"In the immense silence, our unconfessed, mute and gagged reality takes shape."
At the end of the 1930s, the Jews of Kraków––one of the most famous Jewish communities in Europe, with origins dating to the first half of the 11th century––numbered about 60,000 people, a quarter of the city’s population. The war which followed the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 proved utterly catastrophic Kraków’s Jews, as for all Jews in Poland, and everywhere under German control.
They were immediately subjected to a battery of discriminatory regulations: obliged to wear identifying armbands and to place distinguishing signs in stores and businesses, prohibited from owning private vehicles, restricted in their use of public transportation, limited in their access to public parks, prohibited from entering the city’s historic Main Square, forced to register property assets, subjected to the freezing of bank accounts, and compelled to turn over confiscated businesses. Jews were expelled from all judicial institutions, and their public schools were closed. The city’s Jewish archives, libraries and synagogues were plundered and desecrated––many houses of prayer turned into warehouses and storage units––and enormous amounts of Jewish property were stolen and transported away to the German Reich. By November 1939, the Germans counted the Jewish population of Kraków to be approximately 70,000.
In May 1940, German authorities ordered the Jewish population of the city to be expelled, which initially progressed slowly, and then gradually grew more intensive, resulting in the deportation of approximately 60,000 people by February 1941. In early March 1941, the Germans required all Jews remaining in the city to relocate to a ghetto newly established south of the Wisła River in the Podgórze section of the city, (not in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish quarter just north of the river). By the end of March, between 15,000-20,000 were crammed into 325 residential buildings, in an area that previously housed 3,000 people, while displaced Poles were allotted vacated Jewish apartments in other parts of the city. The ghetto was sealed off from the rest of the city by barbed wire fencing, walls and guard towers, and from October 1941, Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto, on penalty of death.
In Kraków, as in regional towns, and all of occupied Poland’s major cities—Warsaw, Łódź, Białystok, Lwów, Lublin, Wilno, Kovno, Częstochowa—the ghetto’s purpose was persecution, terror, theft, exploitation, and the culling of “able” Jewish workers for the Nazi war effort. The Germans established several factories for Jewish forced labor, both within the ghetto and in camps located near the ghetto, including the Płaszów camp, whose history is closely tied to the ghetto. The ghetto’s work quotas, food rations, housing assignments, medical care and eventually deportation orders were directly administered by the Judenrat (Council of the Jewish Community) and the Jewish police, both staffed with Jewish collaborators—which did not save them from eventual deportation and execution.
Plac Bohaterów Getta, before the war called Plac Zgody—Harmony Square in English—was the Kraków ghetto’s hub. On its northern end, just shy of where the main road, Na Zjeździe, crosses the Vistula river, stood one of the ghetto’s main gates, through which a tram ran—without stops in the ghetto—and through which columns of Jewish workers would pass during the ghetto’s early period. The square became the center of commerce in the ghetto’s internal economy. It was the place to sell and buy smuggled food, to hawk clothing, furniture, jewelry, heirlooms and all manner of possessions carried in during deportations. It was the place to trade news, rumor, gossip, insight.
Most notoriously, the square served as the Umschlagplatz, the gathering point for Jews rounded up for deportation to the German death camps at Bełżec, Auschwitz and Płaszów. As such, the square signified the unknown aspects of Jews' miserable destiny in the hands of the Germans. And as in ghettos across occupied Poland, the square and its surrounding courtyards also prognosticated a great deal about that fate: they were the places where the very old and very young—those deemed unworthy even of deportation—were publicly and summarily murdered during the roundups themselves.
A single non-Jew was allowed to reside in the ghetto, the Polish Catholic Tadeusz Pankiewicz, owner of Apteka pod Orłem (“Pharmacy under the Eagle”), located at the southern end of Plac Zgody. Declining the German offer to relocate to the Aryan side of the city, Pankiewicz obtained permission to continue to operate his pharmacy in the ghetto and to live upstairs, and to allow his three female assistants to enter and leave the ghetto daily for work. Despite continuous Nazi surveillance and the ever-present threat of death, Pankiewicz and his staff shrewdly resisted the ghetto’s regime of death. Pankiewicz gave great quantities of free medicine to condemned Jews. He issued false documents, circulated information about hiding places, smuggled food and information, offered shelter for Jews facing deportation, and created a vault under his shop to store Torah scrolls and other religious objects. The ghetto’s intelligentsia gathered in his drugstore, which became a refuge, an underground salon, a free space in an urban prison.
The ghetto was also the center of Jewish resistance, principally the the underground Jewish Fighting Organization, known by its Polish acronym ŻOB. On December 22, 1942, ŻOB unleashed a dramatic series of coordinated bombings in central Kraków: at the Cyganeria Café, frequented by Nazi officers, the German Officers’ Casino in the National Museum, the Esplanade Café on the corner of Podwale and Krupnicza Streets, the Bisanz Officers’ Club and Café Zakopianka. At the same time, ŻOB fighters hung banned Polish national flags around Kraków, including on Matejko Square, Batory Street and on the Piłsudski and Dębnicki Bridges. Other groups of Jewish fighters left flowers in the Main Square at the site of Adam Mickiewicz’s statue (which had been blown up by the Germans) and scattered leaflets calling on Poles to resist the occupiers. The city descended into chaos. German military and police cars, ambulances and fire trucks rushed in all directions. Members of the ŻOB compounded the confusion with phony calls to the emergency services, reporting explosions and fires in other parts of the city. An estimated 7-11 German soldiers were killed during these attacks, with over a dozen others wounded. Conceived as the beginning of a campaign of Jewish guerrilla resistance in Kraków, the attacks turned out to be the high point of that resistance, which the Gestapo systematically crushed in the months following.
