Above: Residents of Krakow ghetto are forced to build the wall that will contain them

Jews had lived in substantial numbers in Krakow, Poland since the Middle Ages. But by September 1939, Krakow’s 68,000 Jews had come under Nazi rule. After November 1939, all Jews over age 12 were required to wear armbands identifying them as Jews.

In May 1940, the Germans ordered all but 15,000 “essential workers” to evacuate the city and were resettled in other ghettos. The remaining 15,000 Jews were crammed into a small area that ordinarily housed just 3,000 people. Four families were assigned to each apartment, and many people were forced to live on the streets. The Kraków Ghetto was formally established on March 3, 1941 in the Podgórze district, not in the traditionally Jewish district of Kazimierz. It was walled in and all windows and doors on the border were sealed shut. Living conditions were very hard and many perished, including the influential Yiddish poet and songwriter Michael Gebirtig (1877-1942), known today for his pogrom-inspired 1938 ballad Unser Shtetl Brent (Our Town Is Burning).

Liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto began in May – June 1942 with the transport of 11,000 Jews to the Belzec extermination camp. The final liquidation of the ghetto occurred in March 1943 under the direction of the commandant of the Palszow labor camp, Austrian Nazi Amon Göth. Eight thousand deemed fit for work were sent to the Plaszow work camp, while about 2,000 others were executed in the streets during the round-up. A lucky few escaped and went into hiding outside the ghetto, including a nine-year-old Roman Polanski. Polanski would go on to become a world-renowkned film maker and win the Academy Award The Pianist (2002) which tells the story of Warsaw Ghetto survivor Władysław Szpilman.

The Czech German entrepreneur Oskar Schindler had come to Krakow to use Jewish slave laborers for his enamel ammunition factory.  After witnessing the brutal liquidation of the ghetto, Schindler ultimately fought to rescue his remaining Jewish workers who had been transported to Plaszow, even intervening to save 300 Jews who were deported to Auschwitz. Schindler is credited with saving as many as 1,200 Jews from certain extermination. The film Schindler’s List by producer and director Steven Spielberg recounts the story and was awarded the 1993 Academy Award for Best Picture.