Kraków-Płaszów: The Real Story of Amon Göth’s Notorious Death Camp

Kraków-Płaszów: The Real Story of Amon Göth’s Notorious Death Camp

Kraków-Płaszów Arbeitslager

Before the publication of Thomas Keneally’s 1982 historical novel, Schindler’s Ark, and Spielberg’s subsequent 1993 movie, relatively few had heard of the infamous Płaszów concentration camp. Yet despite these high-profile productions, the actual history of the camp, including its murderous SS staff and their thousands of Jewish victims, continues to remain unknown to many.

Construction of the Camp
In October 1942, Julian Scherner, the SS-und Polizeiführer (SS and Police Leader or SSPF) for the Kraków district, ordered a camp to be erected in the Płaszów suburb of Kraków. Nearby, the Płaszów train station had already become a transit point from where Jews of the Kraków ghetto were deported to their deaths at Bełzec, while a small camp, known as ‘Julag I’, had been established there for the Jews servicing the railways. The larger camp at Płaszów was intended to be a place to house Jewish forced labour in the district.

Kraków-Płaszów Arbeitslager (labour camp) was constructed by several hundred Jews from the ghetto. Rather sadistically, the SS chose to build the camp partly on top of two Jewish cemeteries. It initially occupied an area of about ten hectares, but within a year it had greatly expanded to over 80. The camp’s design included a section for German personnel, another for work facilities and others for the male and female prisoners. At first, existing buildings were utilised for the camp’s administration but in 1943 over 100 new barracks and other buildings were built. Throughout its construction, the Barackenbau (forced Jewish construction unit) was treated brutally to ensure work was completed as quickly as possible.

Julian Scherner (centre), the SS-und Polizeiführer (SS and Police Leader or SSPF) for the Kraków district

Unlike in the movie, where we see Amon Göth ordering the execution of a Jewish female engineer during the building of the camp, the first commandant of Płaszów at this time was in fact Horst Pilarczyk. Little is known about Pilarczyk but his appointment had only been temporary, being replaced in November 1942 by Franz Josef Müller. Since the camp, until January 1944, came under control of the Jüdisches Zwangsarbeitslager des SS und Polizeiführer im Distrikt Krakau (Jewish Forced Labour Camp of the SS and Police Leader in the Kraków District), all camp personnel were accountable to Julian Scherner as SSPF.

Amon Göth
The longest serving commandant of Płaszów was the particularly sadistic Amon Göth. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1908, Göth came from a prosperous family, his father a successful publisher. He joined the Nazi party in 1931 and entered the SS the following year. Göth displayed his susceptibility to corruption early on, being caught engaging in illegal activities, after which he fled to Germany to avoid prosecution, returning home only after the Anschluss in 1938.

Göth’s SS career progressed at a steady pace, being promoted to untersturmführer in 1941, and later became involved in Aktion Reinhard (Operation Reinhard), the secret plan to exterminate the Jews of the Generalgouvernement (General Government) in occupied Poland, serving on the staff of SS-Brigadeführer Odilo Globočnik. This experience led him to his appointment as Płaszów’s commandant on 11 February 1943, replacing Müller. Göth’s performance was considered to be so good by his superiors that they promoted him to hauptsturmführer in the summer of 1943, skipping the rank of obersturmführer.

Amon Göth riding his white horse in Płaszów

Liquidation of the Kraków Ghetto
One of the most shocking scenes in the movie Schindler’s List is the liquidation of the Kraków ghetto, an operation led by Göth. Göth did perform this gruesome task in real life, and he also supervised the violent liquidations of the Tarnów ghetto and the Szebnie concentration camp in September 1943.

The establishment of the Kraków ghetto had been ordered in March 1941, the location chosen being Podgorze in the south of the city rather than the Jewish quarter in Kazimierz. Within several weeks, the Germans managed to concentrate between 15,000 to 20,000 Jews in the ghetto from across Kraków and other nearby towns and villages. Surrounded by barbed-wire fences, the SS established several factories within the ghetto, such as Julius Madritsch’s Optima textile factory, and permitted certain Jews to work as forced labour in factories outside, the most famous example being Oskar Schindler’s Deutsche Emalwarenfabrik (German Enamel Products).

