The Empty Chairs in Ghetto Heroes Square
One of the most poignant and touching places in Krakow is undoubtedly Ghetto Heroes Square. The square, which is situated in the Podgórze district, commemorates the Jewish victims of the war both through its name and also with an artistic chair installation that can be found there. This article will explain some of the details about how and why these chairs came to be placed in the square.
1941-1943 was a tragic time
Ghetto Heroes Square (known as Plac Zgody from 1930 to 1948) was witness to a dark and tragic period in Krakow’s history. During World War II, it was the central area of the ghetto that was established by the Germans in March 1941 in the district of Podgórze
(on the order of Governor General Hans Frank). All the non-Jewish residents (except for the pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz) were displaced from Podgórze and Jews living in other districts were forced to leave their homes and move to the ghetto.
The ghetto in Krakow operated for two years. It covered an area of 20 hectares, and included around 320 buildings which were to house approximately 17,000 Jews. Obviously, the whole ghetto area was overcrowded and one flat was often home to 4 or 5 families, meaning there would be around 20 people all living in one small space. As there were only a few beds, most of the ghetto residents would have to sleep on the floor with no privacy. All the Jewish people were forced to work, even children, the old and the sick. The Jews worked in factories located either inside or outside the ghetto (such as Schindler’s Factory) but those that worked outside the ghetto walls were always escorted by a special police unit to prevent them from escaping. Everyone in the ghetto suffered from a huge, indescribable hunger that caused many diseases to take hold. As a result, anyone considered too weak, sick or unfit for work would be killed or sent to one of the death camps. During the time that the Krakow ghetto was in existence, the Germans organised two huge transports to the death camp in Belzec, and then one more to Auschwitz during the liquidation of the ghetto. Thousands of people were led out into the square (where we can see the chairs today) and they would have to wait there for many hours for their final journey to death.
Death transports from the square
Before the outbreak of World War II, Plac Zgody was the site of a bus station that served the bus lines connecting Krakow with outlying towns.
Once the ghetto had been established, Plac Zgody became the centre of the district and it was there that the roll-calls and selections of the Jews took place. The former bus station started to operate as a police station and the ghetto wall was placed right next to it.
The square was used as the main site for the deportation process. The victims were gathered in the western part, while trucks full of looted property were left in the middle. Executions also took place in the square and sometimes in the adjacent courtyards. During the liquidation of the ghetto in March 1943, many old, sick, weak and unemployed people were shot in the square, together with small children.
Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the afore-mentioned owner of the Under The Eagle Pharmacy, whose windows overlooked the square, was an eyewitness to those events. The only non-Jewish inhabitant of the ghetto, he had been allowed by the Germans to remain and run the pharmacy opened by his father in 1908. Pankiewicz and the rest of his staff helped many people in the ghetto by smuggling in food and medicine, and organising fake documents.
The years after the war
Three years after World War II ended, in 1948, the city decided to change the name of the square from Plac Zgody to Ghetto Heroes Square. For a time, the square once again became an important transport hub for the local people.
Chairs commemorating the victims
In 2005, it was decided to create a monument in the square to commemorate all the victims and the tragic events of WWII. The written memoirs of Tadeusz Pankiewicz (The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy) had proved very inspiring, with one extract from his extraordinary book reading: “In Plac Zgody, an incalculable number of wardrobes, tables, sideboards and other furniture was rotting.” These words were the reason behind the creation of a special and highly unusual monument made of oversized metal chairs, intended to symbolise the items left behind in the square before their owners, the Jewish victims, embarked on their final journey.
The monument designers decided to place 33 large chairs in the square and 37 smaller ones that people could sit on. The majority of the chair-monuments were arranged in rows (reminiscent of the way that the permanent residents of the ghetto had to stand during the roll-calls) and faced the former Under The Eagle Pharmacy. Three of them faced Lwowska Street, where a fragment of the original ghetto wall has been preserved. As for the smaller chairs, the artists decided to place them facing the square, surrounding the larger chairs at the same time.
In addition, a special line was also marked out on the paved surface of Ghetto Heroes Square which symbolises the ghetto wall and the border that was established between the ghetto and the German side.
Two important dates were placed on the facade of the former bus station to commemorate the dates that the ghetto was established (1941) and then liquidated (1943).
Every year, on the anniversary of the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto in Podgórze, many Krakow residents and visitors meet in Ghetto Heroes Square to walk in silence along the same route that the Jews marched on 13 and 14 March, 1943.
In 2006, the memorial was awarded the European Prize for Urban Public Space, and in 2011 it received the Gold Award in the Urban Quality Award 2011.
Moreover, in 2017 a local artist decided to crochet some special lace “clothes” for the chairs, although few of them have survived now, unfortunately.
Even though it’s a very moving and highly symbolic sight to see all the chairs in the square, there are still many people who haven’t heard the history of this square and don’t know the reason for the installation. However, if you have read to the end of this article, you will now know the full tragic history of this square and the meaning behind the resulting monument. If you are in Krakow now, or you plan to come in the future, you will definitely find a visit to Podgórze very worthwhile as an opportunity to “see” history with your own eyes.
Ways to experience
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