On 13 July 1944, at the southern section of the Russian front, a major offensive was launched with the aim of driving the German Army Group North Ukraine from western Ukraine and southeastern Poland.
The Lwów–Sandomierz Offensive, as the plan was codenamed, was also partly conceived as a deception to lure enemy troops down from the north, leaving German Army Group Centre even more vulnerable for attack. The operation was assigned to the 1st Ukrainian Front led by Soviet Marshal Ivan Konev. The Germans, commanded by General Josef Harpe, offered strong resistance, but were surrounded and routed near the town of Brody. The Polish Home Army began an uprising in Lwów (Lviv) on 23 July as the Soviets advanced, and the city was liberated three days later. Red Army bridgeheads were established on the Vistula on 28 July near Baranów Sandomierz. The Germans launched a major counterattack in August in an attempt to push the Russians back across the river, but the Soviets held their position. Both sides dug in until January, when Konev’s troops began their advance across southern Poland.
Kraków, rather than Warsaw, had been the capital of the newly formed General Government. It was governed by Hitler’s lawyer, Hans Frank, who had installed himself in the magnificent Wawel Castle, the former residence of Poland’s royalty. On 17 January 1945, as the Soviets approached, Frank and his administration fled, leaving General Wilhelm Koppe to organize the German military defence and withdrawal. Konev’s 1st Ukrainian Front approached from the north and Major General Ivan Korovnikov’s Fifty-ninth Army from the northeast. Soviet accounts of the battle for Kraków claim that the speed of Konev’s attack saved it from the destruction suffered by so many Polish cities. In 1987, a statue was raised in Konev’s honour. It was pulled down four years later, and most Polish historians now think there were no plans by the Germans to blow up the city, and regard the story of Konev as Kraków’s saviour as a myth.
Early in 1940, a former Polish barracks at Oświęcim, around 70km from Kraków, was converted into a concentration camp and given the German name Auschwitz. For the first year of its existence, most of its inmates were Polish political prisoners. Conditions were extremely harsh and the demands for forced labour at local factories meant that the camp was regularly expanded. In October 1941 work started on another camp nearby, Auschwitz-Birkenau, to accommodate Soviet prisoners of war. Around the same time tests for the gassing of “undesirable” prisoners, using Zyklon B, had already begun. Auschwitz III was a large industrial complex, built for I.G. Farben, which used slave labour.
In the spring of 1942, transports of Jews began to arrive at Auschwitz as part of the Nazis' “Final Solution”. As the numbers of Jews from across Europe increased, so the machinery of murder became more efficient. Some prisoners were also selected for cruel and deadly pseudo-medical experiments conducted by camp doctors. An estimated total of 1.3 million people (Poles, Jews, Roma, Soviet POWs and others) were sent to Auschwitz, of whom 1.1 million were killed; of these, 960,000 were Jews.
The Red Army liberated Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. Before they arrived, the Germans scrambled to destroy all evidence of their crimes, killing thousands of prisoners and taking 60,000 others on a forced march westwards. Around 15,000 died, either shot because they couldn’t keep up, or simply succumbing to malnutrition, disease and the freezing winter weather.
Housed in an austere red-brick former Austrian barracks, and slightly off the beaten track, this is the only museum entirely dedicated to Poland’s underground government and resistance army. The many objects on display range from personal memorabilia and photographs to weaponry, including the reconstruction of a V2 rocket. You enter through a large, light-filled courtyard, but most of the collection is displayed in the dimly lit basement with only a limited amount of explanation in English. With this in mind, it’s well worth taking a guided tour of the museum, which requires advanced booking.
The Dom Śląski (Silesian House) was a hostel for Silesian students before it became Kraków’s Gestapo headquarters in 1939. It is now a museum with a permanent exhibition entitled “People of Kraków in Times of Terror 1939-1945-1956”, which tells of the suffering endured by Kraków’s citizens under both the Nazi regime and during the postwar Stalinist tyranny. The emphasis is on the human cost of institutionalized cruelty: a wall of faces lines the entrance corridor – official mugshots of concentration camp inmates – and in the basement the cell walls are covered with the scratched names of those held and tortured here.
Kazimierz is now one of the most vibrant districts of Kraków, as it was in the prewar years as the city’s historic Jewish quarter and one of the great centres of European Jewry. The Nazis displaced and then murdered its inhabitants, but left most of Kazimierz’s buildings standing, although they plundered or destroyed nearly all its treasures. Wandering the streets gives some sense of what prewar life was like. Of its seven synagogues, two now serve the city’s small Jewish community, while the grandest, the Old Synagogue, is a fine Renaissance building, heavily damaged by the Nazis, but restored in the 1950s and now a museum.
