As the middle ages progressed, Jews came to this area in huge numbers. They were visible, because of their Hasidism, and kept their religious practices, which also set them apart. They closed their businesses on Saturdays because of the Sabbath, and opened them on Sundays. They wore clothing and earlocks which set them apart in appearance. Their identity was very deeply connected to their religious practices and beliefs. Unlike the Jews in Germany and Prague, the Jews here did not assimilate; they acculturated. By 1919, this caused problems with Poles who wanted to be identified by their nationality, and did not see Jews as a part of their nation, but instead saw them as outsiders. By 1939 in Poland the Poles have a very grave relationship with all minorities here, including the Jews. Some helped Jews, some killed Jews, but most were bystanders who saw the Nazis as solving a Polish problem.
Today, Poland is beginning to face the Holocaust and changing into a new Poland, largely due the influence of Pope John Paul II. Shalmi spoke of a historic homily given by John Paul II in his hometown in the big town square, when he described his childhood friendship with a Jewish neighbor with such warmth that Shalmi could feel the animosity of Poles begin to melt away. Currently there are only about 100-150 Jews living here in Krakow, and ironically, now the Poles are dealing with this history of the Holocaust unlike ever before.
After visiting many synagogues and the Jewish cemetery, we went to the Galicia Jewish Museum, which was initiated by British photographer, Chris Schwartz, who came here to capture Jewish life as it was with his photographs. He packed his little car with all his belongings,
and drove to Krakow because of his vision to open this museum. Now the museum is flourishing; his artistic, beautiful pictures and captions hanging around the outide walls, with an active bookstore, education room, and coffee shop. This is truly the continuance of Chris Schwartz’s vision, a man who took a risk, and now unfortunately lives only in our memories.
From here, we went across the Vistula river to the Krakow Ghetto, where the Jews of Krakow who were of value to the Nazis because of their ability to read and write German, as well as work in their factories, were forced to move. While looking out the windows of the Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy onto the memorial square with chairs representing the furniture that the Jews had brought with them, Shalmi told us the inspirational story of Polish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz whose diary documents ghetto life.
The Krakow Ghetto was a sleeping ghetto, where the Jews slept at night, and worked outside of during the day. The Jews ran this ghetto, and built the walls surrounding it in such a decorative way, showing their resilience and belief that this ghetto would be a new protected area, where they would be able to ride out the war. In Pankiewicz’s diary he describes the day when the ghetto was liquidated and the Nazis told the Jews they would all be going to the Plaszow Camp. However, when it was time to line up, the children were put in a separate line. Some mothers refused to leave their children and stood in line with them. Other children cried out to their mothers across the square, which is now a memorial, asking why they were alone. They wanted their mothers. The mothers told their children not to worry, that they would join them the next day. However, most knew the horrible truth. This would be the last time they would see their precious children. How was it humanly possible?
From here we go to the Plaszow Camp, within the Krakow city limits, across the street from what now is a car dealership. The memorial towers above us, as we climb the hill in the rain. While in the Krakow Ghetto pharmacy, Shalmi had told us about his first experience taking testimony. He went to the home of a family friend who was a doctor at Plaszow. He sat down in his father’s friend’s living room, and took out his tape recorder and asked him to tell him about the Plaszow camp. The man said, “Shalmi, you want me to tell you about Plaszow, when there (pointing to his wife) is this woman who left a child there?” Shalmi simply wound the cord around his microphone, packed up his tape recorder and left. He told our students: “This was my first experience taking survivor testimony.”
At the top of the hill by the memorial, Shalmi leaves us with his final words: Take everything with a grain of salt and a sense of proportion. That was then and this is now. Use your knowledge to make your lives better. Many people came out of the Holocaust and made beautiful lives. We must make sure that our lives are good.
Not just a simple, average ghetto, this was a Nazi ghetto. People. Average people, who were categorized by the Nazis as an “inferior race” and forced to leave their homes. These people had to carry the most they could–chairs clothes, jewelry, whatever belongings–on their backs and into the Krakow Ghetto. Why? For being born into an “inferior race.” Nobody in this planet has the ability to choose their family, yet the Nazis believe otherwise and showed no mercy, not even to the young. Children were not spared and on the final days of the ghetto, all inhabitants were gathered and seperated into two lines. Men and women in one, children in the other. Both were supposedly heading towards the same camp. No matter how hard I try, I cannot even begin to comprehend what the individuals in the either of the two lines were thinking or how, after seeing so much cruelty, these people did not see the inevitable, how they did not see or do something. How is it that their instincts did not tell the parents it would be the last time they’d see their children alive?
As we trudged through the muddy path towards Plaszow, the towering memorial came into sight. Once we reached the top, Mr. Barmore explained the significance of the sight, and we looked into the horizon where a concentration camp once stood. Due to the inclimate weather, we were unable to walk around Plaszow, but this did not take away from its meaning. Just before leaving, I noticed broken glass scattered in front of the memoiral. Later, Mr. Chang pointed out marks of swastikas that were drawn directly on the memorial. It became evident that antisemitism still exists, and the thought disgusts me.
Matt Berner says:
When walking through the Jewish quarter of Krakow today, I made connections to my own life. In the first synagogue, seeing the various religious items, it reminded me of my own items that I have in my home, like the shabbat candlesticks and the hanukiah. It brought back memories of my own life thinking about how the quality of Jewish life is so good. Seeing the spice boxes for the Havdalah ceremony I remember when I used to make Havdalah instead of fancy silver boxes we used the shakers that the spices came in. We did this on Saturday night to end Shabbas. We would smell it, light the Havdalah candle and sing a prayer to end Shabbat, putting a different twist on a old tradition. They lived in a ghetto in Poland, they set up their own walls, and in the United States obviously you don’t have to live in a Jewish community to be Jewish. Mr. Barmore was talking about how Poland was like the United States back then, the land of opportunity where Jews were provided with everything they needed. I felt like there have been similarities between them, and everyone could have made a living without considering their religion. In Poland, like the United States, there were successful people and not so successful people. Not every Jew was rich, and not every Pole was poor. It was really dependent on the quality of the job that was done.