One thing I have learned in these past few years of frequent travel, is that itineraries rarely go as planned. Sometimes that can be frustrating, but other times it can work in the traveler’s favor. An example of this is how we came to visit the Płaszów Concentration Camp in Krakow, Poland.
We visited Poland in February 2018. I blogged about most of that trip relatively quickly after we returned (posts here), but it has taken me more than six months to come back to finish this final blog post about Poland. I think I put it off because this one is hard to write. It’s difficult to revisit and describe the photographs. It’s an intense and emotional subject, but it’s so important.
Our plans for our trip to Krakow included a visit to nearby Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Given my part-Polish-Jewish heritage and given this is likely the only time we would be visiting this region, I thought it was an important place to visit, not to mention given its historical significance. That said, my husband and I had concerns about how to visit the site with our 8-year-old son.
In researching for this trip, most sources I found recommended that children be at least 12 years old before learning the detailed horrors of the Holocaust. From what I knew about the layout of Auschwitz-Birkenau, I knew that my husband and I would have to take turns viewing parts of the exhibit while the other stayed with our son in areas away from the graphic displays. We were prepared to do that. However, when we went online to buy our tickets to Auschwitz-Birkenau in advance, we realized we weren’t in advance enough and we weren’t able to get tickets. I admit, this came as a bit of a relief as it took the concerns regarding our son’s experience there off our shoulders. That said, it bothered me that we wouldn’t have the opportunity to visit a site of such significance from the Holocaust.
Should We Visit Concentration Camps?
Before this trip, I had some interesting discussions with friends about visiting concentration camps. Some had shared with me how powerful and moving the experience can be (“being there in person really sinks in the gravity of the horror”). Some asked me why we would want to go anywhere so depressing on a holiday (“aren’t holidays supposed to be all fun?”). Some questioned why anyone would want to subject themselves to visiting sites where such evil occurred and where people suffered such torturous fates (“a visit grossly fulfills morbid curiosity, shouldn’t we just read about it and leave it at that?”).
I thought a lot about this. I concluded that for me, having the opportunity to visit a site of historical significance and be there in person has always been the most effective way (again, for me) to learn history. The importance of seeing something first hand and then being able to bear witness cannot be understated, especially, in this case, in a world where Holocaust-deniers exist.
For others, I think it is important that sites like this are available to the public to observe and learn from, because it isn’t guaranteed that they will learn about it during their education, from their schools or families, or from their personal endeavors.
So, I was disappointed that we wouldn’t have a learning experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau, but I was getting over it. Then, as we drove back into Krakow from our day trip to Zalipie, we passed a huge monument that caught our eye. I looked it up on Google maps and learned that it was a monument located on the site of the former Płaszów Labor and Death Camp. Admittedly, I hadn’t heard of this concentration camp before, at least, I didn’t remember knowing about it. In theory I did, because it is the setting of much of the story told in the movie “Schindler’s List” which I watched many years ago.
When we got back to our hotel, I was looking at the “Krakow In Your Pocket” guide that I got from our hotel lobby and found this history and walking guide of the camp. I referred back to the other travel guide (Lonely Planet) I had been using on our trip and realized I had overlooked the *one* whole paragraph it had dedicated to the camp. I had seen nothing else about it in any of the guides I used to plan our trip.
To be fair, maybe not a lot is written in tour guides about the camp because not a lot is currently there, but I was still frustrated with myself for my lack of knowledge and frustrated with the tourism industry for not making the site more well-known.
I don’t want to appear to be aimlessly complaining, I am doing my part – positively and constructively – to help the tourism industry improve! I have since submitted some information to Lonely Planet though their feedback mechanisms and linked them to the “In Your Pocket” guide and contacts. I also sent a message of gratitude to the folks at “In Your Pocket” for their obvious hard work and efforts to share detailed information about Płaszów. Without their guide, we would have completely missed Płaszów.
Regardless, now that we knew about it, we made time to visit, using the “In Your Pocket” guide, and nineteen relatively new plaques placed on site by the Krakow History Museum, to guide us. According to both the “In Your Pocket” guide and the Krakow History Museum website, archaeological works took place in 2017 and a more complete museum is planned for the site in the future.
A History of Płaszów Concentration Camp
After visiting Płaszów, I wanted to learn more about its history. The printed “Krakow In Your Pocket” guide (No. 110, February-March 2018) that led us to Płaszów in the first place was a valuable source of information. I linked above to the online version, but the printed guide may have additional details, I haven’t compared them word-for-word. I referenced both in my research. I also got some information from the “Lonely Planet: Poland” guide book (8th edition), the Krakow History Museum (some links above and also this link), and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (this link). All the facts and figures I am about to spew below came from these sources as well as the Krakow History Museum’s plaques on site.
