The Plaszow camp which was located in Krakow became the major detention place for Jewish forced labour in the Krakow district of the General Gouvernement and only in early 1944 was it designated a concentration camp, which then existed for 12 months. Planning for the forced labour camp started in June –July 1942, as a consequence of the mass deportation from the Krakow ghetto to the Belzec death camp, which took place during 1 – 8 June 1942. The staff of SS und Polizeiführer in the Krakow district Julian Scherner started to erect a camp in the Plaszow suburb of Krakow in October 1942. The Plaszow train station had already served as a transit point for the deportations to the Belzec death camp, and there was a small camp there for Jews who worked on the railway, the so-called Julag I which stood for Judenlager – Jewish camp. The new camp, which several hundred ghetto inmates built, was situated nearby, partly on the site of two Jewish cemeteries. Until the spring of 1943, the camp area was approximately 25 acres in size, and it was expanded to 200 acres by September 1943.
The camp itself was divided into several sections, one for the German personnel, including the commandant’s villa; one for the work facilities; and a section for male and another for female prisoners, each divided into separate accommodations for Jews and non-Jews. Some existing buildings were used for the camp administration, especially for housing the SS. In addition, more than 100 new barracks were built in 1943. The several hundred forced labourers of the barrack construction (Barackenbau) unit worked under extremely harsh conditions, as the camp was constructed without any undue delay. Until January 1944, the camp was officially called the Jewish Forced Labour Camp of the SS and Police Leader in the Krakow District (Judisches Zwangsarbeitslager des SS und Polizeiführer im Distrikt Krakau). Scherner’s staff was responsible for building and running the camp. All leading camp personnel belonged to the SSPF’s office, such as the first camp commandant Horst Pilarczyk, who undertook this role until November 1942, and he was succeeded by Franz Josef Muller.
On 11 February 1943, SS- Untersturmführer Amon Leopold Göth took over from Muller. Amon Göth was transferred from the staff of Odilo Globocnik’s SS und Polizeiführer Lublin, where he had been involved in Aktion Reinhardt, the mass murder of Polish Jewry. He served as the commandant of Plaszow until 13 September 1944, when he was arrested by the SS. He was replaced for a few months by Philipp Grimm, who in turn was replaced by Kurt Schuppke. Other important members of the camp personnel included the Lagerführer Edmund Zdrojewski, Jozef Grzimek, who had served in Rawa Ruska and Lvov (Lemberg), the chief of the guard unit Paul Raebel and SS- Oberscharführer Landdorfer.
Most of the guards were non-Germans, such as Ukrainian members of the Schutzmannschaft– Battalion 206 and about 110 men from the SS Training camp at Trawniki, some of whom who had served in the Aktion Reinhardt death camps. From the German perspective some of these guards were not considered 100 percent reliable. The Jewish Police (Judischer Ordnungsdienst) transferred from the Krakow ghetto, kept order inside the camp.
On 27 - 28 October 1942, during the ‘Aktion’ in the Krakow ghetto, some 7,000 Jewish residents were deported to the Belzec death camp, from the Plaszow railway station. The Germans also sent approximately 2,000 Jews from the Krakow ghetto to Plaszow, to help with the construction of the camp. The next major change in the prisoner population occurred as a result of the final liquidation of the Krakow ghetto which took place on 13-14 March 1943. On these dates some 8,000 to 10,000 Jews were marched from Ghetto ‘A’, the ghetto where the workers were, to the Plaszow camp. Scherner had ordered that all Jewish workers from Krakow should be incarcerated in Plaszow. In the spring of 1943, Plaszow with its 10,000 prisoners was one of the biggest forced labour camps in occupied Poland. The prisoner population grew even more with transports from other camps such as Rymanow in July 1943 and Tarnow on 2 September 1943. In September 1943, the Jewish workers in the Krakow district were increasingly concentrated in Plaszow. In May 1944, almost 6,000 Jews from ‘Greater Hungary,’ who had been deported first to the Auschwitz concentration camp, arrived in Plaszow, although they stayed only a few months, before being sent to camps in Austria, or back to Auschwitz.
