How Many Parkgoers Know This Was Once a Nazi Concentration Camp?

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The wild Krakow park where the Płaszów Nazi concentration camp once stood.
The wild Krakow park where the Płaszów Nazi concentration camp once stood. Credit: Zetpe0202
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

It's easy to fail to notice that this urban park in Krakow was once the site of mass murder. Parents push their prams down grassy lanes; young couples hold hands and dogs roam off leash gambol on the grass. The only indication is a small sign at the Jerozolmska (Jerusalem) street entrance asking parkgoers to be mindful of the spot. It is usually ignored, if it’s noticed at all.

On the other side of the park is a large memorial statue atop a hill, overlooking the road. Maybe only then does one realize that beneath the lawns lie thousands of prisoners, mainly Jews, who were murdered in the Holocaust and lie buried there.

People enjoy a sunny day at the peaceful Krakow park where the Plaszow concentration camp once stood.Credit: Ofer Aderet

It’s been 76 years since the liberation of the Krakow Plaszow (Płaszów) concentration camp, which operated from 1942 to 1945. Over 35,000 prisoners were held there: mostly Jews, but also Poles and Roma, all employed in forced labor. Between 5,000 to 6,000 were exterminated in the camp. Some others were moved to Auschwitz.

Unlike the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum about 70 kilometers (44 miles) away, Plaszow hardly resembles a memorial site. It is not fenced off, anyone and their pets can roam freely, and apparently no-one spares a thought for the people who labored and suffered under the yoke of the notorious, terrifying commander Amon Goth, and the people were exterminated there. Tourists from Israel and around the world visiting the spot, thanks in part to its commemoration in the film “Schindler’s List”, tend to be amazed at the sight of local kids roaming in search of a suitable spot to drink beer.

Locals ride bikes in the Krakow park where the Plaszow concentration camp once stood.Credit: Ofer Aderet

Earlier this year, after protracted bureaucratic procedures and after a heated public debate, an official foundation was established in Poland tasked with turning the park into a respectable memorial site, which would include a museum, learning center and a newly designed park.

The foundation’s staff are young and driven to rectify the historical injustice. It is funded by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage and the city of Krakow. The municipality and ministry are headed by political opponets but they have agreed to cooperate on this worthy cause. The plan is to transform the site within five years.

Jacek Stawiski, media analyst and liaison for the site, says there is no intention to fence it off, hire security guards, or charge an entrance fee. The key to changing local attitudes is through education and advocacy, which have already begun.

The staff’s first challenge was to explain to the locals why letting their dogs do their business in a place where thousands were exterminated was inappropriate. Imagine it was your grandparents who received that treatment, they explain.

Forced labor at the Plaszow camp, Krakow, Poland, between 1943-1944.Credit: Raimund Titsch / Leopold Page Photographic Collection / Yad Vashem / The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Female prisoners forced to work at the camp.Credit: Raimund Titsch / Leopold Page Photographic Collection / Yad Vashem / The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

The plan was opposed by environmentalist activists. The preservers of human memory, who preferred commemorating lives over vegetation and trees, won out.

Marta Smietna, Head of the Museum Division, chose her words when describing the discourse with the worried activists. There is no shortage of sensitivities; for example, Catholic Poles, who, to put it mildly, had a complex relationship with their Jewish neighbours, were also murdered at the site. Foundation member Monika Bednarek nodded her head in embarrassment when asked about the reactions of Jewish visitors who are surprised, and some even offended, to find a crucifix on display the heart of a former concentration camp

Museum Director Michal Niezabitowski recently said that he was unpleasantly surprised by some reactions to the proposed memorial site. “Many were opposed to our concept, but I nonetheless see it as favorable that many residents of Krakow are not indifferent to our vision and to commemoration. More work is needed,” he wrote in his executive summary in 2000. “I cannot hide my fears and anxieties…in light of the new challenges facing us,” he added.

Remnants of the concentration camp.Credit: Ofer Aderet

In preparation for creating the memorial site, during the last 5 years Krakow Museum has overseen archeological excavations in the site, attempting to salvage any personal belongings of those murdered there, who have been buried for decades.

“The fate of the victims appears before our eyes,” wrote Piotr Glinski, the minister of culture and national heritage in a book documenting the archaeological findings. In same book Jacek Majchrowski, mayor of Krakow wrote, “I hope the recent archaeological works, the results of which are summarized in this publication, will help us fully restore the awareness of this place.”

The excavators found thousands of artifacts. Some are distinctly Jewish, including tombstones: remnants of two Jewish cemeteries over which the camp was erected. Some gravestones were repurposed by the Nazis as building materials. The diggers also found, a kiddush cup, a crown (adornment for a tallit), a star of David painting, and a Jewish police of Krakow. They also found everyday items that under other circumstances would be of little interest, including a hairpin, pendant, ring, toothbrush, soap dispenser, Nivea cream box, spinning top, razor, lighter, watch parts, medicine bottles, mirror, pot, mug, spoon, fork, spoon, scissors, keys, locks, bottles, combs, glasses, a shower head, and a lampshade. And tools: a saw, hammer and ax as well as bullets and cartridges, another remnant of the murders at the site.

Prisoners at the camp, between 1943-1944.Credit: Raimund Titsch / Leopold Page Photographic Collection / Yad Vashem / The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

One of the most moving discoveries is a picture that survived on a broken piece of glass, showing an electric tram car next to a group of people in a square of an unidentified city. Hundreds of the items have already been preserved in laboratories designed for the purpose.

Cinema goers around the world may remember camp commander Amon Goth’s villa: it was documented in Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List” .Goth used to perch on his balcony with a rifle and arbitrarily shoot at the Jewish inmates in the camp. The villa still exists but won’t be part of the memorial site. In recent years it was renovated and now has new tenants. Bednarek explained that she does not know who lives there now and is not in contact with the owners.

It seems the memorial site staff are disappointed that the tenants did not adhere to the preservation protocol for a historic building of this type, but didn’t pursue the matter, given the fact that it is a privately owned house. It doesn’t even have a plaque on it or by it attesting to its historic role.

A photo taken between 1943-1944 shows forced labor at the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp. Credit: Raimund Titsch / Leopold Page Photographic Collection / Yad Vashem / The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Historical research presently being carried out includes excavation, documenting testimony, and advanced technology. For instance 3D scanners were used to read engravings on the walls of the “gray house”, the only building to survive intact. For years it was thought that these were authentic engravings left behind by Jewish prisoners. It turns out they were scratched on the walls by Red Army soldiers stationed there for over months following the camp’s liberation in January 1945.

Sophisticated technology was also used to locate the site of the first mass grave excavated in the camp, as well as two execution sites. The team used some of the photographs and historical documents to make three-dimensional models of the camp buildings, which, unlike other camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, were destroyed almost completely.

The founders of the memorial site are also working on creating a digital archive for photographs, stories, and the names of the prisoners: the ones who survived, and the dead. Beyond their ties with institutions such as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and the Auschwitz Museum, they also wish to contact Holocaust survivors and the families of people who were prisoners at the site, for the archive. For this, you can contact the author at ofer.aderet@haaretz.co.il.

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