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Remembering the Tragedy of the Krakow Ghetto at Its Last Remaining Wall

In the Podgórze district of Krakow, Poland stands a poignant memorial to one of the many ghettos created by Nazi Germany to isolate and oppress Jews during their brutal occupation of Eastern Europe in World War II. Here, a lone 10-meter section of brick wall is all that remains of the former Krakow Ghetto, where over 15,000 Polish Jews were confined in horrific conditions from 1941-1943. While just a simple fragment of wall on the surface, it represents the boundary of a once-vibrant community imprisoned and destroyed by genocidal Nazi policies.

Krakow‘s Jewish Community Prior to WWII

The Jews of Krakow had a long and rich history in the city dating back to the 13th century. By 1939, the Jewish population numbered around 64,000, constituting about 25% of the city‘s total population.[^1] Krakow was a thriving center of Jewish culture, scholarship, and religious life, with 90 synagogues and prayer houses. Jews were integral to the city‘s commercial activity, making up a large percentage of local tradesmen and merchants.[^2]

However, this all changed drastically with the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland in September 1939. Krakow‘s Jewish population immediately faced persecution and discrimination under the Nazi occupation. In May 1940, German officials began to round up Jews from Krakow and the surrounding areas with the intention of expelling them from the city. Throughout 1940, around 35,000-40,000 Jews were deported, with many sent to smaller towns or forced labor camps.^3

Creation of the Krakow Ghetto

On March 3, 1941, the German Governor of Krakow District Otto Wächter ordered the establishment of a Jewish ghetto in the city‘s Podgórze district, an area of about 20 hectares (49 acres) previously inhabited by around 3,000 people.[^4] Krakow‘s remaining Jewish population, now around 15,000, were given just two weeks to relocate to this designated zone.

The ghetto was a walled-off area, completely cut off from the rest of the city by a 3 meter high brick wall topped with barbed wire.^5 Windows facing outwards were bricked up and gates were heavily guarded. The entrance to the ghetto was marked by a sign that cruelly proclaimed in German, Polish and Hebrew: "Jewish residential district – Entry Forbidden."^6

Living conditions within the Krakow Ghetto were abominable. The area was extremely overcrowded, with an average of 2-3 families crammed into each small apartment. Food rations were completely insufficient, with the Nazis providing just 100-300 calories per person per day.^7 Sanitation was inadequate, leading to frequent disease outbreaks.

The Nazis imposed harsh restrictions and brutality on those imprisoned in the ghetto. Many were subjected to forced labor, working in factories to produce supplies for the German war effort. Resources were routinely confiscated and inhabitants had to hand over valuables and winter clothing. Leaving the ghetto without authorization was punishable by death.^8

Daily Life and Struggle in the Ghetto

Despite the horrendous conditions, the Jews of Krakow tried their best to maintain some semblance of normal life and human dignity. They organized houses of prayer, secret schools to educate their children, and underground art and cultural activities.^9 The Jewish Council (Judenrat) tried to advocate on behalf of ghetto inhabitants and organize social services with meager resources.

One survivor, Miriam Akavia, recalled her family hosting a make-shift salon in their small ghetto apartment where writers, artists and intellectuals would gather. "Fear was always present, but my parents tried to maintain an island of humanity in the face of all odds," she later wrote.[^10]

Disease and starvation took a heavy toll, with 2,000 dying in the ghetto even before deportations to concentration camps began.[^11] In June 1942, the Nazis started "resettling" Jews from the ghetto, sending them to their deaths at Belzec extermination camp and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Further deportations occurred in October 1942 and March 1943 as part of the Nazi‘s "final solution."

When the ghetto was liquidated in March 1943, thousands of the remaining Jews deemed "fit to work" were sent to the nearby Plaszow concentration camp.^12 In total, it is estimated that of the 15,000 Jews imprisoned in the Krakow Ghetto, only around 2,000 ultimately survived the Holocaust.^13

The Krakow Ghetto Wall Today

The 10-meter section of ghetto wall that still stands on ul. Lwowska is one of the last remnants of the Krakow Ghetto. This simple stretch of brick wall powerfully represents the boundaries of the ghetto and the suffering of those imprisoned within it. Seeing it up close, one can almost imagine the desperation of inhabitants as they were cut off from the outside world.

In 1983, the wall fragment was listed as an official historical monument.^14 A plaque placed at the wall in 1997 commemorates the Jews of the Krakow Ghetto and those who tried to assist them. It reads in part: "Here they lived, suffered and perished at the hands of the German torturers. From here they began their final journey to the death camps."

Today the Krakow Ghetto wall is an important place of Holocaust memory and education. It is a popular stop for visitors and tours seeking to learn about the city‘s WWII history. The wall serves as a focal point for annual commemorations marking the liquidation of the ghetto held in March.^15

Efforts are underway to preserve this important historical site. In 2016, the city of Krakow allocated funding for conservation work on the wall to repair damage.^16 In 2018, Krakow‘s Jewish community partnered with local leaders to install artistic "memory boards" near the wall sharing individual stories of ghetto inhabitants.^17

While it is painful to confront, the Krakow Ghetto wall is a necessary reminder of the cruelty and tragedy of the Holocaust. It compels us to remember the tens of thousands who suffered within the ghetto‘s confines and challenges us to ensure such atrocities are never repeated. Reflecting on the ghetto wall and its history reminds us of our shared responsibility to stand against hatred, anti-Semitism, and injustice in our own time. As we witness the last survivors pass on, Holocaust memorials like the wall are increasingly vital to preserving the memory and lessons of this dark chapter for new generations.

[^1]: Bieberstein, Aleksander (1986). Zagłada Żydów w Krakowie [The Destruction of Krakow‘s Jews].
[^2]: Zimmerman, Joshua D. (2015). The Polish Underground and the Jews, 1939–1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[^4]: Dean, Martin (2013). "Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933-1945"

[^10]: Miriam Akavia, "An End to Childhood" (memoir)
[^11]: Gratkorn, Philip (2021). The Krakow Ghetto: The History and Legacy of the Jewish Population in Nazi-Occupied Krakow during World War II.