Kraków, Poland: The Podgórze District

[You can read my Kraków Guide here.]

One of the most historically significant districts in not just Kraków, but in all of Poland, Podgórze was at the center of the Jewish genocide by the Nazis during WWII.

View from the Church of St. Joseph (Kościół św. Józefa)

A short walk from Kazimierz over the Bernatek Footbridge, Podgórze is known for its “natural beauty, tragic history, and unusual attractions”. While the first settlement was founded over ten thousand years ago, this area was destroyed by the Swedish in the 1600s, then designated a free city in 1784 by the Austrians, before being incorporated officially into Kraków in 1915. Podgórze was known for its quarry and construction operations before being completely changed by the Nazi occupation during WWII.

Bernatek Footbridge

At the time of the German invasion, 60,000-80,000 Polish Jews lived in Kraków, mostly in the Kazimierz District. In 1939, the Nazis required all Jews to report for forced labor, then wear mandatory armbands. Hans Frank stated that Kraków should be the “racially cleanest” city in General Government and as a result, the deportation of Jews began in 1940.

Map of the Podgórze Jewish Ghetto in Kraków.

Of the 68,000 Polish Jews living in Kraków before the invasion, only 15,000 were allowed to remain as workers. They, and their families, were resettled in the Podgórze district of Kraków (known as the Kraków Ghetto) in 1941:

“Previously inhabited by a little over 3,000, the Krakow Ghetto was spread over a few dozen streets in and around Zgody Square (since renamed Bohaterow Getta Square), containing some 320 tenement buildings. A 2-3 metre high wall was raised along the perimeter of the Krakow Ghetto, crowned by a line of arcs reminiscent of Jewish tombstones, tragically prophetic – portions of which remain today…

Windows facing onto the outside world were bricked up and the gates were strictly policed. Krakow Ghetto became desperately overcrowded: each new resident was allocated a mere 2m2 of living space. Life in the Krakow Ghetto was a constant struggle: food was scarce and hunger became the gravest affliction; sanitation was sorely inadequate and the German command grew increasingly brutal and inhumane.”

There were many instances of resistance within the Ghetto walls including the Akiva Youth Movement, Jewish Fighting Organization, and the Polish underground (Armia Krajowa). In 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Kraków Ghetto. Many were sent to the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp (also located in Podgórze), Bełżec death camp, and Auschwitz. Those unfit for work (2,000 people) were shot in the streets of Kraków.

Less than 5,000 of the once large Jewish population (one quarter of the entire inhabitants of Kraków before the Nazi occupation) survived the war.

I definitely recommend a trip into Podgórze. The district includes a number of historical sites including the last remaining remnants of the Ghetto Wall, as well as memorials built to commemorate the horrific events that took place here.

A friendly reminder that while I am naming these places as “sites”, I hope to give the utmost respect to the people that were tortured and killed here. These places carry a great deal of weight and those that visit should treat them as such.

You can read more about my stance on that here.

The Sites:

Church of St. Joseph (Kościół św. Józefa):

Church of St. Joseph (Kościół św. Józefa)  was built in the early 1900s.

Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta):

Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta) includes 33 memorial chairs to commemorate the atrocities that occurred in this once bustling center. The original entrance of the Kraków Ghetto is at the entrance to the Square.

Fragment of Ghetto Wall:

The last remaining portion of the Kraków Ghetto wall. This twelve meter long fragment of the original ghetto barrier displays a plaque placed there in 1983 which says: “Here they lived, suffered, and died at the hands of the German torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps.”

Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory: Museum of Wartime Kraków:

Oskar Schindler was a German businessman and Nazi who saved 1,200 Jews during WWII. Schindler owned a number of factories in occupied-Poland and employed Jews in Podgórze originally because their labor was cheaper than Poles, but then he continued to employ and protect his Jewish workers throughout the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto.
“Schindler’s Jews” as they became known, included men, women, and children of all ages. Schindler was able to protect them from deportation through his connections within the Nazi party, the vital role his factories played in the war effort, and by constantly making exemptions for the skills of his workers.
Towards the end of the war, Schindler’s bribes and black-market dealings became more and more suspicious, but he was able to protect his workers from deportation. Even when they were accidentally sent to the Gross-Rosen and Auschwitz concentration camps, he was able to manage their safe return to the factory. While Schindler isn’t the only German who helped protect Jews during WWII, he is arguably one of the most famous, due in large part to the 1993 movie Schindler’s List.
Schindler’s Podgórze factory was converted to one of the most amazing and interactive museums I’ve visited in Europe. I highly recommend making a trip if you can. I took a ton of pictures, but didn’t want to post them all here; I think it takes away from the overall experience and sheer “whoa!” factor of the museum.

