Forgotten History: Płaszów

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Any trip to Krakow would not be complete without a stop at Oscar Schindler’s factory, made famous by Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List.  But the museum leaves something to be desired.  A good portion of the space is dedicated to the Soviet occupation of Krakow while the rest focuses on the ordinary lives of Poles under the Nazi’s (with one particular section that looks like it could have been modeled after Richard Spencer’s living room); the plight of the Jews and the story of Oscar Schindler almost seem like an afterthought.

Where most visitors don’t go is to Płaszów, the Nazi work camp that formed the base of Schindler’s labor pool after the liquidation of the Krakow Ghetto in March of 1943.  Located only two kilometers away, Płaszów is a solemn reminder of the brutality of the Nazi regime and a humble shrine to its victims.

Płaszów concentration camp

Today, only a simple memorial and a vacant field mark the spot where once a sprawling labor camp operated.  But the emptiness is perhaps a fitting reminder of the lives taken here.  It is not so much about what remains as what has been lost.

Płaszów today is a vacant field

Nevertheless, on the edge of the camp, two structures still stand, both of which were used by the camp’s notorious commandant, Amon Göth (played by Ralph Fines in the film). The first is Göth’s villa, which is infamously depicted in Spielberg’s film on top of a cliff.  In reality, it rests behind a hill, recently purchased and renovated.  

Göth’s villa prior to its renovation

The second is the Grey House, originally built by the Jewish community in the 1920s to administer two Jewish cemeteries that were destroyed to construct Płaszów. The Grey House was later taken over by the SS as the camp’s headquarters in 1942.  In this building, Göth spent most of his time, occasionally, stepping out to take pot shots at the Jewish inmates (rather than from his villa as depicted in the film). 

The Grey House and some rubble from Płaszów

Also near Płaszów is the Liban Quarry that was worked by Jewish labor.  The quarry is an interesting link between the real-life horrors of the Nazi era and its depiction in modern times. Despite the topographical differences from the actual camp, Spielberg chose this location to build his Płaszów set.

The Liban Quarry with Spielberg’s gravestone road visible in the background

The quarry can still be visited today.  A few barracks erected by the Nazi’s stand dilapidated around its rim.  Some additional structures built earlier (the quarry was previously owned by two Jewish families) also dot the area. Upon close inspection, artifacts from Spielberg’s old set can be seen amidst the undergrowth that is quickly reclaiming the quarry, including the road of Jewish tombstones and barbed wire fencing.

Benedictine church near the spot that Oscar Schindler watched the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto

Closer to Krakow is a small Benedictine church, which supposedly proved pivotal for Oscar Schindler.  For it was near this spot that the industrialist allegedly watched the liquidation of the Jewish Ghetto while out horseback riding and became thoroughly committed to saving Jewish lives.  It is perhaps here more than any other place that one truly feels immersed in the horror of the Holocaust. Even now, the decaying ghetto walls, the square in which the Jews were made to assemble, indeed the entire sordid history of this moment in time, stretches out before the urban landscape of Krakow, inescapable and unforgettable for those who come and see.

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