Meanwhile, Back in Krakow . . . . Untermenschen (Poles) und Juden
In 1939 there were 60,000 – 68,000 Jews living in Krakow (depending on who’s counting), or 25% of the population and the town had a strong Jewish heritage. Home to one of the oldest and most important Jewish communities in Europe, the oldest synagogue in town was founded in 1407. Although there was a Jewish neighborhood, Kazimierz, more Jews lived integrated with the population than in other Polish cities.
In 1860 the Austrian government said Jews could live anywhere, so the richer ones moved out, and Kazimierz remained one of the poorer, more run down areas. Of those Krakow Jews, 65,000 perished during the war; only 3,000 survived.
In May 1940 Krakow was declared as a Jew-free city, and on Passover, April 1941 construction began on the walls of the Jewish ghetto. At the same time 35,000 Nazi officers were deployed in Krakow, and housing was needed for them. Where to find housing? Take over the Jews’ housing and force them to move out. When we toured Kazimierz, our walking tour guide pointed out one of the older synagogues that had been renovated after the war – Nazis used it as a barn for their horses. In March 1943 Jews were given two weeks to move to the ghetto; 20,000 people were squeezed into 370 houses, five people to a room. Roman Polanski was 8 years old at the time and was in the ghetto.
When I visited Poland I remember so many beautiful women, many of whom were blond and blue-eyed. I remember many men with strong, Slavic faces, many of whom were blond. Why mention it? Because another chilling story I wasn’t aware of was the kidnapping of Polish children. In June 1941 Himmler stated “I would consider it proper if young children of Polish families with specially good racial characteristics were collected and educated in special children’s homes . . . . . After one year, such children should be placed as foster children with childless families of good race.” Under this Lebensborn program Germans kidnapped Polish children from Polish orphanages and even off the street. If they weren’t deemed ‘German’ enough they were sent to labour camps rather than returned to their families. Of the approximately 200,000 Polish children kidnapped by the Germans, only between 15 and 20 per cent were returned to Poland after the war.
Not only did the Germans kidnap children, under the łapanka or ‘round-up’ – Germans were in need of free labor, and so would routinely round up Poles to send them back to Germany as forced labor. Poles living in smaller villages were able to hide easier than city-dwellers. Governor Hans Frank of the (German) General Government was able to supply 150,000 Poles in 1943, and 100,000 in 1944 to the German director of labour. In March 1943, the Germans held a small celebration in Krakow to acknowledge the dispatch of the millionth worker to the Reich. I presume the kidnapped children, as well as forced labor were all non-Jewish – as Jews had already been rounded up earlier.
My humble conclusion – Poles of all faiths are to be respected as survivors of great tragedy, not fully understood by, or taught to, the non-Polish world. I had heard Poland suffered far greater loss than any other country – but clarifying that suffering beyond ghettos and concentration camps underscores what the country endured.