Up until the summer of 1943, almost all the prisoners were Jewish, but some Poles were also interned in Plaszow, as a punishment for minor infringements. They were put into separate barracks first, a section in the camp was built for them in the second half of 1943. Apparently, this camp section also served as a work re-education camp for the people whom the Nazis considered unreliable workers. These Poles were usually imprisoned for three months, but this period could be extended. The work re-education camp expanded from a capacity of 1,000 to approximately 6,000 prisoners. Approximately 10,000 Poles were imprisoned there during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, among them hostages taken in Krakow, thus avoiding a similar uprising. Most of these prisoners were released after a short time. Some Gypsies were also kept in the Polish camp.
Conditions in Plaszow were inhumane, the food was totally insufficient, and a typhus-epidemic in June –July 1943, took hundreds of lives. The working conditions varied, for example in the textile works were better than working in the stone quarries, where male workers were driven to total exhaustion. The worst features of Plaszow were the mass executions and the random violence of the camp officers and guards. Beatings and mass floggings were an almost daily feature. Amon Göth was infamous for carrying out individual murders. He randomly beat prisoners to death, shot them, or set his two dogs to attack prisoners. Frequently Göth had members of working detachments shot after they were caught smuggling food into the camp. Inmates tried to avoid any contact with Göth if possible, and they particularly feared his murderous roll-calls or searches in their barracks. He was certainly not the only SS man to kill prisoners and some survivors claim that SS- Untersturmführer Leonhard John, behaved even worse.
The Plaszow camp also functioned as an area for mass executions, of both camp inmates and others brought from outside. Immediately after the 13-14 March liquidation of the Ghetto in Krakow, the corpses of 2,000 Jews were brought to the camp and interred in a mass grave. Jews later caught hiding, were shot near the camp’s baths (Badeanstalt). Furthermore, during the so-called ‘Lageraktionen’ from May to July 1943, at least 250 Jews were shot. The main targets were the old and sick inmates transferred from the camp hospital. Polish inmates were also sometimes killed, for maintaining contacts with the outside world. From June –July 1943, onwards, the SS, moved their execution activities to an old Austrian fortification used in the First World War, which the inmates called Hujowa Gorka; from mid-1944, executions were carried out at a hill called Lipowy Dolek. The Security Police and camp personnel such as SS- Oberscharführer Albert Hujar also murdered Poles there, including priests who had been arrested. These mass executions apparently started in September 1943; one of the biggest massacres took place on 2 February 1944, when 200 inmates from the Montelupich prison in Krakow were murdered. Approximately 2,000 Poles were shot near Plaszow, the vast majority of them from the Montelupich Security Police prison in Krakow, by the end of 1944, there were at least 10 mass graves situated around the camp.
Resistance in Plaszow was extremely difficult, for example after escapes Commandant Göth usually had ten prisoners shot for each person who escaped. Nevertheless, people did escape. Mutual aid was more common. There were even organised assistance groups, such as the Zehnerschaft (The Ten), women who organised support for other inmates. In October 1943, a small Underground group was formed by several Jewish Kapo’s, calling themselves the Jewish Fighting Organisation. They were able to collect some weapons, but after the murder of their leader Adam Stab, the resisters decided to wait to be evacuated to the West, rather than revolt.
The prisoners in Plaszow, to some degree could rely on help from outside the camp, for example the Judische Untersturzungsstelle, a welfare organisation that the Germans tolerated, could supply the inmates with some food and medical care. Stanislaw Dobrowolski, the head of the Krakow branch of the Council for Aid to Jews (Zegota), supported inmates, as did the famous pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz; the Rada Glowna Opiekuncza, the Polish welfare organisation, sent extra food to Polish prisoners, some of whom shared it with Jewish inmates.
Some Polish workers, who were not imprisoned could return to their homes every evening, these people worked for several German firms, most of them worked for the Deutsche Ausrustungswerke (German Equipment Works, DAW) of the SS, which supplied the SS with uniforms and repaired goods that had been taken from the Jews who had been murdered. The Austrian enterprise Madritsch, whose owner, Julius Madritsch, secretly supported his workers, made uniforms for the Wehrmacht. Some of the inmates even worked for a Nazi academic institution, the Deutsche Ostinstitut which was based in Krakow.
