Just six days after the Third Reich invaded Poland, Wehrmacht troops entered Krakow. The times of occupation were marked, on the one hand, by the drama of the extermination of a quarter of the city’s population and an irreversible blow to Krakow’s Jewish community and its centuries of development, and, on the other hand, by the ‘unwanted status of capital’ and the ‘troublesome architectural heritage that exists to this day.
In the insane visions of the Nazi occupiers, Krakow was an inseparable – and exclusive – part of the German cultural heritage. The city was appointed the capital of the General Government – a quasi-state body established in the occupied territories of Poland. After the rapid erasure of the Polish markings on the buildings, systemic repression of a war-intimidated society began. This particularly affected the underground movement, which involved both the structures of the Home Army and ordinary residents of the city. Let’s quote as an example the activity of the bookseller Stefan Kamiński, who organised a contact point for the underground in his antiquarian bookshop, which still exists at a different address. The history of the Polish underground state in Krakow is documented by the local Home Army Museum.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE
However, the Nazi officials’ aggression targeted primarily the community of the Polish Jews , or all those who were considered Jewish, which was about 25% of Krakow’s population.
In a poor quarter in the eastern part of the Podgórze district, a ghetto was established in 1941, where 60,000 Cracovians and residents of the city’s surroundings lived in conditions of extreme overcrowding. At the same time, near the nearby limestone quarry, called the Liban Quarry after a Polish-Jewish entrepreneur, the German Nazi camp KL Plaszow was established in 1942. Headed by the sadistic commandant Amon Göth, the camp was a place of torment for some 40,000 people. The old villa that the commandant occupied still exists today, at 22 Heltmana Street , while the site of the former camp, which has been overgrown for years, is currently being cleaned up and transformed into the KL Plaszow Museum – a branch of the Krakow Museum.
The Krakow ghetto was liquidated on 13–14 March 1943. This event is memorialised not only by fragments of the walls near Lwowska Street, but also by a peculiar monument designed by Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Łatak in the form of 70 chairs in the centrally located Ghetto Heroes Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta). The installation was inspired by the memoirs of Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Polish pharmacist and owner of the ‘Pod Orłem’ Pharmacy located adjacent to the square and functioning throughout the ghetto period as a meeting place and where of underground aid could be obtained. The pharmacy with its original furnishings can still be visited today.
A remarkable episode in the city’s war-time period was the story of Oskar Schindler, a German entrepreneur who, by employing some 1,300 Jewish workers in his factory in Zabłocie, saved them from extermination. It was on the basis of these events, that Steven Spielberg made the famous film Schindler’s List in 1993, which made Krakow famous around the world and provided the first impetus for the development of tourism after 1989. The still-preserved Oskar Schinder Enamel Factory at Lipowa Street today houses a modern, multimedia exhibition on the period of the Nazi occupation in Krakow.
Misusing the fact of the significant contribution made by German settlers to the development of Krakow in the Middle Ages, the authorities of the General Government embarked on a programmatic Germanisation of the city. The former royal kitchens on Wawel Castle were converted into offices of Hans Frank’s administration; a soaring castle with a terrace overlooking the Vistula valley was built near the characteristic villa designed by the architect Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz in Przegorzały; the Main Market Square was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz and the monument to Adam Mickiewicz on it was demolished.
A modern quarter – which still exists today – was created in the area of Królewska Street, in the section from the Inwalidów square to the Nowowiejska Street, with flats for German officials, built according to the principles of Licht und Luft, i.e., providing maximum light and air. Without specialist knowledge, it’s difficult today to recognise the annexes, portals and cornices on some of the Old Town’s townhouses that were also built in this period, such as the Szczepański Square entrance to the Szołayski Tenement House. This was, by the way, only a part of the occupier’s plans that were to be carried out: the construction of a representative district with a parade square in the Dębniki district was also considered; moreover, there were plans to raze the Kościuszko and Piłsudski Mounds, which defined the landscape of the western part of the city, in order to erect monuments glorifying Nazi power…
The presence of architecture from the time of the occupation distinguishes Krakow from other Polish cities and poses a kind of challenge for experts in the city’s history. In heritology – the discipline studying heritage – there is the term ‘dissonant heritage’, which describes monuments of tangible and intangible culture which, regardless of their architectural or artistic value, bear witness to the wrongs and crimes of the past. The troublesome heritage of the Third Reich in Krakow was taken up by the exhibition Unwanted Capital Nature mounted at the International Cultural Centre in 2022.
STOLEN WORKS OF ART
It’s impossible not to mention the complicated fate of works of art looted by the occupying forces or, on the contrary, kept from them in hiding. The famous St Mary’s altarpiece by Wit Stwosz was hidden thanks the efforts of Professor Karol Estreicher in Sandomierz, where he was detained and taken to Nuremberg. It spent the rest of the war in the basement of the local castle. King Sigismund Augustus’ tapestries (arrases) were transported in crates to Canada with incredible effort, from where they returned to Wawel as late as in 1961. The most valuable paintings from the collection of the Czartoryski Princes, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine and Raphael Santi’s Portrait of a Young Man, several times changed places between Germany and Hans Frank’s Wawel chambers. The latter disappeared without a trace in 1945.
Blajb gezunt mir, Kroke / Stay safe, my Krakow – these were the farewell words of Mordechaj Gebirtig – a folk poet and singer from the Kazimierz district, whose songs and lullabies are probably known to every Jewish child in the world – dedicated to his home before he was deported to the ghetto. The post-war Krakow is a predominantly mono-ethnic city, subject to new transformations linked to the revolutionary rebuilding of the structure of society by the communist authorities.
What has survived and determined the continuity of Krakow’s history is first and foremost its architecture, telling the complicated fate of successive generations of residents one epoch after another – and also a feature of bourgeois culture and customs that has never been completely erased.
See further: In the Polish People’s Republic