Podgórze Ghetto: Krakow – Off the beaten track

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There are three or four images of the Podgórze Ghetto in Krakow that crop up time and again, but what do these places look like today?

First, a short history lesson. Between March 1941 and March 1943 a small section of the Podgórze district of Krakow was walled off and served as a holding pen, or ghetto, for about 15,000 Jewish residents of Krakow. Podgórze is a suburb of Krakow lying on the south side of the Vistula River while the main city lies on the north side. Podgórze is not very big and only part of it was walled off. You can walk from one side of the ghetto area to the other in less than five minutes. A dozen small streets that had been home to around 3,000 people suddenly became home to 15,000 people. The swinging of cats was not a major pastime.

Area of the Krakow Ghetto

For a couple of years our German friends had a fine old time marching people in and out of the ghetto gates to shovel snow, clean cobblestones, and occasionally line up against walls. Finally in 1943 they decided to cart everyone off to the Płaszów labor camp just a couple of kilometers down the road. Thickset chaps with short necks, big dogs, and machine guns started kicking in doors at 4:30 in the morning and inviting people to step outside. By the end of the second day about 8,000 people had been marched off to Płaszów (where the fun was just beginning), 3,000 people were sitting in cattle cars wondering what was so interesting about this Auschwitz place they kept hearing about, and 2,000 people had been laboriously converted into bullet-ridden corpses and scattered about the streets of Podgórze.

According to the plan, such as it was, none of these things should have mattered much because anyone who was there and might have felt inclined to complain should have been dead within a few months. Amazingly the Germans was so sure of this they even took pictures of the process. There aren’t many of these pictures and just a few of the most evocative ones crop up again and again on websites and in books. These were the scenes I wanted to look at through modern eyes, as it were.

The newly constructed gate to the Krakow Ghetto on Limanowskiego Street (c. March 1941)

The walls and gates are variously reported as having been built by forced Jewish labor or Polish contractors, probably a mixture of both. My understanding is that the writing above the gate reads “Jewish residential area” in German but rendered in Yiddish script. Tram and road traffic continued to flow through this gate and out the other side of the ghetto throughout its existence. Presumably the tram didn’t stop.

Limanowskiego Street today (May, 2008)

The gates are long gone, demolished by the Germans soon after the liquidation of the ghetto. Today there’s a pedestrian crossing almost exactly where the gates once stood, but no sign of the gates themselves. I looked pretty hard, and I’m famous for my ability to stare at walls, curbs, and cornices without pity or embarrassment, but I saw no trace.

Three Ghetto inmates hurry down the road towards Płaszów (March 13th or 14th, 1943)

Looks to me like a fairly young guy hurrying along his elderly parents, various box-heads are marching up and down or pointing at things in the background. This exit to the ghetto was at the junction of Lwowska and Jozefinska Street. The three, presumably Jewish, people on the left have just been ejected from their homes and are making for the Płaszów labor camp a couple of kilometers down the road. It seems highly unlikely that Mom and Pop will survive there for more than a few weeks, assuming they aren’t shot on arrival. Junior will probably do okay for a while but will still end up as a pile of ash in Auschwitz. This happened right on this corner 65 years ago.

Lwowska Street today (May, 2008)

Again, there is not a trace of the gate or the wall here. There is a large fragment of the ghetto wall on Lwowska Street more or less right behind where I was standing to take this photo. The buildings themselves seem to be in rather worse repair than they were 65 years ago, apart from the odd bit of PVC double glazing.

Surviving fragment of the Krakow Ghetto wall

Abandoned possessions of ghetto residents (March 13th or 14th, 1943)

This photo was taken about 50 meters up the road from the shot above, presumably by the same person a few hours later. It is described by more informed scholars than I as showing luggage and random goods dropped by people who had been marched out of the ghetto on their way to Płaszów. You’ve got to wonder who the uniformed guy standing on the extreme left side of the picture is. The tram tracks in the foreground were part of a line that split off from Limanowskiego Street at this corner and proceeded down Lwowska Street. The line is no longer in use, but I suspect the tracks are still there just beneath the tarmac and you can clearly see a trace of them on the the modern road surface in the photo below.

Corner of Limanowskiego and Lwowska today (May, 2008)

It’s a very strange experience to stand on this corner knowing you are standing exactly where the unknown photographer of the scene above once stood.

