Saturday, 24 October 2015

Płaszów Concentration Camp

Steven Speilberg fans who are familiar with the film "Schindler's List" will immediately recognise the name of Płaszów. This was originally set up as a forced labour camp by the German Nazis, encouraged by the fact that a penal colony already existed in the neighbouring Liban quarry. However, in true Nazi style, it soon developed into a full blown concentration camp with all the associated brutality, torture, mass murder, beatings and general inhumanity to fellow human beings. It exists today as a large area of wasteland in the Podgorze area of Krakow, but a few remnants from the camp are still visible. Visitors to Krakow usually concentrate on being whisked away to Auschwitz, however, the remains of Płaszów are a very poignant, rewarding reminder of the horrific scale of Nazi barbarism. There is definitely a haunting, desolate air to the place that is tangible. You can combine your venture to this part of the city with a visit to the Liban quarry and Krakus mound.

Płaszów at it's peak
Established in 1942, at its peak the Plaszow camp imprisoned 25,000 inmates at any one time. This included men, women, and even children. In the three years of its existence, it is estimated that 150,000 people were imprisoned here. Some were Jews of Krakow, many were those cleared from the nearby Podgórze ghetto.
Clearing the Podgórze ghetto -
Some were from Poland’s other cities as well as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, France, Belgium, and Romania. However, Poles and the Roma were also incarcerated here. The camp was separated into different sectors and was constructed on the site of the Krakow and Podgorze Jewish cemeteries. These were destroyed and the gravestones used to make roads for the camp. In Płaszów itself, there was a living area with separate buildings for men and women, a central square/assembly point, quarantine area and barracks for the sick, a food area, an industrial area, stables, a coach house, administrative centre and commandant's headquarters. The prisoners were used as forced slave labour in the camp, quarry and in some factories outside of the camp in the Zabłocie area of neighbouring Podgórze. The most famous of these was the enamel factory of Oscar Schindler (which now houses a superb museum). The inmates of Płaszów were subjected to terribly inhumane treatment, vile living conditions, diseases, starvation, gruelling labour, beatings, brutal killings and torture. Execution was a possiblity at all times. Indeed, what remains of the camp now, harbours several mass graves containing thousands of corpses. Estimates of the death toll at Płaszów vary and are very difficult to establish. Some estimates state that up to 10,000 inmates lie buried here. What is known is that around 2,000 people survived evacuation from Płaszów, 1,000 of these were those saved by Oskar Schindler.
The most notorious murderer of all was the camp commandant, Amon Goeth who is superbly portrayed in "Schindler's List" by Ralph Fiennes. He often shot and tortured many prisoners himself!
Camp sign at entrance
To access Płaszów the best approach to the camp is along ul. Jerozolimska. This branches off the main Wielicka road out of Podgórze. In its day, this was the main entrance into the camp. On your right you will notice various ruins amongst the trees and a distinct guard house.
Guard House at Entrance to Płaszów
Buildings at Płaszów Entrance - part of the camp railway station
Ahead, you will see a tall apartment block which has actually been built on land that was once part of the camp. At the corner of ul. Jerozolimska and ul. Abrahama you are are now inside the former camp proper and a sign across the road indicates this.
Original layout of the camp 
On this corner, at ul. Jerozolimska 3, stands a very creepy building that looks immediately out of place. This was the notorious "Grey House" which was used as a prison and torture chamber by the SS during the camp’s existence.

The "Grey House"
The cellars housed the torture chamber, and it was said that anyone who entered here never made it out alive, or under their own steam.

The cellar torture chambers of the "Grey House"

Now turn right onto a dirt track which is called ul. Abrahama today, but was known as Bergenstrasse in the days of the camp. It was the main access route which once ran through the middle of Płaszów. About 20 metres from the Grey House is a small statue put up in 1984 in memory of 13 Poles murdered in a mass execution here in September 1939.

Mass execution monument
Mass execution at Plaszow -
You will notice behind here, on the left, are small limestone cliffs hiding under the vegetation. Look really closely and you will see what appears to be caves. These are in fact the entrances to three anti-aircraft shelters carved into the rock by prisoners. The exposed limestone here is also what remains of the main quarry in the camp. Rock chiselled from here was then transported on railway wagons hauled by women harnessed to them.
Air raid shelter dug into the limestone

