It’s hard to go anywhere in Poland without being reminded of one of the darkest chapters in the history of humanity, and Kraków, for all of its beautiful and intoxicating diversions, really shouldn’t be any different. While hundreds of tourists use Kraków as a jumping-off point for visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, few seem to realise that Kraków actually has a former concentration camp in its own backyard. Across the river, deep in Podgórze, a large the tract of land goes undeveloped and largely unvisited, despite being in one of the city’s most desirable commercial and residential areas – alongside a major thoroughfare (ul. Wielicka), across from the city’s largest shopping mall (Bonarka City Centre) and a short walk from a major tourist attraction (Krakus Mound), no less. This is the former site of the Plaszów concentration camp, today an expansive field of uneven terrain covered in grass, weeds, stones and a story that is hardly broached upon its own hallowed grounds. If you think you aren’t familiar with it, well actually, you are. It was here that the real-life events of one of the most well-known Holocaust stories – brought into popular consciousness by Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster film Schindler’s List – took place. When Schindler’s enamel factory (K-4) opened to the public as a museum in 2010 it gave the city a place to tell that story and address its own history under Nazi occupation. The site of the former Płaszów concentration camp itself, however, remains largely as it was when the Nazis abandoned it close to 70 years ago. In contrast to Auschwitz there are no professional tour guides here, no informative displays, no hand holding, no suggestions on how to experience the space – simply a poorly sign-posted place of reflection. A challenge to access even on foot, those intrepid enough to make the journey will find few places of interest aside from a couple buildings that hide their history, a few memorials and an impressive monument to the victims who perished here. In that sense Płaszów is more of a pilgrimage than a destination, and rewards those who walk its obscure paths with the opportunity to engage the past without any pressure or pretence. This is the most horrific place in Kraków; and the most peaceful.
Before World War II Kraków was home to some 65,000 Jews, who under Nazi occupation beginning in September 1939 faced almost immediate persecution. Under the directive of Nazi commander Hans Frank, ‘resettlement’ (largely to labour camps in the east) began in late 1940 and by the time of the establishment of the Kraków Ghetto in March 1941, their numbers had been reduced to some 16,000 individuals crammed into a 20 hectare (50 acre) space in Podgórze, across the river from the Jewish district of Kazimierz (for more on the Kraków Ghetto see our online feature). In early 1942 the Nazis began to initiate Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ for the annihilation of European Jewry, ramping up terror in the Kraków Ghetto with increased round-ups, deportations and street executions that resulted in the gradual reduction of the size and population of the ghetto.
At the same time, the building of the Płaszów camp (which would precipitate the ghetto’s liquidation) was underway on the other side of the Krzemionki hills which overlooked the ghetto. Only four kilometres from Kraków’s market square, the site was chosen for its proximity to a handy railroad station, existing labour camp in the nearby quarry (see Liban, Podgórze Sightseeing) and its convenient location on top of two Jewish cemeteries – the old Jewish cemetery at ul. Jerozolimska 25, and new Jewish cemetery at ul. Abrahama 3, the latter of which had just been established ten years prior and included an absolutely immaculate two wing pre-burial hall with three cupolas. This monumental building was retained and used by the Germans as a horse stable and pigsty throughout the life of the camp, however both cemeteries were levelled with the shattered tombstones used to cobble the lanes of the camp and whole tombstones used as pavers to create the main road. This was a typical Nazi practise for further humiliating their victims.
First established as a forced labour camp in the summer of 1942, Płaszów soon became a favoured execution site for the Nazis as cattle cars full of children, the elderly and infirm were sent from the ghetto only to be systematically murdered and fill mass graves at the camp. Built with the sweat of slave labour, from autumn 1942 all those deemed ‘fit to work’ commuted every day from the ghetto to participate in the construction of their future prison and from January 1943 many no longer returned to the ghetto, but stayed in the unfinished camp barracks. When Amon Goeth arrived to take over as Płaszów camp commandant he wasted little time, speeding construction of the camp and liquidating the Kraków Ghetto only a month later. On March 13th and 14th, 1943, some 6,000 Jews (some accounts claim as many as 8,000) were permanently transported from the ghetto to Płaszów; 3,000 were sent by cattle car directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau and some 1,000-2,000 (accounts vary) others were shot in the street, their bodies later transported to Płaszów and buried in mass graves.
