In March 1941, the Jews in the area surrounding the city of Krakow were put into a walled ghetto in Podgorze, a district of Krakow. This ghetto is depicted in the movie, Schindler’s List, but the actual scenes were filmed nearby in the old Jewish ghetto called Kazimierz.
In my blog post about Schindler’s List on May 25th, I neglected to mention one of the most important scenes in Schindler’s List — the “Krakow massacre,” which began on March 13, 1943 and ended the following day.
The photo above is an old photo, which is identified on Wikipedia as the the march of the Jews out of the Krakow ghetto when the ghetto was liquidated, an event known as the “Krakow Massacre.”
Prior to this final liquidation in 1943, Jews had been previously sent out of the Podgorze ghetto, beginning in February 1942, as part of Operation Reinhard, the name which the Nazis gave to what they claimed was “the evacuation of the Jews to the East.” Operation Reinhard was the beginning of the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” which was the title of the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942 in which the genocide of the Jews was planned.
In the movie, Schindler’s List, the entire liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, which actually happened over a period of years, is lumped together into one scene which takes place on one day. Spielberg filmed the liquidation scene in the Kazimierz ghetto, although the actual Krakow ghetto (Podgorze) was in another location in Krakow.
One of the most memorable passages in the novel Schindler’s Ark is the one in which Mrs. Dresner hides under a stairwell when the Nazis come to round up the Jews in the Podgorze ghetto in June 1942 to take them to the Belzec extermination camp. Mrs. Dresner hid under the stairwell, pictured above, after a neighbor allowed her daughter, but not her, to hide behind a false wall in an apartment. Mrs. Dresner was the aunt of Genia, the little girl in red, in the movie. In the movie, this scene is part of the final liquidation of the ghetto in March 1943.
The photo above shows the balconies in the courtyard from where the suitcases were thrown down in the scene in Spielberg’s movie in which the Podgorze Ghetto is liquidated. This is the courtyard, which links Jozefa street with Meiselsa street, in Kazimierz.
According to Thomas Keneally’s novel, after the first liquidation in 1942, in which many of the Jews escaped, the Jewish Combat Organization (ZOB), a group of resistance fighters, bombed the Cyganeria Restaurant and killed 7 German SS soldiers. Next, the SS-only Bagatella Cinema was bombed in Krakow. In the next few months, the ZOB sank German patrol boats on the Vistula, fire-bombed German military garages in Krakow and derailed a German army train, besides forging papers and passports for Jews to pass as Aryans.
In the movie, the date of the scene where Mrs. Dresner hides has been changed to the day of the final liquidation of the ghetto on March 13, 1943. The movie gives the impression that the Jews were killed for no reason and does not mention what the Jews did in the Resistance.
In the movie, the Nazis go through the Podgorze ghetto, room by room, and tear down walls as they look for Jews who are hiding. While the Nazis are searching for the Jews, a German soldier stops to play the piano. The German people love classical music and this scene is based on the claim that the Nazis literally put down their violins in order to kill the Jews.
The basic theme of the movie Schindler’s List is that the Germans were bad and the Jews were good. Schindler was the one good German who proves the rule. All the others were evil, especially Amon Goeth, the Commandant of the Plaszow camp who supervised the final liquidation.
According to the novel, Schindler’s Ark, around 4,000 Jews were found hiding in Podgorze ghetto during the final liquidation and they were executed on the spot. However, during the postwar trial of Amon Goeth, one of the charges against him was that 2,000 Jews were killed during the liquidation of the Podgorze ghetto.
According to the novel, the Jews, who managed to escape from the ghetto, joined the partisans of the Polish People’s Army, who were hiding in the forests of Niepolomice. Unlike the novel, the movie Schindler’s List does not mention the Jewish resistance fighters, who fought as partisans throughout the war. In the movie, the Jews are portrayed as totally harmless, so there was no reason for the Nazis to shoot them as they were trying to escape.
Thomas Keneally, who is a native of Australia, mentioned in his novel that in 1944, an Australian plane was shot down by the Germans over Oskar Schindler’s factory; the plane was dropping supplies to the Jewish and Polish partisans in the forest east of Krakow, according to Keneally.
