Plaszow Concentration Camp

Site of the former camp at the village of Plaszow

The photograph above, taken in October 1998, shows the spot where the barracks of the Plaszow concentration camp once stood. The Camp Commandant, Amon Goeth, lived in a house that is out of camera range in this picture; it is located to the right and behind a hill so that it cannot be seen from this spot. The camp was surrounded by houses on three sides and on the fourth side was a major road.

To reach the site of the former Plaszow camp, 10 kilometers from the city center of Krakow, we drove up a hill on a rutted one-lane dirt road, thinly covered with small white granite rocks. The road reminded me of a road up to a cemetery that I had visited in my youth, and I soon learned that this was also the site of a Jewish cemetery before the Nazis made it into a labor camp. The granite quarries near this location were at that time owned by a Jew, but the Nazis confiscated the property, without compensation, for their labor camp. There was a Jewish mortuary chapel near the cemetery, which the Nazis converted into a stable. This was not the first time that a Jewish place of worship was used by the Nazis as a stable.

The location of the Plaszow camp on the site of two Jewish cemeteries afforded building materials for the Nazis in the construction of the camp. Although crushed granite from the quarry was readily available, the Nazis desecrated Jewish graves by ripping out the tombstones, then using slabs of the broken grave stones to pave the camp roads, like stepping stones in a garden, as pictured in the movie Schindler's List.

The construction of the Plaszow camp began in June 1942. A guidebook which I purchased at the Eagle Pharmacy museum in Podgorze, not far from the Plaszow camp, states: "According to the Heydrich plan the Plaszow camp and its sub camps were meant to constitute a stage in the concentration of the Jews deported to the East. The camp was built on the area of two cemeteries at Jerozolimska and Abrahama street. The location of the camp -- near the Plaszow railroad station -- made the access to communication tracks relatively easy." The "Heydrich plan" was a reference to the conference which SS officer Reinhard Heydrich led on January 20, 1942 at Wannsee, a suburb of Berlin. This is where plans were made for the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question."

By July 1944, the Russians had advanced into Poland, as the Germans retreated. Majdanek was the first Nazi camp to be liberated by the Russians on July 23, 1944; it was now necessary for the German occupation government to begin the liquidation of the Plaszow camp. The bodies of 8,000 prisoners, who had died in the camp, were dug up and burned, according to the author of the novel, Schindler's List. The barracks were dismantled and sent to other camps along with the camp records. The Plaszow prisoners were transferred to other camps, the last transport leaving on Jan. 12, 1945 just three days before the Red Army liberated Krakow.

According to my tour guide, the Germans fought a fierce battle with the Russians in the city of Krakow. It was so cold that the Vistula river was frozen over. Dead German soldiers littered the streets of Krakow when the battle was finished. According to the tour guide, their bodies were buried by the citizens of Krakow.

Schindler's factory in Krakow, which was a sub-camp of the Plaszow camp, had to be liquidated along with the concentration camp as the Germans retreated. To save his Jewish workers from being sent to other camps, Schindler bribed Nazi officials to let him set up a new factory sub-camp in Brinnlitz near his home town of Zwittau in Moravia, a province of the former country of Czechoslovakia. At that time, Moravia was a protectorate of Germany.

In the movie Schindler's List, Oskar Schindler was allowed to select 1,100 Jews for his new factory, after bribing the Nazis with diamonds, ham and liquor. The male prisoners of Plaszow were sent to Gross-Rosen, a concentration camp that was also built near a quarry; it had 103 sub-camps and Schindler's factory became the 104th. Gross-Rosen is now in Poland, but at that time, it was in the Greater German Reich. The female prisoners at Plaszow were sent to Auschwitz II or Birkenau, including Schindler's Jews, because they had to wait until Schindler's new sub-camp was built.

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. 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, according to the novel Schindler's List.

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 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.

At the age of 29, Mini Reinhardt became Schindler's secretary in October 1944; she had previously been working in a labor camp near Krakow. In an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz in December 2007, Reinhardt said "I only typed the list. I did what I was told."

According to her interview with a Ha'aretz reporter, Reinhardt was born in Vienna in 1915, but at the age of 21 married a Jew from Krakow and moved to the Polish city. The couple had a son in June 1939, but three months later the war broke out. Son Sascha was smuggled with his grandmother to Hungary, where he survived the war, but her husband was shot while trying to escape from the Krakow ghetto and she was sent to a labor camp.

Reinhardt told the Ha'aretz reporter that it was a "gamble" when she decided to join Schindler at his new factory near his home town.

The following quote is from the Ha'aretz article:

The gamble almost proved fatal, when the Nazis sent the train with the 1,100 workers to the Auschwitz death camp, where she spent 10 days that she described as "straight from the hell of Dante."

But Schindler went out of his way to persuade the camp authorities to release his workers to his new ammunition factory, threatening to accuse them with Nazi authorities in Berlin of "sabotaging the war effort."

Reinhardt rejected speculation by some that his motivations were opportunistic, being driven initially by money while his eventual rescue operation was an attempt to better himself as it became clear the Germans were about to lose the war.

"He wasn't an angel," she told Ha'aretz, pointing out he was a member of the SS and at nights had drinks with the highest ranks of the Nazi force.

But, she added, "I saw a man who constantly risked his life for what he did. He was a Mensch. He must have had a heart of gold."

The photo below shows what is left of the barbed wire fence which formerly surrounded the Plaszow camp. The tour guide told me that there were houses built right up to this fence when the camp was in operation. The camp was built right next to the village of Plaszow which was on the Ostbahn railroad line running through Krakow.

Remnant of the barbed wire fence around the Plaszow camp