Dissonant Heritage: The Ninth Fort of the Kaunas Fortress, Lithuania

TW: This post describes a site of imprisonment, torture, and mass murder. Acts of the first stage of the Final Solution — the complete destruction of the Jewish people — took place here, outside of Kaunas, Lithuania.

The Memorial to the Victims of Nazism at the Ninth Fort
Kaunas, Lithuania

Last fall my lovely friend Bri (of Home Base Belgium) and I trekked around the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, stopping at a number of memorial sites of historical importance throughout the region. One of the research interests closest to my heart, memory work — especially the intentions behind commemorating particular events and how those goals manifest physically in a landscape — intersects across power, memory, and inequality; analyzing not only the atrocities that took place here, but how organizations (including governments) reflect and present these complicated histories is vital to acknowledging the violence and repairing harm. This is certainly true in Lithuania, but particularly at the Ninth Fort, which has been placed among the most horrific sites of the first stage of the Final Solution — along with Babi Yar (Kyiv, Ukraine), Ponary (Vilnius, Lithuania), and Rumbula (Riga, Latvia).

“Here, however, the question of the relationship between official and non-official, social memory also arises: how did the victims’ associations, for example, bias the state’s politics of history with the stories of their suffering? It is therefore important to keep in mind that there are several actors in the field of memory culture – and state and society are developing a fascinating competition and/ or cooperation.”

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2020. “Between Heritage and (Identity) Politics: Dealing with the Signs of Communism in Post-Soviet Lithuania”. National Identities 23:6. 511-530.

Originally built by Tsarist Russia as a series of fortresses around the geopolitically strategic city of Kaunas (also known as Kovno), the Ninth is one of the few remaining forts somewhat still intact (the other being the seventh) of the entire system. Today, the site includes the fort itself with its own museum, the place of mass execution (and later added Holocaust memorial), a new building with a separate museum, and the Soviet-era memorial.

As with many countries occupied by the Nazis and the Soviets, memory work in Lithuania is complicated and intersectional; similarly to the Salaspils Memorial Ensemble, the intention behind the building of the Ninth Fort’s massive monument (one of its kind still standing today) and what it represents and to whom — along with the chosen exhibits located in the site’s two museums –requires a thorough unpacking of not only the recent history of this place, but how events became memorialized here over time.

View from the fort to toward the city of Kaunas
Built by Tsarist Russia, the Ninth Fort was used as a prison, a site for mass murder, and as an NKB place of torture. Its legacy stretches from before WWI to today and across Lithuanian autonomy, Nazi occupation, Soviet rule, and again, independence.

As Russia continues its war in Ukraine — and the recent destruction of Soviet monuments in Baltic public spaces — what do these Soviet memorials in Lithuania represent? Lithuanian or Russian identity? Who ultimately decides what aspect of an occupying nation can be merged into one’s identity?

This is a long (and I hope not meandering) post discussing not only the recent history of Lithuania and events that shaped the Ninth Fort, but also how political actors have used this landscape to develop their own narratives of atrocity and responsibility over time. I hope you’ll power through with me!

An Extremely Brief & Not at All Comprehensive Overview of Lithuanian History:

Similarly to Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania’s history is imprinted by occupation. In 1569, the Union of Lublin established the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania, which lasted until the Russian Empire annexed a majority of the country (1772 – 1795). Following a series of uprisings against Russian rule, a number of Russification policies were implemented: cultural and educational centers were closed, the use of the Lithuanian language forbidden, and the Lithuanian press was banned; however, these efforts ultimately failed as Lithuanians held onto their heritage, culture, and desire for autonomy through a large network of book smugglers and secret schools. In parts of the Lithuanian-speaking Russian empire, these text bootleggers were known as Knygnešiaĩ (the one who carries the books).

After WWI, the Germans occupied Lithuania and again, forbid the Lithuanian press and restricted rights. However, the elected 20-member Council of Lithuania was formed in 1917 as a first step to proclaim their autonomy from occupying powers. Lithuania — along with its Baltic neighbors — signed its Act of Independence in 1918. Vilnius was taken by Polish forces and Kaunas became the provisional capital. After three wars of independence (against the Bolsheviks, the Bermontians, and Poland), the first meeting of the democratically elected government was held on May 15th, 1920. Six years later, a coup of conservative authoritarians overthrew the government and a new constitution was adopted in 1928 that centralized power, banned opposition, enforced censorship, and eliminated the rights of marginalized groups within the country.