The Cyganeria Cafe

On December 22nd or 23rd, 1942 (three months before the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto) members of the Jewish Fighting Organization and Polish communist partisans bombed the Cyganeria Cafe, a favored haunt of German military personnel in Krakow. The Cyganeria Cafe was well outside the ghetto on the other side of the city in Szpitalna Street, directly opposite the Juliusz Slowacki Theater. Eleven Germans were reportedly killed and thirteen wounded.

Location of the Cyganeria Cafe today

Astonishingly the Cyganeria Cafe is a Kefirek mini supermarket today. I’ve shopped in there dozens of times in complete ignorance of its infamous history. There is in fact a plaque on the wall, visible in the picture as a black rectangle to the left of the main shop entrance, but I had never noticed it. Despite returning to the location and hanging around two days in a row I wasn’t able to get a picture completely free of parked cars, vans, delivery trucks, or ridiculous SUV-type things.

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Read more about the Jewish experience in Second World War Krakow in Schindler’s List Death Camp: Krakow – Off the beaten track

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28 thoughts on “Podgórze Ghetto: Krakow – Off the beaten track

  1. guest says:

    This is a really great blog entry island. :applause:

    plz more of that. !

    It is really a shame what happened 65yrs ago especially in Krakow ,Warsaw and Lodz…So many great people were killed or fled to Australia/USA.

    Warsaw was the 2nd biggest jewish city in the world after new york…what a huge potential… :(

    lodz was a bustling city, too with a beautyful Art Nouveau architecture…

    and Krakow….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonderaktion_Krakau

    ….

    BTW. the most ugly IIWW photos i have ever seen are here…

    http://www.nytimes.com/2007/09/19/arts/design/19photo.html

  2. Lena says:

    It is absolutely brilianty post, Island – Thank you!

    It is so amazing! I was walking these streets so many times and I never thought there was so much history around me!
    I read about the Getto of course, I learnt about it at school but it was like a legend… Another story from the book.
    When I saw these pictures from the past and present – I realised it really happend here!
    Very weird feeling… I am standing on the pavement eating ice – cream – and someone was killed in the same place not very long time ago…

  3. island1 says:

    Guest: Thank you. It was fascinating and disturbing to find these locations and discover that they are still so obviously recognizable.

    Those are indeed ugly photos.

    Lena: Thank you also. Sometimes only an outsider has the point of view that brings these things out. It’s one of the advantages of being a foreigner :)

  4. Noah says:

    agreed, amazing post, thank you so much. Having recently viewed the Pianist, I have all too visual images to go along with these photos. Keep up the interesting work!

  5. island1 says:

    Noah: Although, as I’m sure you know, The Pianist was set in the Warsaw Ghetto. But thanks! :)

  6. beatroot says:

    maybe they meant Schindler…

  7. island1 says:

    beatroot: Huh?

  8. Raf Uzar says:

    Keep this up. This Ghetto stuff is fascinating!
    Raf
    http://uzar.wordpress.com/

  9. anglopole says:

    great text:o)
    Island1, have you read ‘God’s Playground’ by Norman Davis? If yes, I wonder what you think about his presentation of Polish history?

  10. guest says:

    Island is not an historian. Do not ask him such questions. ;)

    could YOU answer a question

    “what do you think about his

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:English_historians

    presentation about british history ?”

  11. anglopole says:

    we’ll see what Island has to say…. :o)

  12. island1 says:

    anglopole: Now you’ve put me on the spot!

    Actually no, I haven’t read that one although I have read some of his stuff.

    Guest: How do you know I’m not an historian :) I might be.

  13. guest says:

    do you think an (boring) historian could make such a great (photo-) blog post about the Krakow ghetto ? :D

  14. simon says:

    Thank you – great writeup about a fascinating section of the city. It’s really amazing how many tourists come to Kazimierz because of Schindler’s List and then completely miss the real ghetto just on the other side of the river.

  15. simon says:

    BTW, I especially liked the then-and-now style of illustration.

  16. island1 says:

    Thanks Simon. The past and present photos are remarkably effective at bringing the story to life, even if I do say so myself, and finding the locations from old photos certainly taught me a lot.

