Sunday 22 July 2018

Walking the Krakow Ghetto by Catherine Hokin

Some places, for example Bruges, immerse the visitor in history as if you were walking through a film set. Others, as I discovered in the area which once housed the Krakow ghetto, take you down ordinary streets and trip you up with the weight of what they once held.

 Entrance to the Krakow Ghetto 1941
The ghetto in Krakow was one of 5 major metropolitan Jewish ghettos created by the Nazis during the occupation of Poland in World War Two. It was liquidated between June 1942 and March 1943 with most of the inhabitants being sent to the nearby forced labour camp at Plaszow, or the extermination camps at Belzec and Auschwitz. It was set up in the suburb of Podgorze rather than the traditional (and still very vibrant) Jewish district of Kazimierz because its architect Hans Frank (Hitler's personal lawyer) felt Kazimierz was more significant to Krakow's history. That Kazimierz is far more central to the city and thus harder to hide away must have played a significant part in that decision. The Krakow ghetto was a closed ghetto: it was physically cut off from the surrounding area and access was restricted; the suburb of Podgorze is across the river from the main city and can only be reached by bridge or boat.When first formed, 15000 Jews were crammed into an area meant for 3000 people; the size of the ghetto was reduced once deportations began.

 Ghetto Memorial Krakow
Like the majority of people with an interest in  history, we usually research our trips before we go. The Krakow trip, however, was a last minute short break and, beyond the salt mines (which I can't recommend highly enough), the Schindler Factory and Auschwitz, we hadn't looked at much in advance. Consequently we stumbled into the ghetto en route to the Factory without realising where we were. It was an eerie experience. The square we came into was quiet and empty, which is not the norm for Krakow squares. It was only when we stopped and looked closer that we realised we were looking at rows of deliberately empty, some small and some over-large, identical chairs. It's not easy to find, but there is a plaque on the kiosk at the square's edge - this is Heroes Square, the central point of the ghetto, and the 33 large chairs and 37 small ones made from iron and bronze are a memorial to its Jewish victims. It's a very poignant place and hit us all hard with its simplicity. The plaque contained a map and little else (there is no background explanation to the memorial) but it did direct us to the far corner and one of the best museums I think I've ever visited.

 The Under the Eagle Pharmacy
The Apteka Pod Orlem, or Under the Eagle Pharmacy, was run by Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Roman Catholic Polish pharmacist and was the only pharmacy which continued to operate during the period of the ghetto. Pankiewicz chose to decline the Nazi (or Hitlerist as they are often referred to in Krakow) offer to relocate his premises and continued to supply medications throughout the ghetto's operation. More than this (which was brave enough), he and his staff helped smuggle food and information into the ghetto and helped hide many of those facing deportation. Pankiewicz's memoir (which is on sale in the tiny ticket office three doors down) talks about supplying hair dyes for changing identity and tranquilizers to keep children quiet during Gestapo raids. Because of his work, he was given the title of Righteous Among the Nations in 1983. The pharmacy has been completely refurbished and makes use of videos and testimony to tell its often heartbreaking stories. As many people will be aware, in February of this year the Polish government passed a law that outlaws blaming Poland for any crimes committed during the Holocaust. This museum puts the blame squarely where it should go but makes no attempt to wipe away the locals who participated - their, named, stories are presented along with those of the victims and survivors. It is an intelligent, even-handed account of a terrible period and deserves visiting.

 Ghetto Wall Krakow
We now had our bearings so decided to make the half-hour walk to the Plaszow concentration camp. It's a roadside, not very scenic walk and there is a tram that takes you there (we used it on the way back) as well as the innumerable little tourist road trains but walk, for two reasons. Firstly, if you don't you will miss the unbearably moving stretch of the old ghetto wall, now sitting very incongruously beside a children's playground at the back of a primary school. Again the plaque is tiny and it isn't marked on any map we had. This section is one of only two that survive and stretches up into the old quarries and the cemetery. The original encircling walls were 3m high and there were only 4 gates in. One of the most disturbing features is its shape: the wall is deliberately built in the shape of the tombstones that you will find in the sixteenth century Jewish graveyard in Kazimierz. The Jewish men forced to build it can have been left with no illusions.

 Plaszow 1941
The second reason for walking the route is to experience how (like Sachsenhausen in Berlin) short the distance is between slave camp and city. In another very deliberate gesture, Plaszow was built on the site of two Jewish cemetaries which were destroyed for the purpose - the shattered tombstones were used to cobble the roads. The camp was a forced-labour camp providing labour for the quarries and a number of armaments factories. By its height in 1944 it is estimated the camp held 25000 prisoners on the 200 acre site. Conditions were abysmal with deaths from typhus and starvation rampant. There is no museum at Plaszow and no guides. Since November of last year large information boards have been put in place describing the site and what happened there and these provide a kind of route through. The site is very beautiful - it is a wildflower filled nature-reserve - and that alone makes the whole experience of walking its paths a hard one. If you follow the numbered boards, you end at the Hujowa Gorka - this roughly translates as Dick Hill and is a play on the name of Unterscharfuhrer Albert Hujar, the man who turned this beautiful hill into a killing field. Some 8-10,000 prisoners were marched to a trench in this hillside, stripped and shot. In 1944, all the bodies were exhumed and burnt on a giant bonfire to hide the evidence. Witnesses have testified to seeing 17 lorry loads of human ash.

 The Memorial of Torn Out Hearts
The hill is dominated by a memorial which finally broke us all - me, the Jewish American OH and the 23 year old Berlin-living son. We'd all taken time out here and there, and there is something about Holocaust places that requires everyone to move in their own space, but this brought us all to tears and silence. This is the Memorial of Torn Out Hearts - you won't see the name (or any explanation) at the site but you'll have named it something similar already. This massive stone was designed by Witold Cęckiewicz and unveiled in 1964. It depicts five figures (representing the five countries of Płaszów's victims) with their heads bent under the weight of the massive stone block from which they're carved and a horizontal crack across their chests, symbolising their abruptly ended lives. Each face is different, each hand is different. I've never seen anything as moving. It dominates the skyline and, what you can't see from my photograph, is that the sky shows through the crack so the rip feels almost living. There are discussions currently being held about a permanent museum being built here, it doesn't need it - the monument and the boards and the beauty of the place tell all the stories that you need.

We didn't get to the Schindler Factory - the website to be honest is crackers, we couldn't book in advance and the daily allocation was done before we got there. It didn't matter, we had discovered our own history which then led us into Kazimierz and its wonderful synagogues. It was a short stay and we are leaving Auschwitz for another trip: our walk through the ghetto reminded us that these sites, which are so woven into the places that still bear their scars, take recovery and reflection time. The quietly demonstrative Krakow Ghetto made us remember and remember vividly; it did its job.

1 comment:

Sue Purkiss said...

Wonderful piece. Thank you.