Standing at the entrance to Plaszow Concentration Camp was weird. There was no entrance. I was standing at the edge of a field--more like an overgrown park. The road and buildings of a middle class Krakowian neighborhood were right behind me. I heard a dog barking and kids playing somewhere near.
There were no wired fences, no big threatening gates, and no barracks to look at. Just green plants and grass and some hilly terrain. For a minute, as my guides were running late, I started second guessing whether I was in the right place. Could this really be the place where my great-great-grandfather, Rabbi Scheim Klingberg, was murdered with thousands of others?
But then Karolina and Kamil joined me. Karolina and Kamil work for Muzeum Krakowa, the cultural heritage museum that manages the historical sites of Krakow, Poland. These include the Old Synagogue in the Jewish quarter, as well as Holocaust sites such as Oskar Schindler's Enamel Factory. While Schindler's story is known thanks to a Steven Spielberg movie, fewer people are familiar with the camp in which the Jews he saved came from--Plaszow.
My great-great-grandfather was a well-known Hassidic rabbi in Krakow. When the war began and Krakow was captured by the Nazis, he evacuated and hid with many of his followers in a nearby town. He decided to return. He hid in the basement of another Jewish family who was considered "essential." In that basement, Rabbi Klingberg held High Holiday services in 1940. Hundreds of Jews participated in this act of defiance against Nazi rule.
Eventually, the Nazis deported him along with thousands of others to Plaszow Concentration Camp. The camp was south of the city. The hill there was a historic fortification. Next to it was the Jewish cemetery. Jews deported from the Ghetto to Plaszow had to walk several miles to the hill and then were forced to build their barracks on top of the demolished Jewish cemetery. In the camp, Rabbi Klingberg and 39 other Jewish communal leaders were hand-picked to be executed as part of a communal punishment--because some of the inmates stole bread from the SS kitchens.
Karolina and Kamil learned about my visit and my connection to Rabbi Klingberg from a mutual friend. They were kind enough to invite me on a tour of the camp, or what's left of it. As we greeted each other, Kamil told me more about why we were standing in an empty field:
"Towards the end of the war, when the Russian troops were approaching, the Nazis destroyed the camp and left nothing behind. They burnt down the barracks and transported Jews who could still work to camps in the west. The Jews who were too weak to survive were shipped to Auschwitz or killed in the trenches of the old fortification. Their bodies were burnt as well."
Kamil's work in the museum is to excavate different parts of the camp and try to uncover personal belongings of the inmates as a way of telling their story. He works closely with the local Jewish community and descendants of survivors like myself.
As we were walking between the mounds, Kamil and Karolina brought me to a small memorial. There, he explained, Rabbi Klingberg was shot. As I read the Mourner's Kaddish from my phone, I realized this was the first time since the end of the war that someone in my family was standing by his 'grave.'
I made the trip in November 2019. This year, on Nov. 10th--in commemoration of the Kristallnacht anniversary--Kamil and Karolina will present the story of Plaszow in a virtual event sponsored by Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois Jewish Studies, JUF, the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, and more.
If you want to learn more about Plaszow--the forgotten camp, register at illinihillel.org/plaszow.
Erez Cohen is the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.