Stories from the Road: Plaszow Camp - Krakow, Poland (June 6, 2016)
“Plaszow” I repeated to the cab driver in the gas station parking lot across the bridge from the city center of Krakow.
“I don’t know,” he said shaking his head and I continued to wonder why he hadn’t been honest about his confusion when I’d first gotten in the cab. Jacquie and I exchanged looks from her seat in the back. The sky was slowly starting lose some light and here we were in a cab on the outskirts of Krakow with a cab driver that was either incompetent or something slightly more nefarious.
“Plaszow,” I tried again, trying to focus on my pronunciation. My Polish is almost non-existent, but I was sure I was saying it right. “Like Auschwitz, but in Krakow?”
“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Yes, Plaszow.” I looked at Jacquie and she shrugged. To this day I maintain that he pronounced it the same way as I had. “That’s, eh, 15 minutes? Maybe more?” He looked out the window. “We should go?” Jacquie and I exchanged another glance. Even though he now seemed to know where I was talking about, I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of continuing a ride into the unknown and darkening suburbs of Krakow.
“Not today. We’ll go tomorrow. Can you take us back to the hotel?” I repeated the address dutifully, confident in the knowledge that I had the hotel’s business card in my pocket.
“Yes” He pulled out a piece of paper and sat in silence writing before he yanked on the gear shift and pulled out of the parking lot. “Like Auschwitz. Plaszow.” He kept repeating to himself. When we finally pulled up in front of the hotel, the street lights were just coming on. As I went to open the door, he stopped me and held out the piece of paper. On it was written ‘Oboz Zagrady Plaszow ul. Kaminskiego’. “So tomorrow he knows. Plaszow.” He repeated the word slowly and winked at me.
While not on the official tour docket of the trip, Jaquie and I had gotten in our heads that we wanted to see the Plaszow memorial. What had originally began as a group trip, slowly dwindled to just us two. The only two willing to wake up with enough time to get out and back before our train left. While it is in the city limits, Plaszow is apparently not as well known as I would have guessed.
The next day, I swallowed my pride and just handed the cab driver the piece of paper. “Tak?” I questioned him, looking for him to echo the universal Polish affirmative. He nodded. As we wove through the streets of Krakow, he pulled out his phone and started speaking in rapid fire Polish. I understood enough words to parcel out that he had called a friend to ask for directions. I looked over at him and raised my eyebrows. “Tak?” He nodded and turned on the GPS, smiling.
After what seemed like an eternity crawling through the busy morning traffic, we pulled up behind what looked like a hotel, with a hill in front of us. He smiled and pointed up the hill. Once again Jacquie and I were left to shrugging and exchanging glaces. We headed up the hill as I expressed doubts about whether or not we were really in the right place. Jacquie, positive as ever, commented that there could only be one Plaszow, so it had to be right.
If you’ve ever seen the movie Schindler’s List, then you know about Plaszow. It was a labor camp, so there were no gas chambers, although plenty of people died through shootings or exhaustion or being transferred to other camps that did have gas chambers. The head count of prisoners is estimated to be at least 20,000 although no structures remain. The memorial stands at the top of a hill, with the quarry where prisoners worked on one side and the suburbs on the other. Plaszow, while seemingly less well-known now, was infamous for violence and cruelty, especially during the time that Amon Goth (Ralph Fiennes in the movie) was commandant.
There were three things at the time that Jacquie and I did not know. 1) In our haste to get out of the cab, we had walked right by a sign saying that were entering the site of the former Nazi camp Plaszow. 2) The memorial was up and over the huge hill in front of us. From our vantage point, all we could see was grass. 3) The building behind us was not, as we thought, a hotel. So when we came back down the hill, sweating and nervously looking for a cab, no one would be around to help. We continued down the asphalt driveway and came out onto the sidewalk to see traffic stopped, bumper to bumper on both sides of the street.
Another look exchanged between us, but, instead of shrugging, this involved alarm. We had 45 minutes to get back to the hotel in order to leave with the others for the train. 45 minutes and no prospects for a cab. Even if we could find cab, how long would we have to sit in traffic. To try to distract ourselves, Jacquie and I crossed the street and started to walk back the way we had come, debating if we could make it back in time on foot. It didn’t seem likely, but it also seemed like our only choice. Until the tram rattled by. In a fit of something like madness, we waited for the next tram, going back towards the city and hopped on. The tram was packed. With the only map at the very front, and no way to get there, Jacquie and I stared out the window. As we began to pass signs for Schindler’s Factory, the river suddenly came up in front of us.
“Once we cross the river, we get out and run for it?” It was maybe ten blocks from the river to the hotel, but we couldn’t risk the train taking an unexpected turn and derailing our plan. We were running out of time as we jumped through the open doors and took off down the street. The receptionist didn’t look phased as we pushed the front door of the hotel wide and slouched against the wall, panting. With less than five minutes to spare.
While Plaszow is the camp featured in one of the most iconic Holocaust movies, there seems to be fairly little interest in its story. Even as Schindler’s Factory and museum is one of the most popular sites in Krakow. There seems to be something telling about the fact that people can name the rescuer but not the camp that he rescued people from. If I had known how challenging it was going to be to get to Plaszow, that may have deterred me. With the lack of physical structures, or even recognizable landscape, the camp is a mere whisper of what it once was. The stories of the victims and survivors feel muted in the overgrown fauna and the trails where people are walking their dogs. Yet, the amount of people who use the trails that cut through and around the hill, seems to suggest that Plaszow has strong roots in some memories. The people who walk there every day. Who could probably explain each and every stone marker along the route. Maybe that sort of familiarity is worth more.