Krakow had been populated by Jews for 600 years before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, and the Jews had been discriminated against for years, before the Nazis arrived. In 1494, there was a fire in Krakow which was blamed on the Jews; this was the start of pogroms against the Jews. Because of this, the King of Poland ordered the Jews in the city of Krakow to be resettled in the district of Kazimierz. During World War II, the Nazis ordered the Jews to move out of Kazimierz, into a ghetto in the Podgorze district, which was across the river Vistula.
In the movie Schindler’s List, there is a scene where a new transport of Jews is arriving at the Plaszow camp and Commandant Amon Goeth must do a “selection” in which the sick prisoners and those unable to work will be killed in order to make room for more workers. In the movie, prisoners in the Plaszow camp are forced to run naked past German doctors who will decide which ones are healthy enough to work. The children are loaded onto trucks, presumably to be taken away to be killed. The children franticly try to find hiding places. Some of them hide in the disgusting liquid in an outhouse. This scene shows that Spielberg has no experience with outhouses, or he would have known that the mess in a latrine is not liquid and a child would not sink down into it.
Besides that, how did the children know that they were going to be killed? And who gave Amon Goeth the authority to do a “selection”?
Throughout the movie, the Germans are shown as being stupid and inept, while the Jews are shown as being smarter than the Germans. There is the famous scene where a German pistol won’t fire. Then there is the scene where a Jewish woman tells the Germans that they are not building the foundations for the barracks correctly. Amon Goeth shoots her and then tells the workers to build the barracks the way she said to build them. In real life, the barracks at Plaszow were pre-fabricated buildings and the women prisoners had to carry large pieces of the buildings from the train up the hill to the camp. In the movie, not only were the Jews smarter than the Germans, the women were smarter than the men.
Amon Goeth, the villain of the movie Schindler’s List, joined the Nazi party at the age of 24. In 1940, Goeth joined the Waffen-SS. In 1942, he was assigned to the SS headquarters for Operation Reinhard in Lublin. Goeth’s first task was to supervise the liquidation of several of the small ghettos in Lublin.
The Jewish ghettos in Lublin were the first ghettos to be liquidated and some of the Jews from Lublin were among the first to be sent to the Belzec extermination camp during Operation Reinhard. Goeth accepted bribes from the Lublin Jews during the selection process, and put them on the list to be sent to a labor camp, rather than to the Belzec death camp.
The Nazis claimed that Operation Reinhard was the plan to evacuate the Jews from the ghettos in Poland (including the Podgorze ghetto) to three transit camps: Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, all of which were in eastern Poland. According to Holocaust historians, the three Operation Reinhard camps were actually death camps where the Jews were immediately killed.
In February 1943, Goeth received a promotion and became the third SS officer to hold the job of Commandant of the Plaszow labor camp. In January 1944, the forced labor camp at Plaszow was converted into a concentration camp under the jurisdiction of WVHA, the SS Office of Economics and Administration in Oranienburg. The two sub-camps at Prokocim and Biezanow were incorporated into the main camp at Plaszow and living conditions were improved. Polish prisoners and a few German criminals were now in the same camp as the Jews, as was typical in other Nazi concentration camps. There were factories set up for the production of Germany army uniforms, as well as factories for upholstered furniture. There was also a custom tailoring shop, a jewelry shop and a cable factory set up in the camp.
After Plaszow became a concentration camp, Amon Goeth now had to report to the WVHA headquarters office in Oranienburg.
The following quote is from the novel Schindler’s Ark:
“The chiefs in Oranienburg did not permit summary execution. The days when slow potato-peelers could be expunged on the spot were gone. They could now be destroyed only by due process. There had to be a hearing, a record sent in triplicate to Oranienburg. The sentence had to be confirmed not only by General Glueck’s office but also by General Pohl’s Department W (Economic Enterprises).”
This passage in the novel shows that the author did some research regarding the fictional scene where Amon Goeth is shooting prisoners from his balcony. He had to explain why Goeth was not immediately arrested for killing prisoners without permission from WVHA in Oranienburg; it was because Plaszow was a labor camp at the time that Goeth allegedly shot prisoners from his balcony.
According to the Pharmacy Museum guidebook, which I purchased in the former Podgorze ghetto in Krakow, there was a total of 35,000 prisoners in the Plaszow camp during the two and a half years of its operation.
