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The Jewish Ghetto in Kraków

The Kraków Ghetto was one of five major, metropolitan Jewish ghettos created by Nazi Germany in the new General Government territory during the German occupation of Poland in World War II.

Before the combined German and Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939, Kraków was an essential metropolitan center for the Jewish community. It was populated by 60,000-80,000 Polish Jews whose ancestors started to populate the city in 13th century. Persecution of the Jewish community began almost immediately after the German troops entered the city on 6 September 1939.

German troops advancing on Kraków.

Two months later, in November, all Jewish inhabitants of the city who were at least 12 years old were required to wear special armbands bearing the Star of David that would symbolize their identity. Throughout Kraków, synagogues were closed and all their relics and valuables confiscated by the Nazi authorities.

The regulation about wearing the David Star. Every person that is a Jew or whose parents were Jews is reared to wear a white band with a blue star on it.
The obligatory armband.

By May 1940, the German occupation authority under Gauleiter Hans Frank announced that Kraków should become the “racially cleanest” city in the General Government (an occupied, but unannexed part of Poland). Massive deportations of Jews from the city were ordered. From registered 68,482 Jews in Kraków in October only 15,000 workers and their families were permitted to remain. By 15 August 1940, 23,000 Jews had left Kraków. By 4 December 1940, 43,000 Jews were removed from Kraków, both voluntarily and involuntarily.

The following year, on 3 March 1941, the establishment of the Kraków Ghetto was ordered by Otto Wächter. The ghetto was to be set up in the Podgórze District of Kraków and it was located inside a newly built wall that ensured to keep it separate from the rest of the city and it was constructed using Jewish forced labor. The Kraków Ghetto was officially established on 20 March 1941.

Kraków area, late 1939. Captive Jews, assembled for slave labor, sit on an open field surrounded by new barbed wire fence.
Building of the Ghetto Walls.

Note that the city authorities crowded 15,000 people in an area that was previously inhabited by only 3,000 people. That’s five times more than the district was prepared for. In total, the district of Podgorze comprised 33,320 buildings and a total of 3,167 rooms. As a result, every four Jewish families were allocated one apartment, and many of the less fortunate were forced to live on the streets. All windows and doors that would open to the non-Jewish side of the town where walled up. Jews who were transported to the ghetto were at first allowed to enter and leave it freely. However, several weeks after the transfer was completed – in April 1941 – the gates of the ghetto became closed, and nobody could leave it without a special permit otherwise will be punished with death. 

In March 1942, The SS and police deported 1 500 Jews from the ghetto to the Belzec death camp.

Deportation of Jews from the Ghetto.

From 30 May 1942 onward, the Nazis began systematic deportations from the Ghetto to surrounding concentration camps. Thousands of Jews were transported in the succeeding months as part of the Aktion Krakau headed by SS-Oberführer Julian Scherner. Jews were assembled on Zgody Square first and then escorted to the railway station in Prokocim. The first transport consisted of 7,000 people, the second, of additional 4,000 Jews deported to Bełżec death camp on 5 June 1942. On 13–14 March 1943, the final ‘liquidation’ of the ghetto was carried out under the command of SS-Untersturmführer Amon Göth. Eight thousand Jews deemed able to work were transported to the Płaszów labor camp. Those deemed unfit for work – some 2,000 Jews – were killed in the streets of the ghetto on those days with the use of “Trawniki men” police auxiliaries. Any remaining were sent to Auschwitz.

Bundles abandoned by Jewish deportees from the Kraków Ghetto, March 1943.

After this final deportation, the Germans cleaned their mess, looting the houses, stripping the luggage strewn everywhere of anything valuable, and taking down all the barbed wire. The Kraków Ghetto disappeared leaving almost as little trace as the Jews who lived there.

Little has remained of the Krakow wartime ghetto demolished by the Nazis in 1943. There are fragments of its wall at 25 Lwowska street and 62 Limanowskiego street. Also many apartment houses survived but they don’t differ from other properties in Krakow of the same age.

Pharmacy Under an Eagle (Polish: Apteka Pod Orlem) at 18 Plac Bohaterow Getta square, former Plac Zgody square, was run by a Pole during the World War II and provided a cover for the Polish resistance that tried to help Jews in ghetto. The former drugstore has been turned into a tiny museum of the holocaust in Krakow, a branch of the city’s Museum of History. 

Apteka Pod Orlem.

The entire Plac Bohaterów Getta square, Ghetto Heroes Square in English, has been turned into a monument commemorating the Jewish ghetto and the Krakow Jews.