The German Nazis began occupying Krakow in the fall of 1939. They started resettling the Jews (there were 65,000 in Krakow) in late 1940 and established the Krakow Ghetto in spring 1941. In 1942, the Nazis created the Płaszów camp. They liked the location because it was close to existing train tracks, and because it had a Jewish pre-burial hall and two Jewish cemeteries. They destroyed the cemeteries and used the headstones to pave the roads of the camp, a form of psychological torture for the Jewish prisoners.
The Nazis used the Jews from the ghetto to build the camp which would become their prison, and for many, their death and final resting place. For other prisoners, it was a place they passed through on their way to other death camps.
At the peak of its existence, Płaszów was a 200-acre camp surrounded by electrified barbed wire, 12 watchtowers, and guards. It imprisoned Jewish, Polish, and other political prisoners. It had living quarters, mess halls, a hospital, an assembly square, a bath house, stables, and the armament workshops and quarries where the prisoners worked. Some prisoners were sent daily to work in local factories, like Oskar Schindler’s enamelware factory. Schindler is credited for saving the lives of some Jewish prisoners from Płaszów by employing them and moving them to another site.
Prisoners working in the quarries were often worked to death in a matter of weeks. Others died of diseases, starvation, or murder. Płaszów’s commander, Amon Goeth, was notoriously violent, killing indiscriminately and for sport, and led his team to rule with terror.
At the end of the war, the Nazis destroyed most documentation and evidence of their Holocaust crimes, so I read many different estimates of how many prisoners passed through Płaszów and how many were killed there. It’s highest population figure at any one time seems to be 25,000 prisoners, with possibly 150,000 passing through it during the years it was open. 8,000 – 12,000 were executed on site.
In late 1944 and early 1945, as the Nazis feared the impending arrival of the Soviet Army, they cleared Płaszów, sending remaining prisoners to Auschwitz where they were killed. The Nazis destroyed as much of the camp as possible, which included digging up the bodies of all the prisoners killed and buried on site, burning their bodies, and scattering their ashes to hide evidence of their existence. Eyewitness accounts recall 17 truckloads of human ashes being scattered. (Anybody need a reminder of the importance of bearing witness?)
What the Soviet army found when it arrived in January 1945 is likely the camp much in the condition that it is in today. What was left has been untouched over time, but not much was left.
The homes that were seized and used by the Nazis as part of the camp were returned to their original owners at the time, so they are now inhabited. Some apartment blocks have been built on part of the site where barracks used to be. Other than that, the camp is mostly barren, an odd combination of undisturbed (aside from a few signs of vandalism and vagrancy) and unrestored. What is unclear to me is, has it been left untouched out of honor, or has it been ignored?
I got the impression that it has been generally accepted as monumental ground and that it should be honored and undisturbed, but no one has figured out how to honor it in a more improved way yet. Hopefully that is what the Krakow History Museum is doing. The recently placed signs are informative and an honorable start.
Some ruins still exist, but much is left to the imagination. I found myself looking at random stones or fence posts and wondering, “were they a part of the camp?” In this respect, it made visiting the camp a more appropriate experience for our family than visiting Auschwitz, because my husband and I could read and understand the history on our own and imagine what once was, without subjecting our young son to the horrors yet.
The signs were descriptive and grave enough that we could get a good understanding of the site, and were appropriate for all ages without being overly graphic. Though it can drive me nuts in other situations, my son is not one to take the initiative to read a bunch of historical markers on his own, so we were able to share with him what we felt was appropriate without worrying about him being exposed to information he wasn’t mature enough for yet.
While we were there, it was mostly quiet. We did encounter a small, privately led tour group, a few other visitors on their own, and a few locals using the site (which is now also considered a park) to jog or walk their dogs. I found this a little odd considering it is the site of unimaginable horrors, the final resting place for 8,000-12,000 imprisoned souls, and the residence of the two earlier Jewish cemeteries, but aside from some vandalism to the ruins of the Jewish pre-burial hall, we saw no other evidence of outright disrespect.
Tour of Płaszów Concentration Camp
It was gray and cold on the day we toured Płaszów. It started to snow while we were there. The weather accentuated the graveness of the site. It was chilling to stand and look at these places, and maybe the snow enhanced that, but I think it would feel that way regardless of the weather.
Near what was the main entrance gate, there are storehouses. Here, possessions were confiscated from the prisoners and were sorted and stored.
