When I visit Europe I like to take the “free walking tours” where you get to know places on foot with a small guided group. At the end of the tour you give the guide a tip of €5. In Krakow there are many walking tours including one that takes you through the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz and then through what was the Ghetto during World War II.
There are many companies that conduct these tours with different schedules and languages. We started the tour in the Market Square (during the occupation it was called Adolf Hitler-Platz) in Krakow. Be prepare to walk about two hours.
The Jewish Quarter Kazimierz
On March 27, 1335, Casimir III King of Poland, decided to create a new town in two suburbs west of the city of Krakow. He called this town after himself, Kazimierz. The whole island became a town connected to Krakow and the salt mines of Wieliczka by a medieval bridge.
The Jews, who had been expelled from many parts of Europe, found a home in Poland since it was a tolerant country. They could work, trade and travel thanks to Bolesław the Pious who in 1294 promulgated the General Charter of Jewish Freedoms. After a fire in 1494, the Jews were moved from the colonial part of Krakow to Kazimierz. That town already had the Old Synagogue (which you visit in the route) that was founded in 1407 or 1492 and is still the oldest that exists in Poland.
The Jewish Qahal (something like its council) asked to create walls to surround the Jewish neighborhood within Kazimierz. Twice they were granted permits but as more Jews continued to arrive, later they said no.
The golden age ended in 1782 when the Austrian Emperor Joseph II dismantled the qahal. In 1795 Poland was split for the third time and Krakow became part of Austria. They united Kazimierz with Krakow and the Jews with money started to leave the overpopulated neighborhood. Only the poor and the ultraconservatives who preserved the buildings remained. When you visit you will appreciate how the area looked in the 18th century.
Stops in the Tour
By the 1930s there were 120 synagogues registered in Krakow. On the tour you will visit the synagogues of Remuh and Isaac. As well as the old Jewish cemetery and the new square (Nowy Square) where you will find food stalls. The only bad part of the tour was not having time to eat, since the food in Poland is delicious. At night, Nowy Square becomes the party zone of Kazimierz. I recommend visiting a bar called Alchemia that reminded me of the book “The Chronicles of Narnia” since it has wardrobes that connect between different rooms.
In 1993, Steven Spielberg filmed his film “Schindler’s List” in Kazimierz. The guide told us that they had a paid tour Schindler’s Factory.
I found the tour interesting and decided to join in the afternoon. You will also see the churches of Corpus Christi and St. Stanislaus in Skałka.
Moving to the Ghetto in Podgórze
At the end of the tour you cross the lovers bridge to reach the Ghetto Heroes Square in Podgórze. This square has 59 iron and bronze chairs facing south, there is only one facing the Schindler’s Factory. Each chair represents 1000 lost souls. Our guide told us that when people crossed the bridge to come to the Jewish ghetto, they could bring what they could carry and bring up chairs. They could only carry 62 1/2 pounds (25 kilos) of belongings.
By the end of the 1930s, the Jewish population was about 25% of the inhabitants of Krakow. Germany and the Soviet Union invade Poland in September 1939 after signing a pact to divide the country. Then the persecution against the Jews begins who must now wear bracelets to identify themselves and do forced labor. Hans Frank of the Nazi party decides that Krakow should become the “racially cleanest city” and deports most Jews to rural areas. Of 68,000 only 15,000 workers left with their families. At first the expulsions were voluntary but after November 25, 1940 they had no option.
On March 3, 1941, they closed the Podgórze neighborhood to turn it into the Kraków ghetto. Previously, 3,500 residents lived in 320 buildings, but later they placed 16,000 people. People were given 2 square meters of living space.
A cruel ending
The ghetto of Krakow was liquidated between June 1942 and March 1943. The majority of its inhabitants were sent to Belzec (extermination camp), Plaszów (slave labor camp) and Auschwitz (concentration camp).
The only inhabitant in the Krakow ghetto who was not Jewish was Tadeusz Pankiewicz who had a pharmacy called ‘Under the Eagle Pharmacy’. He declined the offer of the Germans to relocate his establishment and helped many Jews with food, medicine, even dyes to change their identities. He got many to escape endangering his life. In 2003, the pharmacy became a museum.
Oskar Schindler, member of the Nazi party and intelligence agent of Abwehr, arrives in Krakow wanting to do business. He buys the enamel factory to make sets of kitchen utensils. In order to manage the company, he recruits Itzhak Stern, a Jewish accountant who has contacts in the black market and obtains financing from the Jewish community. Hiring German or Polish labor was very expensive, so he chose to hire Jews who were going to be sent to the Plaszów concentration camp.
Oskar and his wife Emilie are credited with saving the lives of some 1,200 Jews. Many times he had to bribe SS officers not to kill his employees. Even at the end of the war they were sent by mistake to Auschwitz-Birkenau and he rescued them. The Jewish community gave them the recognition of “Righteous of the Nations” given to non-Jewish people who saved Jewish lives in the Holocaust.
Today, Schindler’s Factory is the most visited tourist attraction in Krakow. In 2010 it opened as a museum that has a permanent exhibition “Krakow under the Nazi occupation 1939-1945”. You will see how Krakow was before the war and then when it was ‘liberated’ by the communists of the Soviet Union. It is important to take into account that opening hours depend on the day of the week and the month of the year.
Krakow is a beautiful city in Poland with a dark past that should be known in your visit. To learn more about the history of the Holocaust you can visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.