Our day began in the Jewish Quarter, Kazmierz. Shalmi gave us the history of why large numbers of Jews came to Poland in the 16th century when they were invited by the aristrocracy. Jews came here and formed communities called shtetls in the rural, mostly unpopulated areas. Jews provided capital for the seeds that needed to be planted, and also had a monopoly on the sale of vodka. According to Shalmi, Poles really like alcohol, so this became very lucrative. Jews became the tools of the nobility, who didn’t like them, but needed them. However, this put the Jews in a precarious position with the local serfs, who were Catholic.
The Jews were central in the advancement of this area; they were necessary, not liked, but tolerated. As the middle ages progressed, Jews came to this area in huge numbers. For Jews, Poland was a land of opportunity. 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, because of many factors, including a bad economy, the Poles have a very grave relationship with all minorities here, including the Jews, who represent 10% of the population. Because so many Jews lived in the heart of big cities, the population of Jews in these city centers, their presence is felt more by the non-Jewish residents. Some helped Jews, some killed Jews, but most were bystanders who saw the Nazi actions during the Holocaust as solving a Polish problem.
Inside the Stara Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, also known as the Old Synagogue because it was built in 1407, Shalmi taught us about the history of Hasidism, a part of Judaism that reflects emotional piety of the people who practice it. Jews here 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.
From here we crossed the square to visit the Remu Synagogue, also known as the New Synagogue because it was built in 1650, which is currently under extensive renovation. Outside of this synagogue, we walked through the Jewish cemetary, where Jews were given land to bury their dead.
Our bus drove us across the Vistula river to the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow, where the Nazis forced the Jews to move. 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.
From the museum that once was the pharmacy of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, we looked out over the open memorial, with chairs, that represent the furniture that the Jews carried over the bridge into these cramped quarters, where 17,000 people crowded into 320 houses. Shalmi told us the inspirational story of Polish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz whose diary documents ghetto life.
Here Shalmi explains that Plaszow Camp, located only 5 miles from here, was built by the people from the Krakow Ghetto who believed they would survive the war because they are building a labor camp. They even built a barrack for children there, so they believed that their families would remain intact. However, on March 13, 1943, all Jews from the ghetto were supposed to report to the square at 7:00 a.m. Once there, all children under age 14 were told to line up separately. Their parents were told that they would come to Plaszow the next day. Pankiewicz reports that some saw this as a bad sign and rushed to the pharmacy to purchase one of two drugs: 1. Valerium–a drug that put their babies to sleep, so that a few parents could smuggle their babies into the Plaszow camp. 2. Cyanide, for suicide. At 1:00 p.m., the Nazis ordered those not in the children’s line to start marching from the ghetto to Plaszow. They left behind what they were unable to carry. The following day, their children were taken away and shot. Two days later, some parents found out when they were forced to sort the children’s clothing, and found the clothing of their own children.
After lunch at McDonald’s, we drove to the museum at Oscar Schindler’s factory, a recently opened part of the Jewish Museum of Krakow. We passed a part of the original ghetto wall, which was built by Jews, and shows an ornate style. We tour the exhibit at Schindler’s factory, which focuses extensively on the Nazi occupation of Krakow during the war, and the Polish viewpoint of the ghetto.