The unexpected history of one Krakow oak

Krakow is one of the greenest cities in Poland. And one of the most relaxing ways to appreciate the greenery is to sit on a bench in the Main Square gazing at the trees of Planty Park.

But some of the trees are more than objects of beauty. They have a history to them ? for instance, the large oak standing opposite the Collegium Novum.
On October 31, 1918, a troop of Polish soldiers stood guard outside the Town Hall in the Main Square to help Poland throw off 123 years of Austro-Hungarian rule. On May 3, 1919, an Oak of Freedom was planted to commemorate the event. Unfortunately, freedom was not destined to last very long.

Twenty years later, at about 6 o?clock on the morning of September 6, 1939, the first troops of the Nazi Wehrmacht rolled into Krakow. Hans Frank, Hitler?s former personal legal adviser and past president of the Reichstag, Germany?s parliament, was installed in Wawel as governor-general of occupied Poland.

On Monday, November 6, 1939, the Nazis invited 183 professors from Jagiellonian University and the University of Science and Technology to what was billed as a lecture by Bruno Müller, commander of the SS in Poland.

When the academics showed up for the lecture on ?The Attitude of the Third Reich and National Socialism Toward Science and Higher Education,? they were whisked away to concentration camps. It was part of a Nazi effort to weaken Poland by eliminating its intellectuals.

Dr. Zofia Czajka, then a young woman starting her studies at the Collegium Physicum, had gone to ul. St. Anne that day. ?It was a sunny, autumn day,? that she will never forget, she wrote later.

?Benches at Planty were occupied by mothers with children. I noticed movement next to the Collegium Novum. I went closer and suddenly everyone was running away in panic. I saw a line of trucks and the building was surrounded by German soldiers. There was no chance for people to escape.?

Czajka hid behind the trunk of a chestnut tree. A moment later, she saw soldiers herding hastily dressed, disheveled professors onto trucks.
?Some of them weren?t able to get into the trucks without help,? Dr. Czajka said. ?The soldiers were shouting, ?Schnell! Schnell! (Hurry! Hurry!).??
More than 180 people were loaded into the three or four trucks, and then the column moved to Pilsudski Street. Silence filled Planty.

From  her vantage point, not more than 50 feet from the Oak of Freedom, Czajka bade a quiet farewell to the academics. Twenty of them would die in concentration camps.

November 6 was only one step in the Nazis? plan to subdue Poland. Krakow was to become German, with the Polish inhabitants sent to the Podgorze area of the city as laborers.

In 1942 the Nazis created a labor camp for Jews and other Poles in the Plaszow area of Krakow. The occupiers later transformed the labor camp into a concentration camp, where 80,000 people were murdered or died of disease and overwork.
?Terror and fear was the reality of that time,? Czaja said. ?Thank God I survived. Later, I even joined the fight to preserve Polish science. I graduated from Jagiellonian University and continued to work there for many years. But that day is still in my mind.? The irony that the extermination of the professors started in the area where the Oak of Freedom stands has not been lost on those who know Krakow?s history.

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