While designed by a Lithuanian architect, the monument at the Ninth Fort is seen as an accomplishment of the Soviet Union. Created to commemorate Soviet citizens killed by the Nazis, at the time there was no specific mention of Jewish people, even as the majority of people killed here was a result of Lithuanian collaboration to carry out the Nazi’s Final solution.

In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact, which partitioned control of Central and Eastern Europe between the two governments. Originally under the German sphere of influence, Lithuania was transferred to the USSR after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. This change would later “justify” the Soviet occupation of Lithuania beginning on June 15th, 1940. After pressuring the Lithuanians (who attempted to maintain neutrality despite shifting control of their country to foreign powers) to sign the Soviet-Lithuanian Mutual Assistance Treaty, Lithuania was given back Vilnius in exchange for the establishment of five Soviet bases within the country; Estonia and Latvia also signed similar treaties. On June 14th, 1940, the Soviets issued an ultimatum that Lithuania eventually accepted, leading the to occupation of the country’s major cities that summer. A number of staged elections provided “legitimacy” to the narrative that Lithuania willingly joined the USSR. As with most republics occupied by the Soviet Union, Sovietization policies were implemented.

Holocaust memorials at the Ninth Fort that were later added to the memorial. To the right is the mass execution site and remaining fortress walls.

Nazi Occupation:

Just one week before the Nazi invasion of Lithuania, 17,000 Lithuanians were deported to Siberia by the Soviet government. These deportations and ultimately, deaths, led to support of the Nazi regime within the country. On June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and gained control of the country within a week. Many Lithuanians — sparked by anti-Soviet sentiment — supported the Nazi regime as a form of pro-independence. As a result (and as seen as events that later took place at the Ninth Fort), Lithuanians were also complicit in the carrying out of the Final Solution within their country. With the largest Jewish majority of the Baltic countries, most of the Livaks (Lithuanian Jewish community) were murdered in the first five months of Nazi occupation.

The extermination of the Jewish population began almost immediately. A quarter of a million Jewish people lived in Lithuania at the time of Nazi invasion and by the end of WWII, over 95% of the community was murdered, one of the highest rates of genocide in Europe. Collaboration between the Lithuanians and German authorities primarily enabled the scale and effectiveness of their executions; ten Lithuanian police battalions murdered 78,000 people alone. While a number of resistance organizations fought against Nazi control (including many Jewish groups — two uprisings took place at the Ninth Fort alone) it is important to recognize the often-ignored Nazi collaboration that took place in Lithuania.

This plaque was added later to provide context to the mass executions that took place at the Ninth Fort.

Soviet Occupation:

The Soviets regained control of Lithuania in the summer of 1944. While the resistance to the USSR remained strong, it was not enough to stave off occupation. Deportations of Lithuanians continued until 1953; 5-10% of the population was exiled to Siberia (including Jewish people) and an estimated 50,000 people died. More ethnic Lithuanians died during the years of 1945-1953 than in WWII. For many Lithuanians, the western narrative of the Soviet Union “saving” Europe from the Nazis is largely challenged, even as we’ll see this historical revisionism reflected in the Soviet built monuments across the occupied republics following the war.

With the beginnings of glasnost in the Soviet Union, the Sąjūdis was established in 1988, eventually leading to the restoration of Lithuania’s sovereignty as the USSR dissolved. On March 11, 1990, following the the very public 600 km (370 miles) human chain of people across the Baltic states, Lithuania became the first Soviet-occupied country to declare their independence. Restoration of independence was implemented in 1993 and the final Soviet soldiers left the country in August of that year.

Part of the Monument for the Victims of Nazism (“Pain”) overlooking Kaunas.

The Ninth Fort at Kaunas:

The defensive wall of the Ninth Fort

One of the most unique aspects of visiting the Ninth Fort is that so much of the history I just outlined physically took place in this one space; for the Lithuanians, the government and many communities are still attempting to come to terms with the dual legacy of their recent past — both as victims and perpetrators of violence — reflecting, unpacking, and making historical amends. It is undeniable that ethnic Lithuanians suffered greatly during occupation, particularly under Soviet control, but the collaboration with the Nazis to murder most of the Livak population is also undeniable, even if (as we’ll see) this partnership is less represented in comprehensive and just memory work.

