Day Eleven – Krakow, Poland

Our day 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, 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 that Jews were very obedient citizens. Why? Because it’s the law, the government, the regime that protects them.  They were not protected by Christian law [they were ex lex] but by the government, so the hanukkiya we saw had the Polish eagle, symbol of the sovereign on the top.



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 has been under extensive renovation for several years and is now complete.  Seated in the synagogue, we learned from Shalmi that one of the things that binds Jews around the world is the fact that they engage in a practice, begun here in Krakow, which was to read a page from the Talmud each day.  Not the Torah, which is read on the sabbath, but the Talmud, which were the ‘amendments’ as Shalmi had called them, to make the Torah applicable and relevant to modern world.


Outside we walked through the Jewish cemetery, where Jews were given land to bury their dead.  We had seen one other cemetery located next to the synagogue in Prague (the Pinkas 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.

One story was at the grave 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.  Tzedakah [Hebrew for justice or charity] is an important tenet of Judaism. It differs from the modern meaning of charity or spontaneous goodwill, but rather, in Judaism refers to the ethical obligation to do what is right and just.  The man declined to help. Rabbi Heller was very upset and decreed that when the man died, he should be buried in the cemetery next to the wall. Thieves, criminals and people of ill repute were buried near the wall, a sign they were not respected by their community.  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) or form of tzedakah ; 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.


Back on the street we visited a relatively new addition to the Jewish Quarter, Kazmierz, a bench with a statue of Jan Karski, unveiled in 2016.  In 1942 Karski, a Polish officer, was charged with obtaining accurate information on what was happening to the Jews in the East. He had disguised himself and was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto as well as a death camp, which although he did not identify it, from the information provided we believe it to be Belzec.  He took this eyewitness information to London to Churchill and to the United States, meeting with President FDR. Neither leader seemed to take the information seriously, either they were disbelieving or didn’t appreciate the immensity of what was happening, he later said. They were fighting a war and that was the paramount concern;  the Nazis would later be punished for their treatment of the Jews he was told. Shalmi had interviewed Jan Karski for Lanzmann’s Shoah documentary  and said he lived with the frustration of being unable to make these people realize the gravity of the situation, for the rest of his life.

After lunch we 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 Dąbrowa 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.  


After lunch, our bus drove us across the Vistula river to the Jewish Ghetto of Krakow, where the Nazis forced the Jews to move. The Jews ran this ghetto, and in contrast to the Warsaw ghetto which had an uprising, the Krakow Jews were determined to do nothing to provoke the Nazis to do anything worse.  As Shalmi said, the leadership stressed that nothing should be done to affront or confront the Nazis.   The ghetto residents 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. We saw both of the remaining remnants of this wall during our drive to our next stop.

We went to the museum that once was the pharmacy of Tadeusz Pankiewicz,  Apteka Pod Orlem (Pharmacy Under the Eagle), On the square is an 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.

Inside the pharmacy, Shalmi told us the inspirational story of Polish pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz whose diary documents ghetto life.   Shalmi told us that Pankiewicz’ diary was the basis for Thomas Keneally’s book which was the basis for Spielberg’s  Schindler’s List. In the pharmacy exhibit , 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.  

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.  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.

After dinner at one of our favorite restaurants off Market Square, we came back to the hotel to journal and set the tone for tomorrow’s visit to Auschwitz.


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