Day 11 – Krakow, Poland

Today was a bitterly cold and windy day.  It began in the Jewish Quarter, Kazmierz.  Our first stop was the Stara Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, also known as the Old Synagogue because it was built in 1407.  Shalmi reminded us that it was the king or prince who invited Jews here for practical purposes, and that though not liked, they were tolerated because of the services they provided.  Shalmi told us how, when the king wanted Jews to come and manage his properties, Jews could not come alone, but needed to live in communities.  A Jew, for example, cannot pray alone, but ten men, a minyan, is needed for prayer.  Jews also required a rabbi, a kosher butcher, etc.  This was all essential for the Jews because of their ‘open account with God’ that Shalmi had spoken of earlier.  As an exiled people, they needed to balance the practical [their existence in the real world amidst Christians] with the spiritual [their need to continue to abide by God’s commandments in order to have God forgive them and return them to their homeland in Jerusalem].  This meant Jews were ambivalent about their two roles.





Inside the Stara Synagogue, also known as the Old Synagogue because it was built in 1407, we would learn about the Jewish inner life.  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.  Like Christianity, but unlike Judaism, Hasidism relied upon the personal relationship to God.  If you felt love for God, he will understand.  In Judaism, they were supposed to fear God, not love Him.  Shalmi pointed out the various parts of the synagogue that we were becoming familiar with, explained the difference between the menorah and the hanukkiyya,  and taught us that the Sabbath was the most holy day in the Jewish calendar.  The Sabbath represents the difference between the sacred and the secular, those two worlds in which Jews lived, and told us how the havdalah [meaning ‘differentiating’] were used to close the Sabbath.  He spoke of other Jewish holidays including Passover, Purim and Sukhot.  We learned the importance of Poland in Judaism. There were three primary centers of rabbinic Judaism:  Krakow, Lublin and Posnan; and by the 16th century, any Jewish community that ‘took itself seriously,’ had a rabbi who had studied in Poland.   Shalmi also told us about some of the practices of Hasidism, such as the method of teaching a young boy to read beginning at the age of three, by putting honey on a letter of the alphabet and then saying the sound so that the child connects learning to something positive and sweet.
There were Polish Jews and Krakow Jews, we were informed.  The Krakow Jews were always regarded as being a little ‘snobbish’.  They tended to speak German, perhaps Hebrew, but very little Polish. This would set them apart from the larger Polish community.  Shalmi recalled that in the movie Schindler’s List, many of the Krakow Jews were employed by the Nazis because they had made Krakow their occupation headquarters, and the Krakowian Jewish secretaries were able to read and type in German.
From here we crossed the square to visit the Remu Synagogue, also known as the New Synagogue because it was built in 1650, which was closed because it was Passover.  When asked why so many synagogues were still standing, Shalmi said that except for Kristallnacht, no official decree to destroy synagogues and cemeteries was ever given.  They were destroyed but this was because local authorities chose to take this action.  The yellow star and the Judenrat [Jewish Council in the ghettos] were universal, but not the destruction of synagogues.
He told us of the Jewish cemetery adjacent to the synagogue.  We had seen one other cemetery located next to the synagogue in Prague (the Pinkhas Synagogue) and Shalmi reminded us that this was unusual.  Jews would never place a cemetery close to the synagogue unless there was no alternative.  However, since Christians told the Jews where they could live and where they could have land, this was the property allotted to them to bury their dead.  Shalmi shared several stories about individuals buried in this cemetery.
We next visited the Tempel Synagogue, a reform Jewish synagogue which was built in the 1860’s when Krakow was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.  Again, as a functioning synagogue, it was closed due to Passover.  Shalmi told us that 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, however, did not like this synagogue which incorporated elements of Christian churches such as the pews aligned and facing front, the mixed seating, and the fact that the day of prayer was changed to Saturday.  The Hasidic Jews said of the building, that it was not a synagogue but a temple, for Gentiles. Sermons here were given in German.   The word ‘temple’ therefore, used to describe a synagogue, was originally a pejorative word referring to non-traditional Jewish synagogues.  It stuck and became another negative term that turns into a positive one.


We passed the ‘Tall Synagogue’, now a bookstore, where the prayer hall was on the second floor.  We stopped briefly to get a sense of the Jewish ‘goose’ market where Jews would do their shopping for the Sabbath and which is now both a fruit and vegetable market as well as a flea market. In the market we were surprised to see Jewish stars and armband for the Jewish police and other mementos from the SS and the Holocaust.


We then visited the Galicia museum and bookstore where a current exhibit of photographs by English photographer Chris Schwartz, depicting Jewish life in Poland were displayed.  The temporary exhibit was divided into four sections:  (1) Jewish Life in Ruins, (2) Glimpse of the Jewish Culture that once was, (3) Holocaust: Sites of Massacre and Destruction, and (4) How the Past is being remembered.  We were surprised how many of the sites depicted were of Dabrowa Tarnowska.