In the interest of time and organization, here is a breakdown of the events that took place at the Ninth Fort from its construction to eventual site of memory:

Mass Executions during Nazi Occupation:

During Nazi occupation, the Ninth Fort was chosen in advance as an execution site due to its location near the newly established Jewish ghetto in Kaunas (Vilijampolė or Slobodka in Yiddish). After only three weeks, the site was transformed to a location capable of holding, murdering, and burying thousands of Jewish victims. On October 29th, 1941, the German SS and Lithuanian police murdered 9,200 residents of the Kaunas Ghetto at the Ninth Fort. Just one month later, the first systemic killing of German Jews during the Holocaust took place at the Ninth Fort after trains were rerouted from Riga, Lodz, and Minsk to Kaunas. In total, 45,000 – 50,000 Jewish people were killed in mass executions at the Ninth Fort. Testimonies collected from survivors tell the stories of the intense cruelty suffered by their victims before they were executed.

Soviet exhumation of a mass grave at the Ninth Fort. Many victims were buried alive, then shot.
The burning of the remaining bodies was completed by Jewish prisoners who later escaped.

In 1943, in an effort to conceal the mass executions at the Ninth Fort, the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators enacted Aktion 1005 across Nazi-occupied territories, including Lithuania: sixty-four prisoners (sixty were Jewish) were forced to open the mass graves, remove bodies (and their gold teeth and any valuables), and cremate the remains. All escaped with help from the Kaunas ghetto underground, but only twenty-eight managed to find safety. The escape is one act of resistance that took place at the Ninth Fort.

Mass execution and burial site today.

Establishing Commemoration at the Ninth Fort at Kaunas:

One of the large signs at the entrance / exit of the Ninth Fort.

One of the most unique aspects of the Ninth Fort is just how much this landscape physically represents and reflects the history of Lithuania over time. First established as a commemoration site by the Soviet Union, the construction and design here was not accidental; the Soviets intentionally created a memorial space that reflected their narrative.

“From the first days after the Second World War, the Soviets began an active commemoration program. Thousands of military monuments had been erected throughout the Soviet Union. At least one monument stands in almost every bigger village, not to mention small towns or regional centers. Although the first wave of monument construction in Lithuania had reached its peak in the early 1950s, construction of WWII memorial flourished almost throughout the whole Soviet period. As political circumstances changed, fashions changed, old memorial places were renewed and monuments became more sophisticated and diverse.”

Petrulis, Vaidas. 2021. “World War II Monuments in Soviet Lithuania. From Political Symbols to Dissonant Heritage.” Masses are Dying: Ways of Remembrance for Two World Wars from a European Perspective [ed: Herausgegeben von Sigrid Brandt]. 20 – 31. Available here.

Two periods of commemoration took place in Lithuania under Soviet occupation. The first was the decade following the end of WWII — tributes to the victims of the war were established simultaneously with the Soviet Terror as more than 20,000 Lithuanians were killed and nearly 150,000 people were sent to GULAGS — during 1944 – 1953. The second period of commemoration by the state took place from the 1960s-1980s when the role of local architects and designers increased, but under the control of the narrative of the Soviet Union. The memorial at Kaunas is one of, if not the only, surviving monument of its kind.

Memorialization of the Ninth Fort:

The first competition to develop a memorial at the Ninth Fort was held in 1966 and three additional rounds took place until the final project was approved. Sculptor Alfonsas Vincentas Ambraziunas and architects Vytautas Vielius and Gediminas Baravykas worked on the design and its construction until the 32 meter (105 foot) high monument was unveiled in 1984. Located at the start of the “Path of Death”, this monument sits adjacent to the execution site.

The three concrete sculptures known as “Pain” (lowest), “Hope” (middle), and “Liberation” (highest) symbolize the confrontation, fighting, and uprising against evil.

Initially dedicated to the murdered “citizens of the Soviet Union”, the Memorial to the Victims of Nazism was hailed as a triumph when it opened to the public in 1984. However, it is important to note that the “victims of Nazism” here were in fact almost completely Jewish. For a Soviet-built memorial on a WWI-era fort, where thousands of Jewish people not just from Lithuania (including Kaunas) but across Europe were executed by Nazis and Lithuanians, the decision to not specifically name the victims or the perpetrators — calling them merely “Soviet” instead — demonstrates the intent of this memorial.