Krakus Mound:

Krakus Mound is the oldest structure and highest point in all of Kraków. Once used as a site for pagan rituals, now visitors come to see beautiful panoramic views of the city.
Legend holds that the mound was constructed to honor King Krak, the mythical founder of Kraków. People from all backgrounds filled their sleeves with sediment and traveled to the site to build an artificial mountain to honor their king. Although studies have shown this story to be false–it was most likely constructed in the 7th-10th centuries by a Slavonic colony–the legend is still great to know when you visit the space.
The day we visited was HOT but well worth the hour walk.
View to the abandoned Liban Quarry.

Liban Quarry (Kamieniolom Liban):

A forgotten place in a city of historic sites, Liban Quarry is currently abandoned, although this was once a place of significance for Kraków. Established by two Jewish families in 1873, the quarry was successful prior to German occupation. During WWII, the Nazis used the quarry as a forced labor camp for Polish prisoners. Krakus Mound is in the background here.
Photo via In Your Pocket.
The site was also used by Steven Spielberg to film Schindler’s List in 1993.
Photo via Untapped Cities.
I wanted to use the above photos of the inside of the quarry so you can see the current state of the site. While there are a few tours available (and an open entrance), this was even too much of a heights + safety issue for this usual trespasser. All of my photos were taken from the very narrow path between Krakus Mound and Płaszów.
And by narrow path, I mean TINY. There was only space enough for one person to travel down the hill.
The quarry can be entered at the end of this path. As the site was used for filming, many of the props for Schindler’s List were left behind, making for a confusing site of artifacts and filmmaking objects. For example, there is a small (and currently inaccessible) memorial to the 21 inmates murdered here during the liquidation of the camp. However, the discomforting walkway of Jewish headstones is a left-over from the film set. The real prisoners of this camp would have walked across the headstones of their ancestors to and from the quarry to Płaszów.

Płaszów Concentration Camp:

“Today almost nothing remains of the sprawling 80-hectare concentration camp in Płaszów – a district of Podgórze. In comparison to other Nazi prison camps, Płaszów was extremely well dismantled and has been the subject of very little historical excavation or on-site documentation until only recently (in summer 2017 archaeological works were undertaken in several parts of the camp). Those private homes which were commandeered by the Nazis and incorporated into KL Płaszów were returned to their owners after the war and today sit on the fringes of the former camp as inauspiciously as any other homes in the area. Large apartment blocks have been built on top of other parts of the former camp. As a result it is very difficult to grasp the scope of the camp or imagine what it looked like during the war, though an outdoor exhibit of 19 archival photographs with brief historical information now offer visitors some clues about the camp’s layout. Installed in November 2017, these sparse photo plaques are the first exhibits on the territory of the camp, which is overseen by the Kraków Museum. [Plans for a permanent exhibit on the camp’s history are in development.]”

In Your Pocket. 2020. “KL Płaszów Concentration Camp in Kraków”. Available here.
A short walk from Krakus Mound is the site of the former Konzentrationslager Plaszow bei Krakau, the Nazi concentration camp of Płaszów, built on two (destroyed) Jewish cemeteries. Largely unchanged from German occupation, the site looks more like a park (and is used as one_ than a place where thousands of people were murdered. Unlike Schindler’s Factory or Auschwitz, there are no tours, no multimedia displays, or instructions on how to visit this space: “the Nazi German concentration camp in Płaszów, today a wild, uneven expanse of dirt, grass, weeds and stone, which until recently gave little indication of its own existence, let alone the story of its wartime history.”
A comprehensive guide to visiting the site can be found here.
Photo via In Your Pocket.
There are two entrances to the camp: the first is from the west and on the path from Krakus Mound (photo here). The second entrance is through a number of apartment buildings to the main entrance of the camp (photo below).
While we took the more adventurous route through Liban Quarry–and I would recommend if you have time to visit all three sites–it was jarring to literally stumble out of a path and onto “the most horrific place in Kraków” without as much as a sign or marker of a place of unimaginable terror and where thousands are buried in unmarked graves.

