The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy

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Wydawnictwo Literackie

Kraków 2013


Editorial page


From the Author

Preface to the 2nd edition

CHAPTER I The creation and organisation of the ghetto – new life – New friends

CHAPTER II Momentary peace... – The first deportation – German informers – The deportations of 2–4 June 1942

CHAPTER III Lieutenant Bousko – The deportation of 8 June 1942 – The diminishing ghetto – Difficult living conditions – The deportation of 28 October 1942 – The attitudes of the persecuted

CHAPTER IV The camp at Płaszów – The ghetto is made smaller again – Executions at Płaszów – Reliable information about the fate of the deportees – Ghettos A & B – Ghetto residents from outside Krakow – An attempt to close the pharmacy – Restrictions – The Kinderheim opens

CHAPTER V Transports to the camp at Płaszów – The liquidation of the ghetto, 13–14 March 1943 – Psychological riddles – The murder of patients and children – Nightmarish scenes

CHAPTER VI A ghost town – “Cleansing” the ghetto – The butchers of the Krakow ghetto – The fate of the OD men – December 1943

A glossary of German names and expressions

List of illustrations


Translated from Polish by GARRY MALLOY

Chief editor: ANITA KASPEREK



Graphic design: MAREK PAWŁOWSKI

Technical editor: BOŻENA KORBUT

Typesetting: Scriptorium „TEXTURA”

© Copyright by Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2013

© Copyright for the English translation by Wydawnictwo Literackie, 2013

ISBN 978-83-08-05173-3

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When the “Jewish district” first opened, I unexpectedly became one of its inhabitants, as the owner of the “Pod Orłem” pharmacy at No.18 Zgoda Square. As only one of the four pharmacies in the Podgórze district was located within the ghetto, this fact initially escaped the notice of the German authorities. Later, the Germans tried to remove me from the ghetto by offering me one of the pharmacies in Krakow which had previously been owned by Jews.

I did everything in my power to put off the German authorities’ decision. This included employing the tried and trusted method of offering every form of bribe I could think of. For I understood only too well that the Germans would lose the war, and would destroy my pharmacy, and that I would have to return property that was not mine to its rightful owner or his family when the war ended. My conjecture turned out to be well-founded. My pharmacy would have shared the fate of every business or apartment in the ghetto during its liquidation – it would have been completely destroyed.

By playing for time and by a twist of fate I spent two-and-a-half years in the tragic little Jewish town.

For understandable reasons, I wrote down my recollections of these unforgettable and horrendous times once the liquidation of the Jewish district had already taken place.

Even while the ghetto still existed, many of its inhabitants repeatedly urged me to write a chronicle describing the “Jewish district”, as I was the only Pole to live and work among them there, from its inception to its liquidation. From the windows of my duty room overlooking Zgoda Square, I witnessed the most horrific crimes perpetrated by the Nazis against the defenceless Jewish population.

I have checked second-hand stories many times to ensure that my accounts of them are as faithful as possible.

In writing this memoir, I merely wished to present a chronicle of events and to recollect the atmosphere and emotions we experienced during that grim period of widespread cruelty and hypocrisy.


It has been almost thirty-five years since The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy was first published. I have often been asked why the book has never been reissued, given that it sold so well. I have also received letters from abroad about this. In “particular” circles I have been accused of being a Zionist sympathiser, and I have experienced unpleasantness from some of my fellow countrymen who were entirely wrong in their assessment of my activities and the duties I performed during the nightmarish period of the Nazi occupation.

My friends have often urged me to publish my memoirs from that period of working at the “Pod Orłem” pharmacy in their entirety. When the first edition came out, it was abridged and incomplete for various reasons. This edition has been expanded and is not identical to the first. It includes everything that was in the first edition, as well as a large number of supplementary passages and several newly written sections.

Today, when I look through the yellowing pages of my manuscript from the historical perspective of all these years, the events and issues come to life with the same intensity as they did then, and I can see every character who came through my pharmacy as if they were alive. How many of them are no longer alive, how many survivors have been scattered across the globe?

