September 6, 1939 – Nazis Arrive in Krakow, Poland and Begin Attack on Krakow’s Jews

Founded before the end of the first millennium, the city of Krakow is located today in southern Poland. It was and still is one of Poland’s most important cities. As the Holocaust Encyclopedia reports, the first recorded presence of Jews residing in Krakow dates from the early 13th century. 55,515 Krakow residents identified themselves as Jews in the Polish census of 1931; on the eve of World War II some 56,000 Jews resided in Krakow, almost one-quarter of a total population of about 250,000.

By November 1939, the Jewish population of Krakow had grown to approximately 70,000, reflecting the arrival of Jews deported from the District Wartheland (a part of German-occupied Poland that was directly annexed to the so-called Greater German Reich).

On this day in history, Nazis arrived in Krakow and began issuing restrictions on Jews, including depriving them of state pensions, imposing compulsory disclosure of foreign bank deposits, demanding people between the age of 14 to 60 embark on forced labor, ordering all Jews to wear identifying stars of David, and banning them from public transport.

In May 1940, the Germans began to expel Jews from Krakow to the neighboring countryside. By March 1941, the SS and police had expelled more than 55,000 Jews, leaving about 15,000 Jews in Krakow.

In early March 1941, the Germans ordered Jews to move into a ghetto, “for sanitary and public order reasons.” The ghetto was situated in Podgorze, located in the south of Krakow. As one writer opines, “Kraków Ghetto was established for the purpose of exploitation, terror, and persecution of local Polish Jews, as well as the staging area for separating the “able workers” from those who would later be deemed unworthy of life.”

Resident of Krakow Ghetto

Between 15,000 and 20,000 Jews lived within the ghetto boundaries, which were enclosed by barbed-wire fences and, in places, by a stone wall.

The ten-foot-high wall was installed across the ghetto’s confines, and the Jews within the ghetto were ordered to construct it. The walls were crowned with arches to resemble their tombstones.

Jews at forced labor constructing the wall around the Krakow ghetto. Krakow, Poland, 1941. —Instytut Pamieci Narodowej

It was standard for four families to share one flat. The average person had two square meters of space. Conditions were made worse by a second transit in October 1941, when a further 6,000 Jews from nearby villages were forced into the ghetto.

As the Holocaust Encyclopedia notes:

The Germans established several factories inside the ghetto . . . where they deployed Jews at forced labor. Several hundred Jews were also employed in factories and forced-labor projects outside the ghetto. Among the businesses utilizing Jewish forced laborers was the firm German Enamel Products (Deutsche Emalwarenfabrik), owned by Oskar Schindler, located in Podgorze, and later moved to Plaszow.”

The SS and police planned the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto for mid-March 1943, in accordance with the Himmler’s order in October 1942 to complete the murder of the Jews residing in the Generalgouvernement area.

The Holocaust Encyclopedia reports:

On March 13-14, 1943, the SS and police carried out the operation, shooting some 2,000 Jews in the ghetto. The SS transferred another 2,000 Jews—those capable of work and the surviving members of the Jewish Council and the Jewish police force (Ordnungsdienst)—to the Plaszow forced-labor camp, and the rest of the Jews, approximately 3,000, to the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing center in two transports, arriving on March 13 and March 16. At Auschwitz-Birkenau, the camp authorities selected 549 persons from the two transports (499 men and 50 women) to be registered as prisoners and murdered the others, approximately 2,450, in the gas chambers.”

Deportation of Jews from the Ghetto, March 1943

Although there had been resistance groups in the ghetto, the German authorities succeeded in their massive manhunt to find and eradicate the fighters. Some ghetto fighters escaped and attempted to join partisan groups active in the Krakow region, but the Jewish underground fighters suffered heavy losses. In the fall of 1944 the remnants of the resistance left Poland, crossing into neighboring Slovakia and then into Hungary, where they joined with Jewish resistance groups in Budapest.

In total, it is estimated that some 65,000 Polish Jews who lived in Cracow and its immediate vicinity were murdered by the Nazis during the Second World War, obliterating Jewish life and culture as it had existed before the War completely.

The fate of the ghetto was depicted in the film “Schindler’s List,” although some aspects of the history were changed for artistic reasons.

A column of Jews forced to march through the streets of Krakow during the final liquidation of the ghetto. Krakow, Poland, 1943. —Instytut Pamieci Narodowej; US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Gumkowski Jerzy Tomaszewski

After the war, some 4,282 Jews resurfaced in Krakow. By early 1946, Polish Jews returning from the Soviet Union swelled the Jewish population of the city to approximately 10,000. But pogroms in August 1945 and throughout 1946 as well as number of murders of individual Jews led to the emigration of many of the surviving Krakow Jews. By the early 1990s, only a few hundred Jews remained.

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