Our day began in the Jewish Quarter, Kazimierz, at the Galicia Museum. Our guide showed us the history of this area through the photography exhibit, “Traces of Memory.” The exhibit shows the Jewish history in this area that was, in Shalmi’s words the “heart of Jewish life.” The Nazis believed that by destroying the heart of Jewish life, they would cut out this vital organ of the collective body and therefore destroy all Jewish life.
Shalmi gave us the history of why large numbers of Jews came to Poland in the 16th century when they were invited by the aristocracy. 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.
After lunch at a nearby restaurant Kazimierz, 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 the ghetto walls 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 front of the museum that once was the pharmacy of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, Apteka Pod Orlem (Pharmacy Under the Eagle), 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.
Inside the museum, there is an exhibition about the Krakow ghetto and the role of Tadeusz Pankiewicz. Visitors can open drawers, look into cabinets, browse through binders with quotes from his diary, smell substances in the numerous jars of chemicals, and search for information in a multimedia center.
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. One of the drugs was Valerium–a drug that put their babies to sleep, so that parents could smuggle their babies into the Plaszow camp inside of suitcases. Shalmi told us that 12 children are known to have been smuggled into Plaszow in this manner. The second drug requested by many Jews was 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 they were sorting the clothing of their own children.
After dinner we prepare for our day tomorrow, where will we explore other parts of Galicia, the region surrounding Krakow. Tomorrow we will visit Wadowice and Tarnov, and the following day Zakopane and Rabka.