Before the German invasion, Krakow was an influential cultural centre for approximately 70,000 Polish Jews who had lived there since the 13th century. The Krakow Ghetto was one of five major, metropolitan Jewish ghettos created for the purpose of persecution, terror, and exploitation of Polish Jews during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II.
Persecution of the Jewish population of Krakow began soon after the German troops entered the city on 6 September 1939, in the course of their invasion of Poland. By May 1940, the Nazi occupation authority announced that Krakow should become the “cleanest” city in the General Government (an occupied, but unannexed part of Poland).
The Krakow Ghetto was formally established on 3 March 1941 in the Podgórze district, not in the Jewish district of Kazimierz. Displaced Polish families from Podgórze took up residences in the former Jewish dwellings outside the newly established ghetto. Meanwhile, 15,000 Jews were crammed into an area previously inhabited by 3000 people, who used to live in a district consisting of 30 streets, 320 residential buildings, and 3167 rooms. As a result, one apartment was allocated to four Jewish families, and many less fortunate lived on the street. The ghetto was surrounded by the newly built walls that kept it separated from the rest of the city. In a grim foreshadowing of the near future, these walls contained brick panels in the shape of tombstones. All windows and doors that gave onto the “Aryan” side were ordered bricked up. Only four guarded entrances allowed traffic to pass through. Small sections of the wall still remain today, fitted with a memorial plaque.
Young people of the Akiva youth movement joined forces with other Zionists to form a local branch of the Jewish Fighting Organisation (ŻOB) and organise resistance in the ghetto. They were supported by the Polish underground Armia Krajowa (“Home Army”). The group carried out a variety of resistance activities.
Among the most spectacular operations conducted by the Jewish resistance was the bombing of the Cyganeria café – a gathering place of Nazi officers. Unlike in Warsaw, their efforts did not lead to a general uprising before the ghetto was liquidated.
From 30 May 1942 onward, the Nazis implemented systematic deportations from the ghetto to surrounding concentration camps. The ghetto was liquidated between June 1942 and March 1943, with most of its inhabitants sent to the Belzec extermination camp or Płaszów labour camp (and exterminated later at the Auschwitz concentration camp).
The Jews from the ghetto were first assembled on Zgody Square, and then escorted to a railway station in Prokocim. The first transport consisted of 7,000 people, the second, of additional 4,000 Jews deported to the Belzec extermination camp on 5 June 1942. On 13 – 14 March 1943 the final “liquidation” of the ghetto was carried out under the command of SS-Untersturmführer Amon Göth. 8,000 Jews deemed able to work were transported to the Płaszów labour camp. Those deemed unfit for work, some 2,000 Jews, were killed in the streets of the ghetto on those days. Any remaining were sent to Auschwitz.
Among the numerous victims held in captivity in the Krakow Ghetto were such famous figures as Roman Polanski, who evoked his childhood experiences in his memoir “Roman”. Other notable people include Mordechai Gebirtig, who was one of the most influential and popular writers of Yiddish songs and poems.
Other notable figures who were in the ghetto are Miriam Akavia, an Israeli writer who survived the Krakow Ghetto and concentration camps, and Roma Ligocka – a Polish costume designer, writer, and painter. Renowned dermatologist and co-discoverer of Reyes Syndrome, Dr Jim (Jacob) Baral was also a Krakow Ghetto survivor.