Tag Archives: Holocaust

Book review: Maus

Only one comic book has ever won a Pulitzer prize, that being Maus – A Survivor’s Tale. It won a Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992 for its author, Art Spiegelman. However, to call it a comic book does not do it service, as comic implies a level of humour involved. The term graphic novel would suit more, as the book is an artistic representation of the author’s father and his recounting of life as a Polish Jew in the 1930’s and his subsequent interment in Auschwitz. The story switches between the author’s father recounting the wartime and then his later life in New York.

The book is written in two volumes, with the first part called My Father Bleeds History which chronicles Vladek Speigelman’s time from the mid-1930’s to winter 1944. The second volume is called And Here My Troubles Began and describes time spent in Auschwitz and ends with the later life of the author and his father in 1970’s New York.

The story is very gripping, but what distinguishes it from our tales recounting the war years or Holocaust, is the understanding of how the situations experienced affected the person involved later in life. Vladek Spiegelman was a well-educated businessman in 1930’s Poland living in Częstochowa. He worked in the textiles and fabrics industry before he met his wife to be, Anja Zylberberg. Her family owned a factory in Sosnowiec, so they moved there after getting married in the mid 1930’s, having a young son shortly afterwards. As the Nazis decided to become aggressive, eventually invading Poland in 1939, life for Jews like Vladek and Anja became much more difficult. Eventually as the Nazis advanced, they sent their son to stay with a friend but as the Germans came to bring Jews to the gas chambers their friend decided to poison herself, her children and Vladek and Anja’s son to avoid death in the gas chambers.

The couple eventually were taken to Auschwitz in 1944 to labour in the work-camp. A strong work ethic, good contacts from his life as a businessman, and some good luck helped Vladek and Anja survive. However, 20 years after the war, Anja committed suicide, supposedly as a result of trying to deal with the effects of the war. Vladek remarried to another Auschwitz survivor called Mala. However, his life had also been changed for the worse by his time in Auschwitz, for exmaple mainfesting itself in a hate to waste food, to the point of returning half a box of cereal to the supermarket to get a return on the money paid as the cereal would not be eaten. The author himself, Art Spiegelman, has to deal with his mother’s suicide, his increasing frustration with his father’s behaviour and also his own guilt that he does not understand the Holocaust because he did not experience it (as he was born in 1948 in America after Anja and Vladek moved to New York).

One key part of the structure of the story of Maus is anthropomorphism – that is animals being represented with human characteristics such as walking on two feet, talking and using human gestures and expressions. In this book, Spiegelman used specific types of animals for different races , religions and nationalities. The main ones are listed below:

Jews as mice (regardless of nationality)

Germans/Nazis as cats (chasing mice)

Americans as dogs (chasing the cats)

British as fish (hunted in a way by cats by usually protected by the relative safety of water)

French as frogs (as a stereotype?)

Swedes as deer

Poles as pigs

Spiegelman said said that he tried to represent all people of a nationality as one kind of animal as a metaphor for the absurdity of dividing people based on these lines. In an interview with Comics Journal in 1991, he said “these metaphors… are meant to self-destruct in my book — and I think they do self-destruct.”The book is highly acclaimed and is very much worth reading. Because it blends the experiences of surviving Auschwitz with dealing with later life and the knock-on effect it really shows more than many other tales recounting Holocaust experiences. It should be recommended reading for anyone with an interest in this time in history. Praise for the book includes:

“An epic story told in tiny pictures” The New York Times

“A quiet triumph, moving and simple – impossible to describe accurately, and impossible for achieve in any medium but comics” Washington Post

“The most affecting and successful narrative ever done about the Holocaust” Wall Street Journal


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Podgórze Ghetto: Krakow – Off the beaten track


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.


Want to visit these sites?

Click for a bigger map:

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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Schindler’s List Death Camp: Krakow – Off the beaten track


In 1992 Steven Spielberg built a replica of the Nazi’s Płaszów Labor Camp for his movie Schindler’s List. The remains of this highly realistic set can still be seen today a short distance from the center of Krakow. Rebuilt using the original plans, the replica of Płaszów was constructed in a quarry only a few hundred meters from the location of the real camp. The Liban Quarry, the site of the reconstruction, is one of the places where inmates of Płaszów were worked to death or randomly murdered.

Today the Liban Quarry is a peaceful spot, famous for it’s populations of rare lizards and endangered wild flowers. Young trees and shrubs were bursting into the supernaturally bright green of spring when I visited this early May weekend. After a slightly perilous scramble down unmarked chalky paths we found our way to the floor of the quarry and pushed through the burgeoning saplings to see what we could see. The most obvious features are visible from the lip of the quarry, but it’s worth finding your way down for a closer look.

