Prior to World War Two, Krakow was home to 68,000 Jews, most of whom lived in the Kazimierz district, south of the historic centre. It was in Kazimierz where most of Krakow’s synagogues were based, and the district was characterised by its old Jewish houses, restaurants and shops.
Things changed on the 6th of September, 1939, when the Nazis arrived in Krakow. The Polish State had ‘collapsed’, declared Adolf Hitler and the Germans were to establish a General Government in the annexed territories of what had been Poland and Ukraine. Krakow was named the capital of the General Government, meaning that Nazi personal and resources were concentrated there. Hans Frank was chosen as the governor of the General Government and he duly moved into the Wawel Castle, his new headquarters overlooking the historic Jewish district of Kazimierz.
Almost immediately the new Nazi leaders ordered the closure of all synagogues. All Jews over the age of 12 would have to wear armbands bearing the Star of David, broadcasting their Jewish identity. A Jewish ghetto police was established to ensure that this was the case. The persecution had well and truly begun, and already Jews were being thrown out of their homes to make way for Nazi soldiers.
The formal resettling of the Jews of Krakow Jews began in April of 1940, when Hans Frank announced that Krakow was to be the ‘cleanest’ city in the General Government. Cleanliness, racial cleanliness, was to be achieved by expelling the Jews from Krakow, sending them off to forced labour camps or settling them in a purpose built, walled Ghetto in the Podgórze district, on the other side of the Vistula River to the Kazimierz district and historic centre.
The Jews were forced to remain in the walled Ghetto, unable to leave. They weren’t even permitted to look out, the windows of the Ghetto housing that face outwards having been bricked up. For two years 15,000 Jews lived within the Ghetto, crammed into buildings that had previously housed just 3,000 people. They remained there until the May of 1942, when the Nazi authorities embarked on another clearing exercise. The Ghetto itself was to be liquidated. Those deemed fit to work were sent to forced labour camps, while others less able were sent off to the nearby Auschwitz or other death camps. Some 2,000 Jews were shot dead on the streets of the Ghetto. By March of 1943 the Ghetto was empty and the Jewry of Krakow had either bene deported or murdered.