    Yes, it is highly ironic that so many tourists trundle around Kazirmierz with stories of the holocaust on their minds when in fact the area was inhabited chiefly by non-Jewish Poles who’d been kicked out of their homes across the river during that period (as I’m sure you know). It’s a confusing twist that most guides don’t make clear enough in my view.

    For something REALLY confusing though have a look at the Płaszów / Liban Quarry post. A movie-set labor camp that looks exactly like the decaying remains of a real labor camp and situated just a few hundred meters from where the real camp stood.

  17. anglopole says:

    The reason I asked about Norman Davis was that he too is British and interested in Polish history, so I was wondering if you, Island, share his views or not… :)

  18. simon says:

    I got the Płaszów/Liban story from a friend some time ago when I was doing pictures for a Krakow guidebook he was writing. There’s a load of this kind of stuff in every city, I guess, and half the fun of living anywhere is digging them up.

  19. Jolanta says:

    A few facts more.

    In 1941 the population of the ghetto was indeed about 15 000 but it fluctuated and sometimes rose to 18 000.

    Not only (?) individuals of Jewish origin but also Jewish institutions were relocated to the ghetto area ( the hospital, the orphanages, the council etc.) Józefińska street seems to have been the institutional centre of the ghetto: no.18 – the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, no.12 – the orphanage, no.14 – the hospital, no.10 – the German Employment Office (my music school which I attended completely unaware of the building’s history).

    Another interesting place: plac Bohaterów Getta (which I still call plac Zgody) no.18 – a chemist’s run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, its Polish owner, who received permission to stay in the area after all the other Poles were gone. I do recommend his book “Apteka w getcie krakowskim”.

    One more thing – I keep asking myself where the Poles who were evicted from that part of Podgórze ended up.

    Anglopole: I have read all the books written by Davies and I find them exceptional in every respect. However, I am not a Brit so my opinion is of no interest to you, surely. To the busy and hard working readers of Polandian I strongly recommend Davies’ lecture given at the Jagiellonian University in 1995, entitled ” Auschwitz and the Second World War in Poland” which is only 30 pages long.

    J.

  20. island1 says:

    Jolanta: Thanks for the extra facts. I did simplify the population figures, it’s true. Also the area of the ghetto seems to have changed slightly over time, but I just wanted to show that it was smaller than I imagined rather than the precise dimensions.

    I’ve read that Poles evicted from Podgórze were relocated to Kazimierz, but I don’t know if it’s true. In the photos and film of people crossing the bridge on their way to the ghetto there are sometimes people coming the other way.

  21. Jolanta says:

    Island, I have seen the photos and the film – maybe you are right. Knowing the Germans a little bit I would rather assume that they cleared the area beforehand.

    J.

  22. island1 says:

    Jolanta: And knowing the Poles a little bit I wouldn’t be surprised if they found ways to evade German efficiency and leave it until the last minute ;)

  23. […] Read The Krakow Ghetto […]

  24. Anonymous says:

    Gyahhh!!!! I really have been wanting to go to Poland for quite some time now. These posts about the ghettos make me want to go even more to see them myself. Amazing how some of the places still look so similar in structure.

  25. Bernie says:

    Thank you for a wonderful site, the photographs are amazing, to see the photos of the horrors that took place there and to see today that these places have not hardly changed. I have been to Krakow twice and have visited some of the sites and the old Jewish quarter, I was very fortunate to meet a lady who was a survivor in the Tall Synagogue, tried to find her on the Internet but no luck to date, she was with a friend who was an author who wrote about Hitler. I hope that the city will not get ruined with stag & hen parties just because it is now easy to get to and that some bright spark will try to “improve” some of these historic sites.
    Thanks again, keep up the good work!

  26. […] Read The Krakow Ghetto Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Warsaw Ghetto (final – part 3)Looking for SchindlerBreakfast in the GhettoGaza & the Warsaw Ghetto […]

  27. Tony Baird says:

    Thanks to island1 I managed to find all these sites, remarkable how these have hardly changed in 70 years. If you are going to Krakow, view the ‘real’ ghetto not the movie version!

  28. Bill H says:

    Very interesting – visiting Krakow, May 2013, and you have given me more places to visit, so thanks very much.

    It is very important that we know about these dark days in Krakow and can reflect/remember the many people so evilly treated. Having heard survivors Paul Oppenheimer and Zdenka Fantlova it is important that you continue your excellent work.

    Well done!

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