Krakow During WWII

Krakow, like most Polish cities, suffered dramatically in human terms during World War II. Yet, almost uniquely, the fabric of the city was offered some protection, as the headquarters of the Nazi General Government.

Put simply, the city was taken over and became the capital of a pseudo-state, which included the south-eastern half of present-day Poland, and southern Ukraine. Overseeing it all was Hans Frank, who took Wawel Castle, the ancient seat of Polish royalty, as his base. But although Krakow’s physical structure was not as badly damaged during the war as that of other cities – notably Warsaw – the same cannot be said of its culture and people.

Early on, the Nazis decided that they would not live side by side with Jews, let alone share streets or whole apartments with them. First, some 50,000 Jews were deported. Then, in 1941, the Krakow Ghetto was established, in the Podgorze district south of the river.

The Ghetto was to achieve notoriety as a place of starvation and disease – brought about by overcrowding – and brutality and murder, at Nazi hands. Within a year, Jews were being deported from the Ghetto to concentration camps and then, in March 1942, Amon Goth oversaw the liquidation of the Ghetto, sending able-bodied Jews to the camp at Plaszow, murdering others in the streets and in their homes, and sending the rest to die at Auschwitz.

Krakow had already lost many of its leading thinkers, when professors at the Jagiellonian University were rounded up and sent to other concentration camps in 1939. For the Poles who remained, they saw the city transformed as shops, homes and whole streets were taken over by the Nazis. Even the Market Square lost its name during the World War II, when it was renamed Adolf Hitler Platz.

Resistance, though, was evident throughout the war. Armia Krajowa (the Polish Home Army) operated in Krakow, and even planned an uprising here similar to the ill-fated rebellion in Warsaw in 1944 – though this was later called off. The Nazi forces based in the city, the shortage of weapons, and the fact that many of the city’s young men had been arrested in anticipation of such a move, all prevented the Krakow uprising from taking off. 

One of the young men who escaped the round-up was Karol Jozef Wojtyla, later to become Pope John Paul II. Another famous name associated with Krakow during World War II is Roman Polanski, the film director, who as a child lived in the Ghetto. And of course there was Oskar Schindler, whose famous rescue of Jews was dramatised in the movie Schindler’s List.

At Schindler’s former factory in Podgorze there is a permanent exhibition of life in Krakow, from just before the start of the war, to the chillingly-represented ‘liberation’ by the Soviet Red Army. Another great source is Andrzej Wajda’s movie Katyn, made in Polish but widely available with English subtitles.