I have accepted numerous invitations and travelled to many countries. In 1957, I stayed in Israel for three months. In 1965, I was invited to New York, where I took part in many meetings organised by Polish Jews, at which I compared their experiences and accounts with my memoirs.

I also met many of my old friends from the ghetto when we appeared as witnesses at the various trials of war criminals in West Germany.

My memoirs do not aspire to be a historical work, though they may be seen as a contribution to the history of the occupation and of the martyrdom of the Poles and Jews. They are a reliable, genuine and contemporary account written immediately after the war ended, when the people and events were still fresh in my memory. I also made use of the loose notes I made during the occupation.

In my memoirs I also wished to record the time which was a nightmare for the Jews in the Krakow ghetto, as it also was for me and those who were working with me, who helped the Jews as much as they could, often saving the lives of people condemned to die.

The atmosphere in the ghetto was so peculiar, so unusual, that it is impossible to describe how and what the people – the mere shadows of people – who spent time in this “inferno” really felt and thought. I think The Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy may shed some additional light on how human beings behave and act when exposed to danger and terror, and when being exterminated, as well as how those responsible for their misfortunes behave. Perhaps it will offer some contribution to understanding the psychology of criminals and their victims.

I have resisted the temptation to add autobiographical commentary on my own experiences, and I have not endeavoured to provide even an attempt at any kind of synthesis. I have tried as faithfully as possible, sometimes naively perhaps, to describe what I saw with my own eyes, hence a rather digressive style.

The present edition has not only been expanded, but also enriched with photographs, which are an eloquent record of that period too.

I wish to thank my friends for the initiative and for the efforts they have contributed to the publication of this book. I would particularly like to thank my colleagues Fryderyk Nedela and Dr Józef Wroński.








At the beginning of 1941, there was increasing talk about the establishment of a ghetto. A wide range of districts were being mentioned, and there was all sorts of speculation. The most commonly expressed view was that Kazimierz would be the future Jewish town, for reasons of historical tradition and because it already had the highest Jewish population. Some people thought Grzegórzki, a district situated on the river Vistula, was sure to be the location of the future ghetto, because the river would provide a natural border along one side and thus limit the length of wall required... economy before all.

On 3 May 1941, the newspaper Krakauer Zeitung published a decree issued by Otto Wächter (the Krakow District Governor), concerning the establishment of a so-called Jüdischer Wohnbezirk – a Jewish quarter – for health and security reasons. An area in the Podgórze district, on the far side of the Vistula, was designated for this purpose, and the boundaries which would separate the ghetto from the Aryan part of the city were marked out.

The deadline for all “Aryans” to leave the demarcated ghetto area, and for the Jews of Krakow (of 80,000, only 15,000 remained) to move in, was set for 20 March 1941.

People were stunned. None of those directly affected was prepared to believe the decision was final. Those with an active interest in the decree – namely the inhabitants of the Podgórze district – formed delegations, called meetings and submitted formal requests outlining a wide variety of reservations, such as the number and nature of larger and smaller factory buildings and machinery repair shops which could not be relocated for lack of suitable premises, and so on.

Among those to appeal was the parish priest of St Joseph’s, Father Józef Niemczyński; this he did both in person and through the diocese. Establishing a ghetto within the boundaries stipulated in the Krakauer Zeitung would directly harm the interests of the Podgórze parish, as it would lose most of its congregation, who would be forced to move across the Vistula. Apart from that, it would make access to the church extremely difficult for many parishioners; in order to reach it from any of the streets to the south-east of the ghetto, such as Wielicka Street, Zabłocie Street or Płaszowska Street, they would have to take a much longer route around the entire ghetto.

However, the appeals, delegations, petitions and requests came to nothing. The Germans’ response to every single one was always the same: “There are plenty of churches in Krakow. Just be glad none of them is situated within the ghetto walls, because then you would lose your entire congregation.” The decision of the German authorities was final – the establishment of the ghetto in the place and at the time determined by the Nazis was an incontrovertible fact.