Liban Quarry from the south side of Kopiec Krakus

Traces of the Schindler’s List set and other features


The tombstone road

The real Płaszów camp was built partly on the site of Jewish graveyards. In a typical piece of Nazi theatricality the tombstones were used to pave the road into the camp so that inmates were compelled to trample over the relics of their ancestors on their way to and from work. This is shocking from our safe and distant perspective, but I’m sure it was the last thing that really worried the men and women who were trying to survive there. In the reconstructed camp concrete casts from real headstones were used to build a similar road. It would be interesting to find out exactly which original headstones were cast.

The reconstructed road of tombstones (it’s ok to walk on them, they’re not real)

Detail of the reconstructed road of tombstones (look carefully for the repetitions)


The fences

The original Płaszów camp had an inner and an outer fence. The corridor between these fences was patrolled by SS guards. This is reproduced exactly in the Liban Quarry copy. The remnants of the movie set are incredibly convincing. The timber looks decades old, rather than less than 20 years old – did the set builders use timber from an older source? If so, I’d love to know what that source was. According what I’ve read, the real camp had concrete fence posts, but maybe this wouldn’t have looked ‘authentic’ enough in the movie (I was certainly surprised to find that the fences at Auschwitz have concrete posts – too many war movies I guess). Also, I have no idea if the original fences were electrified – the insulators on the fake fence posts suggest that they were but this could also be a touch or artistic license.

Corridor between the inner and outer fences

Another view of the fence posts and barbed wire


The lime kilns

From my memory of reading Schindler’s Ark, the book upon which Schindler’s list is based, I recall that the work on Liban Quarry was focused on the production of quicklime rather than the quarrying of limestone for its own sake. To produce quicklime you need a lime kiln, and that’s what I believe those tower-like structures at the back of the quarry are for. Limestone goes in the top, burning coal or charcoal goes in about half-way down, and quicklime comes out the bottom. Looking closely at these structures they are clearly many decades old, not movie sets. It’s possible they are remnants of the quicklime producing facilities from the Nazi’s war time operation, but they could also date from after the war, when the quarry continued in use. Again, something it would be nice to discover the truth about.

Dark satanic mills – but from what period in history?

Detail of the lime kilns


Visiting the ‘fake’ Płaszów camp is a confusing and disturbing experience. The remnants you see are the remnants of a movie set, not the remnants of the actual labor camp – the real labor camp was destroyed and tidied away by the Germans before the Russians arrived. Despite knowing this one can’t help but be moved by the remains of the fake camp. It looks and feels exactly as you would expect an abandoned and overgrown Nazi death camp to look and feel, but it is – literally – just a movie. These are not the fences that enclosed the pitiless and brutal murder of thousands of people, but they stand on the ground where exactly those things happened. These are not the smashed remnants of centuries-old Jewish culture reduced to paving slabs, but they are exactly like them and the lie on the ground where Jewish people were worked to death. The coincidence between the ‘Hollywood’ version 50 years later and the reality beneath your feet is deeply confusing and thought provoking. To my mind, the reconstructed Płaszów camp lies at the heart of our struggle to understand – a living essay on the power of film blatantly and horrifically tied directly to the reality that film tries to portray. I’m inclined to believe that the remnants of the reconstructed Płaszów Camp were perhaps the chief reason for the making of the movie… but that’s just me.


How to get there

The Liban Quarry is on the south side of the Vistula River. From the center of Old Krakow simply walk down through Kazimierz (Krakowska Street) and cross the Piłsudskiego Bridge (an unmistakable iron bridge painted pale blue). From there, follow the map below up to the Krakus Mound from which there is an excellent view down into the quarry. If you do decide to try and make your way down into the quarry itself please remember it is an environmentally sensitive area and it is dangerous.

(Click for a larger version)

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Polish Lie #68: Expelling Jews from Poland

DISCLAIMER. The reason behind POLISH LIES is to give food for thought. Not fuel for flamewars. (When you’ll throw down the gauntlet, I may, reluctantly, pick it up.) Other members of this blog may not share my understanding of what POLISH LIES are.

Polish March 1968 was about expelling poor Jews from Poland.

You may believe the lie, it’s your mind capacity to store it.
Yet, you are advised to note a few issues:

1. Decorum should not be violated.

Distrust narratives in which Polish March 1968 and the Holocaust are put in one sentence, mentioned together without a pause for another breath.

Distrust this text, for instance, in which Leo Kantor, a Jew from Opole in Poland, describes his hurt: “The post-Holocaust, post-Polish March 1968 sorrow can fade away – but it will need 4 generations”.

Hello? Holocaust and 1968 in one room?
I know nothing about political correctness, Mr Kantor, but you’re sure breaking decorum.

Distrust this Polish article. Its author, Leopold Unger mentions Mengele in the very title [Displaying colours, Mengele on the flags], says Anti-Semitism is reborn. Would he mean Germans, WW2? No, not at all. He means Polish March 1968. The same man, referring to 1968 here, coins the term “Polish-Soviet National Socialism“.