After Goeth’s arrival, and coinciding with the organised implementation of the camp system across Eastern Europe, Płaszów developed rapidly, becoming a destination for many Jews and political prisoners from southern Poland and beyond. Conditions were abysmal; following the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto the average barracks contained 150 inmates in a space of about 80 metres, and by the summer of 1943 the number of inmates had ballooned from a mere 2,000 before the liquidation to over 12,000. At the camp’s height in 1944 it is estimated that there were 25,000 prisoners interred within the camp, which covered some 81 hectares (200 acres) surrounded by four kilometres of electrified barbed wire. Twelve watchtowers equipped with machine guns and spotlights guarded the camp.
As the camp expanded, separate living quarters were established for the men and women, Poles and Jews, as well as an administrative sector for the SS officers. Other features of the camp included a large roll call square, hospital, mess hall, isolation cells, stables, bathhouse, bakery and the various workshops where inmates worked extremely long hours without rest or enough food to stave off starvation. In addition to the many on-site workshops, inmates also provided free labour to several local factories, Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory in Podgórze among them. Slave labour or not, having such a job (which provided a small amount of security to many Jews who were quite skilled) was certainly preferable to not having one, and immensely better than working in one of the two limestone quarries located at Plaszów, which was essentially a death sentence. Many women were also employed in the quarries, hauling carts of stone along the rail lines that had been laid within the camp; the average life expectancy for quarry workers was a mere matter of weeks. Prisoners also faced death from disease (typhus and malaria were rampant in the camp), starvation, and the cruelty of their captors. The Płaszów camp and its staff, led by Amon Goeth who took pleasure in arbitrarily murdering the inmates, made themselves famous for their sadistic treatment of the camp’s prisoners. Personal accounts from Płaszów portray Goeth as a mass murderer instructing his staff to make sport out of the suffering and execution of the inmates.
From January 1944, Płaszów was officially designated as an independent concentration camp with satellite camps established in Wieliczka and Mielec. Jews from smaller camps and ghettos that were being liquidated across Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania were sent to Płaszów, however many of them never made it inside the camp. Covered transport trucks full of Jews arrived several times a week and were taken directly to one of two mass execution sites where the condemned were shot, thrown into a mass grave and covered in dirt, layer upon layer. Plans to install a crematorium at the camp were drawn but never developed, with the efficiency of Auschwitz-Birkenau in this regard – to which many transports from Płaszów were sent – likely being a factor.
Calculating the number of people who lost their lives at the camp is impossible; a rough estimate of the number of prisoners interred here over its short history would be in the neighbourhood of 150,000, but Nazi records fail to give us anything more than a speculative guess. Liquidation of the camp began in early January 1945, with the last prisoners leaving on death marches to Auschwitz; those who reached it were killed in the gas chambers immediately upon arrival. As the Soviet Army approached Kraków the camp was completely dismantled (including the Jewish pre-burial hall), the primary mass graves were exhumed, the bodies burned and the ashes spread over the site. What the Soviets saw upon arrival largely resembles what visitors will see when visiting the former grounds of the camp today – a barren field.
Approximately 2,000 Poles and Jews who passed through Płaszów are known to have survived the war; 1,000 of these were the ‘Schindler Jews’ who escaped from Kraków to Brunnlitz before the war’s end.
What To See
Today almost nothing remains of the complex and sprawling concentration camp, which covered over 80 hectares in Płaszów – today a district of Podgórze. In comparison to other Nazi prison camps, Płaszów was extremely well dismantled and has since been the subject of almost no historical excavations or on-site documentation. Those private homes which were commandeered by the Nazis and incorporated into the camp were returned to their owners after the war and today sit on the fringes of the former camp as inauspiciously as any other house in the area. On one part of the former camp grounds an apartment block has been built. As a result it is very difficult to imagine what the camp may have looked like during the war. Visitors are left to their own imaginations and private thoughts while walking through the grounds, keeping their eyes peeled for traces of the past and the few monuments scattered about. Though difficult to find (without our help), several points of interest do exist, and we encourage visitors to make the walk from the north side of the camp to the large, easily visible monument to its victims on the southern side, taking in as many of these sites as possible en route. As you do, of course, bear in mind that though the area looks like nothing more than a neglected public park, this is actually a sacred place of remembrance. In addition to whatever remains exist from the two Jewish cemeteries once located on this site, it is estimated that the remains of 8,000-10,000 Płaszów prisoners are still located within the immediate area of the camp grounds. As a few obscure signs (the only evidence of city acknowledgement of the camp, aside from a few monuments) near the edges of the former camp clearly state: “Please respect the grievous history of this site.”