The Soviet government controlled all WWII memorization projects with the intent to establish a narrative of Soviet greatness — the “liberators” overcoming the evils of Nazism — while also liberating the Lithuanians both from the Nazis and those that fought against the Soviet government. While they may have incorporated aspects of ethnic Lithuanian culture, these monuments were usually associated with the Soviet Union first and foremost.

In the development of the memorialization at the Ninth Fort, we can see how commemoration and narrative have shifted over time (Makhotina, 2020):

  • 1959: First Soviet museum opened with the purpose of illustrating German Nazi atrocities; a “hierarchy” of victims is presented with pro-Soviet prisoners at the top and Jewish people as a just another group.
  • 1984: The new museum is opened and the permanent exhibition shares the same themes: the Lithuanians’ struggle against fascism and the liberation of the country by the Soviet Union. Again, Jewish victims are mentioned, but not as the intended group of racial extermination.
  • 1990: The Ninth Fort transitions to a “double memorial” featuring exhibits on the Soviet Socialist Terror against Lithuanians from 1940 – 1990.
  • Today: Themes of the memorial space are primarily national identity and the genocidal intentions of the Soviets on ethnic Lithuanians, although the mass executions as a part of the Final Solution are discussed.
Remnants of the Fort today. Victims were held here and then marched underneath out to the open field before being executed.

Following the end of Soviet occupation, the narrative of commemoration at the Ninth Fort changed from the somewhat generically labelled genocide of the Great Patriotic War to instead reflect the Stalinist violence committed on ethnic Lithuanians during the period following WWII. As with many formerly Soviet-occupied countries, the victimhood narrative combined with national identity, can also obscure the memorialization of a place. As the focus shifted from merely Nazi genocide to Soviet mass murder, the 1993 – present narrative presented at the Ninth Fort is a combination of Lithuanian national symbolism and the victims of Soviet persecution; this shift from Nazi to Soviet terror suppresses the Lithuanian involvement in the mass execution of the Jewish population. The line between resistance and collaboration is thin and remains an issue in how history is not only represented, but celebrated. Jonas Noreika, for example, was awarded Lithuania’s second highest military medal following independence; he also signed orders pushing the Jewish population into ghettos.

“According to a law passed in April 1991, the crimes of the Nazi and Soviet occupation forces are both classified as ‘genocide against the citizens of Lithuania’. Lithuanians who suffered under the Soviets in 1940-1941 and 1944-1990, especially those who were deported to Siberian camps, are commemorated as victims of genocide… Since 2010 genocide denial, whether ‘Soviet genocide’ or the Holocaust, has been classified as a crime in Lithuania, punishable by up to two years in prison. The juxtaposition of these two historical events makes the coexistence of remembrance cultures inherently problematic. In the country’s national culture of remembrance, Soviet genocide takes top priority.”

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

What remains here is a complicated reflection of Soviet and Lithuanian constructed narratives, both in the physical landscape (monument, exhibits) and what remains unsaid. The struggle to accurately represent dual legacies is not only a Lithuanian issue — a majority of European and Western countries have yet to come to terms with their genocidal and / or colonizing pasts — but is also one reflected here at the Ninth Fort space.

As an American I want to also make clear that many countries, especially the United States, have failed to accurately and justly represent the role of government in the genocide and continued marginalization of communities. Many communities have engaged in their own memory work to push for commemoration at sites of historical importance. The signage at the site of Emmett Till’s murder — and the continued vandalization of the signage — is just one example.

Visiting the Ninth Fort:

Walking up to the memorial

Located 8 km (5 miles) from the city of Kaunas, we briefly stopped at the Ninth Fort on our way from Riga to Vilnius. With less than an hour to wander the large area, Bri and I were unable to visit the two on-site museums and stuck to walking the path along the site.

While many Soviet-era monuments were either destroyed or moved to a different location in post-Soviet countries (Momento Park in Hungary for example), the monument at the Ninth Fort remains in place due to a number of factors, but especially as this is a site of mass burials and therefore moving any such memorials — particularly one as large as this and the disruption it may cause — is an extremely sensitive topic.

