|Cracow under German Occupation, 1939-1945
In 1939, France and Britain
were committed by treaty to come to the defense of Poland. Poles took it
for granted that their allies would hit Hitler hard, and promptly. They
expected a short war. Once Britain and France attacked in the West, Germany
would have to withdraw from the East. Rather than staying in Warsaw to
be captured, the Polish government, and large portions of the army, evacuated
over the Carpathian mountains and set up shop in France, ready to carry
on the fight. Even with German troops marching through their streets, Poles
thought of themselves as still part of the great anti-Hitler coalition
that would soon sweep away the German dictator. The lightning German conquest
could be seen as a tactical setback in a war that, by the logic of the
times, the Allies should soon win.
In Poland, the only country
whose armed forces fought the Nazis from the first to the last day of the
war, people did not know that they had been thrust into a new phase of
history where the occupation would be far worse than the war. Nor could
they surmise, in 1939, that Nazi occupation would blend almost seamlessly
into Soviet "liberation" over five nightmarish years later. In 1939, Poles
still believed in treaty obligations, and could hardly have conceived of
the fate to which their allies would abandon them when they divided Europe
up at the Yalta Conference. So it was that, as Chwalba notes, the fall
of Cracow and Warsaw came as less of a shock to Poles than the fall of
Paris the following summer.
Germans began by acting in an
impeccable way*, the way occupying forces were supposed to. They met
with Polish officials in Cracow to discuss the resumption of normal public
life. Schools and the universities, they implied, could reopen. Yet when
the Cracow university faculty convened in October 1939, thinking they would
be discussing practicalities with the German supervisors, they instead
found themselves being screamed at by a hysterical Nazi. Then they were
dragged out to waiting army trucks and shipped off to a concentration camp
in Germany, where many of them would die. That, rather than the swift September
occupation, was the real beginning of a nightmare that would last for fifty
Capital of the Nazi German
The first large city to be
taken by an invading German army in the Second World War, Cracow made it
to 1945 without suffering physical destruction by bombing, demolition,
siege, or street fighting. The Germans regarded it as an "ur-Deutsche"
(primordially German) city and made it the capital of the General Government,
the quasi state they established for those eastern territories that they
did not annex to the Reich proper. Hans Frank, long Hitler's lawyer, moved
into Wawel castle as governor. Large numbers of German bureaucrats assigned
to govern the East followed.
While the city's buildings
came through unscathed, its large Jewish population, which accounted for
over a third of the inhabitants and owned a predominant share of the real
estate, met the tragic end as all European Jews. The Germans stole all
their possessions, herded them into a ghetto, then shipped them off to
slave labor or to the gas chambers. At every step of this monstrous process,
the Germans treated the Jews with sneering contempt, beating, humiliating,
or shooting any Jewish individual they chose, at any moment they chose,
for any reason or for no reason at all, with no expectation of ever having
to face even the slightest consequences for their actions.
Everyone who has seen Schindler's
List knows, however, that there were special circumstances even in the
midst of the Shoah.
Although the Germans built
Auschwitz only fifty kilometers away, they sent the majority of Cracow's
Jews not there, but to the ghastly Belzec death camp to the east. The thousands
of local Jews who avoided the large transports there in 1942-1943 were,
for the most part, imprisoned afterwards in the Plaszow camp, just down
the road from the ghetto that the Germans had set up.
This was exceptional - a
large Jewish population being held in a camp on the outskirts of the city
where they had lived. They were exposed to the butchery of the handsome
commandant, Amon Goeth, who struck even some of his fellow Nazis as repulsively
bloodthirsty. Yet the fact that the Cracow Jews were incarcerated near
their homes, property (some of which they managed to preserve from Nazi
confiscation), and associates, and to boot in the get-rich-quick, highly
corrupt atmosphere of the Nazi's capital for the exploitation of their
eastern domains, made miracles like Schindler's possible in a way that
would have been unthinkable elsewhere. Schindler was an opportunist who
used a con man's skills to do good while doing well for himself. A member
of the Nazi apparatus and an Abwehr informer, he saved over a thousand
people from the Holocaust.
Perhaps equally remarkably,
the Polish government-in-exile, operating out of distant London, used its
agents, couriers, and its "underground state" to save 2,000 Jews in hiding
in "Aryan" Cracow. The Polish resistance kept records including the real
names of the concealed Jews to whom it paid monthly subsidies. All of the
Poles engaged in this effort did so in full awareness that they could face
summary execution or deportation to Auschwitz if detected.
At the same time, not only
the Germans, but some Poles as well, were acquiring Jewish-owned property.