And so the migrations began. From daybreak until late into the evening, trolleys, furniture carts, farm carts and handcarts moved through the city streets, carrying people’s belongings to their new homes. There was an incredible hurry, because the deadline was short and everyone wanted to get tolerable accommodation.

Each day was like the next – with the same complaints, the same haste and the same din, weeping and wailing; people fainted from exhaustion as they dragged handcarts loaded with their possessions a long way across the city. The face of Kazimierz changed with each passing day; its character, built up over hundreds of years, quickly began to disappear. Those leaving included families who had settled in the district centuries ago. Shops, restaurants and places of worship on which the years had etched deep marks were closed down. The original, characteristic images disappeared from the streets of old Kazimierz. Bearded Jews, with sidelocks, black gaberdines, yarmulkes, felt and fox-fur hats were no longer to be seen walking around the squares or chatting on street corners, gesticulating in their typical manner. Gone were the clusters of boisterous, shabbily-dressed children who used to run up and down the narrow streets, the courtyards of dirty tenement houses, the wooden porches and broad entrance halls. One could no longer buy any goods late in the evening, though formerly they had been easy to obtain from shopkeepers standing in front of their closed shops after hours.

Gone was the mysterious atmosphere and special charm of the dusky, deserted streets and alleys, which were no longer illuminated by the weak light of the street lamps. Gone forever were the wooden shelters covered with fir tree branches, built in courtyards, on balconies and porches to commemorate the Israelites’ time in the desert. The sight of Jews praying on the banks of the Vistula at Rosh Hashanah was no longer to be seen, though fortunately it has been immortalised in paintings such as Aleksander Gierymski’s famous Feast of Trumpets. Just as the Nazis wanted.

For the time being, the decree ordering all residents and their businesses to leave the ghetto district by 20 March 1941 did not include the larger factories and plants producing army supplies, the courthouse and the adjacent jail, and my pharmacy. My staff, consisting of three qualified ladies – Irena Droździkowska, Helena Krywaniuk and Aurelia Danek-Czortowa – and I were issued with passes to enter the ghetto.

The resettlement of the population was completed within the deadline set by the German authorities. My parents had to move outside the ghetto walls, as no “Aryan” was allowed to live inside it any more. The only exceptions were the prison guard at the courthouse (the court and jail were removed from the ghetto after the deportations of June 1942) and I, as I went on living in the duty room at the pharmacy. Once again, this fact escaped the German authorities’ notice, and a little later was wordlessly sanctioned when the health authorities ordered a permanent night service at the only pharmacy in the ghetto. Destiny had placed the “Pod Orłem” (“Under the Eagle”) pharmacy at the very heart of the ghetto, where it bore witness to the inhuman deportations, horrendous crimes and relentless degradation of human dignity perpetrated by the Nazis.

1. A group of Jews before the war [→]

2. A map of the ghetto in the first phase of its existence [→]

The ghetto included about three hundred and twenty tenement houses with a population of around sixty thousand inhabitants.

On 20 March 1941, I was alone in the pharmacy. At around 6 p.m. it suddenly started to get busy, and a few minutes later the place was so full that it was impossible to close the door. I soon discovered that there were German guards posted at the top of the streets leading out of the ghetto and that they were not letting anybody leave. People were upset and began passing comment. After a while they calmed down, telling each other an order must have been issued because of the Jewish Passover holiday, which had just begun that day. After closing the pharmacy at 8 p.m., I left the ghetto, wondering whether they would be willing to let me back in again. The German guard stopped me and inspected the documents permitting me to move about within the ghetto.

I asked whether I would be able to re-enter and received a terse “Nein!” in reply. However, at about 10 p.m. I came back. I was not on foot, but on the tram which ran through the ghetto, turning a broad arc into Limanowski Street. At the junction of Limanowski Street and Lwowska Street, I jumped off the moving tram, to the astonishment of the other passengers.

