected from their homes, is said to have been largely funded by Polanski.