Dragon’s-eye view of Main Market Square, Krakow.
Visitors to Wawel Castle in Krakow can hardly fail to notice the legions of fluffy dragons encircling nearby souvenir stalls. Legend has it that the original Wawel Dragon dwelt beneath the Castle from where he terrorised local townsfolk until a shoemaker slew the beast by tricking him into eating a lamb laced with sulphur. Thus the shoemaker won the hand of the King’s daughter while the city gained a striking symbol. In 1939, Krakow faced a yet more fearsome foe that was only too real. The Nazi occupiers systematically persecuted the Jewish community by imposing forced labour, “branding” them with a Star of David armband and closing synagogues. Mass deportations reduced the Jewish population from over 60,000 to some 15,000 deemed “economically useful”. In March 1941, the Nazis created a ghetto in Podgórze district where these remaining Jews were crammed into just 3,200 rooms while all non-Jewish Poles were forced to relocate; all except for one that is.
Pharmacist Tadeusz Pankiewicz refused to abandon his family pharmacy business on Plac Zgody, the new ghetto’s main square, and kept it open serving Jewish residents throughout the ghetto years by cultivating good relations with German officers and exploiting their fears of a typhoid outbreak. From behind the Eagle Pharmacy’s unassuming facade he witnessed the most brutal acts unfold in the square: beatings, executions, family separations and the selection of Jews for mass deportation to the surrounding concentration camps. This culminated in the “liquidation” of the ghetto on 13-14 March 1943 when the remaining 8000 Jews deemed fit for slave labour were transported to Plaszów labour camp while the rest were either killed on the streets or sent to Auschwitz death camp. Crucially for justice and remembrance, Pankiewicz testified to these crimes at the Nuremberg trials and recorded them in his book Krakow Ghetto Pharmacy.
A pharmacy by its very nature alleviates suffering. Pankiewicz and his staff fulfilled this function in the usual way by dispensing medicines to the ghetto’s residents but also by supplying other life-saving items like hair dye to disguise escapees and sedatives to keep hidden children quiet during Gestapo raids. In addition, the pharmacy became a hub for underground activity where Jewish intelligentsia met and escapees were sheltered, all facilitated by Pankiewicz and his staff, who smuggled in food, information and counterfeit documents from outside the ghetto at great personal risk. They even safeguarded sacred Jewish artefacts including Torah scrolls in a secret vault beneath the pharmacy.
These stories are brought to life in the Eagle Pharmacy Museum, housed in the original building, using a script based on Pankiewicz’s book and adapted to the original function of each room; for example, the Emergency Prescription Room displays recipes for survival in the ghetto. Artefacts, photos, recordings and information panels are cleverly integrated into the replica wooden medicine cabinets and sales counter, complete with till, scales and medical supplies, that recreate the pharmacy’s interior. You can pull out a drawer to reveal letters that survivors wrote to Pankiewicz, look through a window to see scenes from the ghetto or open a cupboard to hear eyewitness accounts. You can even retire to a back room to hear from Pankiewicz himself in a 1979 interview with French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann for the holocaust documentary Shoah.
Krakow is an architectural and historical treasure trove. In Main Market Square, it boasts Europe’s largest medieval town square, where elegant townhouses, palaces and the lofty town hall tower have provided a majestic backdrop for merchants to sell their wares ever since the thirteenth century. In Kazimierz, it also boasts Europe’s best preserved medieval Jewish quarter featuring picturesque cobbled lanes, café culture and the fascinating renaissance style Remuh Synagogue with its Hebrew inscribed tombstones. At Wawel Castle, an eclectic mix of Romanesque, renaissance and gothic structures perched on a hill, curiosities include the heaviest bell in Poland and an underground den guarded by the Wawel Dragon in statue form. He used to breathe fire on receipt of an SMS but now seemingly only lights up the sky when in the mood.
The grim events of the Nazi occupation are commemorated too, notably through the Gestapo Headquarters Museum where engravings by detainees are still visible on dirty cell walls; the seventy empty chairs in the old ghetto’s square that evoke a sense of loss; and the ghetto wall fragment with its plaque reading “Here they lived, suffered and perished at the hands of Hitler’s executioners. From here they began their final journey to the death camps”. Perhaps the most visited site is the enamel factory of Oskar Schindler whose feats in saving over a thousand of his Jewish workers were immortalised in Steven Spielberg’s epic film, though the museum itself focuses more on everyday life in Nazi-occupied Krakow. In comparison, the Eagle Pharmacy Museum is quite low-key in keeping with the man whose deeds it records; both museum and man are all the more fascinating for it.
Krakow has seen more famous heroes, whether the mythical dragon-slaying shoemaker or the real-life Oskar Schindler, yet Panciewicz was equally heroic in his own way: an ordinary man standing firm against evil who through his example and practical assistance gave those around him the strength and means to endure. For sometimes, in the face of overwhelming odds, survival is the best we can hope for. When the Nazi dragon was finally slain it was not through the feats of one great warrior but rather the cumulative deeds, courage and sacrifices of millions, including unsung heroes like Panciewicz. History teaches us that heroism shines brightest in our darkest hours. What hour could be darker than the holocaust and what hero more unlikely than a humble pharmacist?
- Based primarily on a visit to Krakow and the Eagle Pharmacy Museum in 2017
- Anna Pióro. Magister Tadeusz Pankiewicz. A Biography. Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa. 2013
- Featured image at top of article: by Ingo Mehling, Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=84346847