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 over 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.
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, an existing labour camp in the nearby Liban quarry, 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.