Sonderaktion Krakau

After the invasion of Poland, the Nazis set about culturally crippling the country by eliminating its intellectual elite. Kraków, Poland’s cultural capital, was an obvious target as the Nazis intended to Germanise the entire region. Jagiellonian University, the second oldest in Europe, was deemed to be of particular danger to Nazi plans of brainwashing the population and under the codename Sonderaktion Krakau, the Nazis orchestrated an attack against Jagiellonian’s academics. On November 6th, 1939, German authorities ordered all professors to attend a lecture on ‘German plans for Polish education’. When 144 professors gathered in lecture hall 66 of Collegium Novum, as you can guess, no lecture took place and everyone in the building was arrested.

The flimsy pretence was that the university was ‘operating without German consent’ and all 183 detainees were sent to Sachsenhausen or Dachau. Although initially spared the gas chambers, the dire and disease-ridden conditions of the concentration camps in winter were enough to claim the lives of 15 professors before international outcry pressured the Germans into releasing some of them. In February 1940, 101 professors over the age of 40 were released, though 5 died from poor health within days. The other 62 arrested became victims of the concentration camps. Upon returning to Kraków the survivors formed an underground resistance university in 1942, of which Karol Wojtyła – the future Pope John Paul II – was a student. Today a plaque in front of Collegium Novum (B-3, ul. Gołębia 24) commemorates those professors who died or disappeared and black flags are hung from all university buildings each year on November 6th.


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Piotr Zukowski
London, United Kingdom
Since 1999, Nov. 6 has been commemorated as University Remembrance Day to honour the Polish professors and academics who were taken to concentration camps by the German Nazis in 1939.
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