Poland’s Labourious Past: Quarters, Ghettos and Mining

Today’s tour started in Kraków touring through the old Jewish quarter, then into Schindler’s Factory (premise for the film Schindler’s List) and onto the infamous salt mine. All connected by a dark past overcome.

Kraków’s Jewish Town – Kazimierz
The once bustling Jewish quarter arose in the 13th century, growing to 60k-80k Polish Jews.



Jewish synagogue

Persecution of the Jewish population of Kraków began soon after the German troops entered the city on 6 September 1939, in the course of their invasion of Poland. Jews were obliged to take part in forced labor from September. In November 1939, all Jews 12 years or older were required to wear identifying armbands. Throughout Kraków, synagogues were ordered closed and all their relics and valuables turned over to the Nazi authorities.

By May 1940, the Nazi occupation authority announced that Kraków should become the “cleanest” city in the General Government (an occupied, but unannexed part of Poland). Massive deportation of Jews from the city was ordered. Of the more than 68,000 Jews in Kraków when the Germans invaded, only 15,000 workers and their families were permitted to remain.


In March 1941, the Germans forced all Krakow Jews to resettle in the newly created ghetto north of the Kazimierz area. 15,000 Jews were crammed into an area previously inhabited by 3,000 people who used to live in a district .2 years later, in March 1943, the Nazis sent most of the remaining 17,000 ghetto inhabitants to nearby concentration camps to perish.

The Ghetto was surrounded by the newly built walls that kept it separated from the rest of the city. In a grim foreshadowing of the near future, these walls contained brick panels in the shape of tombstones. All windows and doors that gave onto the “Aryan” side were ordered bricked up. Only four guarded entrances allowed traffic to pass through.


Ghetto walls made to resemble tombstones


Above photo of the gate to the Ghetto taken in the 20th century

Rather than destroying the synagogs, Germans used them for storing goods stolen from the Jewish or to house their horses as a means of disrespect and humiliation.


Schindler’s Factory (Museum)

Oskar Schindler was an ethnic German industrialist, German spy, and member of the Nazi party. While Schindler was initially interested in Jewish workers as free labour, he later began to shield them by paying off the Germans to allow for the ongoing employment of the Jewish until the end of WWII.

Schindler is credited with saving the lives of 1,200 Jews during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories.

By May of 1945, Schindler had spent all of his wealth on bribes and black-market purchases of supplies for his workers, the Jews.

While I was expecting to see remnants of a factory, Schindler’s Factory was a complete museum dedicated to the German invasion and devastation of Poland and its Jewish community to help us better understand what happened leading up to, during and after WWII.

The walls are littered with photographs, letters and propaganda. I did not think it right to take photos within the museum.

Here is the sign posted on the exterior of the museum:


We took lunch in the market.

market krakow


Wieliczka Salt Mine

The Wieliczka Salt Mine was built in the 13th century and produced table salt from rock salt until 2007. It remains in operation today using water to garner salt instead of mining for rock salt and is one of the world’s oldest salt mines still in operation.

The salt mine reaches a depth of 327m and is over 287 km long. The tourist route is 3km long.

The mine is most definitely more than I expected. The shafts are reinforced by logs and throughout the mine you see dozens of statues, a number of chapels and even a cathedral – all carved out of rock salt by miners.


Walkways in the mine supported by logs




Underground Cathedral within the mine, made entirely of salt including the floors, frescoes, chandeliers

Also, the mine used horses! Typically spending their lives in the mine, horses were provided stables and suffered no ill health effects (ex. Blindness) from the work. The last horse was used until 2002 and was then returned to a paddock on the surface for retirement until he passed away last year (2012).

Approximately 1 million people visit the Wieliczka Salt Mine annually.

The Salt Mine is renowned for its natural healing properties. They run camps for children in the mine – those suffering from asthma and other breathing complications spend up to 6 weeks at a time in the mine and see improved health. The children sing and do special breathing exercises to take advantage of the sterile air.



Poland – a Turbulent Past, a Resilient People

Today was about absorbing the history and culture felt by Poland through the ages from the 7th century through to the horrors of WWII.

Poland’s History in Brief
5th – 8th Century – Arrival of the Slavs, permanent settlement and historic development
966 – Christianity adopted, medieval monarchy established
1569 – Establishment of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth
1795 – Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Austrian Habsburg Monarchy terminated the Commonwealth’s independent existence
1918 – Opportunity for freedom appeared after World War I, when partitioning imperial powers were defeated by war and revolution
1918 to 1939 – Second Polish Republic was established
1939 – Nazi Germany and Soviet Union invaded Poland, millions of Polish citizens perished
1945 – Soviet Red Army defeated Nazi Germany, leading to the creation of the People’s Republic of Poland under communist regime
Late 1980s – Poland became a democratic state resulting in the creation of the modern Polish state
2004 – Poland accession to the European Union



We are staying in Kraków for two days. Kraków is the second largest and one of the oldest cities in Poland, dating back to the 7th century.

After the invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, Kraków became the capital of Germany’s General Government.

In 1978, Karol Wojtyła, archbishop of Kraków, was elevated to the papacy as Pope John Paul II – the first Slavic pope ever, and the first non-Italian pope in 455 years.




Wawel Royal Castle

Wawel Castle was built in the mid-to-late 14th Century.

The interior is adorned with a number of tapestries wall-to-wall. At the beginning of the WWII, some 150 tapestries were set to Canada for safe-keeping and returned thereafter. There is a plaque on the entrance wall commemorating Canada as a safe haven for Wawel’s treasures.






The room shown above includes tapestries depicting Genesis. Tapestries were used to insulate the walls.

Auschwitz – Birkenau

I had mixed feelings about visiting Auschwitz – Birkenau today. I had the desire to learn, but at the same time I wanted to honour those who lost their lives – may they rest in peace.

Upon entering the first building, I read the following sign, which helped me come to terms with the significance of our presence.


To respect the 1,300,000 people who lost their lives here, I will only share the following image – the entrance sign to Auschwitz.

It reads “Arbeit macht frei” which translates to “work/labour makes (you) free.”