The determination of the Jewish guerrillas to fight and die on their own terms was a foil for the myriad forms Jews were killed by everyday realities of the ghetto. Starvation, disease, exposure to the elements, overwork and all variety of mental distress defined the parameters of “life” in the ghetto, beyond which were random detentions and murders in the streets, and other forms of quotidian humiliation and terror. By the spring of 1942, the physical extermination of the Jews of Kraków assumed its most concentrated form. Large-scale, coordinated roundups occurred in early June 1942 and again in October 1942, together sending some 13,000 Jews to the death camp at Bełżec, by way of nearby Płaszów. The final liquidation of the ghetto came on March 13-14, 1943. The SS and German police shot some 2,000 people in the streets of the ghetto itself, transferred another 2,000 to Płaszów for forced labor, and deported approximately 3,000 to the Auschwitz killing center. From the pharmacy, Pankiewicz witnessed the brutal events of the liquidation:
“Plac Zgody resembled a battlefield with thousands of bundles and items of baggage scattered around. Here and there, a small child played on the asphalt surface soaked with blood. SS soldiers went about taking the children. Sometimes a soldier would be leading a few children holding one another’s hands, taking them to killing yard. Others were pushing baby carriages where a baby was sleeping. The children would disappear and then a volley of guns would be heard. In order to save ammunition, often a group of children were shot with one bullet. They were put in rows and a single bullet would be used. Several babies would be placed into a carriage, all of them killed with one bullet.”
The sequence of pictures in this book is a meditation on one of two remnants of the ghetto walls that remain in contemporary Kraków—the lesser known of the two. The short section of the wall on ul. Lwowska is the remnant most commonly visited by tourists, and most commonly used for ceremonial and official remembrance events. The section pictured here is located behind a school at ul. Limanowskiego 60/62, stretching some twelve meters up a gentle slope. On one side of the wall is a quiet playground, where everyday life goes on almost as if there were no such wall at all. On the other side of the wall is a scrubby forest of young trees growing in the gravelly dirt of what was likely once a small quarry at the time of the ghetto. The wall announces itself as a sepulchral object by its shape. Its scalloped top was designed to look exotic, as if to mark the Jews imprisoned inside the walls as “other” to those on the Aryan side. To Jewish eyes, the semi-circular arches topping each of the wall’s segments made reference to traditional Jewish tombstones, a cruel foreshadowing of the fate of the ghetto’s prisoners during the war, and today a kind of rearshadowing of genocidal history in a place of seeming normality.
I first made photographs of this wall in 2010, and continued to photograph it in the years following for my project Alive and Destroyed: A Meditation on the Holocaust in Time. From the first time I encountered it, it beguiled me. Over and over I wrestled with its contradictoriness and the double consciousness it unleashes on visitors who study it (not all visitors do)––a double incomprehension of alternately blunt and mute testimony, in which historical consciousness of genocide is neither fully integrated into nor fully disintegrated from the everyday world.
I made the photographs in this book between January and September 2018, except the last picture, which comes from the summer of 2015. It is, I suppose, obvious enough that I am attempting to visualize the wall in a dialectical way, from two sides and through a series of changes. The color photographs show the wall from what was the Aryan side, the historically free space that was not the ghetto, and the black and white photographs show the wall from what was the inside of the ghetto. That is to say, the playground sits in the historically free space that was not the ghetto, and the forest in the historically captive space––a playground that is distinctly quiet, static to the point sometimes of morose, and a forest that is chaotic and constantly changing, full of the cycles of growth and decay.
By design, the sequence here approaches the problem of visualizing historical consciousness as a search for an inexact specificity, a calibrated give and take of particular observations that eventually give way to a larger conception of time in this place. I do not know the right word to describe the way that time seems to behave in this place. In the change of seasons is a sense of the change of decades and lifetimes, which is to say a roving anticipation both of the future and of the past as each sits within the present. And in the stillness of the images is a sense of the present as a crystalline formation of what is already there to be observed, and also what is no longer there to be encountered. The inexact specificity of time is by turns anticipatory and projective, quiescent and volute.
And by design, the book shows the wall in two ways simultaneously. Across each spread, the wall links the two pictures—almost jumps across the gutter of the book and keeps going in a different form—presenting the wall’s two sides with a strange co-extensiveness. And at the same time, each page holds the two views of the wall back to back, so that the page of the book becomes a surrogate for the wall itself. To turn the pages of this book is to hold a miniaturized version of the wall, and to acquire an observational prerogative that a visit to the wall does not afford. Just as the wall itself is a border site, a place of profound betweenness in space and in time, the book should enact and perform that betweenness, and more––should become a place where that betweenness finds refuge.
Kraków, September 2018