The Jewish ghetto in Kraków 1941-1943

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The ghetto, which functioned in Podgórze in 1941–43, bore witness to a savage and tragic stage in the extermination of Kraków’s Jews.

The Jewish community of Kraków before the Second World War consisted of over 64,000 people, which accounted for 25% of the city’s population. After the forced resettlements that were set in motion at the beginning of the war, only 16,000 remained. On 3 March 1941, the occupier issued a decision forcing the Jews into the “Jewish residential quarter” in Podgórze, where they were to move to by 20 March. The borders of the ghetto, though that name was not in official use, ran along the following streets: Kącik, Traugutta, Lwowska, Rękawka, the eastern and northern edges of Podgórze Market Square, Brodzińskiego, Piwna, and Nadwiślańska to Zgody Square (today: Bohaterów Getta Square). The area encompassed 320 tenement houses, previously inhabited by around 3500 people, who were forced to leave the premises, not unlike the enterprises operating within. The only enterprise that the order did not cover was the sole pharmacy on the premises of the ghetto, run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Pole who soon became the only non-Jew living within the area (link: The Eagle Pharmacy).

The “Jewish residential quarter” was surrounded by a three-metre wall with an arcaded upper portion mockingly styled to resemble matzevahs: Jewish tombstones. There were four gates leading into the ghetto; the main one had an inscription that read Jüdischer Wohnbezirk and it stood where Limanowskiego Street enters the Main Market of Podgórze.

There was a tram going along Lwowska and Limanowskiego streets, yet there were no stops inside the walls, and the passengers were forbidden even to look at the ghetto through the windows. (The prohibition was obviously broken, and even parcels with food happened to be dropped from the tram.) As of October 1941, any departure from the ghetto without leave became punishable by death. The same penalty could be imposed on people helping fugitives. Soon postal services were forbidden, and all the ground floor windows on the non-Jewish side were bricked up, which cut the ghetto off from these channels of food delivery. Hunger reigned supreme in the overpopulated district, forcibly separated from the rest of the city.

Soon deportations to death camps and forced labour camps (notably the Płaszów camp situated nearby) began in the ghetto. Exceedingly brutal resettlements were conducted in June and October 1942. At the time, many people died in the streets of the ghetto during the roundups and transports. Their number included two notable artists who had befriended each other: the painter Abraham Neuman and the folk singer and poet Mordecai Gebirtig, executed on the so-called “bloody Thursday” on 4 June 1942. Patients of hospitals and children from the orphanage, which also became home to the children of working parents, were murdered on the spot or deported. Some of the deported were executed over the mass graves prepared by the inmates in Płaszów.

In 1942, the area of the ghetto was repeatedly reduced. Shortly before the end of the year, it was bisected with barbed wire: precinct A was designed for able-bodied people capable of labour, while B was for children, the elderly, and the ailing.

Finally, on 13 and 14 March 1943, the Nazis conducted the final liquidation of the Kraków ghetto. Around 6000 residents of ghetto A, capable of heavy labour, were moved to the camp in Płaszów. Their children under 14 had to stay in the orphanage. On the following day, the residents of ghetto B were driven to Zgody Square. Around a thousand people were shot dead on the spot, the number including the elderly, patients and physicians from the hospital, children and mothers who wouldn’t let them go. Those who remained were taken to KL Auschwitz. The action ended with SS officers searching the now abandoned buildings, murdering anyone who tried to hide.

A memorial of the events stands on Bohaterów Getta Square (literally: “the square of the heroes of the ghetto”, the former Zgody square): sculptures of chairs recall the sight of a deserted ghetto full of abandoned objects and household utensils. Every year the March of Memory is organised on the anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto. Its participants march from Bohaterów Getta Square to the former Płaszów camp – along the route that led Kraków Jews to death.

The only surviving remnant of the ghetto are two sections of its wall standing in ul. Lwowska and behind the school building at ul. Limanowskiego 60/62.

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