That was my first day in the closed ghetto.

Straight after Passover, the ghetto began to assume a strange new appearance. Dozens of labourers, builders and carpenters worked day and night, putting up walls, hammering in stakes, erecting gates and fitting bars to the windows of the tenements overlooking the Aryan district. People watched in horror as the walls rose up around them, built in the style of Jewish tombstones.

Finally, the whole place had been walled in, and all the windows had been fitted with bars. There were three gates leading into the ghetto. The main entrance was from Podgórski Square. This gate had two dark-blue lamps burning on either side and was topped with a large six-pointed Star of David and a big sign in Hebrew saying: “Jewish District”. The tram ran through the centre of the gate and along the ghetto’s main streets, Limanowski and Lwowska.

This gate was also the site of the main German police station and the headquarters of the Judenrat (the Jewish Council, created by the Germans to replace the existing Jewish kehilla). It was relatively easy to get hold of entrance passes here during the first few weeks of the ghetto’s existence: the usual reason given was a need to collect money from the Jews.

The second gate was situated at the top of Limanowski Street, where it intersected Lwowska Street; the third gate led from Zgoda Square onto the third bridge over the Vistula. There were also Blue Police[1] stations at both of these gates. In general, most people came home from work via Zgoda Square. Here the Germans inspected documents and checked the amount of provisions being carried through; and through here a wide variety of goods were smuggled in at night.

The days and weeks went by. At first people watched in fear as the walls rose around them, which usually prompted bleak speculation: “Perhaps they’ll try to starve us.” I can still see the terrified face of a lady who often came to see me, accompanied by a wonderful dog. A close relative of Dr Bolesław Drobner, every day she would ask me: “Can you please tell me what people in Krakow are saying will become of us?” She suffered psychological damage which remained with her until the end of her time in the ghetto, in other words until the June deportation and her death in 1942.

Gradually, time was taking effect. People were getting used to life under these dramatically altered conditions and finding new ways of regarding their existence. Residents working in the city received a stamp in their Kennkarten (identity documents which replaced the former Ausweise) from the ghetto’s newly opened Arbeitsamt (or employment office). This entitled them to go out of the ghetto to their place of work. Each day thousands of workers passed through the ghetto gate with a Kennkarte in their hands and a white armband featuring a Star of David on their right sleeves. Thus the ghetto emptied in the morning and filled up again during the evening, up to the curfew at 9 p.m. Those who did not have permission to leave – including those who did not work in the city, children, the elderly and the sick – were left behind in the ghetto.

And so the days went by. Each day brought new decrees and new orders aimed at making people’s unhappy lives even more difficult. The Jews’ official representative body, the Judenrat – which was convoked by the Germans and comprised twenty-four members and a chairman, Dr Artur Rosenzweig – was based in Podgórski Market Square, in the same building as the main German police station. From its very inception, the Judenrat was answerable to the Gestapo. Issues relating to the ghetto were dealt with by Department III, in room 302 at No.2 Pomorska Street.

It was in this building that the cruellest crimes against the Jews were planned. This was the setting for interrogations, combined with beatings and torture. After the war, the cellars were found to contain human blood stains, nail marks scratched on the walls and holes made by bullets which had killed Poles and Jews alike.

The primary activity of the Judenrat was to carry out the orders of the Gestapo. It was also responsible for general administration, gathering statistics, taking censuses, registering shops, trying to procure food and fuel rations for ghetto residents, and editing, issuing and enforcing Nazi decrees. Over time, members of the Judenrat were obliged to perform ever harder and more unpleasant tasks.