One of the photos showed the Krakow Ghetto Wall.  . 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.
Another photo showed the grave in the Remu Synagogue cemetery we had not been able to visit today, of Rabbi Yom-Tov Lippman Heller.  Shalmi told us the story of how, in the area, hard times came and Rabbi Heller went to this very wealthy Jew and asked him if he would contribute money to help the poor.  The man declined.  Rabbi Heller was very upset and decreed that when the man died, he should be buried in the cemetery next to the wall.  We recalled that in Prague we had learned that it was the criminals who were buried near the wall, a sign of no respect.  When the man did die, he was buried next to the wall.  Many families which had been getting an envelope containing money slipped under their door every Friday, no longer received those envelopes and they soon realized that the man who had refused the rabbi’s request to donate money, had, in fact, been giving money anonymously for some time.  Shalmi said this was the highest mitzvah (good deed); to do something for others while not seeking public acknowledgement for the deed.  It was clear to the rabbi that the man had truly been a righteous man.  The rabbi then said, when he died he wished to be buried near the man, next to the wall.  This was the grave of that rabbi.  The irony, noted Shalmi, was that while the grave of the rabbi was well known,  the righteous man remained anonymous.
After lunch, we drove past the Oscar Schindler’s factory, a recently opened part of the Jewish Museum of Krakow, so that we could see the original gate to the factory, and then we went to the museum that once was the pharmacy of Tadeusz Pankiewicz,  Apteka Pod Orlem (Pharmacy Under the Eagle) which, unfortunately, is closed on Tuesdays.  Because it was so cold and windy, from the bus, 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.


Shalmi also explained the connection between this place and Plaszow Camp, located only 5 miles from here which would be our final stop of the day.  It was built by the people from the Krakow Ghetto who believed they would survive the war because they were 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 this 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 reported in his diary 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 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 and along the way numerous additional bundles would be discarded. 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.
Our final visit was was Plaszow labor camp.  First we walked to the entrance of the camp where Shalmi pointed out a building which had been the SS headquarters.  We then walked up the street to the villa of Amon Goeth, the commandant of Plaszow.   In 2011 we had been invited inside by the owner looking to sell it, perhaps for a museum.  It remained largely untouched from the time Goeth had occupied it.  Last year we were surprised to see that the famous balcony [which can be seen in Schindler’s List with Goeth randomly shooting Jews in the camp] had been removed  and it looked like the house would be totally renovated.  We wanted to see what had been done since last year.  Construction was continuing on the house and we reflected on who would buy a house with such a dark history and whether the new owner intended to live there or sell once completed.



Next we went to the memorial to Plaszow which had been built by the Soviets.  We stood at the site which was the ‘hill of executions’ where Ukrainian  commando units would carry out the executions.  Here Shalmi explained the geographic set up of the camp and its function and explained the history of the camp over its two years of existence, March 1943 to November 1944 when the last transports left.



Shalmi told us that Krakow has one of the highest percentages of Jews killed in the Holocaust, but also one of the highest survival percentages of Jews who were in the labor camp.  Almost as many Jewish laborers survived here as in Warsaw.  But there were 330,000 Jews in Warsaw while Krakow had 60,000.  The turning point of the war for the Germans was February, 1943 when the Battle of Stalingrad occurred.  After that there were no more German advances and they began the slow retreat.  Nazis decreed that all Jews would be annihilated, beginning with those that were not producing for the war effort.  Krakow Jews had access to such information from Schindler.  The Schindler Jews at that time were making brushes and shoes, nothing which could be regarded as productive war materiel.  In January 1944 Schindler convinced the German commandant that if the Plaszow camp was closed, the Germans would be headed to the Russian front to fight and if they turned the labor camp into a concentration camp with the Schindler Jews producing ammunition, it would be mutually beneficial.  Berlin, surprisingly, agreed.
Shortly after, in March 1944 Germany invaded Hungary which had been an ally but which seemed ready to change sides as she realized Germany was losing the war.  There were one million Jews in Hungary and the areas she controlled [Carpathian Russia, Serbia] and Adolf Eichmann was sent to Hungary to oversee the deportation and annihilation of these Jews.  Hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The capacity of Auschwitz-Birkenau was 12,000 a day — not to murder in the gas chambers, but to cremate the bodies.  This meant that Auschwitz could not absorb all of the Hungarian Jews that were being sent.  Auschwitz therefore looked for nearby places which could be used as holding centers for the Hungarian Jews, and Plaszow was one of those places.  He described how a transport of 10,000 Hungarian women from Auschwitz in May of 1944  came to Plaszow, emaciated,  wearing striped uniforms, with shaved heads and numbers tattooed on their arms —this was how many Jews here first learned of what had been happening in the east.




For dinner we went to one of our favorites restaurants in the Jewish Quarter.  Shalmi gave the history of the Seder, one of our group sang the Four Questions, and we enjoyed a wonderful dinner.
Day 11 Padlet Reflections at





  1. I think that first learning about Jewish traditions and ways of life in Krakow really emphasizes how they were just as much a part of normal and the identity of Poland as gentiles-despite later efforts by the Nazis to alienate, diminish, and eventually murder Jews. I think that the fact that Jewish communities such as the one in Krakow still exists in modern times is a testament to the resolve and faith of the Jewish people.


  2. Learning about the ways of Jewish people and their synagogues really shows how they are both a spiritual people and normal members of society. I never knew that Auschwitz was limited by how many bodies it could cremate a day, I think that emphasizes the magnitude of what happened during the Holocaust.


  3. Seeing the pictures of the Stara synagogue i felt like the mood was much different from the expected mood of holocaust sites.The pictures seem to depict a colorful vivacious site whic is very welcoming. Was that a common theme on your trip or was this a one time occurrence?


  4. I thought the differentiation between all types of Jews was very interesting. I feel like when people think about the Holocaust they see Jews as a single group that is heterogeneous. Jews are not all alike and have many different ways of celebrating their religion. I think it is very fascinating how they all follow similar ways to practice the religion, yet there are so many little differences between types of Jews.


  5. The identities of the Jews were erased making it easier to sweep them under the rug, and dehumanize them completely. This tactic allowed for ignorance and lack of compassion from those outside of the camp. It is wonderful that the group was able to participate in such a rich historical tradition as the Seder.


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