This museum, housed in a former warehouse, was founded in 2004 by British photographer Chris Schwarz to commemorate the lost Jewish world of Galicia, a Habsburg Empire province and former kingdom that stretched from Oświęcim in the west to Ternopil (now part of western Ukraine) in the east. The main exhibition, “Traces of Memory”, displays Schwartz’s poignant photographs, with text by Jonathan Webber, and records the residue of Jewish life – synagogues and cemeteries, some abandoned and decaying – from across this once ethnically diverse region.
Just across the river – now conveniently linked by the Father Bernatek Footbridge – is the district of Podgórze, where the Kraków ghetto was crammed into a handful of streets. Fragments of the ghetto wall (built in the shape of tombstones) still exist: a small stretch is visible at ul. Lwowska 25–29 and a longer section at ul. Limanowskiego 60/62. The only surviving synagogue from the ghetto area, the Zucher Synagogue, is now an art gallery. Plac Zgody, the main square of the ghetto, is now named Plac Bohaterów Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square), and is where a recent memorial has been erected in the form of rows of metal chairs – a reference to the Nazi practice of throwing furniture into the square as people were deported from their homes.
This museum is located in the original pharmacy building and was inspired by Tadeusz Pankiewicz’s memoir, The Kraków Ghetto Pharmacy. The interior has been recreated as closely as possible to how it was (based on old photographs) and much of the information is displayed in wooden cabinets and drawers. There are a total of five rooms, each themed slightly differently, covering such topics as Pankiewicz’s own story, the history of Kraków’s Jews, what life was like in the ghetto, and the role the pharmacy played in helping people survive.
The Schindler Factory – a ten-minute walk from the Pharmacy Under the Eagle – is now a museum with a permanent exhibition on the life of the city during the war. Called “Kraków During Nazi Occupation 1939–1945”, as with many of Poland’s museums about the occupation, it focuses on the individuals caught up in those nightmarish times, using recorded testimonies as well as documents and artefacts. Schindler and his workers are part of the story, but by no means the main emphasis. The museum is extremely popular and it is essential to book tickets in advance to avoid disappointment. Schindler’s now dilapidated villa is close by at Tadeusza Romanowicza 9, but is not open to the public.
Close to Podgórze and the ghetto, Płaszów is the site of the concentration camp where many Jews worked and where many lost their lives. Most of the camp was razed to the ground after the war, and the area is now a wild and overgrown wedge of land between ul. Kamieńskiego and ul. Wielicka. There are plans for a museum, and there are boards explaining Płaszów history, but the area is not yet geared for tourists and feels rather neglected. For the intrepid, however, there is still much to see, including the villa, known as the Grey House, which was once the offices of the Płaszów SS and Amon Goeth.
A vast granite monument commemorating the “martyrs murdered by the Nazi perpetrators of genocide” looms over the site. The camp was built on a former Jewish cemetery and recently a single gravestone has been restored.
The entrance to the original camp is through the infamous main gate bearing the message Arbeit Macht Frei (“Work Makes You Free”). The camp itself is made up of a series of barrack buildings divided into blocks, many showing exhibits relating to specific countries, peoples or themes. Several displays show masses of a single object – suitcases, children’s shoes, human hair – bringing home in a particularly graphic way the sheer enormity of the Nazis’ crimes. Block 11 is where the first tests of Zyklon B took place and where the Polish priest Maximilian Kolbe was starved to death, having taken the place of another prisoner. Outside is the wall where thousands of prisoners were shot by the SS.
Birkenau, about 3km northwest of Auschwitz, is more austere and regimented, with a vast area where the grid of prisoner blocks once stood – by 1944 the camp held as many as 100,000 inmates. Just a few of the huts still stand, allowing visitors to see the cramped and dehumanizing conditions. The railway line ran straight down the middle of Birkenau, ending close to the gas chambers. As the Red Army approached, the Nazis tried to destroy all evidence of what had been happening, but what remains bears powerful testimony to the terrible suffering experienced here. Both camps receive thousands of visitors each year and it is worth booking before you make the journey to Oświęcim.
Opened in 2016 and located in the mountainous Podkarpackie region some 190km east of Kraków, this museum is dedicated to those Poles who risked, and often lost, their lives attempting to protect Jews from Nazi persecution. It’s named after Jósef and Wiktoria Ulma, who cared for eight Jews at their farm before being betrayed by a neighbour in March 1944. The Ulmas, their six children and those they sheltered were all shot. The museum has been criticized by some for having a nationalist agenda, but there is little evidence of this in the sensitive and balanced displays which make it clear that such principled acts of bravery were the exception rather than the rule.
Top image: Auschwitz concentration camp © brunocoelho/Shutterstock