Living Conditions in Occupied Krakau

By Joscelin Eberle

Before World War II broke out, Krakau had a well-organized Jewish population.  Approximately 56,000 Jews lived in Krakau on the eve of World War II, representing one-quarter of Krakau’s population.[1]  Many of the Jews living in Krakau worked in the garment and food industries, while others were clerks or in the service industry.  Other trades such as construction, metal, leather, and the wood industry also employed Jews, as well as 61 percent of the cities doctors were Jews and 800 of the cities 1,291 lawyers.[2]  Jewish education was offered in many schools and Krakau served as a center for Jewish academic and cultural activity through writers and scholars.[3]  The well-established lives of the Jews in Krakau would soon be disrupted however, by the outbreak of World War II.  Increasing restrictions would eventually lead to the Krakau ghetto being formed by the Nazi party, leaving the Jews to struggle to survive.

The Occupation            

German’s occupied Krakau on September 6, 1939.  A few days later on September 8, it was issued that all firms, stores, restaurants and cafes owned by those who were Jewish were to be marked with the Star of David.[4]  This was the first act of discrimination by the Germans toward the Jews under the occupation.  On November 18, 1939, Jews were also to be marked by the Star of David.  By December 1 of the year it was issued that, “all Jews above the age of 12 are to wear visible marks…. The mark should be a white band with the blue Zionist Star, worn on the right sleeve of one’s clothes.  The band should be at least 10 cm wide, while the star should have a diameter of 8 cm.  The ribbon used for the star ought to be at least 1 cm wide.”[5]  This was meant to discriminate against the Jews in Krakau even further by being able to recognize them quickly and to label them as outsiders.  Jews also had to report ownership of mechanical vehicles on November 27, 1939.[6]  Further resections took place on Jewish life including an ordinance passed on March 1, 1940, stating that Jews would be assigned separate seats on trams and also prohibiting Jews from walking on the paths and in the squares of Planty Park.[7]  The Germans also regulated illness of the Jews in Krakau.  In early 1940, the Jews were only able to receive hospital treatment if they had cases of contagious diseases.[8]

Financial Aspects of Jewish Lives in Krakau

The financial aspect of Jewish lives was also continually regulated in Krakau.  November 1939 brought the blocking of Jewish accounts and safes in banks and financial institutions.  Jews were only allowed to have 2,000 in cash and on January 24, 1940, Jews were ordered to register all of their possessions.[9]  The payment and benefits that many Jews had received for their occupations were soon taken away.  In December of 1939, Jews no longer received pensions, disability payments or unemployment benefits.  Jewish schools were closed and Jewish teachers dismissed as well as Jewish doctors being let go from the Social Insurance Institution in February of 1940.[10]   

Housing for Jews in Krakau    

Housing was continually restricted and redirected under the German occupation of Krakau.  On December 11, 1939, Jews were forbidden to change their addresses.[11]  This was a precursor to the actions of forcing Jews to move out of or into certain areas of Krakau.  On May 18, 1940, all Jews were given a notice stating that they needed to move to other places in the General Guberniya within three months.  If the Jews voluntarily left, they would be allowed to choose their new homes and take their belongings with them.  Only 10,000 Jews were to be allowed in Krakau after this time in order to work.[12]  However, the goal of only 10,000 Jews remaining in Krakau was not reached.  When this goal failed, another order was given stating that only Jews who had special permits to stay in the city could and all those who did not would be deported.[13] 

The establishment of a ghetto in Krakau was created in 1941.  On March 3, 1941, an ordinance was announced concerning the forming of the ghetto to house the Jewish population due to “health concerns and police reasons.”[14]  Conditions in the ghetto were poor and grew increasingly worse as time went on.  By March 20, 1941, all Jews were place in the ghetto, which soon consisted of all Jewish institutions such as the Community, a hospital, the Jewish Mutual Aid Society, orphanages, post offices, and an agency of the German Employment Office.[15] 

Sally Wechsler was a Jew born in Krakau and forced into the ghetto with her family.  While restrictions were enforced in the ghetto, Sally managed to get married to her fiancé.  Sally was already engaged when the Jews were placed in the Krakau ghetto.  The parents of Sally’s fiancé were on the first transport to Treblinka and her fiancé had nowhere to live, so Sally’s mother said that if they were married, he could live with them.[16]       