A Jewish police force, called the Ordnungsdienst (OD), was formed, headed by Symche Spira. Dressed in a beautifully tailored uniform decorated with all sorts of insignia, Spira – a glazier by trade who wore a beard and a shabby old coat before the war began – suddenly became an important person. He was given the task of selecting men to form the uniformed Jewish police force, whose members were popularly known as “OD men”. Distinct among them by uniform were the so-called Zivilabteilung, who wore V-necked jackets and ties, while the rest wore jackets that buttoned up to the neck. In both cases the right sleeve was trimmed with the word “Ordnungsdienst” written in Hebrew letters. The Zivilabteilung received special favours from the Gestapo.


In addition to blindly and ruthlessly executing Gestapo orders, the OD was also responsible for keeping order within the ghetto, exposing crimes, and implementing Judenrat directives. As time went by, the OD made life even more of a misery for the ghetto inhabitants.

Hospitals, orphanages and old people’s homes were set up inside the ghetto. A Jewish post office was established on Limanowski Street, with its own Hebrew stamp for letters. There was also a small tax office, headed by a Mr Rajski. There was a bath house, and delousing and disinfection units. Clandestine classes in secular and Judaic studies flourished. Judaic classes were taught by the great Talmudist Lazar Panzer, and by Schein Klingberg, a leading expert on Jewish liturgy and mysticism. Klingberg was shot dead in Płaszów by a Gestapo officer named Strojewski. A dozen or so students attended music, drawing and painting lessons outside the ghetto walls, while the opportunity to leave it still existed on the strength of a pass. Well-known Krakow painter Professor Witold Chomicz gave many of these youngsters free classes at his home on Grodzka Street. Until his death in 1984, Professor Chomicz kept in touch with people to whom he had provided so much help and sympathy.

The ghetto’s young Orthodox Jews belonged to an organisation called the “Talmud Torah”. There were three synagogues, and religious life underwent very little change. Services were held and people generally continued to observe religious rules such as the Sabbath, holy days and fasting. Fervent piety was displayed during Jewish holidays: the tears and emotion on the faces of the faithful betrayed the intentions and content of their prayers only too well. From the windows of the pharmacy that looked onto a large courtyard, I saw some venerable old men with grey beards and sidelocks, clad in ceremonial robes, rocking steadily as they heeded the plaintive singing of the cantor. In every tenement in the ghetto, in almost every home, the prayer for the dead (or Kaddish) was feverishly being recited. I would see old Jewish women in embroidered lace shawls, standing stock still with glassy, immobile eyes as they listened to the monotonous chant of the prayer, frozen in pain and fear for themselves and their loved ones.

I often listened to conversations and debates about religious matters, particularly during the Jewish holiday periods. The serious, mystical mood of those gathered, further heightened by the semi-darkness inside the pharmacy, infected me with an irresistible energy. Those gatherings reminded me of Adam Mickiewicz’s poetic drama Forefathers’ Eve. Messianism was a recurring motif at those Jewish rituals.

A few years after the war I was visited by Father Karol Wojtyła, who would later become Pope John Paul II. Knowing that I had lived in the ghetto throughout its entire existence, he asked me the following question: “Do you perhaps know how the Jews viewed the subject of messianism during that dreadful period in the ghetto, faced as they were with brutality, murder and humiliation?” The question could only have been directed at me as an intermediate; the answer, however, could be given by nobody but an eminent Talmudist. I decided to get in touch with an expert in such matters, and I found the right man. He looked as if he had stepped straight out of a Gottlieb portrait, a dignified figure with long grey hair, piercing dark eyes and a patriarchal beard. He had a pensive, melancholy expression in his eyes.

3. An entrance gate into the Krakow ghetto [→]

After listening to my question, he was silent for some time before turning his strangely enchanting gaze on me. With a gentle smile at the corners of his mouth, he spoke in a quiet, solemn voice: “The coming of the Messiah, yes...” – and here he paused briefly before continuing – “how can I explain it to you? You wouldn’t understand it if I were to speak as I should... Try to imagine that after Friday comes Friday. Highly unlikely, isn’t it? But not impossible. Allow me to put it differently. If there came a time when all the Jews the world over, every last man, woman and child, old and young, were simultaneously to refrain from sinning in thought, word and deed, then perhaps that might be the time, the time of the Messiah’s coming, you understand? He may come, he will come one day... But you are unable to comprehend this.” At this he gazed into the distance and, stroking his long, well-groomed beard, spoke in an ever quieter voice, as if to himself: “Friday after Friday, yet it can happen. We are waiting for that day, indeed we are.” At this point he livened up again. “Yes, Mr Pankiewicz, it isn’t a simple answer, it isn’t so straightforward. But it’s good you came, I’m glad you have visited me. Farewell.”