Deportations from the Kraków ghetto commenced in 1942, with successive transports of thousands of Jews sent to Bełzec and murdered. A major Ghettoaktion was carried out on 28 October, during which half of the remaining Jews were similarly deported. Although 6,000 were destined for Bełzec, 2,000 were temporarily spared death and sent to Płaszów instead. Nevertheless, the operation was a savage one, with around 600 Jews, half of them children, shot by the SS and police in the ghetto itself.

Jews being deported from the Kraków ghetto in 1943

The final liquidation, organised by Göth, took place on 13/14 March 1943. Göth’s SS and policemen were as brutal as they were efficient in this abhorrent task. During the operation, over 2,000 Jews were shot dead in the ghetto, while another 2,000 were transferred to Płaszów; the latter included those chosen for work, members of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) and the Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst (Jewish Ghetto Police). The remaining Jews, around 3,000 considered unfit to work, were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, the majority being immediately sent to the gas chambers.

Leopold Page, a survivor of the ghetto liquidation, recalled the horrors he witnessed: ‘I saw them [the Germans] pulling a woman and a child. They shot the woman and they killed the child by … taking the child by the legs and hitting the wall … I start to take the bundles what were laying all around on the street and put them … in one place, and when they came to me close enough, about four or five feet, I turned to them, and in German, reported to them that I was appointed here by one of the officer[s] to clean the road so that the thoroughfares will be open … They start to laugh, but they figure out, the guy just got the order, so he’s doing the order, so he told me in German … “Get lost.” I didn’t run, I turned around, clicked with my heels, and slowly left.’

Life in Płaszów
Although Płaszów was staffed with a handful of German SS officers and non-commissioned officers, most guards were Ukrainian. These men came from Schutzmannschafts-Bataillon 206, while around 110 were from the SSPF Lublin training camp at Trawniki, and some had previously been posted to other camps, including extermination camps. Nevertheless, the Germans never fully trusted the Ukrainians at Płaszów, although their task was predominantly just to keep the prisoners from escaping. Order within the camp was enforced by the hated Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst, who had performed the same role in the Kraków ghetto.

Forced labour in Płaszów concentration camp

Predictably, the conditions in which the Jews were forced to live and work were nothing short of horrendous. There was always a lack of food, resulting in workers being weak and susceptible to disease. As a result, in June and July 1943, typhus hit the camp, killing hundreds. At particular risk were those who endured backbreaking physical work in the nearby quarries, while those who worked in the less exhausting textiles factories fared a little better.

Göth instilled an ever-present feeling of fear in his prisoners. The guards were permitted to commit violent acts against Jews for the smallest of infractions, or for no reason at all. Executions were a regular feature of camp life. Excessive violence and death were random and could happen at any time. Göth was notorious for personal bouts of violent anger, being prone to suddenly explode and beat prisoners or shoot them out of hand. He also had two dogs, named Rolf and Ralf, which he trained to attack prisoners on command. If that wasn’t enough, Göth regularly ordered roll calls and barrack searches, which usually ended with executions.

Joseph Bau, a Płaszów survivor, recalled Göth as ‘A hideous and terrible monster’ who ‘ran the camp through extremes of cruelty that are beyond the comprehension of a compassionate mind … For even the slightest infraction of the rules he would rain blow after blow upon the face of the helpless offender … Anyone who was being whipped by him was forced to count in a loud voice … and if he made a mistake was forced to start counting over again. During interrogations … he would set his dog on the accused, who was strung by his legs from a specially placed hook in the ceiling. In the event of an escape from the camp, he would order the entire group from which the escapee had come, to form a row, would give the order to count ten and would, personally kill every tenth person. At one morning parade, in the presence of all the prisoners he shot a Jew, because, as he complained, the man was too tall. Then as the man lay dying he urinated on him. Once he caught a boy who was sick with diarrhoea and was unable to restrain himself. Göth forced him to eat all the excrement and then shot him.’

