Day 11: Krakow

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.

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.

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.  Hasidism relied upon an emotional relationship with God, and their love of God made their faith steadfast despite everything.  

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 beside the Jewish cemetery, where Jews were given land to bury their dead.  Unfortunately both were closed today in observance of Passover, so we were unable to go inside.

We next visited the Temple Synagogue, a reform Jewish synagogue  which was built in the 1860’s when Krakow was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  The synagogue has Moorish designs on the ceiling and is quite ornate, reminiscent of the Spanish Synagogue in Prague.  It was dedicated to the Emperor Franz Joseph whom the Jews loved as he did them because in an empire with numerous ethnic conflicts, the Jews did not present any problems to his authority.  The Hasidic Jews said of the building, that it was not a synagogue but a temple.

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.


  1. The depth and capacity for evil in some people continues to shock and amaze me, even this many years later. Thank you for keeping us updated on your tour, looking forward to seeing you and hearing about it first hand soon! Enjoy the rest of your time there!


  2. It looks like you were cold, but, after rain here all day, it's snowing right now! Liked the interactive learning that took place at the Pharmacy. Saddened by the story of the Plaszow Camp. Forgot to tell you, yesterday, how impressed and moved I was by the students' photos and captions of Auschwitz and Birkenau, especially Jane's photo and Tara's poem. Happy Passover to all, and to all a good night! 🙂


  3. The holocaust is so encompassing, so large, I feel at times I lose the details that allow me to understand and connect to the struggle; that is until I hear a speaker or read your blog's. Then the details expose the human element — The stories of choice, survival, and will that people pass down through the decades are exhumed. In this case a parent choosing between 1 of 2 drugs; Valerium or Cyanide. The grave simplicity allows a glimpse into the choices human beings were forced to make. Suddenly, through these stories, I can at least get a glimpse of understanding of the peril in every decision. It truly makes me appreciate where my family lives and the times my family live in. I know this experience will make you see the home and town you come back to seem a little bit different– maybe we can all appreciate the sanctuary we are accustomed to a little more. Keep those minds open so they can keep making connections.


  4. It's heart wrenching to me how the Jews were given a false sense of security thinking they were going to be able to stay with their families and stay alive in the labor camp. They soon realized that they had been lied to, and that the circumstances were far from okay. The desperation that these people felt was shown when they bought powerful drugs to make their babies sleep so they could smuggle them into the camp. It's horrible to think that the only choices that they had was to either be separated from their families in the camps, or to commit suicide.


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