At best, a Polish "new class" of wheeler-dealers and war profiteers enriched
themselves by taking remorseless advantage of the tragic desperation of
people on their way to extermination. At worst, some of these Poles sank
to deceit, blackmail, and fraud in grabbing the victims' property. Sixty
years later, the status of many formerly Jewish-owned buildings in Cracow
is still up in the air amid continuing revelations that wartime deeds and
titles were falsified. Fraudsters engaged in these swindles were, and still
are, found in all denominational communities.
The lowest circle of infamy
belongs to those who aided the German extermination campaign for monetary
gain. The clandestine Polish press threatened "szmalcownicy" (blackmailers
and extortionists) with death sentences passed by underground courts during
the war, but in Cracow, as elsewhere, these admonitions did not suffice.
Some Poles, and even a few Jews, collaborated in various ways with the
Gestapo and the extermination apparatus.
The Germans did more than
create the conditions that made this nightmare of money and blood possible.
They wallowed in it. Chwalba (who has written interesting books on corruption
and collaboration in the parts of Poland that were under Tsarist rule before
the First World War) demonstrates at length that corruptibility was hardly
an exception in the capital of the German East. "The Germans were all on
the take," he writes.
Four Wartime Cities
Andrzej Chwalba's book, unlike
any of the previous volumes in this series (with the partial exception
of the first volume, which opens with Jerzy Wyrozumski's fascinatingly
exhaustive ruminations on the origins and shape of Cracow at the dawn of
its recorded history), affords the reader that particular pleasure of watching
the professional historian unpack and put to use all the tools at his disposal.
In the first place, Chwalba
takes a groundbreaking approach to Cracow's multicultural history by dividing
the main part of his narrative into four sections titled "Krakau," "Krakiv,"
"Kroke", and "Krakow"--the German, Ukrainian, Yiddish, and Polish names
The Germans had an interest
in making their Eastern capital as grand a place as possible. After all,
they planned first to get rid of the Jews, and then to get rid of the Poles,
initially by concentrating them on the right bank of the Vistula once the
Jews were gone from the ghetto the Germans had set up for them there. As
every Polish schoolchild used to learn, the Germans appropriated as much
of the Polish heritage as possible. The way they converted Copernicus into
a German emblemizes this cultural cleansing. What they could not germanize,
like the Mickiewicz monument on the Main Square or the Grunwald monument
celebrating the Slavic triumph at Tannenberg, they destroyed.
Yet they also built roads,
infrastructure, flood-control projects, and whole housing districts, including
the solid looking apartment houses along what is now ulica Krolewska, which
remain desirable residential property to this day. Chwalba shows, on the
one hand, how the Germans continued or embarked upon projects drawn up
before the war by Polish urban planners and, on the other hand, how much
of postwar Cracow consists of what the Germans themselves either built
or planned (with the exception, he notes, of Nowa Huta, which only the
Soviets could have planned). He not only lists the various German organizations
that operated in Cracow, but sketches their activities and even lists the
buildings where they had their headquarters.
The Ukrainian chapter is
relatively sketchy, but remains an eye-opener. The fact that the pre-war
Polish government perversely allowed a "Ukrainian Institute" to function
at the Cracow university while forbidding one in Lviv (Polish Lwow, with
its large Ukrainian minority) meant that Cracow was already a Ukrainian
intellectual and emigre political center. After the Germans and Soviets
carved up Poland in 1939, Ukrainians gathered in Cracow with the hope that
they would someday follow the Wehrmacht eastward and set up their own government
in their own country. As a side effect, many Ukrainians became zealous
supporters of the German push to strip Cracow of its Polish identity. Some
local Ukrainian leaders nevertheless distinguished themselves by their
humane attitudes. In the event, the Germans had no desire to see any kind
of independent government established in the Ukraine. Many Ukrainians traveled
east hopefully in 1941 but soon returned to Cracow embittered. Some joined
auxiliary formations that, among other things, served as concentration
camp guards and special police squads. Others lingered as ethnic activists
in Cracow through the Nazi twilight. Much more of this tale remains to
be told, but Chwalba's chapter is a long overdue starting point.
The story of how the Germans
destroyed Cracow's great Jewish community has been recounted in detail
since the end of the war, especially in memoirs by survivors. Chwalba uses
a judicious selection of these sources, and draws on the often neglected
accounts collected immediately after the end of the war by the Jewish Historical
Commission in Cracow. He details the sickening progression of anti-Jewish
restrictions that the Germans imposed, but the final chapter, played out
in the death camps, lies outside the scope of this book on Cracow.
There is interesting material
on the murky subject of the Judenrat and the Jewish social welfare
agencies that operated officially in the ghetto while supporting certain
resistance operations. If there could be any reservations about this part
of the book, they would have to do with a lack of detail on the attack
that Jewish partisans carried out against the Cyganeria cafe on ulica Szpitalna,
frequented by German officers. There is an extensive and relatively balanced
discussion of the complex relations, better and worse, between Jews and
Catholic Poles during the war, but perhaps too little on the Plaszow camp;
the author may have been unable to decide whether the camp was part of
his subject or not.