Hello? 1968 Poland and Mengele-like Nazism under one flag?
Mr Unger you’re breaking decorum. (I put it too mildly, and so am breaking decorum, too.)


2. Proper terms should be used.

You can hear or read about Jews “forced to leave” or “expelled” in March 1968 – but what do these verbs hide?

When you think about Polish wartime expellees, images of numerous examples of human inhumanity may come to mind, kids taken away from their parents, houses burnt down, every fifth expellee going to Auschwitz. (You may think of Soviet atrocities, too, little difference.) — Or think about Ukrainian expellees the Polish state took care of: No love lost in the process, but lives: yes, they were lost. — Or think of German expellees, when you come across: “the German government’s official estimate of deaths due to the expulsions stood at 2.2 million for several decades” here. — Or think about all the history-made expellees forced to “reclocate” only because pre-WW2 Poland differed so much from post-WW2 Poland.

Now. Back to Polish March 1968. Read: “The Communists took away Polish passports and gave Jews a one-way ticket, usually to Austria”. — Well, the “passport and ticket” way of expelling people and the “killing, burning, kid-stealing, starving” way of expelling people — they do deserve separate accents, if not distinct words, in my vocabulary.


3. Fates should be considered case-by-case.

Leo Kantor’s fate (see 1), for instance. He complains that because of 1968, his employment contract was not prolonged. But he was offered another job, as we can read, a full time gymnasium teacher. He refused. And then he declined to move from one city to another to become an academic teacher. Instead he chose to sail to Sweden and keep moaning about those damn Polish anti-Semites.

Well, if changing your job means expelling, I was expelled several times myself.


4. Devil is in the detail.

There is that Polish phrase, diabeł tkwi w szczegółach, to imply: concentrate on details, for they host the gist.

Detail 1: Jews? Please, anyone: provide a reliable source corroborating the assertion that Polish Jews were expelled in 1968. (The accent’s on “Jews”.)
If you manage, provide statistics: what posts the “Jews” had before being “expelled”? What was their standard of living before they left Poland?

Detail 2: Communist Poland granted times of harsh day-by-days in grey. The West was the Promised Land, it had more of both — money and freedom. For many decades, the Soviet-occupied nationals were frantically desperate to go to the West. Sportsmen would not go back from olympic games. Artists would not return from gigs. Scientists would not return from conferences. Soldiers would defect. People would jump, run, swim, the faster the better, try every opportunity. Whenever a family man was granted a passport, the spouse and kids had to stay in Poland, as hostage-like assurance that the traveller will come back. So, how come the “Jews” didn’t want to go West? A detail not to be explained? Gimme a break.

Who could reject that potent urge to taste the West? Those who enjoyed Western-like privileges in Poland, I’d suspect. But who would have them under the communist regime? Members of the regime.

Detail 3: When you embrace (that’s-more-like-) the truth that March 1968 in Poland was because of the warring factions of the ruling party, that those defeated were banished by the victors, then you will stop at any detail like this one: “Israel’s relations with the Eastern Bloc drastically deteriorated“.

Drastically?! Would we be naive to believe that the political status of Israel can turn from ‘good friend’ to ‘sworn enemy’ in a matter of days or weeks? That anti-Anythingism can be born overnight, and unplanned? Haven’t we read our Orwell? Is it too hard to read between the lines about the Six-Day War, the Soviet politics, the US politics, Arab and Israeli politics, power policies of various states, Poland included?


And so I dare you, meme spreaders, you political correcters, you history shapers — say it:
Within the number of 15.ooo of those leaving Poland in 1968, how many were there:
=== Political migrants: those rich and sated — and then “expelled” from the regime
=== Economic migrants: those who wanted to retire, to live on their lives in a lazier way, but sure better with the halo of an expellee than with the brand of an idler
=== National migrants: who had tried to get permission to leave for Israel long before, and been denied — so exercised their opportunity in 1968. Within those — how many Stalinist criminals? And how many Polish intelligence officers? (It’s good to plant them in times of commotion.)
And so on. What happened in 1968 was killing birds with one stone, and not just two birds, but many more.


Or are you die-hard idealists? (Hint: how deep is your support for US democracy-spreading missions in Iraq and other places?) Are you naive to think that a theatrical performance can shape the history of Europe? Or do you believe ‘Jewish’ love for Poland was so non-standard, back in 1968, that it didn’t not look Westward at all? (Hint: would you call the now Poles emigrated to the Isles “not loving Poland”?) Are you racists, then?

Today, it is about money, too. About reclaiming citizenship. About reclaiming property.
About claiming love for Poland, I have no illusions.

– – –

I have a blogsite though.

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