The homes at ul. Jerozolimska 8 and 10 (near the main gate) were taken over by the Nazis and used as the main guardhouse, communications headquarters, and officers’ club. They have since been returned to private ownership and have been renovated.
Apartment blocks now stand where the Nazi German Officers’ barracks were.
The Grey House was originally used an administrative office for the Jewish Cemetery that existed on the site prior to the Nazi occupation. Along with other houses in the area, the Nazis took it over and used it for the commander’s offices and lodging. The house also contained solitary prison cells including “standing bunkers” in the basement. Commander Amon Goeth would execute prisoners on the camp grounds from the windows of The Grey House.
I stood for a while and looked at The Grey House from almost every angle, looking in the windows and taking it all in. Maybe only because my mind already knew what took place there, it was cold and dark and had a sinister, haunting feel to it.
Past The Grey House are the ruins of the Jewish Funeral Parlor and pre-burial hall from the Old Podgórze Jewish Cemetery. It was built between 1920-1932 in the Byzantine style. It had mortuaries, rooms for burial preparation, prayer rooms, and ceremony rooms. When the Nazis took over, they used it as stables for horses, cows and pigs before ceremoniously destroying it to make room for train tracks.
There were two Jewish cemeteries on the grounds, the first from 1887 was the Old Cemetery of the Podgórze Jewish Community and the second was from 1932, the New Jewish Cemetery. Upon occupying the site, the Nazis destroyed the cemeteries and used the headstones to pave the roads of the camp, a symbolic and purposely visual intimidation for the prisoners. More recent landscape work has uncovered many stone grave slabs, but only one headstone remains in its original place.
The center of the camp was the site of an early mass grave. Dozens of prisoners were murdered here daily until another location was created in the southern part of the camp. The Assembly Square was built over the early mass grave and was then used for daily inspections, selections, and briefings.
The execution pit named H Górka is now marked now by wooden cross with barbed wire. It was used as an execution pit until it was filled and covered with barracks. The third mass execution site was a deep pit that has been named C Dołek. Polish and Jewish prisoners were executed there, visible to the rest of the camp and prisoners, and then Jewish prisoners had to incinerate their bodies. It is estimated that 8,000 were killed in these two sites.
One sign at the Assembly Square affected me more than anything else at the site. It described a day when many children were rounded up and taken from the site as their parents watched from afar, helpless. I read this, and the description of the weapons used to execute people on site, as my son stood by my side. Standing there, imagining what the victims went through, it was unfathomable to me how anyone can survive that, and how the perpetrators can go through with it.
Rock and gravel were excavated from these quarries to build the camp’s roads and other things. The prisoners working in the quarries were mostly women. They were forced to pull the stone out of the quarries using carts and ropes. Most worked themselves to death within weeks of being there. It made me question things I hope I never have to answer. How long could I survive, both mentally and physically, in a situation like this?
The hills around the quarries still have air raid shelters that were also dug by the prisoners.
The Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts, the large statue that first caught my eye from the motorway as we passed Płaszów, honors the five home countries of victims murdered by German Nazis in the camp. There are three other monuments at its base, placed by various groups, honoring certain victims who passed through or were murdered in the camp. Unfortunately, I did not get a good picture from this part of the camp, but I did get some pictures of a few other memorials near The Grey House.
The Red House was occupied by Amon Goeth for his personal living quarters. Like all the houses in the area, after the war, it was returned to family who owned it before the war. Apparently, a private investor purchased it in 2015 and is now renovating it. None of the sources I read know who owns it or what their plans are for it, a mystery that raises many questions.
Our visit to the Płaszów Concentration Camp was the last thing we did in Poland before going to the airport to fly home. It was a somber end to our trip and a painful yet important reminder of terrible events that took place in our world’s, and my extended family’s, history. My great-great-grandparents fled Poland, escaping religious persecution decades before the Holocaust, but many of their family members did not. As best we know (records aren’t great), those other family members did not survive the Holocaust.
I cannot express strongly enough how important I think it is that people learn about World War II history and the Holocaust. Especially now, as we are seeing a global migration crisis due to violent, murderous, and nationalist regimes, and we are also seeing the rise (or is it resurgence? or revelation of what has never gone away?) globally of hatred, racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. We cannot forget or accept the ugliness this all brings. We must remember our humanity.
I look forward to seeing how the Krakow History Museum continues to enhance the memorial and educational experience at Płaszów Concentration Camp. I recommend a visit there to anyone in Krakow who wants to learn more about the Holocaust or Poland’s World War II history. Especially for us as a family with a younger child, it was an appropriate alternative to visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, and a visit I will never forget.