The novel, Schindler’s Ark, mentions that the Main Commission for the Investigation of Nazi Crimes in Poland estimated that 150,000 prisoners passed through Plaszow and 80,000 of them died as a result of mass executions or epidemics. Plaszow also served as a transit camp for prisoners who were being sent to Auschwitz, which would account for 150,000 prisoners passing through the camp. The mass execution of 80,000 prisoners is pure fiction, but that is O.K. in a novel.
Amon Goeth was eventually arrested by the Nazis for stealing from the Plaszow warehouses and taking bribes from the prisoners. But this important point is not mentioned in the movie, Schindler’s List. All of a sudden, Goeth is gone in the movie and there is no reason given for his disappearance. It would have destroyed the whole theme of the movie if it had been mentioned that he had been arrested by the Nazis themselves. Goeth was sent to prison, but was released on parole because he was sick. He was captured by the American army while he was recovering at a hospital.
After World War II ended, the American military turned Amon Goeth over to the Polish government for prosecution as a war criminal. He was brought before the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland in Krakow. His trial took place between August 27, 1946 and September 5, 1946. Goeth was charged with being a member of the Nazi party and a member of the Waffen-SS, Hitler’s elite army, both of which had been designated as criminal organizations by the Allies after the war. His crime was that he had taken part in the activities of these two criminal organizations. The crime of being a Nazi applied only to Nazi officials, and Goeth had never held a job as a Nazi official. In fact, at the time of Goeth’s conviction by the Polish court, the judgment against the SS and the Nazi party as criminal organizations had not yet been made by the Nuremberg IMT.
It was determined by the Supreme National Tribunal of Poland, after hearing witness testimony from survivors, that about 8,000 people had died in the Plaszow camp, most of whom were executed. It was the custom for the Nazis to bring condemned prisoners to the closest concentration camp for execution. Goeth was charged with the crime of being responsible for the 8,000 deaths. This is an example of the new concept of co-responsibility which the Allies made up after the war, called the common plan or the common design theory of guilt.
At the trial, the Nazi party was said to be “an organization which, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, through aggressive wars, violence and other crimes, aimed at world domination and establishment of the National-Socialist regime.” Amon Goeth was accused of personally issuing orders to deprive people of freedom, to ill-treat and exterminate individuals and whole groups of people. His crimes, including the newly created crime of genocide, came under a new law of the Allies, called Crimes against Humanity.
By 1944, the whole Plaszow camp had become a hotbed of corruption with black market trading in stolen goods by the inmates and by the Commandant, Amon Goeth. According to Keneally’s novel, the prisoners were selling the bread, provided by the Nazis for the camp, to Polish civilians outside the camp and the price had finally reached diamonds as currency.
When Oskar Schindler was granted permission to draw up a list of 1,100 slave workers for his new Brinnlitz factory in what is now the Czech Republic, a Jewish prisoner named Marcel Goldberg was put in charge of the names, according to the novel. Goldberg asked for bribes from those who wanted on the list and the price was paid in “stolen treasures,” mostly diamonds. There was a jewelry factory at Plaszow where the prisoners had an opportunity to steal diamonds. At the end of the list, Goldberg put his own name. There were 800 men and 300 women on Schindler’s List; some had also gotten on the list by making threats to Goldberg, according to the novel. Oskar Schindler didn’t know all the names of his 1200 factory workers, and had never spoken to most of them, but in the movie, he is shown as he personally selects the prisoners that he is going to save.
Shown in the first photo above, on a high plateau, is the back side of the large Plaszow monument, which faces the city of Krakow. It was on this plateau that mass executions took place, according to testimony in the trial of Amon Goeth in a Polish court in 1946. According to survivors of the Plaszow camp, 8,000 bodies were later dug up and burned on pyres in order to destroy the evidence of mass murder. Amon Goeth, who was charged with responsibility for these deaths, was convicted and hanged. The former location of the camp is now a nature preserve where wild flowers grow; the photo immediately above shows German soldiers picking flowers near the Plaszow camp.
Curiously, the author of the novel Schindler’s Ark mentions the mound of Tadeusz Kosciuszko, the Polish General who fought in the American Revolution, but doesn’t mention the mound of Prince Krak which was visible from the Plaszow camp, as shown in the photo above. Kosciuszko’s mound, which was built in the 19th century, is west of the city center. Another mound was constructed in 1937 to honor Marshall Josef Pilsudski, the most important Polish national leader in the 20th century.