The persecution of the Jewish population began almost immediately after the German occupation of Krakow. From November 1939, all Jews aged 12 or over had to wear armbands showing the Star of David. They were forced to work on the road's edge, the use of the pavement being forbidden, and they were also prevented from taking public transport or entering parks.
The harassment of Krakow's Jews was constant, their day to day existence made worse by the continuous flow of rules and orders emanating from the occupying German forces. Jews could no longer claim their pensions, those aged between 14-60 were forced to work and were given particularly hard and humiliating jobs. The Germans took over Jewish property and seized possessions: companies, shops, tenement houses, valuables and works of art.
In April 1940, the order was given to expel Jews from Krakow, the majority being sent to towns and villages outside the city. Out of a total population numbering some 64,000, only 15,000 Jews were allowed to remain.
The Krakow Ghetto was created on 3 March 1941 when Otto Wachter, the Krakow District Governor, decreed that, "for sanitary and public order reasons, a Jewish living quarter" would be established. (The Krakow Ghetto 1941-1943 by Anna Pióro. Published by The Historical Museum of Krakow.)
The ghetto was situated in the Podgorze district of Krakow and eventually housed 20,000 Jews, not just from Krakow, but also from neighbouring communities. Prior to the establishment of the ghetto, this same area had housed approximately 3,000 people.
A Polish witness wrote:
"We travelled over the Vistula river like many other families. On one side of the bridge we came from Podgórze, on the other side the Jews came from Kazimierz. I remember the silence of this removal... The silence changed into mourning and sighs." (Death-Camps.org)
(Archive footage of this migration can also be found on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website).
Two factories were situated within the ghetto, the Madritsch factory located at Rynek Podgórski 3, and the Optima factory, located between ul. Wegięrska 3 and ul. Krakusa. 7. Both factories used forced labour to help in the German war effort. There is no real sign of these factories now, however, anyone who goes to ul. Krakusa 7 will see the original Optima sign on the wall of the building. (The Schindler factory was situated outside of the ghetto).
The daily reality of ghetto life was one of hunger, disease and overcrowding. Illnesses decimated the population. Many died trying to get food or medicines from beyond the ghetto walls, the usual punishment for those being caught was to be shot by the Germans.
Despite the prevailing conditions in the ghetto, an even greater tragedy was to befall its population. From March 1942 transportation to the death camps commenced. In June and October 1942 the two biggest deportations to the death camps took place,
numbering a few thousand people. Overcrowded trains left for the camps from the
Plaszow train station, the inhabitants having been earlier rounded up on Plac Zgody, known today as Plac Bohaterów Getta - Heroes of the Ghetto.
During these selections the Germans massacred hundreds people, the ghetto streets were soaked in the blood of their victims. The Germans executed hospital patients, the old, as well as children from the orphanage that was situated in the ghetto. The Optima factory saw the isolation of hundreds of Jews in extreme heat without food or water before their subsequent deportation to the death camps.
The ultimate liquidation of the ghetto took place on 13th and 14th March 1943. Around 4,000 people who were considered fit for work were taken to the Plaszow camp, whereas the elderly, the weak and children were shot on the spot, approximately 2,000 people were killed this way. The remainder, a figure in the region of 2,000, were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Even in these circumstances there were stories of resistance and heroism, most notably Tadeusz Pankiewicz with his pharmacy located within the ghetto. There was also a Jewish Fighting Organisation, but the reality of the ghetto meant that their capability to attack was severely limited. For this reason the JFO was active outside the ghetto. Following an attack in the centre of Krakow on the cafe Cyganeria, which was used by the Germans, the leaders of this organisation were caught and executed.
Today, very little visible sign of the original ghetto remains. Perhaps the most obvious can be found on ul. Lwowska where a plaque has been placed on part of the former ghetto wall.
The plaque reads as follows:
"Here they lived, suffered and perished at the hands of Hitler's executioners. From here they began their final journey to the death camps."
A special note should also be made of the memorial located at Plac Bohaterow Getta. The work of two Krakow architects, Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Latak, the memorial was officially opened in December 2005. It features an arrangement of empty chairs on the main square as well as the tram stops.
The inspiration and reason behind this design was the witness account provided by Tadeusz Pankiewicz's book, The Pharmacy in the Krakow Ghetto, in which he noted the scene in the streets after the ghetto's ultimate liquidation, the poignant scene of furniture and belongings left behind by the people of the ghetto, the majority of which were either murdered in the ghetto or transported to their deaths.
More information about the ghetto can be found at the links provided.