In 1993 we were truly moved by the shocking, but ultimately heartening events portrayed in Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List. It left a lasting impression on us, as I am sure it did for many people around the world. As most people know, the film and the original 1982 book, Schindler's Ark by the Australian writer Thomas Kenealy, was based on real life events, with much of the story being told at the Płaszów concentration camp in Kraków, Poland.
When we started to plan the itinerary for our road trip around southern Polan d, we knew immediately that we would have to visit Płaszów. Having been to Kraków before, but not having visited the camp, I was aware that this site was not really on the tourist trail. Indeed, during our research, we realised that there was, in fact, very little information on how to visit this site or what there was to see. It seemed quite strange that visits to the camp were not really catered for, especially when compared to camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, which are highly organised for visitors.
Unperturbed, when we reached Kraków, we headed out from the hotel situated near the city centre, and drove for quarter of an hour. The site does not even seem to have its own car park, so we cheekily parked at the Lidl grocery store at Wielicka 67, 30-552 Kraków, and walked up the hill along Abrahama Street past the residences.
The Grey House
At the top of the hill there is a large home, which seems out of place at the edge of this housing estate. This was the infamous ‘Grey House’, which was used as a prison and torture chamber by the SS, the Nazi paramilitary organisation. Few Jews ever managed to leave this building alive. After the war, the house was returned to its former owners and is now split into residential apartments.
The Red House
We continued our walk by turning left, along Wiktora Helmana Street (which was nicknamed ‘SS-Strasse, due to the many SS officers living in these confiscated houses), seeking out the house at number 22. It was here that camp commandant Amon Göth, chillingly played by Ralph Fiennes in the film, stayed. However, it seems that this building, which was nicknamed the ‘Red House’ was been pulled down during 2017, with a new house being built on the site.
Further along Wiktora Helmana Street, just up a side road, is a small path through the woodlands. Thankfully, we had Google Maps to guide us, since, apart from a sign telling you that you were entering the former site of the Płaszów concentration camp, there are no directions given.
Płaszów Concentration Camp
Today, evidence of the camp has been removed, and in its place is a large, mainly unkempt park, with occasional monuments to the events of World War Two - the only evidence of the many horrors that occurred in this place. The original camp covered around 81 hectares (200 acres) and was surrounded by an estimated four kilometers of electrified barbed fence. By 1944, the fence encircled a camp probably held as many as 25,000 prisoners. There is little to tell the visitor what went on in this site or even what the memorials were for. Thankfully, with our itinerary research to hand, we were able to interpret this large site as we walked along.
A five minute walk along this woodland path takes you to a small clearing. Today, there is a fairly plain wooden cross, wrapped in barbed wire planted in the ground. This marks the spot where, in the early days of the camp, as many as 8,000 Jews were executed. We stopped a while, composing our thoughts, before we continued through to one of the main paths cutting through the site.
It was easy to forget as we walked along this pleasant path, shaded by tall, leafy trees, of where we were, but as we progressed along, we came to the second execution site and the reality of this site came into sharp focus.
Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts
Sitting atop of the second execution site, the ‘Memorial of Torn-Out Hearts’ is an imposing, somber communist era sculpture which was designed by Witold Cęckiewicz and unveiled in 1964. The inscription reads, “To the memory of the martyrs murdered by the Nazi perpetrators of genocide in the years 1943-45.”
We stopped here to reflect on the terrifying history of this place. Other than this memorial, there is little to remind you of the camp’s story. It is really only through the events depicted in Schindler’s List that we were able to imagine what went on in this camp. For those not murdered here, life was unbearably hard, with many of the inmates being farmed out to several local factories. One of those factories was the enamelware factory in the neighbourhood of Podgórze of the war profiteer Oskar Schindler, skillfully played by Liam Neeson in the film.
The character and motivations of Schindler have been shrouded in uncertainty, but it seems that he came to Kraków and set up his factory in order to make his fortune, but as time went on and the true horrors of the holocaust, and in particular what was happening in Płaszów, became evident, the humanitarian in him came to the fore and attempted to save as many of his Jewish workers from extermination as possible.
The “List” mentioned in the film title refers to the list of about 850 names to be transferred from the Płaszów concentration camp to Schindler’s new factory in Brinnlitz. By 1944, as the Soviet army approached Kraków, the decision had been made to close the camp and transport the inmates to certain death at Auschwitz. However, through the bribary of Nazi officials, Oskar and his list of names safeguarded the lives of these Jews, diverting them to Brinnlitz instead. Indeed of the almost 2,000 prisoners of Płaszów that are thought to have survived the Holocaust, almost half of them were those saved by Schindler.
We continued north from the memorial along the path and after about ten minutes we came to the cliff edge overlooking the massive Liban quarry. The Płaszów concentration camp, which was established in 1942, was sited next to the quarry, as there was a labor camp already there and it was also near the railroad station.
The quarry had been established in 1873 by two Jewish business men, but by the time of the Nazi occupation, the quarry had been turned into a cruel penal camp for around 800 Polish men.
Perhaps on purpose, the concentration camp was also built on top of two Jewish cemeteries. Indeed, the main road was built with broken Jewish grave slabs. Today, replica tombstones can still be found within the quarry. These were actually part of the film set for Schindler’s List.
The scenes of the concentration camp from Schindler’s List were actually filmed within the Liban quarry. Out of respect for the original camp site, and the fact that modern high rise flats were visible from the site, it was decided to film the Płaszów scenes in the quarry. Other than the grave slabs, the rest of the set has since been removed, but there are still haunting industrial relics remaining from its days as a working quarry.
To get down into the quarry, there is no easy or obvious way get access to it. There are paths along the rim of the quarry, but no signage, so you have to follow your instincts. The rough path that we chose took us about twenty minutes to walk.
Once down at the head of the quarry, it was even more confusing, with even more paths to choose from, with uncertain destinations. As it was, after a ten minute traipse through a quite overgrown pathway, we reached the old quarry structures. To be honest, there is not much to do or see there, but it was quite an interesting place to photograph.
In total, we spent three hours exploring the Płaszów site and Liban quarry. There was more to see if you wanted a pleasant walk, but we had other sites to see in Kraków on our itinerary. As we headed back to the car, we mulled over the cruel history of this site, but, on a note of optimism, we also reminded ourselves of the heroism and determination of Schindler and his Jews.
Join us next time when we take to the "Tower Trail" of Clackmannanshire which tells the story of medieval Scotland through four fortified towers and a manor house in the county.
Until then, happy reading and safe travels.
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