Across from here you will find path to the right which leads to another monument behind the Grey House. This relates not to the concentration camp itself, but to the Jewish Cemetery that formerly stood here. You will find a new tombstone marking the burial place of Sara Schenirer who was the founder of the Beth Jacob School. She is significant as she founded the first religious school for girls in Kraków in 1917 which was a bit of a revolution at the time. This subsequently became a model for Jewish schools all over Poland, for many schools in Israel and the US, and across the world today.
Burial place of Sara Schenirer and ruins of pre-burial hall behind

From here is a footpath leading to piles of concrete rubble that were once the Podgórze Jewish Cemetery’s grand and impressive pre-burial hall. Accessing this is now substantially easier than in the past, when it involved struggling through tangled undergrowth infested with mosquitoes. (It seems the Płaszów site is now being better maintained, cleared, with vegetation regularly trimmed and cut back) Built in 1932, part of the hall was blown up by Amon Goeth to entertain his chums one night. What remained was then was dismantled at the end of the war. Beyond here you can pick your way along another path to the one surviving tombstone from the Podgórze Jewish Cemetery. It is that of Chaim Jakub Abrahamer, who was laid to rest here in 1932. 
Hearteningly, this area has now been cleared of undergrowth, bushes and has been stripped back to reveal, very clearly, the remains of the former Jewish Cemetery. The graves lack their former gravestones as they were smashed up and used to pave the road into the camp. However, what remains is sobering and poignant. Word of warning though! Be careful crossing the grassy areas as collapsed foundations and drains from the former camp lie hidden within them.
Pre-Burial Hall before the war -
Ruins of pre-burial hall

Chaim Jakub Abrahamer's Grave
The remains of the Jewish Cemetery emerges from its hiding place of undergrowth
Jewish Cemetery ruins at Płaszów
Grave in the former Jewish Cemetery at Płaszów, minus it's gravestone
Mind your footing!
From here make your way back to ul. Abrahama. Keep making your way into the vast area of greenery until you notice a little pile of concrete blocks on your left. Leading from here is a rough path tracking in an uphill direction. Follow this until you reach a paved road. Turn right and you will reach a large crucifix. This is one of the camp’s mass execution sites. In addition, it was here that the Nazis exhumed the bodies of 10,000 Jews and burned them in an attempt to hide their crimes. This is depicted in "Schindlers's List" and it is when Oskar witnesses the red coat of the little girl he had seen during the clearing of the ghetto earlier in the film. Apparently it is true that when he saw this little girl, and the treatment being liberally dealt out by the Nazis, he vowed he would from that point on do everything in his power to destroy the Nazi regime. The red coat amongst the exhumed corpses being burned is probably a symbolic representation of Oskar's conscience being pricked. However, Aaron Schwartz, a Polish Jew who somehow survived Plaszow and the Holocaust, later recalled the reality of the slaughter of the Jews in the camp in "Holocaust Testimonies".

"When I came to Plaszow the first day, they put me in a group where we were digging a huge grave .. they brought in trucks, with children, from infant to twelve years old. They were all killed .. when the children were brought in, they were shot, right in that grave ..

One group was bringing, with a wheelbarrow, some chlorine powder and putting on, because there was such a tremendous amount of bodies in those graves ..

A little girl, a beautiful blond girl, sat down in the grave, dressed in an Eskimo white fur coat, was all bloody, and asked for a little bit of water .. this child swallowed so much blood, because it was shot in the neck. And then it started to vomit so terribly. And then it lay down and it says, "Mother, turn me around, turn me around." 

This child did not know what happened to it. It was shot, it was half-dead after it was shot. And this child sat down in the grave, among all the corpses, and asked for water .. it was still alive. There was no mother, just children brought from the Cracow ghetto.

So this little girl lay down, and asked to be turned around. What happened to it? I do not know. It was probably covered alive, with chlorine .. I am sure, because they did not give another shot to that girl .."

This certainly sums up the true barbarism of the Nazis at Plaszow!

Mass Grave Site

The large wooden cross at the mass grave is decorated with a crown of thorns, and is surrounded by a few benches where you can contemplate the lost souls beneath your feet.
Plaque in the New Jewish Cemetry, Kazimierz

Continue from here along the paved road. Ahead you will start to see a large stone monument which stands on top of another of Płaszów’s mass execution sites named Hujowa Górka on the German camp plan included above. Apparently this name is Polish word play taken from the name of the SS officer who ordered the first executions here. His name was Albert Hujar, but I remember reading somewhere that the translation literally means "Pricks Hill". This is because hujowa is the Polish name for the male member! However, the Polish map of the camp which is incorporated on the sign at the entrance of Plaszow today shows Hujowa Górka as being the mass grave with the crucifix on top of it. Confusing!!!
That aside, a distinctly Soviet-era style monument occupies the top of this mass grave, and is known as the ‘Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts.’ It was designed by Witold Cęckiewicz and unveiled in 1964. The slash across the stone below the heads symbolises the lives that were cut short and hearts that were ripped out. On the back of it, the inscription reads, “To the memory of the martyrs murdered by the Nazi perpetrators of genocide in the years 1943-45.”
Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts

"Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts" with sign for a D.I.Y, store sign in background!

