Feet on the Aryan Side

Feet on the Aryan Side

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What should be commemorated and to what extent – where is the boundary? We will look for answers while taking a walk through the former Kraków ghetto.
On Heroes of the Ghetto Square, 2014. / BEATA ZAWRZEL / REPORTER

Semicircular armrests of lacquered beech resemble a ski jumping hill, hence the name of one of the most popular 1960s chairs – the “Jumper”. There are quite a lot of them here. Beyond the brand new steel grey upholstery, two mauve-blue “Lisek” armchairs positioned next to low tables also wink at us enticingly. Unfortunately, the café is still closed. 

It is an exceptionally sunny morning. I turn away from the café window and look towards the awakening city. A small silver bus approaches from the direction of the bridge. The driver slows down and stops right next to the square, leaving the engine on. A dozen or so tourists in sports jackets look around silently. Without venturing too far from the bus, they pull out their cameras, adjust their lenses, and aim at the empty square and the chairs arranged in rows. No, not those inside the fashionable café at the end of Targowa Street, but those drying in the middle of the square after last night’s rain. 

How to Behave Around a Chair

 “This is a good place to start our walk”, says Kaja Kajder as she greets us. “It allows your imagination to get its bearings”. 

Today, Kajder is playing a role she is not used to – she will be my guide around Kraków’s Podgórze district. As an anthropologist, she studies the way in which the spaces of the former ghetto are commemorated. You can meet her on Marches of Remembrance or on city walks arranged by the Galicia Jewish Museum, the Museum of Kraków or the Jewish Community Centre (JCC). 

 “These are not tourist walks; the participants are mainly Kraków residents who want to learn about the history of the district”, says Kajder. “These meetings allow us to capture the process by which the narratives presented by local guides shape the image of Kraków’s Jews”. The starting point is to experience the city space.

I ask her for an example. “The monument in plac Bohaterów Getta (Heroes of the Ghetto Square) usually comes as a surprise”, says Kajder. “It can be interpreted in various ways – where these tall metal chairs have come from, what they symbolise, whether it is OK to sit on them even though they are a bit uncomfortable. The visitors’ attitudes are astonishing – some sit on the chairs without any inhibition in order to take selfies while others are extremely restrained. The space of the square is transformed by the ceremonies held there; during the Zahor (‘Remember’) celebration organised by the Jewish Culture Festival, symbolic candles are placed, and before the ‘Remember with Us’ race, the chairs serve as supports for athletes doing their stretches”. 

In Zgoda Square 

When tourists who had seen Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler's List started to come to Kraków to see the square to which the Nazis herded Jews before deporting them to the camps, there was nothing more to see than a neglected car park and bus terminal. The monument, which was built more than a decade later, was meant not only to commemorate history, but also to provoke reflection. It is also supposed to encourage people to unravel intertwined narratives. “Today, someone who sits on one of the bronze chairs while waiting for a tram comes into contact with the past for a while”, says Kajder. 

Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Łatak, who created the monument, were inspired by a passage from the diary of Tadeusz Pankiewicz – the owner of a pharmacy in the square (Apteka pod Orłem), which was later turned into a museum. Pankiewicz was the only Pole who lived within the borders of the ghetto; he distributed medicines, obtained passes for ghetto residents, and sought safe shelters for them during the deportations. “In plac Zgody, countless wardrobes, tables, cupboards, and other items of furniture are decaying after being moved from place to place numerous times”, he wrote shortly after the ghetto had been liquidated. Today, the pharmacy is a branch of the Museum of Kraków and part of a Remembrance Route in Podgórze. 

When in December 1942 the ghetto was divided with barbed wire into section A (for those with a Judenpass, issued to Jews who were working) and section B (for those without work assignments), the border between the two ran through here, our meeting spot, along the even-numbered side of Targowa Street and then along Józefińska Street to house No. 32. During the fraught relocations, people only took their most important possessions with them. Furniture that could not be moved was burned by the Germans right here, in Targowa Street.  “Look at these cobblestones. This used to be a road running through the middle of the square and ending right next to the ghetto gate. By the former bus terminal building, which was converted into the headquarters of the German police and the Polish ‘Blue’ police during the war, there is also some old pavement – can you see it?”, asks Kajder, pointing in that direction. “In places such as this, the anthropologist asks why it is so important to preserve at least some of the old space – does it not serve as a witness to the events that once unfolded here?”. 

That Bridge

Our imagination demands authenticity. Photographs from 1941 show people weighed down with boxes and furniture. Carts stacked up with wardrobes, cabinets, beds, tables, duvets, and mattresses are leaving the bridge. “The bridge that stands here today looks very different from the old Krakus one, which was simply known as ‘the third bridge’. However, today’s tram stop shelters – which look as if they have been built from old bridge spans – hark back to the old structure”, says my guide. 

