During the inter-war years, with a well-established Jewish community of around 60,000, the city of Kraków was a centre of Jewish cultural life. Ironically, however, the ghetto that became the last home for tens of thousands of Polish Jews was not located in the historically Jewish area of the city; thus, although the ghetto itself was destroyed, the Jewish neighbourhood remained intact. The city of Kraków today houses one of the few surviving historical Jewish areas in Poland, although the Jews themselves were murdered or emigrated long ago.
The Kraków ghetto was officially established in March 1941. Two major camps were constructed nearby: the labour camp Plaszow, and the death camp Auschwitz, only forty miles away. After the initial occupation, the Jews were harassed and abused and then made to resettle outside of the city. About 15,000 were left behind, to be used as forced labour.
Inside the ghetto, people were crammed together in harsh conditions, with little food. Those who were able to work were employed in factories set up in the ghetto or surrounding areas of the city; the most famous of these was the factory of Oskar Schindler, whose efforts to save the lives of his Jewish workers were made famous in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List.
In the summer of 1942, large-scale transports of the Kraków Jews began. Thousands were taken to the death camp Belzec. It was during one of the earliest of these transports that the popular Yiddish songwriter Mordechai Gebirtig was killed. Unable to move to the trains quickly enough to satisfy the guards, he was shot down along with a close friend. Over the weeks, ghetto residents slowly discovered that the trains were heading not to a labour camp but to Bełżec and Auschwitz. At this point, activity by the ghetto underground increased (as did the number of suicides). Acts of resistance included sabotage activity in the factories where Jews were forced to work, and escape attempts. The underground was not able to stage a large-scale resistance as in the Warsaw ghetto, however, nor could it stem the tide of murders and deportations. By early 1943, the ghetto was almost empty: its final liquidation took place in March, the few surviving Jews sent to Plaszow and Auschwitz.
The Kraków Jewish community included several important artists and musicians. In addition to Mordechai Gebirtig, known for his beautiful and prescient songs and poems, the ghetto housed the young Roman Polanski, who grew up to become a renowned film director. Polanski’s film The Pianist tells the story of the musician and Warsaw ghetto survivor Władysław Szpilman.
Schneider, G. ed., 2000. Mordechai Gebirtig, his poetic and musical legacy, Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
USHMM photo archive (biographies accompanying photographs)