The Stare (Old) Podgórze district of Kraków, nestled between the Vistula River and the hilltop Bednarski Park, has experienced an incredible resurgence over the past several years. What used to be a neglected part of the city, with crumbling townhouses and drunks who congregated in the town square, has become the home of restaurants, cafes, galleries, and museums. A new pedestrian bridge links Podgórze to the heart of Kazimierz; the rhythm of footsteps over the pedestrian walkway causes sculptures suspended from wires to totter like the acrobats that are depicted.

 

Old Podgórze is also the place the Nazi governor Hans Frank selected for the Krakow Jewish ghetto on March 3, 1941. “Within two weeks, 18,000 Jews were ordered to move to 320 buildings, whose ‘Aryan’ residents had previously been forced to vacate.” [1] Presumably, the district was selected because of its distance from the center of town, further isolated on the other side of the river. By March 20, Podgórze was closed off by a high brick wall; whether the symbolism was intentional or not, the undulating curves along the top edge evoked Jewish headstones stacked side by side. The ghetto shrank in 1942, when residents were taken to their death in camps like Bełżec, and was completely liquidated on March 13-14, 1943. The ghetto existed just two years, but the fact that it existed at all in this very place clashes uncomfortably with the district’s rebirth.

I have written about Podgórze before, and about the way the district captivated me. In fact, I’ve sometimes remarked that if I were to buy an apartment in Krakow, I would want it to be in Podgórze. But that was before I knew what happened there during World War II, before I started to explore my Jewish heritage, before historical markers brought difficult history back into the public sphere, and before the phantom walls of the ghetto became part of my inner map of the district. When I visited Krakow earlier this summer, I decided to rent an apartment in Podgórze to get a better feel for the place. Could I live there, knowing what I now know?

I found a place right in the heart of what used to be the ghetto, in a newly renovated building right beside a ruin, and across the street from the iconic red brick mikvah building that now houses one of the city’s most prestigious art galleries.

 

I took long runs past St. Joseph’s Church on the Podgórze Market Square, over the hills of Bednarski Park, and through the narrow streets.

 

I visited the remaining fragments of ghetto wall. A short section on Lwowska Street includes a plaque on which is written in Hebrew and Polish: “Here they lived, suffered, and died at the hands of Hitler’s torturers; from here they were taken on their last road to the death camps.” A larger section separates a school yard from the park; I came upon a group of Israeli teenagers whose armed guards asked me what I was doing there. I came to see the wall, I replied. I watched for a bit as their animated tour guide seemed to be reenacting the experiences of ghetto captives.

 

I waited for trams at Ghetto Heroes Square, sitting on the chairs that are part of the memorial to those who waited at this very spot to be transported on that final road to their deaths.

 

Could I be witness to this on a daily basis? Maybe if I lived in Podgórze, but outside the borders of the ghetto? But that seems no better—to put myself in the position of those who watched from outside the walls.

So my love of this space—a quiet corner just a short walk from the heart of the city—battles with the discomfort of flashes of a painful history.

Could I live there? Could you?

[1] Potel, Jean-Yves. 2010 Koniec Niewinności: Polska Wobec Swojej Żydowskiej Przeszłości. Translated by Julia Chimiak. Krakow: Znak. P. 128.