Chwalba makes one often overlooked
point that explains a great deal of what happened during the war and afterwards.
Namely, the fact that the Germans placed their Jewish ghetto in a district
that had been predominantly inhabited by non-Jewish Cracovians, and moved
these non-Jewish residents into the poor Kazimierz quarter that many of
the ghetto victims had been forced to vacate. Something similar happened
with much of the formerly Jewish-owned real estate on the wealthier western
side of town, which the Germans seized for themselves, and into which Poles
often moved as soon as the Germans fled in 1945.
This not only mixed up the
property relations between Jewish and non-Jewish Cracovians in a way that
is still evident. It also, unintentionally, ensured that the bricks and
mortar of the old Jewish quarter were not destroyed, but rather persisted
in the material sense (inhabited by people who were, for the most part,
too poor to alter the character of the district during the communist decades)
to become the city's most vibrant neighborhood today, one where every stone
is unmistakably Jewish and yet where few Jewish people, aside from tourists,
can be found.
Everyday Occupation Life
The section on "Polish Cracow"
during the war constitutes the greater part of the book, and it is here
that Chwalba is at his best, giving us a hero, a nuts-and-bolts explanation
of occupation life, and a great deal of little known history.
The individual who stands
out among the many brief portraits in the book is Zygmunt Zulawski, who
had been a member of the Polish parliament when the Germans invaded. Zulawski
belonged to the PPS, the Polish Socialist Party, which, despite the city's
longstanding reputation for conservatism and kowtowing to the aristocracy,
had won the highest share of votes in the last prewar elections. Zulawski
opposed the transformation of his party into a clandestine organization.
He feared, not without foresight, that an underground resistance movement
would lend an unhealthy prominence to the officer caste that had discredited
itself in the "Sanacja" junta that attempted to run the country with a
heavy hand after Pilsudski's death in 1935.
Some socialist colleagues
went underground and became legendary (the best known of these younger
Cyrankiewicz, built a legend so impressive that he was still squandering
it after forty years as a communist nabob). Zulawski left the card on his
apartment door reading "Delegate to Parliament." When the Gestapo came
calling, he greeted them in outrage: How dare they disturb a veteran of
the Austrian army and a labor union activist? The thugs withdrew in embarrassment--far
from the only occasion in the last century when a totalitarian system knew
how to deal with conspiracies and secret plots, but not with individuals
who stood up to proclaim what they believed in.
Chwalba covers the wide range
of Polish organizations that remained active during the occupation. Aside
from the secret military and quasi-military resistance organizations, these
included the RGO, the Main Welfare Council (which distributed aid both
overtly and covertly, including the aid to Jews mentioned earlier, while
also cooperating with the Underground). Like the RGO, the Catholic Church
had to steer a delicate course. It could not offend the Germans in a way
that would provoke mass reprisals. At the same time, it had to speak out
in the name of those who were suffering and avoid doing anything that could
be construed as acknowledging the legitimacy of the occupation authorities.
Hans Frank was quoted as
dreaming of ejecting the Archbishop-Prince, Cardinal Adam Sapieha, from
the diocesan palace. Instead, Frank ended up biting his tongue as he listened
to Sapieha's bitter admonitions, for the hierarch's authority made him,
in effect, the head of the Church and the most respected figure in Poland
during the war. Clerics noted that Pius XII's refusal to condemn Nazi atrocities
against Polish Catholics reduced the reputation of the Vatican to the lowest
point in a century, while Sapieha was laying up the moral capital that
enabled the Church in Cracow to withstand both the Nazis and the communists
who followed them.
Not only the Church, but
Cracow as a whole learned lessons under the Nazis that would help in resisting
communism for fifty years. This is where Chwalba's craftsmanship shines.
He shows how people lived during the occupation in everyday terms--where
their money came from and where they spent it, what they ate, what they
wore, and how they diverted themselves--under conditions of extreme restriction.
At a certain point in 1943,
the official food ration for Poles in Cracow dropped to 930 calories per
day, less than the rations in the concentration camps, at least on paper.
German employers were complaining that the Poles assigned to labor for
them were too weak to work efficiently. Public health data showed that
the population had, on average, been losing weight steadily since the beginning
of the war. This seems to have been the very moment when civilians began
to exhibit the genius for "scrounging" and "organizing"--for making do
in spite of the regulations--that would see them through not only the rest
of the occupation, but also the communist era. Within a year, the situation
had reversed itself and the Poles in Cracow were eating better than the
Germans running the city. The Nazi policy of separate shops for Poles and
Germans backfired, for the Poles learned how to get around the official
restrictions and sell things under the counter, in a way that the Germans
This state of affairs benefited
the new class of black market profiteers who made themselves obnoxious
with their flashy cars, clothing, and jewels, and who frequented expensive
restaurants that carried on long past the curfew as speakeasies or clandestine
night clubs. People arriving in Cracow from other parts of Nazi-occupied
Europe marveled at seeing well dressed people on the streets, with women
in new hats instead of the ubiquitous wartime scarves.