Adjacent to the monument is the Holocaust plaque and the site of mass executions of Jewish people here during Nazi occupation.

Visitors can walk the path the victims took through the building to the site of execution; writings and drawings by the prisoners remain on the walls today. Exhibits on Soviet occupation, Lithuanian resistance, and mass deportation are also displayed.

Messages scrawled by Jewish prisoners on a wall inside Fort IX, shortly before their execution.
George Kadish photographed the writings on the walls of the prison after liberation. One message reads: ‘Hirsh Burstein was brought here July 7, 44. We are burning bodies and awaiting death. Brothers, Revenge! We are dying courageously for the people.’ Another inscription reads “Hayat Isaac from Marseille, arrived May 18, 1944.”

An overhead view of the remaining fortress and the monument

We then passed the newer building (closed at the time) and left the memorial site.

The intersection of narratives and power — Soviet, Nazi, German, Lithuanian, Jewish, occupation, perpetrator, independence, resistance, victim — in just 150 years of history in just one location. Our intent in memorializing public spaces matters.

Recently, efforts to come to terms with their complicated past has begun in Lithuania. A number of books researching the role of Lithuanians in the Final Solution have been published. Last year, the 80th anniversary of the Holocaust in Lithuania was commemorated with representatives from Berlin, Vienna, Munich, and Wrocław visiting the Ninth Fort. When we later spent the night in Vilnius. Bri and I saw both individual and organizational efforts to commemorate the suffering of Jewish people in Lithuania.

“According to Aleida Assmann, remembrance in dialogue – a model in which the suffering inflicted on one’s neighbors is assimilated into one’s own national memory – is a future opportunity of European remembrance. A prerequisite to this is overcoming mononational cultures of remembrance aimed at narratives of national victimhood and charged with myths of heroism. This includes recognition and empathy for the other victims of history and the willingness to assess one’s own role as a perpetrator.”

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

Special ❤ to Bri for her patience and sharing her photos as I read, as well as my co-worker Marcus for providing one of my sources below ❤


Reading: Night of the Living Rez (Morgan Talty)
Watching: Loot (Apple TV+)
Listening: Sounds Like a Cult (All Things Comedy)

Works Cited:

Ben-Naftali, Aya. 2004. “Collaboration and Resistance: The Ninth Fort as a Test Case”. Collaboration and Resistance During the Holocaust: Belarus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania (ed: Favid Gaunt). 361-382. Available here.

Bertalius, Mindaugas. 2005. “Cultural Heritage Management: A Case of Kaunas”. The Issue of Protection of Historical Heritage. 146 – 151. Available here.

Davoliute, Violeta. 2018. “Between the Public and the Personal: A New Stage of Holocaust Memory in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

Hohenhaus, Peter. 2015. “9th Fort and Monument”. Dark Tourism. Available here.

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2016. “We, They and Ours: On the Holocaust Debate in Lithuania”. Cultures of History Forum. Available here.

Makhotina, Ekaterina. 2020. “Between Heritage and (Identity) Politics: Dealing with the Signs of Communism in Post-Soviet Lithuania”. National Identities 23:6. 511-530.

Kauno IX Forto Muziejus. 2022. “Concrete Filled Brutalism and Historical Memory that Testifies Brutality” [Online Exhibition]. Kauno IX Forto Muziejus Official Website. Available here.

Kauno IX Forto Murziejus. 2022. “History of the Ninth Fort of Kaunas”. Kauno IX Forto Muziejus Official Website. Available here.

Petrulis, Vaidas. 2021. “World War II Monuments in Soviet Lithuania. From Political Symbols to Dissonant Heritage.” Masses are Dying: Ways of Remembrance for Two World Wars from a European Perspective [ed: Herausgegeben von Sigrid Brandt]. 20 – 31. Available here.

Veliute, Ingrida. 2012. “Kaunas Fortress Historical and Architectural Heritage and Its Animation Possibilities”. Vytautas Magnus University Summary of Doctoral Dissertation, Humanities, Art Studies (03H). 1-52. Available here.

Kraków, Poland: Kazimierz (Former Jewish Quarter)

[You can read my Kraków Guide here.]

Oh, Kazimierz. My favorite neighborhood in maybe all of Europe? The former Jewish Quarter is unique, fun, and has a blend of new shops and historic sites. I love this quirky district and discover something new every time I visit.