This is very different from my visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau. I’m incredibly grateful for the In Your Pocket guide to the Camp because otherwise we would have been (even more) lost.
We stumbled upon this sign marking the second entrance (the main spot) to the site. In 1945, seeing that the war was lost, the Płaszów camp was liquidated; in an attempt to cover their crimes, prisoners were forced on a death march to Auschwitz. Those who survived the march were killed in the gas chambers. Płaszów was dismantled, mass graves exhumed, bodies were burnt, and ashes scattered across the site in an attempt to hide the crimes that took place here from the incoming Soviet Army, who entered the city on January 19th. The site today is exactly how the Soviets would have seen the former camp when they captured Kraków from the Germans.
The Grey House originally belonged to the Jewish community but during the war was used by the Nazis–specifically, the office of Camp Commandant Amon Goeth and where he randomly shot prisoners as depicted in Schinder’s List–to house the camp’s officers. One of the only buildings still standing in the camp, it was known as a place of horror and torture for inmates.
One of the oddest aspects of the memorial for me is the close proximity of residential buildings to the site. Today, the space is used as a park by locals; I saw a number of people walking their dogs along the paths.
The monument to Sarah Schenirer was built in 2005. Schenirer (1883-1935) founded the first religious school for girls in Kraków, a model that was repeated across Poland; over 250 schools were opened in the country during her lifetime. Schenirer’s original headstone was destroyed when the camp was built and activists rebuilt this headstone in the supposed spot of resting place. You can see the rubble of the former pre-burial hall in the background.
The Roll Call Area (Apellplatz) was a platform for roll-calls and selections for prisoners of the camp. Here, medical examinations took place to determine how “fit” for work the inmates were for the intense labor used for Płaszów. This site was built on two mass graves of the bodies of mostly women, children, and the elderly from the liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto in March 1943; the Nazis dug these two large pits the night before the ghetto was closed and its inmates were transported here, the Belzec extermination camp, or Auschwitz-Birkenau. Camp prisoners later that summer were also executed and buried in these mass graves. Over 3000 people are estimated to be buried at this site.
The site of the New Jewish Cemetery, established in 1932 after Podgórze became part of the city of Kraków. These remains were discovered fairly recently as landscaping of the memorial restarted after decades of neglect. Unfortunately, because the headstones were used to pave the roads of Płaszów, it is unknown who is buried here.
This is close to Apellplatz.
Near the main entrance of the camp (note the apartment buildings on the left) is the rubble of the Old Cemetery of the Podgórze Jewish Community’s pre-burial hall. This absolutely gorgeous hall was built between 1920-1932 and was a source of pride for the local Jewish population here. At the beginning of German occupation, the once holy site was used as a stable for livestock.
When the Nazis decided to expand the camp, they demolished the hall to construct train tracks; the demolition was a source of amusement for the SS, who made a public spectacle of the destruction of this once holy building that stood over 25 meters (82 feet) high.

I have a lot of mixed feelings on the Płaszów Concentration Camp memorial. Especially after visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau and seeing the amount of care that has gone into the restoration of the camp and memorializing what took place there, walking through Płaszów was a jarring experience. The location of the former camp to the main centers of Kraków, along with the commemoration of a number of significant Jewish sites in Podgórze, you would think there would be a higher level of effort to care and remembrance here. A severe lack of archival research–archaeological efforts were started in 2017–is disappointing to see in a place that clearly has not received the same amount of funding or recognition as other areas of the city, especially following the outpour of public interest after the release of Schindler’s List. While the In Your Pocket site does a tremendous job, the fact that no official map of the area–or of its outdoor exhibits–currently exists is a tragedy to a place of unfathomable horror. Again, to stumble onto a mass burial site with no real marker or designation is inexcusable. I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be a level of outrage if parts of one of the more well-known camps were sold to build residential apartments. How we respect and learn from the past matters. There is a push for a more permanent memorial on the camp grounds and I hope that materializes in the future.

“…bear in mind that though the area looks like little more than a neglected public park, this is actually a sacred place of remembrance. In addition to whatever remains exist from the two Jewish cemeteries once located on this site, it is speculated that the remains of 8,000-10,000 Płaszów prisoners are still located within the area of the camp. As a few signs near the edges of the camp clearly state: “Please respect the grievous history of this site.”

In Your Pocket. 2020. “KL Płaszów Concentration Camp in Kraków”. Available here.

Restaurants & Pubs:

Miejscówka Craft Beer:

We had so much fun spending the afternoon here after visiting the Krakus Mound and the Plaszow Camp. Known for their sandwiches and great craft beer selection, Miejscówka also had a nice outdoor space right on the water.
While the pub unfortunately closed in October of 2020, they still sell their amazing sandwiches in the city.

Currently:
Watching: Westworld Season 2 (HBO)
Listening: The Floodlines Podcast (The Atlantic)

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