Few people manage to rent horse-drawn carts. Most push wheelbarrows and trolleys or carry suitcases and bundles of clothing. Huge crowds stream towards the Podgórze district. A column of teenage boys marches along the pavement, each carrying a stool over his head. There is also a girl alighting from the bridge. She is carrying an upside-down chair with some sort of package on it. “In the first days of its existence, the streets of the ghetto are a remarkable sight. The apartments can barely accommodate all the people, let alone their furniture… Beautiful Gdańsk wardrobes, Empire- and Louis Philippe-style furniture, modern cupboards, etc. are left to rot outside. In a dirty courtyard, standing by a wall next to rubbish bins, is a stylish Biedermeier armchair. Its armrests and legs are intact, but the cushion has been gutted, with the springs sticking out forlornly” – noted Julian Aleksandrowicz, a doctor who later fled the ghetto, joined the Home Army, and was awarded the highest Polish military honour – the War Order of Virtuti Militari.  

Black-and-White Frames

These chairs which are exposed to the elements today recreate the tension described by Holocaust witnesses, the hopeless wait for the return of more than 60,000 pre-war inhabitants of Krakow who were killed in World War II. The forlornness of these symbolic objects, devoid of purpose, cast out into the open, is the opposite of the festive glow they exuded in warm houses, waiting for the Shabbat to end with the Havdalah. We slowly move away in one of the directions in which the installation points us – towards some preserved fragments of the ghetto wall. 

 “Beside the modern and developing Podgórze with its newly-built apartments, pubs and fashionable shops, there are still many neglected, abandoned, and impoverished spaces in the district”, explains Kajder as we walk. “The route we are following draws us away from the city centre towards other, completely ordinary places while at the same time delineating the space of the former ghetto. Józefińska Street, which we will pass through, is a very important part of the ghetto’s history, but without this knowledge it is unlikely we would have gone there. In Józefińska there were several key ghetto landmarks, some now commemorated by plaques, such as the seat of the Jewish Social Self-Help Organisation, the Day Care Home for Children, the Jewish Hospital, and the Employment Office. Interestingly, the architecture which has been preserved here enhances the impression of authenticity and makes it easier for visitors to remember, or perhaps rather imagine, the past”. 

We walk on. “Some important places in the ghetto have not been commemorated. This is not a complaint. Their significance comes to the fore during our stops, when we glimpse into backyards where ghetto residents employed in its factories used to work. Every guide chooses his or her own route and stops at different places, choosing a different story”, says Kajder about her research. “These narratives imbue the space with new meanings. This allows participants to build their own understanding of the fate of people who lived in the ghetto”. 

A walk is a special form of contemplation. Entering deep into the district is, after all, tantamount to decoding a cultural cipher which is hidden from the “ordinary gaze”, a kind of initiation. “Interestingly, guides often refer to Schindler's List when talking about the ghetto. This is a special case when fiction – for although it was based on real events, Spielberg’s firm is still fiction – becomes a starting point for discussions about the past. Have you ever wondered what happens in such a situation?”, Kajder asks. “We superimpose our notions of the history of this place, which were formed by the film, onto the real space of the city, and yet some of the scenes from the Kraków ghetto were shot in Kazimierz – on the other side of the river. We extract black-and-white frames from our memories in order to experience the space we are in here and now. This is quite extraordinary, but it demonstrates something that we have already discussed – the extent to which our memory is shaped by things we consider authentic. In places like this, a frame from a movie becomes testimony”.

Looking for Signs

One summer’s day, when the ghetto wall was still unfinished, 17-year-old Halina Nelken went for a walk in the Krzemionki park, which was the only green space in the ghetto. Today it is a sunny spring morning and the trees are in bloom, just as they were before the wall was built; at that time, there were German barracks nearby. On the grass was soldier, stripped to his waist, sunbathing. When he saw Halina, he stood up and started walking towards her. At first, the girl was scared and wanted to run away, but then she changed her mind. The soldier sat down with his feet on the “Aryan” side and smiled at her. Although they did not exchange a single word, they could not take their eyes off each other: “I thought, what harm would there be if he took my hand and ran with me through the fields to the hill and back?”, Nelken wrote in her diary. “There he was, an unknown adolescent, friendly because not in uniform. He was certainly not thinking at that moment about war, race, and religion, those barriers which people place between each other. After a while he jumped down and slowly walked away, still turning back and looking at me. I had not expected anything else, and yet I felt strangely sad as his silhouette melted into the green field gilded by the mild rays of the setting sun” [Halina Nelken, And yet, I am here! (1999), translated by Halina Nelken and Alicia Nitecki].

The construction of the wall began in April 1941. “The murderers modelled it on tombstones, already making a mass grave from a piece of land where several thousand discriminated human beings still lived”, wrote Aleksandrowicz. The wall indeed resembles matzevahs in its shape, although it has never been confirmed whether this was the builders’ intention. The wife of the Governor of the Kraków District praised it: “A truly elegant wall in genuine Hebrew style”. 