Despite the order of the SSPF Krakau, not to locate Jewish workers outside of Plaszow, this was not the case and one of the most famous sub-camps was the Emalia. This was built next to Oskar Schindler’s factory of the same name, which was located at Lipowa Street No 4, in the Zablocie district of Krakow. The sub-camp was established on 8 May 1943, under the command of Albert Hujar, Eberhard Behr and Edmund Zdrojewski.
Efforts to bring the forced labour camps of the SSPF under supervision of the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in Oranienburg, near Berlin, had been under way since early 1943. During early September 1943, decisive negotiations were undertaken between the Higher-SS and Police Leader (HSSPF) and the SS-Business Administration Main Office (WVHA), and the Armaments Inspectorate. In late October 1943, the WVHA decided to take over the management of Plaszow, and changed its status to that of a concentration camp. The branches of the nearby Julag I and Julag II were dissolved around 15 November 1943, and their prisoners transferred to Plaszow. From 10 January 1944, the camp was officially called Konzentrationlager Krakau- Plaszow, and all orders now came from Orainenburg via the Higher –SS and Police Leader in Krakow. To some degree, Göth, who did not represent a typical concentration camp commandant, was now restricted in his actions, since he had to obey the general rules for camp management. He was obliged to report everything of importance to Oranienburg. After a while, an SS-Totenkopfverband (Death’s Head Unit), the Wachsturmbann Krakau numbering approximately 600 men and women, took over the guard duties. An SS camp doctor arrived, first Dr Jager, later Dr Blancke. Even a small group of German concentration camp inmates who were to take over some functions in the camp, arrived in June 1944. The majority of inmates were still Jews, there were few transfers of prisoners to other concentration camps, but Jews were still transferred to labour camps, such as when 2,000 Jews were sent to the Skarzysko-Kamienna labour camp in March 1944.
In early May 1944, Amon Göth was informed that approximately 10,000 Jews from Hungary were to be transported to Plaszow. In order to make room for them, he prepared deportations to the Auschwitz concentration camp. On 14 May 1944, he ordered that all the children in the camp to be transferred to the ‘kindergarten’ which had been installed in March 1944. This in fact turned out to be a pretext for their deportation to Auschwitz, where on 15 May 1944, they perished in the gas chambers, along with the elderly and sick who had also been selected for deportation in Plaszow. During this time, evacuations to Plaszow from other camps located further east intensified. In April and June 1944, transports from the eastern Galician cities of Drohobycz and Boryslaw arrived; in July 1944, prisoners from other camps in the Krakow district started to arrive in Plaszow.
During August – September 1944, the camp leadership started to erase the traces of the crimes committed at Plaszow. A group of 170 Jews who were kept isolated from the other inmates, were selected to remove the corpses from the mass graves and burn the corpses. This horrible task took until mid-October 1944, to complete. Nevertheless, during this period the execution of Poles continued unabated. With the threat of the advancing Soviet Red Army, the Germans started to evacuate Plaszow and on 6 August 1944, 7,500 female Jews arrived in Auschwitz concentration camp. Somewhat later, a train departed for the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
On 13 September 1944, Commandant Amon Göth was arrested by the SS whilst visiting his father in Vienna. Officers of Bureau V of the Reich Security Main Office had descended on Plaszow, during Göth’s absence, in order to carry out a thorough audit of his corrupt affairs. Amon Göth was incarcerated in an SS prison in Breslau (today Wroclaw), suspected of fraud on a massive scale. On 1 January 1945, there were still 453 male and 183 female prisoners left in Plaszow, guarded by 87 male guards. On 14 January 1945, Higher SS and Police Leader Wilhelm Koppe gave the order to evacuate the camp. On 17 January 1945, 178 female prisoners and two boys arrived in the women’s camp in Birkenau. The same day Plaszow was liberated by the Red Army.
Amon Göth was released from an SS prison in January 1945, due to his diabetes and was moved to a sanatorium in Bad Tolz. There he was arrested by the Americans. The Americans agreed to the request to extradite Göth to Poland following a request by the Polish authorities and Goth was tried before the Polish Supreme Court on charges of committing mass murder during the liquidations of the ghettos in Krakow and Tarnow and the camps at Plaszow and Szebnie. He was sentenced to death in Krakow on 5 September 1946 and hung in the former camp at Plaszow on 13 September 1946, defiantly saluting Hitler.
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Photograph – Yad Vashem Archive
© Holocaust Historical Society 2014