Jewish Krakow

For the past five hundred years or so, the district of Kazimierz in Krakow has been the Jewish Quarter of the city – when the Jews were expelled from Krakow in 1495, most settled here. With such extensive history, the district is one of the most culturally significant Jewish areas in Europe. During the Second World War and the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Nazis turned Kazimierz into a ghetto, putting up walls reminiscent of tombstones and bricking up windows in the outlying buildings. Following the liquidation of the ghetto, much of the area was severely damaged or destroyed. During the Communist period, apparently the district was dark and dangerous, however since the fall of Communism a lot of work has been done to restore the area and it’s now full of art galleries and cafes, along with a number of museums documenting Jewish history and the holocaust.


For some terribly logical Nazi reasoning on the creation of the Jewish ghetto, I found the following quote on a wall in the Krakow Under Nazi Occupation museum:



I wanted to spend some time exploring the Jewish Quarter, and I wanted to start with the museum built in Oskar Schindler’s enamel factory. It holds a permanent exhibit titled ‘Krakow under Nazi Occupation: 1939 – 1945’. If it sounds like all the museums I visit are depressing, it’s basically because they are. The recent history in this part of the world isn’t particularly pleasant.

I arrived at the museum at about 11.30am, and was told that the next available ticket was for 1.30pm. I didn’t realise that there were time slots, but it was followed by a nice surprise – on Monday the museum is free! [I didn’t even know that it was Monday, so I was very pleased that I accidentally arrived on Free Entrance Day!] In the meantime, I figured I would visit the ‘Pharmacy Under the Eagle’, which holds a very tiny museum about the history of the pharmacy – which was also free on Monday.



This was a really interesting place, as it was the only shop that was allowed to operate inside the Jewish ghetto that was not owned and run by Jews. When the ghetto was built, all Poles were required to leave and were offered residences and businesses which had been confiscated from Jewish families. The owner of the pharmacy, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, refused the offer of a Jewish pharmacy in the ‘Aryan’ section of Krakow as a replacement, and was eventually allowed to stay – the only non-Jewish business in the ghetto. The pharmacy became a safe haven where Jews could meet and talk, exchange information, and hide. Pankiewicz and his pharmacy are not well known like Schindler and his factory, but the pharmacist and his assistants saved a number of Jewish people in a number of ways. For example, they provided hair dyes for older people to help them to look younger and more capable of labour, thus sparing them from being sentenced to the death camps. They provided sedatives for children who were being hidden from Nazi soldiers, and general medical assistance for the residents of the ghetto  – often at no cost. They also smuggled food, clothing and other scarce goods into the ghetto.



I’d never heard of the pharmacy, or of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, and found the story inspiring – while the number of people saved by Pankiewicz is unknown, it sounds like the comfort and support that he and his assistants provided to the residents of the ghetto made a difference to many people. The pharmacy itself is located on the corner of the big square with the chairs – one of the creepiest memorials I’ve seen, and likely intended that way.

I returned to the museum at Schindler’s Factory spot on 1.30. I was pleased that it addressed the Nazi occupation of Krakow as a whole and not only the Jewish oppression there – while it was the Jews who were forced into ghettos and sent en masse to the extermination camps, the Nazis didn’t exactly treat non-Jewish Poles with a lot of respect either. On the walls were photographs and newspaper clippings, and quotes from Nazi figures demonstrating quite clearly what they thought of the Polish people, for example:


The museum wasn’t as brilliant as the Warsaw Rising museum in Warsaw, but it was very well constructed. It showed a documentary about the Jews who survived as a direct result of Oskar Schindler’s ‘list’, as well as interviews with Poles who worked for Schindler under the same conditions. It was overwhelmingly positive – understandable when you’re listening to people whose lives were saved by the man. It sounds like it was a lot better being slave labour [that is exactly what it was] at Schindler’s factory, where you would get decent meals, than for other companies.

There was a room hung with Nazi flags, with walls covered in Nazi propaganda posters, which was quite disturbing.



During the occupation, street names and place names were Germanised or ‘Nazified’ [I don’t know if that’s a real word but it seems fitting] – for example, the main market square, Rynek Główny, was renamed ‘Alter Markt’ and then ‘Adolf Hitler Platz’. It’s not too surprising that these signs were torn down after the Nazi defeat and the names returned to the old [before some suffered from the subsequent Sovietisation].



One of the rooms in the museum had floor tiles with swastikas. I don’t know if this was due to the Nazis using such decorations – I felt that the purpose of this was to have everyone entering the room stepping on the Nazi symbol, a sign of utter disrespect.



The museum also had little stands set up where you would collect a card with a significant date and a little bit of information, and stamp it. The scrapbooker and compulsive hoarder in me likes collecting things like this – free souvenirs, information and interactivity all in one.



It did a lot of raining this day, and so after leaving the museum I found a little bagel shop and spent about an hour in there having a late lunch and hoping the rain would stop. It didn’t. I went to a pharmacy to get some antibiotics, as I’d been sick for three weeks by now and was getting a little tired of it, but unfortunately for me in Poland as at home a prescription is required. The pharmacist said there were no English-speaking doctors nearby, so I figured I’d just continue with my day and had a wander through the streets of Kazimierz on my way to the Jewish Cemetery.



The cemetery was interesting and kind of mysterious. The rain had caused a slight mist to hover, and the ground was muddy – the paths being kind of practical and kind of just another place to put a grave, with plenty of paving stones missing. Trees grew haphazardly among the tombstones and small piles of rocks sat on many of the graves in lieu of the flowers we expect in Christian cemeteries – although I did see one grave with flowers. Many of the graves were overgrown with weeds and ivy – while the site seems to have a guardian, no maintenance is done and I’m not sure if this is neglect or tradition.



Many of the tombstones were engraved in Yiddish, or in both Yiddish and Polish. During WWII, the cemetery was desecrated by the Nazis, who ripped up tombstones and used them as paving stones or building material. After the war, many were returned and a memorial was built using these broken stones. Others have been included in walls in the cemetery, that the person they commemorated would not be forgotten.



The rain was only getting heavier, and as it was almost 6pm I decided to take the tram back to the centre and do some searching for a raincoat.


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