Kraków has always been regarded as the cultural centre of Poland, and before World War II it was likewise an important cultural centre for approximately 65,000 Jews – one quarter of the city’s total population – who enjoyed the city’s relatively tolerant climate. Persecution of the Jewish community began almost immediately following German occupation in early September 1939, however. Despite an increasing series of regulations restricting the civil rights and personal freedom of Jews, more and more were arriving in Kraków from the rest of PL in the hope of finding safety amidst the city’s dense community. In October 1939, the Nazis registered 68,482 Jews in Kraków.
Conditions continued to worsen, however, and in April 1940, Hans Frank – Nazi commander of the ‘General Government’ (the part of German-occupied PL that was not directly incorporated into Germany) – ordered the resettlement of Kraków’s Jews, in keeping with his desire for the capital of the General Government to be a “Jew-free city.” As a result of resettlement in late 1940, Kraków’s Jewish population was reduced to the 16,000 deemed necessary to maintain the economy at the time, with the 52,000-odd others forcibly deported, largely to labour camps in the east.
On March 3rd, 1941 Otto Wächter, Governor of the Kraków district, decreed the establishment of a new ‘Jewish Housing District’ on the right bank of the Wisła River in the district of Podgórze. What would become known as the ‘Kraków’ or ‘Podgórze Ghetto’ initially comprised an approximately 20 hectare (50 acre) space of some 320 mostly one- and two-story buildings in Podgórze’s historic centre bound by the river and the Krzemionki hills to the north and south, and between the Kraków-Płaszów rail line and Podgórze’s market square to the east and west. In the 17 days between the ghetto’s establishment and the March 20, 1941 resettlement deadline, approximately 3,000 original residents of the district were relocated across the river to be replaced by some 16,000 Jews, whose property and possessions were confiscated with the exception of what they could carry into the ghetto. Thousands of unregistered Jews also illegally entered the ghetto seeking protection, bringing the total population of the Kraków Ghetto to about 18,000.
Overcrowding was an obvious problem with one apartment allocated for every four families and an average of two square metres of living space per person. Windows facing ‘Aryan’ Podgórze were bricked or boarded up to prevent contact with the outside world and a 3 metre high wall was erected around the confines of the ghetto, crowned with arches conscientiously designed to resemble Jewish tombstones. Four guarded entrance gates accessed the ghetto – the main gate from Rynek Podgórski on ul. Limanowskiego, another on the east end of ul. Limanowskiego near its intersection with ul. Rękawka and ul. Lwowska, a third close by at the intersection of ul. Lwowska and ul. Józefińska, and another at Plac Zgody (today known as Plac Bohaterów Getta). A tram initially ran through the ghetto, and though it made no stops, food and other valuable commodities frequently found their way into the ghetto via its windows.