Near its base are three other monuments. One is a low-lying plaque remembering the Hungarian Jewish women processed in Płaszów on their way to Auschwitz.

Remembering the Hungarian Jewish women
To the right of it is a stone obelisk commemorating all the Jewish victims of the camp. It reads "Here, on this spot, in the years 1943-45, thousands of Jews brought here from Poland and Hungary were tortured, murdered and incinerated. We do not know their names, but let us replace them with one: the Jews. Here in this place, one of the most severe crimes was committed. Human language knows no words to describe its atrocity, its unspeakable bestiality, its ruthlessness or its cruelty. Let us replace them with one word: Nazism. The Jews who survived the Nazi pogrom pay homage to the memory of those murdered whose final scream of despair is the silence of this Płaszów graveyard.”

Stone obelisk
View of the Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts looking over camp ruins and former quarry

Closer to this monument is another, which is relatively new, with Polish home army symbols on it. I would welcome information from anyone who knows what it represents.

Retrace your way back along the tarmac track, and keep walking along it towards the entrance to the camp. This time, keep following it, passing the mass grave with the crucifix again. To your left you should be able to make out the foundations of the camp and its former layout still scarred onto the land. From this elevated track, you should be able to clearly make out the camp's former central square.
The scar of the central square of Płaszów - Apellplatz, still very visible on the landscape
Keep following this track. It eventually winds its way to a residential street which was known as ‘SS-strasse’ during the war, but today is called ul. Heltman. The villas here were where the Nazi officers lived, including the infamous camp commandant Amon Goeth. He resided at number 22.

The evil Amon Goeth's house
Goeth's house during the war -
Amon Goeth's back garden today
Amon Goeth at his villa -
This villa is known as the ‘Red House’ and for many years now it has stood crumbling and empty. It stood out in stark contrast to the well maintained houses around it, and looked really creepy and abandoned. One can only assume nobody would wish to live in a house which must have harboured such dreadful evil.

The creepy "Red House" of Amon Goeth abandoned
One can also only imagine what horrors must have occurred within its four walls. An excellent insight to Goeth, and the history of this house during the war, can be watched in a superb documentary called "Inheritance" in the U.S.A, but was renamed "My Father was a Nazi Commandant" by BBC Four when it was screened on British television. I thoroughly recommend watching this. The versions on Youtube are not great quality, but this version is probably as good as you will get. Youtube Rather annoyingly though, the top of the screen is chopped throughout. It is the story of Monika Hertwig who is actually the daughter of Amon Goeth! As part of her search for the truth, she reaches out to Helen Jonas-Rosenzweig who was enslaved by Monika's father in this very house. These two women meet, which brings limited closure, but it makes for very uncomfortable viewing. The "Red House" features prominently throughout the film

A few years ago a "For Sale" sign appeared on the villa and it now seems it must have been sold for extensive refurbishment of the building is currently underway. Watch this space!
Refurbishment of the "Red House" underway - October 2015
The back of the Red House, January 2016
Opposite here there are steps further down the street leading back down to ul. Wielicka where you can jump on a tram back into town

Entrance to Plaszow
For those willing to walk a little further, instead of turning off ul. Abrahama, continue walking along it until you reach the end of the road where it splits into two. This time, take a right, in the opposite direction from the Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts. Follow the tarmac road and presently you will come upon some graffiti splattered ruins. On the maps of the camp shown previously, these are labelled as the crematorium, although on pictures I have seen online they have been labelled as the camp's food stores. Certainly, these buildings must hold some significance, as there is a large circular memorial with small standing stones bordering it. The original camp fencing still stands across this whole area and, beyond the buildings, the ground gives ways to a sheer drop down into the Liban Quarry. 

This is a desolate, creepy area, and there is a sniff of evil in the air. 
Concentration camp fence still standing at Plaszow
 Crematorium interior? Plaszow
 Crematorium interior? Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium buildings, Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium building, Plaszow
 Crematorium buildings and camp fence remains, Plaszow

The Liban Quarry - former hard labour and penal camp - viewed from the crematorium at Płaszów. 

To find out more about the Liban Quarry, visit the Liban Quarry Page

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