As we stand here, several sightseeing carts carrying tourists drive up to the wall. We hear different overlapping stories and languages. A huge rubbish truck passes by and someone throws a dozen glass bottles into a rubbish bin, drowning out the conversations and silencing the stories for a moment. We fall silent. The suddenly tangible network of memories, that common point which connects many different routes, reminds me unexpectedly of the complex system of internal passages that rearranged the ways in which people moved around the ghetto after the wall had been built. After the windows and doors facing the Aryan side of the city had been bricked up, a labyrinth of courtyards, hallways, cellars, and alleys emerged, which soon became the subject of bitter jokes in the newspapers of the time. “When you go from the first courtyard to the second, and then you want to cross to the third, it suddenly turns out that you’re back in the first courtyard, brother, because you went left instead of right… I am looking for signs, arrows, directions… there is nothing, someone has forgotten about all these trivial things”, scoffed a journalist from the Jewish Gazette.

Come Closer, Move Away

Tourists walk alongside the wall. They come closer as if they want to embrace it. They touch it and then, from a distance, take pictures. They simultaneously engage in two types of commemoration: physical and reflective. After all, we usually come closer and then move further away in the hope that we will see more. On the other hand, we want to experience things more intensely, weave them into our own history, and preserve them in photographs. A painter leans towards the easel to add a finishing touch and then leans away to assess whether and how the whole painting has changed as a result. So come closer and then move away – this is the procedure we subconsciously follow in places of remembrance. 

 “The wall evokes highly emotional reactions in visitors regardless of their knowledge of the history of the ghetto”, says Kaja Kajder. “Another section of the wall, which is now adjacent to a playground, also surprises people. Some are critical, seeing commemoration and everyday life as mutually exclusive, while others have a more positive view, seeing it as a harmonious coexistence of past and present. And thus the question arises: what should be commemorated and to what extent – where is the boundary?”. 


Where Orphans Lived

Our walk around Podgórze takes place just a day after the Kraków City Council passed a resolution to name one of the as yet unnamed streets between the Skotniki and Kobierzyn estates after David Kurzmann. A pre-war entrepreneur and philanthropist, Kurzmann donated a considerable part of his profits to charity. In particular, he supported the Jewish Orphanage in Dietla Street. At first, he was one of many ordinary donors, but from 1918 he handled provisioning and finances for the Orphanage, which eventually became one of the best in Poland. After the outbreak of war and the establishment of the ghetto, the Jewish Orphanage was moved first to Krakusa Street and then to Józefińska Street. 

 “In plac Zgody [now plac Bohaterów Getta – M.O.], everyone was packed in like sardines”, writes Katarzyna Zimmerer in her Kronika zamordowanego świata (Chronicle of a Murdered World). “The Germans brandished whips or pokers, which they used to mercilessly beat people in the crowd. They must have enjoyed it because they were laughing constantly… (...)At around 4.00 p.m. the deportees were arranged in columns and left the ghetto. Among them were the children taken from the Orphanage that day. They marched in fours, led by Anna Feuerstein with her husband and David Kurzmann… Driven with blows, the deportees followed the well-known route to the railway station in Płaszów. There they were loaded onto cattle wagons, which departed in an easterly direction. Horse-drawn carts carried sick people and young children towards the camp, which was being constructed in the Jewish cemeteries near Jerozolimska and Abrahama streets. Graves dug by Jewish prisoners were already waiting for them when they arrived. The adults were shot, and the children were thrown into the pits alive”. 

Almost exactly on the 75th anniversary of the tragic liquidation of the orphanage, as a result of efforts by guides from the “Free Walkative! Tour” foundation, a plaque commemorating the orphans and their carers was unveiled. 

A Girl in a Room

Just before finishing our walk, we go to the corner of Dąbrówki and Janowa Wola streets. As Halina Nelken noted in her diary, the entire wall of the house on the corner was riddled with bullet holes. A plaque commemorates the spot where, on 4 June 1942, the poet Mordechaj Gebirtig and the painter Abraham Neumann were executed. Neumann studied under Jacek Malczewski and trained in the ateliers of Leon Wyczółkowski and Jan Stanisławski. He spent some time in Paris and travelled widely. The Germans burned tens of thousands of paintings in the ghetto. The frames were preserved and later sold. In some cases, canvasses were stripped of paint in order to be reused. Witnesses recalled that this happened to Neumann’s self-portrait. 

In one of his few preserved paintings, a young woman stands inside a small pink room. The warm light of the setting sun enters through the open window. The girl, wearing a green dress and black shoes, has stopped for a moment by the table, as if, at the last moment, something has prevented her from leaving. She closes her eyes and fingers the medallion around her neck. A chair blocks the open door, as if barring entry to someone from the outside.  ©℗

I used the following sources:  Katarzyna Zimmerer, Kronika zamordowanego świata: Żydzi w Krakowie w czasie okupacji niemieckiej; Andrea Löw and Marcus Roth, Krakowscy Żydzi pod niemiecką okupacją 1939–1945.



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