Food in Krakau

Conditions of food were always a source of concern in the ghetto.  By October of 1941, Jews were expected to acquire food for themselves but could not leave the ghetto without a special permit.  The post office in the ghetto was not allowed to accept a package from senders if they were Jewish, so procuring food from outside of the ghetto was dangerous and very difficult.[17]       

Work in Krakau      

Working conditions under the German occupation of Krakau were often characterized by forced labor but not in all cases.  On September 21, 1939, the Temporary Board of the Jewish Religious Community in Krakau asked the Jewish population to do obligatory work of filling up anti-aircraft ditches.  After this appeal, labor for the German military and civilian institutions became a major area of work for the Jews.[18]  Obligatory work mandated by the Germans soon came into being through various proclamations.  On October 26 1939, a proclamation was issued mandating work for Jews between the ages of 12 and 60.[19]  In December of 1939, the proclamation was furthered by the requirement for Jews between the ages of 12 and 60 to work for two years in labor camps.[20]  After the ghetto was formed in March of 1941, deportations of those who were unemployed were common.  German companies provided the hope of a chance for surviving in the ghetto for Jews.  In order to try to survive and as a sense of routine along with the protection from being deported, Jews began to take work for German companies, many of whom fulfilled orders for supplies for the German army.[21]  Oskar Schindler was one of the men who owned a factory where mostly Jews from Krakau were employed.[22]  Today Schindler is credited with saving the lives of all of his Jewish workers and is highly regarded by many.  

Deportations in Krakau

Deportations were always feared in the ghetto.  From June 1 to 8 of 1942 and on October 28, 1942, mass deportations from the ghetto began.[23]  These deportations continued until all the Jews of the ghetto were deported.  Because of the violent nature of the deportations, many Jews in the ghetto committed suicide and some formed a resistance.  The Jewish Combat Organization in Krakau was formed and assassinations of German officers were planned outside of the ghetto.  Because the resistance group managed to assassinate seven German officers, by 1943 the Gestapo had killed every member of the Jewish Combat Organization.[24]  The acts of both suicide and resistance show two cases of Jewish responses to their lives in the ghettos.  While some chose to commit suicide, not being able to stand the violence and discrimination any longer and out of fear of what kind of situation their lives held in the future under German hands, some also chose to retaliate.  Others in between chose to attempt to live their lives in as normal way as possible, probably hoping that the Allied forces in the war would soon defeat the German’s.  

        In November of 1942, workers were employed to build barracks at a forced labor camp in Plaszów and left the ghetto.[25]  The ghetto was divided into part A for workers and B for those who were unemployed in December 1942.  After this, the Jews in ghetto A and B were combined with the Jews from the forced labor camp in Plaszów.[26]  The only Jews left in the ghetto after this were those who were part of the Community and the Jewish police.  Those who were deemed unnecessary for work were killed while some were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.[27] 

        We know from Sara Spira’s postcards that she was in Krakau sometime in the late 1930’s, perhaps 1938 or 1939.  The first post card we have from Sara starts on July 5, 1940 from Krakau and the next jumps to July 2, 1941 in Gorlice.  The exact date that Sara moved form Krakau to Gorlice is not known, but based on the timeline of events that took place in Krakau during this time, Sara could have moved after the order that non-essential Jews leave Krakau by August 15, 1940.  The motivations for doing so were given with the option to take your belongs and choose where you live rather than being forcibly removed after the August 15th deadline.    


[1] Gai Miron and Shlomit Shulhani, The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos during the Holocaust (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 2009), 121.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Eugeniusz Duda, The Jews of Cracow (Kraków: Wydawnictwo “Hagada” and Argona-Jarden Jewish Bookshop, 1999), 60.

[5] Ibid., 61

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 62

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.,61

[12] Ibid., 62

[13] Ibid., 63

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 66

[16] “Oral History Interview with Sally Wechsler,” 1 DVD : MPEG-2 video, 35:65, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2004, accessed March 17, 2016,

[17]  Duda, The Jews of Cracow, 66.

[18] Ibid., 60

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid. 61

[21] Ibid. 66

[22] Ibid., 67

[23] Ibid., 66

[24] Ibid., 67

[25] Ibid., 67

[26] Ibid., 68

[27] Ibid., 68


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