One of Amon Göth’s dogs, named Rolf, with another

Mass Murder
Although a camp for housing Jewish labour, the mass murder of prisoners regularly took place in Płaszów. Others from outside the camp were also brought in for execution. For example, several Jews who had escaped the ghetto massacre and later arrested were sent to the camp, where they were immediately taken to the so-called Badeanstalt (swimming pool) and shot. From May to July 1943, a Lageraktionen was carried out in which 250 Jewish prisoners were brutally murdered, most being elderly and sick from the camp’s hospital. Even the Jüdischer Ordnungsdienst were not immune from the killings, when, in April 1943, 50 were executed.

Similar killings were conducted from July 1943 at a former nearby World War One fortification known as Hujowa Górka (“Prick Hill”), and from the middle of 1944 on a hill called Lipowy Dołek. Non-Jews were also murdered at these sites by the Sicherheitspolizei (German Security Police), including 200 inmates from Kraków prison. Mass graves were dug around the camp, and by the time Płaszów ceased operations in January 1945 there were at least ten such graves containing thousands of corpses.

Non-Jewish Inmates
A lesser-known fact regarding Płaszów is that not all prisoners were Jewish. From the summer of 1943, non-Jewish Poles were interned in the camp, mostly as punishment for relatively minor offences. At first, the Poles were simply housed in a separate barracks, but a new purpose-built section was established in late 1943. An Arbeitserziehungslager (Labour Education Camp) was setup in this new section, where Poles, who the Germans considered to be unreliable workers, were ‘re-educated’.

A view of Płaszów concentration camp

Most Poles imprisoned in Płaszów usually spent three months in camp, although some had their sentences extended for poor behaviour or other offences. Over time, the Arbeitserziehungslager was expanded to house 6,000 prisoners, but during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, some 10,000 Poles found themselves crammed into Płaszów. Most, however, were later released. In addition to the Poles, this section of the camp was also used to hold small numbers of Roma and Sinti, their likely fate being the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau or Bełzec.

Contact with the Outside
Another surprising fact is the prisoners in Płaszów were not entirely cut off from those outside. An example can be seen in the Jüdische Unterstützungsstelle (Jewish Assistance Centre or JUS), a Jewish welfare organisation ran by Michał Weichert. Weichert was a non-Jewish Polish theatre producer who, incredibly, was granted permission by the Germans to supply prisoners with food and medical care. He was arrested after the war by Polish authorities on charges of collaborating but was later acquitted.

Other outside help came from the Kraków office for the Rada Pomocy Żydom (Council for Aid to Jews) headed by Stanislaw Dobrowolski, who did what he could to support prisoners. Another Pole who tried to help was Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the pharmacist featured in Spielberg’s movie. In real life, Pankiewicz had run the ‘Under the Eagle’ pharmacy on Plac Zgody in the Kraków ghetto. Following its liquidation, he sent food into Płaszów for non-Jewish Polish prisoners, some of who he knew shared the supplies with Jews.

Tadeusz Pankiewicz in 1941

Some prisoners were even allowed out of the camp to work for several German run factories located in the surrounding area, albeit under guard. Julius Madritsch continued to employ Jews in his textile factory following the liquidation of the ghetto, making uniforms for the Wehrmacht. Madritsch was a kind employer who secretly tried to help his Jewish workforce. Another example was the Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke (German Equipment Works or DAW), a firm owned by the SS that made and repaired uniforms. It also made repairs to goods stolen from the Jews by the SS.

Resistance and Assistance
There was little in the way of resistance towards the guards in Płaszów. This was largely thanks to Göth and the persistent climate of fear he maintained in camp. However, one resistance group, called the Jewish Fighting Organisation, was formed by Jewish kapos and led by Adam Stab, who even managed to acquire some weapons. However, after Stab was killed one day the other members decided not to carry out their planned uprising, instead they optimistically hoped to sit out the war until liberation or evacuation came. There were also some assistance organisations in Płaszów, including the Zehnerschaft (The Ten), formed by a group of women who attempted to provide support to other prisoners in need.

From Labour Camp to Concentration Camp
Despite being remembered as a konzentrationslager (concentration camp), Płaszów did not become designated as such until 10 January 1944. This change meant little for the prisoners, their precarious lives continuing as before. The changes were more administrative, the camp now coming under orders from the Inspektion der Konzentrationslager (Concentration Camps Inspectorate or IKL) at Oranienburg and the SS-Wirtschafter beim Höheren SS-und Polizeiführer Krakau.