This homage to Gene Kelly was created by street artist Kuba as a representation of the city’s regeneration.

Located south of Old Town and north of Podgórze, Kazimierz was the center of Jewish life for over 500 years before being completely destroyed by Nazi occupation in WWII. The district further deteriorated under communism, but has since become one of the most unique neighborhoods in Central Europe.

Kazimierz Historical Mural, ul. Józefa 17
Created by Piotr Janowczyk in 2015, the mural features a number of icons from Kraków’s history including this portrait of King Kazimierz.

Kazimierz was founded by King Kazimierz the Great in 1335. Jewish populations began moving to the neighborhood in 1495 and the town grew in influence during the Middle Ages. After overcoming anti-Jewish riots, famine, and surviving a Swedish invasion, the town flourished under Austrian control in 1796 when Kazimierz was incorporated into Kraków. The occupying Austrians forced all of Kraków’s Jewish population to resettle into Kazimierz, which led to a huge growth in culture for the area; over 50,000 Jews lived here when the Nazis invaded Poland. During WWII, Kazimierz’s Jewish population was forced to relocate to the ghetto in Podgórze, with a majority then sent to Bełżec and Płaszów. Less than 5,000 survived the German genocide.

The New Jewish Cemetery

Today the district is one of the most unique neighborhoods in all of Central Europe: cozy cafes, amazing restaurants, a growing art scene, and tiny pubs alongside many of the most important Jewish cultural sites in all of Poland. My recommendation is to spend as much time here as you can and admire not only the beautiful street art and tasty local cuisine, but make an effort to visit the sites important to the Jewish culture that once thrived there.

A note: this post does include photographs of Jewish cemeteries in Kazimierz. This by no means is meant to exploit those buried there, but as a way to tell the story of the events that occurred at these sites. I highly recommend spending time walking through the older cemeteries in Kraków.

The Tempel Synagogue was built from 1860-1862. Ruined by the Nazis during WWII–they used the space for ammunition storage–financial contributions in the late 1990s paid for renovations to the building. Prayers are now held here a few times a year.

While I refer to these locations as “sites” I hope that those who visit bring the utmost respect and intent when visiting Kazimierz. You can read more about my feelings here.

The Sites:

Bosak House: Plac Bawół 3:

The beautiful street art piece was created by Broken Fingaz for the city’s 24th Jewish Culture Festival (2014).
Located on the edge of the Kraków ghetto, the piece was dedicated to the Bosak family who lived in this home for 400 years prior to the German occupation of Poland. They moved to Israel to escape Nazi persecution.
The building is now vacant as the family has not returned to Poland since the end of WWII.

Old Synagogue (Stara Bożnica):

The Old Synagogue (referred to in Yiddish as Alta Shul) is the oldest synagogue still standing in Poland. Built in either 1407 or 1492, the building is unique as it is considered a Polish Fortress synagogue.
During the Nazi occupation of WWII, the synagogue was completely ransacked and all Jewish relics were stolen or destroyed. The Germans used the site as a warehouse; thirty Polish hostages were also murdered here. Following the end of the war, the building was renovated and is currently a museum.

Remuh Synagogue and Cemetery:

The smallest historic synagogue in Kasimierz, the Remuh Synagogue is also one of only two active synagogues in the district. Built in 1553, Shabbat services still take place here every Friday.
The interior of the synagogue.
During Nazi occupation, the building was used as a warehouse for body bags and fire equipment.
The Remuh Cemetery, also known as the Old Jewish Cemetery of Kraków, was established in 1535 and is no longer active. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the cemetery was destroyed and most of the tombstones were used as paving stones in concentration camps. While many of the stones were returned after the war ended, not all missing stones were found.

Galicia Jewish Museum:

This mural by Marcin Wierzchowski is on the side of the Galicia Jewish Museum and features one of the largest menorahs in Poland.
The images on either side of the menorah depict pre- and post- industrialization Jewish life. The museum itself holds a number of photography exhibitions on Jewish life and culture in Galicia (the geographic location between Central and Eastern Europe).

