A Stroll Through the Ghetto
Poland has come a long way in presenting important sites of the Nazi-led genocide against the Jewish people during World War II. The Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp, of course, has been a memorial and museum for several decades now, but it wasn’t all that long ago that visitors were more or less on the own to locate many of the lesser-known camps or find the wartime ghettos the Germans built in several Polish cities to gather Jews before they were transported to the work and death camps.
These days, tourist offices in cities like Warsaw, Łódź and here in Kraków are accustomed to visitors asking about sites related to the Holocaust and have opened up some excellent museums --- such as Kraków’s Schindler’s Factory or Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews -- to help tell that story. I’ve written here previously about these promising developments in the post “Editing Out the Holocaust” -- even as Poland has tripped over itself the past year with a new law that effectively muzzles historians and others from telling the whole story of the Holocaust.
As good as the new museums are, though, something for me always gets lost in translation when history is reduced to a glass panel in an exhibition room. The fact is, in Poland, four decades of Communist rule effectively froze the events of modern history, including the Holocaust, in amber, leaving whole sections of cities essentially unchanged from how they were 80 years ago. That gives visitors a unique opportunity to supplement their museum visits with a walk through the areas where the horrific events actually took place.
In Kraków, the Holocaust played itself out on the southern side of the Vistula River in the industrial suburb of Podgórze. This was where the Nazis built their guard-towered ghetto and rifle-marched the city’s remaining 16,000 Jews in March 1941 to live in squalor before they could be sent off to their deaths at the Bełżec extermination camp or to work as slaves at Płaszów, a few miles down the road. The ghetto survived for two years, before it was violently liquidated in March 1943. Though the Podgórze district has seen an economic revival the past few years, much of the former ghetto area still feels depressed. To transport yourself back to the 1940s, all you need to do is squint your eyes and add in a mental layer of sepia-tone.
That’s what I did on a sunny Saturday afternoon in early March, when I took a stroll through the former ghetto.
By coincidence, when I planned my research trip to Krakow, I booked an Airbnb that happened to be along the northern border of the former Jewish ghetto, on Nadwiślańska street. I discovered that fact after looking at the map of the ghetto (see the photo, above) posted on a wall beside a former Nazi guardhouse at the northern end of Plac Bohaterów Getta, the logical point for starting a tour of the ghetto. I didn't have far to walk to begin my exploration.
Plac Bohaterów Getta translates as "Heroes of the Ghetto" square, but during the Nazi occupation, Plac Zgody (as it was called then) was the first part of the ghetto Kazimierz's Jewish population would enter as they were forcibly relocated across the Vistula in March 1941. As the largest open area in the ghetto, the square served as a mustering ground for ghetto residents who were called out for systematic deportations during the summer and fall of 1942 to Bełżec in southeastern Poland. During the final liquidation of the ghetto in March 1943, the remaining residents were required to assemble here with their belongings before being sent away to their deaths. The oversized, empty chairs that stand on the square today form an art installation that represents both the residents' belongings and the ghetto residents themselves who are no longer with us.
The ghetto was compact, covering only a few blocks of this part of Podgórze. Nothing is more than 10 or 15 minutes' walk away. Before leaving the square, I took a peek inside the former "Pharmacy under the Eagle" (Apteka pod Orłem) on the square's southern end. Run by a Roman-Catholic Pole, Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the pharmacy dispensed medicines to help the ghetto's residents and aided in the anti-Nazi resistance. Pankiewicz was later recognized by Israel as a "Righteous Among the Nations."
Astonishingly, you can still see surviving fragments of the ghetto walls at two locations: Lwowska street 25-29, southeast of Plac Bohaterów Getta, and at Limanowskiego street 62, where the wall cuts incongruously through a children's playground.
I'll admit that my own tour was completely haphazard, but I'd recommend simply doing as I did, snapping a photo of the ghetto map with my phone and wandering at will. As I walked and looked up at the crumbling buildings along streets like Józefińska and Krakusa -- structures that were clearly part of the old ghetto -- I tried to listen for the stories that the walls and windows must still be hiding all these years later.
One of those stories took place at Józefińska street 22, the site of a derelict, nondescript building that hundreds of people walk past every day without giving it a second thought. During the ghetto years, this structure served as a day-care for children. On that fateful day in March 1943 when the ghetto was cleared once and for all, rather than waste the energy it would have taken to push the kids onto the trains, the Nazis chose instead to kill them on the spot.
Magnificent Main Square
As a person who lives in Prague, with its fabled Old Town Square, it’s a little disconcerting to visit a sister city like Kraków that -- in my opinion -- has possibly an even nicer square. Well, let’s be frank here. It might not only be nicer, it might actually be a lot nicer -- bigger, more interesting, more livable, more aesthetically pleasing. Stop me when you disagree.
Obviously, Prague has lots of amazing assets that Kraków lacks -- let’s start with the Charles Bridge -- and it’s fool’s errand, anyway, to try to compare the two cities. I mean they’re both great. My point with the above was not to pick a fight with my Prague friends, but rather to highlight the unique symmetry and balance of Kraków’s masterful main square, the Rynek Główny.
I know the Rynek Główny was laid out back in the 13th and 14th centuries, but it’s hard not to see at least a little bit of 16th-century Renaissance perfection in the way the square was remodeled in later centuries and how it largely appears today: a nearly perfect 200m x 200m square, dotted in the center by the Cloth Hall (the Sukiennice), itself a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture.
Kraków was the capital of the Polish kingdom throughout nearly all of the 16th century, when Poles went nuts for Renaissance town planning -- the kind being pioneered at the time by the Italian masters. The basic idea behind Renaissance planning was that aesthetic “laws” -- much like the laws of physics -- could be expressed in the form of physical dimensions. Buildings would be built to certain heights, and streets and squares to certain widths, so as to respect proportion and to maximize beauty. Perfection could be measured and created at will by architects who understood and respected the mathematical code.
Whole cities, like Zamość, in the southeast of the country, were built around Renaissance principles, and (honestly) I’ve always been a little bit skeptical of the idea. One big drawback for me was that the Renaissance masters seemed to design their squares and buildings with little regard to how people in those towns actually lived. By that I mean that the math came first and the people second.
It’s always seemed to me more natural for towns and cities to expand organically -- and not strictly from the drawing board or slide rule. Didn’t the socialist planners during Communist times run into all sorts of issues trying to force people into idealized structures that didn’t always conform to real life?
Anyway, I think a strong case can be made that in Kraków, at least, that pursuit of perfection has paid handsome dividends. The main square's long, straight sides create reams of retail capacity for cafes, restaurants and clubs of all sorts to thrive, while the vast empty spaces within the confines of the square can hold even modern, Instagram-driven levels of visitors without feeling uncomfortably cramped. On every visit to the city over the years, I’ve always been struck by Kraków's “just so” feeling -- as if everything has its proper place -- and I think that feeling starts with the design of the main square itself.
*Here's a link to the Lonely Planet book I am updating on this trip. New edition due out by the end of the year.