Living Conditions and Legal Treatment of Jews in Krakau from 1939-1941

By Margaret Gigax

The city of Krakow is located in southern Poland.  The city holds various names in different languages. Prior to the mid-twentieth century, the English designation for the city was Cracow.[1] After WWII, Krakow was adopted as the official English spelling which is derived from the Polish word for the city “Kraków.[2]”  Under German rule, the city held the German spelling “Krakau.“ Within the Jewish community, the city holds the Yiddish name for Krakow or “Kroke.[3]

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Krakow has a long history of being an economic and cultural hub within Poland.  Jews had been residing in Krakow since the early 13th century. Prior to the start of World War II, as many as 56,000 Jews were residents of Krakow city primarily in the Kazimierz district.[4]  This number comprised nearly one-quarter of Krakow’s 250,000 residents at the time.[5] While the Jewish population was heavily employed in commerce and crafts, Jews were also engaged in other occupations.[6] For example, nearly one quarter of Krakow’s doctors and approximately half of the city’s lawyers were Jewish.[7] Prior to World War II, Jewish cultural and social life in Krakow thrived with the establishment of several private bilingual Polish and Hebrew schools.[8] The Jewish population also played a role in city politics.  Jews were involved in local educational and charitable organizations and Polish-speaking Jews held positions in the Krakow city council until 1939.[9] By late November 1939, the Jewish population of Krakow increased to 70,000 as a result of the Jewish refugees who fled to Krakow city from the surrounding area in hopes of avoiding persecution.[10]  This number also considers the arrival of Jews who had been deported from District Wartheland, an area of Poland that had been annexed by Germany.[11]

Figure 2 Street scene, Krakow, ca. 1917 (2).

German troops occupied Krakow city and the surrounding area on September 6th, 1939.[12]   Shortly thereafter in late October 1939, the Nazi party made Krakow the capital of theGeneralgouvernement.[13] Persecution of Krakow’s Jewish population began immediately.  Upon occupying the city, the Germans forbade the Krakow Jewish community organization and instead established a Jewish committee orJudenrat to deal with Jewish affairs.[14] Starting in December of 1939, all Jewish residents in Krakow were required to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David on their outer clothing.[15] December 1939 also marked the beginning of the Nazis’ reign of terror over Krakow. Several synagogues were vandalized and burnt to the ground.[16] Jewish property was also seized and confiscated during this time period, and from January through May 1940, Jews were required to register their property.[17]

In an attempt to reduce Krakow’s Jewish population, an order was given in April 1940 that all Jews not employed in professions assisting the Third Reich must leave Krakow.[18] Jewish residents were given until August 1940 to move from the city.[19] From May to August 1940, 30,000 Jews left Krakow for cities such as Warsaw and Kielce.[20] By March 1941, nearly 55,000 Jews had been removed from Krakow and only 15,000 Jews remained.[21] The Jews who were forced to evacuate during this time were only permitted 25kg of luggage per person.[22] The Nazis seized all other property.[23]   

From her postcard dated July 5, 1940, it is understood that Sara Spira was living in Krakow at the time. In her postcard, Sara spoke about visiting the nearby city of Gorlice.[24]From later postcards, it is confirmed that Sara moved from Krakow to Gorlice sometime between July 5, 1940 and July 2, 1941.[25]  From this it can be surmised that Sara was among the 55,000 Jews who fled Krakow by March 1941.  Sara’s departure from Krakow is also significant in that it proves she did not occupy a profession deemed valuable to the Reich. If this had been the case, she would have been able to remain in Krakow after the 1940 decrees.

Image Bibliography:

(1)  “Poland 1933, Krakow Indicated.” Digital image. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Accessed April 3, 2016. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_nm.php?ModuleId=10005169&MediaId=402.

(2) “Street Scene, Kraków, Ca. 1917.” Digital image. The Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Krakow/Krakow_after_1795.

(3) “Residents of the Krakow ghetto walk past a German truck loaded with furniture confiscated from Jews. Krakow, Poland, ca. 1941.” Digital image. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Courtesy of State Archives in Cracow.Accessed April 3, 2016. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=10005169&MediaId=2284


[1] “CRACOW.” Cracow. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.krakow-info.com/cracow.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Petersen, Heidemarie. 2010. Kraków: Kraków before 1795. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. http://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Krakow/Krakow_before_1795 (accessed April 3, 2016).

[4] “Krakow (Cracow).” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005169.

[5] “Cracow.” Yad Vashem. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft Word – 5928.pdf.

[6] Petersen, Heidemarie. 2010. Kraków: Kraków before 1795. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. http://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/Krakow/Krakow_before_1795 (accessed April 3, 2016).

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Krakow (Cracow).” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005169.

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Cracow.” Yad Vashem. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft Word – 5928.pdf.

[13] “Virtual Jewish World: Kraków, Poland.” Kraków, Poland Jewish History Tour. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Cracow.html#7.

[14] “Cracow.” Yad Vashem. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft Word – 5928.pdf.

[15] “Krakow (Cracow).” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005169.

[16] “Cracow.” Yad Vashem. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft Word – 5928.pdf.

[17] “Krakow (Cracow).” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005169.

[18] “Encyclopedia of the Holocaust .” The Krakow Ghetto. http://www.HolocaustResearchProject.org. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/krakow/krakow.html.

[19] “Virtual Jewish World: Kraków, Poland.” Kraków, Poland Jewish History Tour. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/vjw/Cracow.html#7.

[20] “Encyclopedia of the Holocaust .” The Krakow Ghetto. http://www.HolocaustResearchProject.org. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/krakow/krakow.html.

[21] “Krakow (Cracow).” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005169.

[22] “Encyclopedia off the Holocaust.” The Krakow Ghetto. http://www.HolocaustResearchProject.org. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/ghettos/krakow/krakow.html.

[23] “Cracow.” Yad Vashem. 2016. Accessed April 03, 2016. http://www.yadvashem.org/odot_pdf/Microsoft Word – 5928.pdf.

[24] Sara Spira to Mrs. Georg Sternreich. July 5, 1940. Accessed April 3, 2016. https://uwmad.courses.wisconsin.edu/d2l/le/content/3194886/viewContent/19471691/View.

[25] Sara Spira to Mrs. Georg Sternreich. July 2, 1941. Accessed April 3, 2016. https://uwmad.courses.wisconsin.edu/d2l/le/content/3194886/viewContent/19471696/View

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