Few women, of course, could
afford new hats. Nor could any but a tiny percentage of Poles splash money
around at exorbitantly priced speakeasies. However, the curfew meant that
people took it for granted that, if they invited friends to drop in for
the evening, the party would have to carry on until dawn. Behind the blackout
curtains, bridge became a ruling passion of the middle classes. In the
family circle, enforced togetherness in the evenings led to the rise of
pursuits like reading aloud from books (we must remember that the Germans
denied Polish children anything beyond an elementary education) or from
the underground press.
The Germans seized the city's
established theaters and turned them into shrines to "Ur-Deutsch" culture,
but the Poles were allowed to organize their own "popular reviews." This
was controversial: the Polish establishment called for a boycott of these
"demoralizing spectacles," but the reviews achieved a certain artistic
level and drew audiences of entertainment-starved young people and members
of social strata who had not been regular theatergoers before the war.
Thus the Cracow cabaret tradition was reinvigorated, and the foundation
laid for another aspect of cultural life that would thrive under communism
and ultimately help to undercut that later form of totalitarianism.
Chwalba describes the much
noted phenomenon of theatrical performances (staged by artists including
Kantor) in private apartments, adding
surprising data on its scale. Some of these clandestine theatrical productions,
he notes, involved audiences of over a hundred, including factory workers,
and eyewitnesses recall that the applause and laughter could sometimes
be heard at the far end of the street.
Then there is the story of
the Philharmonic. Frank was a music lover and decided early on to form
an orchestra of Polish musicians under German management and with a German
conductor. The Governor General allowed Poles to attend the concerts. Perhaps
he wrongly thought that listening to Beethoven would convince them of Nazi
superiority; more probably, he wanted to ensure that his musicians could
play to a full house. When the Germans fled in January 1945, the orchestra
carried on and was soon giving concerts under a baton wielded by a Polish
hand, and so the Cracow Philharmonic continues to this day, with a heritage
running directly back to the occupation.
Chwalba's final chapter examines
the liberation of Cracow by the Red Army. He scrutinizes the communist-era
myths of General Koneev's miraculous "maneuver that rescued Cracow" (supposedly
carried out for purely altruistic reasons by this hard-bitten Soviet general,
who decided for some reason that Cracow's cultural substance should be
saved even at the cost of his own men and of his campaign objectives),
of the city's capture "without a shot being fired," and of how either the
Soviets or the Polish resistance (take your pick) managed at the last moment
to cut the master cable by means of which the Germans were about to set
off massive demolition charges and blow Wawel, the Main Square, and everything
else of any historical value in the city sky high.
Chwalba shows that there
was no master demolition plan, only standard military precautions for blowing
up bridges when retreating (and the Germans did manage to blow up the bridges
over the Vistula, although not until the Soviets had already crossed
some of them). The Red Army spared the city any destructive artillery shelling,
but there was no need for such measures with the Germans already in full
flight. On the other hand, and this is something that communist historiography
took great pains to conceal for five decades, the Soviet Air Force did
bomb infrastructure targets, especially the train station, and, yes, there
was "collateral damage."
The respected Cracow publisher
Wydawnictwo Literackie has been engaged for decades in their multi-volume,
large-format history of the city. It was fortunate that the volume covering
the period between the First and Second World Wars came out after the end
of the old system in 1989, since the hand of the communist censor lay heavily
upon all material dealing with those years. This is all the more true of
Andrzej Chwalba's volume on the Nazi occupation, the time directly
preceding the establishment of "People's Power."
It comes as something of
a shock to realize, when glancing through Chwalba's bibliography, that
there has been only one previous general book on the subject, Wronski's
Chronicle of Occupied Cracow (in Polish), which contained a wealth
of day-by-day information but steered clear of general historical assessments,
treated the resistance movement in a highly selective way, and propounded
the official "heroic" version of the war years while passing over all those
intriguing rumors about the war that every visitor to Cracow begins hearing
soon after first walking across the Main Square. Chwalba's book more than
fills the gap.
they did not act impeccably in the countryside. On September 5 in the village
of Podrzecze in the Podhale region, they killed a boy with Down's syndrome
who protested that Wehrmacht soldiers were stealing his father's fodder
for their horses, and shot seven more civilians, including an old blind
man, that night. The Einsatzgruppen followed the troops, and murdered groups
of up to 160 Jewish men at a time in towns not far from Cracow during the
first month of the war. See Dziennik
Polski, May 28, 2004 [in Polish]. (Back
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