The content of his reply, the atmosphere of that whole meeting, and the man himself – all of these things left an indelible impression upon me.

This rabbi, a just man, lived on Dietlowska Street, and the above-mentioned conversation took place at the Tempel synagogue on Miodowa Street. I took the liberty of passing on the rabbi’s response to the question of messianism to Father Wojtyła, who by then was a cardinal.

4. A woman selling Star of David armbands in the Krakow ghetto [→]

In those early days of the ghetto’s existence, a friend of mine – a judge who was well-known for his trials and his good looks – would come to see me several times a month, always on a Saturday. Another person who took part in our meetings was one of the ghetto residents, an extremely pretty and fashionable lady with blonde hair and melancholy eyes, named Maryla Schenkerówna. With the blinds down and the lights turned off, we sat in my cosy room and in the glow of two small candles we ate Jewish-style fish brought from a nearby restaurant. After a few shots of plum vodka and a glass of white wine, it began to feel as if all was right with the world, just like in paradise. This mood lasted until the time came for my guests to leave. Brutal reality always left its destructive mark on those happy occasions. With his pass in his hand, the judge would leave the ghetto, and Maryla would quickly head home. Whenever there was unrest in the Jewish district, when people were being arrested and there was talk of an imminent deportation, Maryla would leave work (her job was in Krakow) and, instead of returning to the ghetto, would go to the judge’s flat to wait for news. I would call round there at an agreed time with information about the present situation. Soon after the judge was arrested by the Gestapo and transported to Auschwitz, where he suffered terribly; beaten up and emaciated, with a broken arm, it is a miracle he survived the war. Miss Schenkerówna frequently dropped by the pharmacy to find out about the prisoner’s fate. However, news from Auschwitz was very scant and generally untrue.

I also recall an extraordinary evening when my friend, Aleksander Kocwa – a professor at the Jagiellonian University – returned from the camp at Dachau and expressed his wish to see the ghetto. I sorted him out with a pass and, after a short walk around the streets of the enclosed district, I took him to the pharmacy. There we joined my work colleagues and some wonderful musicians (the renowned violinist Rosner, accompanied by his equally talented brother on concertina) in the duty room, where the blinds were lowered. In the glow of Sabbath candles, we all listened to the enchanting melodies of Viennese waltzes, ate from a table filled with Jewish delicacies, and completely lost all track of time. We forgot about the curfew, the war, the little walled-in town; and we forgot about the fate of all its unfortunate inhabitants who had been condemned to so much humiliation and tragedy. The supper lasted until the small hours of the morning. That was an unforgettable evening, and one which we fondly remembered many years after the war ended.

As time passed ever faster, people who until fairly recently could not have conceived how anyone could live in such conditions began to get used to them, giving up the most primitive needs of civilisation and slowly starting to forget their former lives. Worries about getting food each day, and struggles to keep jobs in the city which, although almost entirely unprofitable, at least offered the possibility of getting out of the ghetto, claimed the lion’s share of everyone’s free time. The Arbeitsamt, run by an Austrian named Schepessy, was open from morning until late evening. German, Polish and Jewish clerks were hired to compile records of those who had employment, to assign jobs, and to provide contingents of workers for labour outside the ghetto walls – in response to every demand from the German authorities.

Three times a week, the only Polish-language newspaper for Jews, Gazeta Żydowska, was delivered to the ghetto. It carried war communiqués announcing the latest successes of the invincible German army: “German victory on all fronts”.