As promised – The story of the Jews of Kraków

It took us a while to write the story below. We all know the big picture. Because we had already been to Auschwitz 30 years ago and remembered how it threw us off balance, we decided not to repeat that. And yet, now in Kraków it hit us hard again. There is nothing fancy about it, so below, what we understand of it.

Before the outbreak of WWII, Kraków had 68,000 Jewish residents on of a population of 200,000. So one in four residents was Jewish and Polish. Many of the Jewish Poles volunteered to fight the Germans when ‘their Poland’ was threatened. In 1945, only 5,000 Jews returned to Kraków.

In the 15th century, Jews were forced to move to Kazimierz, then an independent city. A successful trading centre soon emerged here, the first synagogues and cemetery were built. Kazimierz became Poland’s second most important city until it became a district of Cracow in the 18th century. By then, Kraków also had a vibrant cultural life and one of the oldest universities in Europe.

In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. There is a defence army, but Kraków as a city is not defended. The Germans recognise Kraków’s architectural and cultural quality and designate it as their capital in Poland, allowing the city to come through the war virtually unscathed, with the exception that all the Jewish buildings are used for storage or as stables after all but 15,000 Jews are expelled from the city and housed in a ghetto in Podgórze in 1942. The 15,000 who were allowed to stay were placed in labour camps. One of these was Schindler’s Deutsche enamelware factory (DEF). The ghetto consists of 30 streets, 320 buildings with 3,167 rooms and around them a wall in the shape of metre-high Jewish tombstones (Matseva) – to be clear what the intention was. Originally, 3,000 people lived in this neighbourhood. The ghetto houses 15,000 people. At least four Jewish people had to live behind each window. As a result, sometimes 12 people or more shared a room of which the surface area was not large enough to provide everyone with a place to sleep.

On 30 May 1942, the first deportation of 7,000 Jews took place. Not to Birkenau because it did not exist at that time. In June 1942, 4,000 were taken to Belzec where there were gas chambers that were filled with carbon monoxide using petrol engines. Selections and new deportations were carried out periodically until on 14 March 1943 the entire ghetto was culled. 8.000 residents went to Blaszow labour camp the remaining 2,000 were killed on the spot or sent to Birkenau (Auschwitz’s death camp). Our guide told the most gruesome stories about the latter 2,000. To save bullets, sick people were pushed out of windows and fell on those on their way to be deported. Youngsters were lined up in rows of five to kill them with 1 bullet and the youngest children were thrown into crates to be buried alive.

Schindler taking over the DEF in 1939 for a reasonable price from the original Jewish owners had primarily an economic purpose at first. Influenced by his Jewish bankers, Schindler becomes aware of the terrible fate of his workers and ensures a better standard of living in the DEF than in other labour camps (good meals and no violence or other abuse). Meanwhile, he fêtes anyone with any influence to prevent outside interference. On 3 June 1942, nevertheless, some of his employees do not show up because they have been deported to Auschwitz. He personally goes to the camp to get as many of them back as possible. When he learns that there will be another such action, he organises a company outing for the people concerned to the salt factory (which is not a tourist attraction then as it is now). In the mine, he gives them all an envelope which they are not allowed to open until later and about which they were to speak about with anyone. He addresses them and says that he hopes one day they will understand why. He dismisses them and gives them room to leave before they are arrested.

When the ground gets too hot under his feet, he moves his factory to the Czech Republic, taking 1,100 employees with him.

When some Jews return after the war, the communist regime rules. All property is confiscated and in state hands and a hostile atmosphere prevails. The communist regime successfully manages to spread the story that Jews are child murderers upon which the Cracow population kills some survivors.

To this day, there is still a struggle across Poland over former Jewish property used/occupied by others during the communist era. The question of whose right is stronger remains unanswered. The seven remaining synagogues, the former bathhouse and two cemeteries in Kraków are in hands of the now 600 Jewish residents.

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