Amon Göth at his villa

Nevertheless, the Wachsturmbann Krakau, a unit of the SS-Totenkopfverbände (Death’s Head Unit), later arrived to take over the guarding of Płaszów. Along with these 600 men came a Lagerarzt (SS physician), SS-Obersturmführer Dr. Wilhelm Jäger, who in turn was replaced by SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Max Blancke. The latter had come from Majdanek and performed a murderous ‘health roll call’ on 7 May 1944, as well as introduced the practice of administering lethal injections to patients.

Göth now found his virtual dictatorship over Płaszów become more restricted, since he had to justify his actions within the rules and regulations set out for the administration of concentration camps. These changes, however, came late in the war and Płaszów’s days were by now numbered. As such, the camp was never fully integrated into the concentration camp system before it ceased operations.

Towards the End
A major clear out of Płaszów was conducted in May 1944 following news that an incoming transport of 10,000 Jews from Hungary was imminent, for which Göth needed to make room. On the 14th, he ordered all children in the camp to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau the next day. Göth also had to make room for prisoners arriving from other camps in the east, which were being evacuated due to the advancing Soviet army.

Ruth Irene Kalder, Amon Göth’s mistress, with Rolf the dog

In August 1944, Göth ordered the exhumation and burning of all bodies from the nearby mass graves in an attempt to hide the crimes of the camp personnel. A group of 170 Jews was assembled for this grizzly task, which was kept separate from the other prisoners. It was difficult and harrowing work which lasted into October. It is unclear whether Göth received orders in line with Sonderaktion 1005, the secret operation to hide German war crimes in eastern Europe, but it seems likely. The operation, however, did not see the end of executions in Płaszów, which continued as before.

Göth would not see the end to this operation, for in September he was arrested on charges of corruption and theft of confiscated Jewish property. The charges would be eventually dropped in January 1945, likely due to the realisation that Germany was on the verge of defeat and that he was suffering from mental illness. Göth was subsequently committed to a sanatorium in Bad Tölz. His replacement as commandant of Płaszów was SS-Obersturmführer Arnold Büscher.

Another to face similar charges was Julian Scherner, who had been transferred to Dachau in April 1944 before his trial in October. Found guilty, he was demoted and sent to serve under Dr. Oskar Direlwanger, one of the most infamous of all Nazis, as part of the criminal and murderous Dirlewanger Brigade.

View of a barracks at the Plaszow concentration camp

Preparations to evacuate Płaszów before the arrival of Soviet forces commenced in late 1944. Regular deportations of prisoners began, with around 8,000 being sent to their deaths at Auschwitz-Birkenau on 6 August 1944. Other prisoners were sent to Stutthof, Flossenburg, and Mauthausen, as well as other destinations. The final departure of prisoners took place in January 1945, when they were forced marched to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many died on the march, and most of those who survived were immediately sent to the gas chambers upon arrival.

Liberation and Trials
Płaszów was dismantled. The bodies in the mass graves had been burned and now the buildings were removed. When Soviet forces arrived at the camp on the 17th, little evidence of the crimes of Göth and his men remained. The retreating SS destroyed all their documents, and as a result it remains unclear how many were interned and died in Płaszów. However, it has been suggested that between 30,000 and 50,000 prisoners were held in Płaszów between 1942 and 1945, with 5,000 to 8,000 being murdered. In addition, the vast majority of those deported during the camp’s evacuation are believed to have not survived.

Due to this lack of remaining evidence, there were few post-war trials of Płaszów’s former SS personnel. Göth was extradited to Poland and put on trial for war crimes by the Najwyższy Trybunał Narodowy (Supreme National Tribunal of Poland) in Kraków in late 1946. He was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging, the execution carried out on 13 September 1946 at the Montelupich Prison in Kraków. Several others were put on trial in Poland, and in 1950s several more were tried by the Soviets. However, the sad reality is that most SS staff who served at Płaszów were never brought to justice. Their victims are remembered by a memorial erected on the camp’s former site in 1964.

Amon Göth at his trial in 1946