Occupying Krakow

Poland’s history forever changed on 1 September 1939 when Nazi Germany invaded its western border.  On 6 September, the troops of the Third Reich reached Krakow and the city was quickly established as the capital of the Nazi’s “General Government,” a colonial authority under the leadership of Hans Frank.  In less than a week, the city of Krakow was officially occupied.  The Germans dismantled many statues in Krakow’s historical center, they “Germanized” street names, set a curfew for the Poles, and within six months, created a Jewish Ghetto.  Today, most of Krakow has been returned to its former glory – street signs are once again in Polish and some of the important monuments were rebuilt, but pieces of Krakow’s brutal past still linger.  To commemorate the city’s history, a portion of the Ghetto wall still stands and nearby, the city commissioned a new memorial to honor the Jews who perished within its walls.  Oskar Schindler’s (from the famed movie Schindler’s List) factory still stands in the same place, although it now serves as a (wonderful!) museum explaining the occupation of Krakow.  Bobby and I spent three lovely days in this wonderful city – walking the streets, visiting its museums, and eating some pretty spectacular Polish fare. 

Main square in Krakow’s Old Town

This statue was rebuilt after Nazis tore it down and cut his head off (ouch!)

Old City walls

Old city walls in the historical center of Krakow

We found this guy in the square; isn’t he cute?

We found out something pretty fundamental about the Poles: they really know how to make pastries.  We know this because we ate them every day (and sometimes twice daily)!   The main courses weren’t too shabby either; we had some pretty amazing pork knuckle, wonderful pumpkin soup, tasty pierogi, and we washed it all down with homemade infused vodka.  It, too, didn’t disappoint.  In fact, we found a restaurant on Trip Advisor the first night and we were so satisfied with the food and service, we went for an encore the next evening, something we had never done before this trip.

Pork Knuckle

Bobby’s beet soup (I didn’t snap a photo of the pumpkin…)


The homemade vodka collection

First and second rounds of vodka – rowanberry, apple, mango, and blueberry

Bobby, of course, wanted to try the strangest vodka the restaurant produced: horseradish! Yuck!  I think his face explains it all…..

Horseradish down the shoot

We spent almost the second entire day exploring Schindler’s Factory/Museum in Krakow.  It tells the story of the German invasion of Germany, its occupation of Krakow, and life in the Ghetto.  There is a small section at the end on Schindler himself.

Tiny tank used by the Poles to defend Krakow against German Panzers (it didn’t work too well)

The press room recounting the crackdown of the Poles by the General Government (GG)

A large part of Krakow’s occupation was changing (or trying to change) the mindset of Poles and “Germanizing” their environment.  The Germans, as I stated earlier, changed most of the street signs in the town.  The city’s official Polish name – Krakow – was forbidden and instead, it had to be referred to as Krakau.  The main square in Old Town was originally named Rynek Glówny by the Poles, but the Nazis quickly changed it to Alter Markt and later, Adolf Hitler Platz.

Names of the square over time

On 3 March 1941, the order to demarcate the Jewish Residential Quarter (known as the Jewish Ghetto) was issued by the Germans. The only people permitted to stay in Krakow were the holders of identification cards issued by the German SS officers.  The Jews forcibly displaced from Krakow were allowed to take up to 25 kilograms (55 lbs) in luggage and their property left behind had to be handed over to the German trust office, which was later resold to Poles and Germans.

The reasons given by the occupying authorities to justify the establishment of a “Jewish Residential District” were police supervision and health care.  In German propaganda, the Jews were presented as carriers of diseases and they claimed isolating them would protect both the Germans and the Poles.  However, in reality, the ghetto was a labor camp, where its residents were a slave workforce exploited to benefit the economy of the Third Reich.  The area of the ghetto covered several streets, lined with 320 houses.  Before the establishment of the ghetto, the houses were inhabited by 3,000 people, but during the German occupation, 17,000 displaced Jews lived there.  In April of 1941, Jewish bricklayers, under the supervision of SS officers, began building a large wall around the ghetto, effectively shutting themselves off from the free world.

Plan of the Jewish ghetto

Ghetto population records by sex and age groups compiled by the German Gestapo (and drawn by a Jewish prisoner)

A piece of the ghetto wall remaining today

Approximately 56,000 Jews lived in Krakow when the Germans invaded Poland.  Most of them were deported directly to death camps like Auschwitz or Belzec right away, but the 15,000 – 20,000 that remained were sent to live in the Jewish ghetto.  For two years the Jewish population was walled in, but in March 1943, when the Germans decided to liquidate the ghetto, more than 2,000 Jews were shot, sometimes in front of their family members.  Others were sent to Plaszow labor camp or to Auschwitz, where they, too, were killed.  The Jewish population was effectively destroyed and today, over sixty years removed from the war, only 600 Jews live in the city.

To remember those who perished in or during the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto, the city of Krakow erected a memorial in 2005.  It includes 33 steel and cast iron chairs in a square near the former site of Jewish deportation from the ghetto.  37 smaller chairs stand on the edge of the square and at tram stops. The memorial’s chairs are used by locals awaiting transportation, suggesting that anyone can be a victim.

Krakow Ghetto Memorial

Pretty powerful

One of the brighter stories in all this sorrow is, of course, the story of Oskar Schindler saving about 1,200 Jewish people who worked in his enamelware factory.  What many people don’t know is that Mr. Schindler wasn’t always a kind, caring man.  He was actually a member of the Nazi party and a German spy at the beginning of the war, collecting intelligence on railways and troop movements in Czechoslovakia.  As a consequence, he was actually arrested by the Czech government and jailed for espionage.  After his release, he continued to work for the Third Reich, collecting information in Poland before the invasion.  When he opened his factory, he first employed Jews purely as a money making operation.  For some reason (who knows why?) he began paying the Nazis large sums of money to keep his Jewish employees from being deported.  Maybe he developed a conscience?  As Germany began to lose the war in July 1944, Schindler convinced the Germans to allow him to move his factory to Sudetenland (the western part of Czechoslovakia).  He made a list of the 1,200 workers he wanted to take with him, which became known as the famous “Schindler’s List”, effectively saving his workers from the gas chamber.

In front of enamelware created in Schindler’s factory

Names on “Schindler’s List”

Our days spent in Krakow were pretty heavy as we learned of how they suffered through a very miserable 20th century.  Following the Nazi occupation, the Soviets moved in and terrorized the residents for another 50 years.  That said, the resilient Krakovians quickly modernized the city following the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Today Krakow is beautiful place full of great food, interesting museums, and all for very reasonable prices. If you can make it here, it’s well worth your visit.  But, I will warn you – you might have to drown your sorrows in lots of pastries and vodka.  :)


  1. tonya evans says:

    Once again beautiful photographs but chalked full of information. I have read the first book suggested by you and plan to try to find and read the second one soon.


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