The North End of the Camp
If we approach the camp from ul. Jerozolimska (K-5, see Getting There), we have the greatest chance of seeing the most points of interest. This was also the main entrance into the camp, leading as it does from near the Kraków-Płaszów train station (L-5) to some of the limestone deposits the inmates were forced to quarry. At the corner of ul. Jerozolimska and ul. Abrahama (which turns from a paved road between the apartments blocks into a dirt trail leading into the camp) we can feel that we are now inside the former camp, and a sign across the road tells us as much. On this corner at ul. Jerozolimska 3 stands the infamous ‘Grey House’, used as a prison and torture chamber by the SS during the camp’s existence. Turning right onto ul. Abrahama, which once ran through the middle of the camp, you’ll find a small monument only about 20 metres from the Grey House. Though not directly related to the camp (which was yet to be built), this memorial remembers the site where 13 Poles were murdered by the Nazis on September 10th, 1939 – the first mass execution of WWII in Kraków. Across the path to the left we may be able to see the camp’s limestone deposits and even find the entrances to three anti-aircraft shelters carved into the rock by prisoners. A recently paved path to the right leads to another monument close behind Grey House, this one with a roof to protect it, and also not related to the camp (notice the trend), but to the Jewish Cemetery that formerly stood here. This new tombstone marks the burial place of Sara Schenirer, founder of the Beth Jacob School – the first religious school for girls in Kraków (1917), which became a model for Jewish schools all over Poland in her time (over 300 before she died in 1935), and for many schools in Israel, the US and elsewhere today.
Following the worn footpath straight back from here (away from ul. Abrahama), about 25 metres away is a grove of trees where close inspection reveals extensive piles of concrete rubble that were once the Podgórze Jewish Cemetery’s magnificent pre-burial hall. Built in 1932, part of the hall was detonated by Goeth to amuse his company one night, while the rest was dismantled at the end of the war. Amazingly, there is still one surviving tombstone from the Podgórze Jewish Cemetery, and those determined to find it can attempt to do so, but it isn’t easy. Head left/due west from the ruins of the pre-burial hall until you get beyond the trees. Keep going another 15 metres from there and you should be able to pick up a trail heading north (to your right) that will take you directly to the site of the only other visible evidence of the forgotten Jewish cemetery (about 30 metres). Chaim Jakub Abrahamer, laid to rest in 1932, has the distinction of the only surviving headstone, surrounded by the anonymous foundations of other graves. Turn around and you can follow this faint trail all the way back to the Grey House.
The South End of the Camp
From the intersection where the Grey House stands, we now cross ul. Abrahama and continue up ul. Heltmana (the continuation of ul. Jerozolimska). This residential street was known as ‘SS-strasse’ during the war for it was here that the Nazi officers lived, including camp commandant Amon Goeth at number 22, known as the ‘Red House.’ You can see the back of the house by making a detour onto ul. Lecha, and if we follow it to the end and make a left onto the dirt trail there it will lead us to Hujowa Górka. One of the camp’s mass execution sites, it was here that the Nazis later exhumed the bodies of 10,000 Jews and burned them to hide their crimes. The name is a vulgar bit of Polish word play taken from the name of the SS officer who ordered the first executions here (Albert Hujar) and the Polish word for the male member; a print-friendly translation would be ‘Prick’s Hill.’ Today the site is marked by a modest wooden cross with a crown of thorns, surrounded by a few benches.
From here you can see the large stone monument, which stands atop Płaszów’s other main execution yard. Towering over not only the camp, but also the highway towards which it unfortunately faces, this monolithic Soviet-era monument is known as the ‘Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts.’ Designed by Witold Cęckiewicz and unveiled in 1964, the inscription reads, “To the memory of the martyrs murdered by the Nazi perpetrators of genocide in the years 1943-45.” Near its base are two other monuments: to the left, a low-lying plaque remembering the Hungarian Jewish women processed in Płaszów on their way to Auschwitz; to the right, a stone obelisk commemorating all the Jewish victims of the camp. The last line of the long text reads, “In memory of those murdered, whose final scream of anguish is the silence of this Płaszów graveyard.”