Content warning: this post references the Holocaust.
The Galicia Jewish Museum` is sited in Kazimierz, part of the city of Krakow with a strong, centuries-long association with the Jewish population. The history of the Jews of Krakow, some 56000 at time of the Nazi invasion, is documented in the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Briefly, most Jews were expelled from Kracow, except, by 1941, around 15000 providing forced labour in a walled off ghetto in the neighbouring district of Podgorze. The ghetto was forcibly emptied, “liquidated” in March 1943, by shooting, transport of survivors to Auschwitz-Birkenau and transfer of workers to the Plaszow forced-labour camp further out from the city. There, further systematic mass-murders took place and survivors were moved to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The museum currently hosts an exhibition built round extensive photographs and testimony from three generations starting with Richard Ores. I drew him in wash and pen while watching a video of him describing his experience in the ghetto.
Ores had been a teenager when the ghetto was established. He was thrown a white coat by a doctor who then called to him and thus he obtained the Kennkarten, the documentation allowing him to remain in the ghetto working in the clinic. He was separated from his sister and mother who did not survive.
In his testimony, he described twice meeting Amon Göth, the brutal, sadistic and murderous commandant 1943 to 1944. One of these events I jotted down. He was sent to bring Göth medication for a cough. Göth asked how long before this would relieve the cough and told him to wait in the kitchen. If the cough was no better in half an hour, he would shoot Ores. The cook told Ores to make himself scarce and not wait: Göth would shoot him anyway, cough or no cough. He also described how a survivor of a mass-shooting of a wedding party was treated in the clinic for a bullet wound in the leg. The SS came and shot him. Ores remembers him asking “Sirs, how can you shoot me without trial?” In another video, Ores walks the building that housed the clinic, pointing out each room where a doctor was gunned down. I guess this must have been in 1943 when the ghetto was liquidated. Ores himself was moved to Plaszow and thence to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he witnessed the explosive destruction of the gas chambers and crematoria by the retreating SS. Ores trained in medicine in Switzerland and settled in Manhattan where he died in 2011. He and his family frequently returned to Poland.
Ores loved Poland, but would tell his children, do not laugh or smile here, this whole place is a memorial. A separate exhibition in the museum reminds us that 90% of Poland’s 3.3 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. A succession of contemporary photographs was displayed: “synagogues open to the sky … with bushes growing out from the floor … propped up with scaffolding or with only the central pillars still standing … vanished completely or deteriorated into nothingness …”. The sketch below is of the town of Biecz 100 miles south of Krakow. This square “would have been full of Yiddish speaking Jewish traders. Today the sound of Yiddish is gone”.