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 Płaszów 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 Płaszów, 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 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. 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.