The New Jewish Cemetery:

The New Jewish Cemetery was founded in 1800 after the Remuh Cemetery was full. Once 20 hectares, only 4.5 (11 acres) of the site remain.
When this cemetery was full in 1930, two new cemeteries were opened in the Podgórze Płaszów district, but these were destroyed by the Nazis, who then built the Płaszów concentration camp in their place.
During German occupation, most of the tombstones were sold as building materials. A number were also used to line the courtyard of Amon Goeth’s villa, located on the eastern side of the Płaszów camp.
The cemetery currently holds 10,000 tombstones.
Portions and shards of tombstones recovered after the war were used to create the wall within the cemetery. This wall also serves as a memorial to the millions who were murdered during the Holocaust.

Restaurants & Pubs:

Marchewka z Groszkiem (Peas and Carrots):

THE ABSOLUTE BEST PLACE. Marchewka z Groszkiem was highly recommended by Krakow-native friends of a friend; I’m so thankful they told us about this adorable restaurant. With many options to choose from, I just basically ordered enough food for five people (no regrets) and loved every single thing. Look at this menu!
These are spinach+sheep’s cheese and sauerkraut+mushroom.
Spinach and garlic pierogi covered in a blue cheese sauce. I’m not even a fan of blue cheese but these were AMAZING.
Strawberry and mascarpone.
Crispy potato pancakes with sour cream.
Green pea and carrot soup.

Bonus tip: check out Lokator right across the street for books and coffee!

Bhajan Cafe:

Located right on the border of Old Town and Kazimierz, Bhajan Cafe is a vegan and vegetarian Indian restaurant with a great menu. A perfect spot for lunch on your trip through the different districts of Kraków.

Hamsa Hummus & Happiness:

With a name like Hummus and Happiness, how can you go wrong? Specializing in Israeli cuisine, this restaurant has a great menu and all their dishes are extremely reasonably priced.
They also boast a gorgeous dining area. We had brunch here twice because there were so many great menu items to try.

Ranny Ptaszek:

This woman-owned, LGBTQIA+ friendly, feminist cafe specializes in vegetarian breakfast and brunch! One of my favorite finds in the city, I love this gem.
(Notice the “girls just want to have fundamental rights” sign <3)
Spicy shakshuka with veggie “sausage” and chickpeas.


This vegetarian Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant is run by the Jewish Culture Festival. They also boast the only free and public reading room in the city with hundreds of books on Jewish and Middle Eastern culture available.
I had the best Turkish coffee here.


We spent a relaxing afternoon at this adorable pub with a gorgeous view.

Eszeweria Bar:

I LOVE this cute garden bar!
(photo via Facebook)
I’m trying to live here forever, thank you.

Propaganda Pub:

One of the oldest pubs in Kraków, this communist themed bar is one of my favorites.

Królicze Oczy:

Love this vintage pub with eyes that follow you everywhere; bonus points for being located across from the best open air zapiekanka stand (Polish pizza boats with tons of toppings) in the city.

Knitted Coffee Cafe:

How can I not be obsessed with a cafe of the knitting theme with delicious coffee? This place is adorable and their beans are legit.


As You Like It Bookshop:

Although technically located in Old Town, As You Like It Bookshop is right on the border to Kazimierz and across the street from Bhujan Cafe, so I wanted to include this adorable shop in this post. Just minutes from Wawel Castle, this bookstore is small but offers a ton of different English titles including new releases, and books on Polish history. They also carry cards and locally-made reading accessories. A perfect stop on your way from Old Town to Kazimierz!
Photo via Facebook.

Unikke Design & Friends:

Established by Olga Guzik, Unnike Design is a beautiful jewelry shop that specializes in, you guessed it, unique pieces. I actually met Guzik while in the Polish city of Gdańsk, where she was selling a number of her gorgeous pieces. A former member of the Polish Shooting team, the economist turned designer specializes in incorporating her all of her passions into her work; she uses old bullets with the motto “better wear than used” etched into bracelets and necklaces.
Photo via In Your Pocket.

Lookarna Illustrations:

Artist Renia Loj designs hand-drawn postcards, magnets, and other paper goods. Lookarna Illustrations is her adorable shop stocked with all of her beautiful and unique pieces.

You have to love all the quirkiness of Kazimierz 🤍

Taking pierogi back to Hungary.
Esterka, the Jewish mistress of King Kazimierz the Great, was known for her beauty and inspired many Polish authors.

Watching: Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)
Reading: Being Heumann: An Unrepentant Memoir of a Disability Rights Activist (Judith Heumann)

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.

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