back to article list

Unemployment in Interwar Cracow and the Great Economic Crisis: Conditions, Consequences and Counteraction

  • Print

Unemployment in Cracow was a socio-economic problem which the city was facing throughout the Second Republic. The great crisis, whose consequences began to be felt in Cracow in the early 1930s, only made the phenomenon more acute and visible. This article offers a broad analysis of the issue in the context of the great crisis and the inter-war period. The discussion covers factors conditioning unemployment in Cracow, its social consequences and attempts at counteracting them made by both the city authorities and Church-based organisations.

The well-known French historian René Sédillot once wrote that those who claimed that it was “blind fate that directs the world’s events proclaim a great absurdity as there are many general or moral or physical causes that shake monarchies, lift them or lead them to perdition. If a single battle – he concluded – can decide about a state’s fall, there is a general reason for that state to disappear as a result of a single battle.”1 The question arises what revolutions, battles and falls of countries have to do with the global crisis which in the early 1930s also reached Cracow, then a provincial town? The general context matters here since focusing on the direct reasons for and consequences of the crisis in Cracow, one just cannot ignore the economic and social conditions in the city present long before the global and Polish economies collapsed. And so in this text I shall focus primarily on the consequences of the crisis in the context of the collapsing labour market and its repercussions, attempts at counteracting them as well as ways of managing them practised by the city authorities, Church-based organisations and society itself against a broad background of earlier socio-economic problems with which Cracow had wrestled since the very first days of its regained independence. I will also briefly discuss the reasons why the crisis did not have a special place in the memory of local residents. These are the objectives of the article.



Researchers claim increasingly often that poverty is not a state but a process,2 and each process, as we learn from history books, is subject to changes in time and space. The challenge then arises to correctly capture the factors responsible for initiating those changes and transformations. This is a very difficult task which sometimes requires advanced study covering remote times e.g. in the context of studying inherited poverty. One of the factors, certainly very tangible, is unemployment, a structural social problem which at the time of Poland’s Second Republic was treated by many as the fundamental reason for the gradual impoverishment of society. 3

According to the 1931 census held at the time of the great crisis, Cracow had 219,286 inhabitants (including 45,800, or nearly 21 %, of Jews), including 111,538, or over 50 % (44 % of women) of those professionally active. 22.9 % of the residents were “independents”, i.e. they either employed others or performed their work with the help of their family. Over 63 % of working Cracovians belonged to the “hired”, a group divided into physical labour force (workers and outworkers), who represented 44.7 % (including 18.6 % of domestic servants), and white-collar workers (18.4 %). Elżbieta Adamczyk claimed that Cracow still remained a city of intelligentsia and her percentage estimate for that group was over 20 % of the total population. Nearly 14 % were described as having a “non-defined social status”. The biggest employer was industry – clothing, food, steelmaking and construction – accounting for 30.3 % of those professionally active. Commerce and insurance employed 21,459 persons (19.3 %), most of whom were active in commodity trade, followed by space rental, insurance and brokerage. The passenger and cargo transport sector employed 5,941 Cracovians (5.3 %), schooling, education and culture – 5,116 persons (4.6 %), and medical care 5,589 persons (5 %). Public service, the Church and religious organisations represented 8,398 persons (7.5 %). Old-age pensioners and persons with disabilities were supported by the state, as were prisoners and residents of social care homes.4

As regards unemployment, the first task is to attempt to estimate the number of jobless in inter-war Cracow. However, it is near impossible to give a precise number for at least two reasons. Above all, it must be stressed that there is no complete source material concerning the registration of the unemployed in the Cracow branch of the State Job Agency (Państwowy Urząd Pośrednictwa Pracy; hereinafter, PUPP), where – which must be remembered – non-Cracovians registered as well. Secondly, the data from the PUPP often failed to reflect reality. In actual fact, the problem concerned the entire country. “The statistics of employment agencies of the time,” – as noted by Paweł Grata – “recorded [...] just numbers reflecting the total number of jobless persons registered there, and things varied as regards people’s decisions to be registered at the agency in the context of the existing labour law provisions and possible benefits stemming from them.”5 And so for various reasons not all unemployed persons came to the Agency. In October 1925, the Cracovian Inter-Union Committee of White- Collar Workers estimated the number of jobless among them to be 1,000, while the PUPP statistics recorded just one such person.6 Consequently, as put by Zbigniew Landau and Jerzy Tomaszewski, “the statistical data did not reflect [...] the actual scale of unemployment and in some periods side factors were present which had an impact on the changing numbers of those registered.”7 For example, such factors should definitely include the Act on unemployment benefits, which came into force in late August of 1924 and made such financial support available to registered persons only.8 Perfectly understandably, this led to a statistical increase of the number of unemployed. In reality, however, it just showed more precisely, while still not fully realistically, the scale of Polish unemployment of the time.

In Cracow, the number of jobless did not stay the same throughout the inter-war period and was obviously influenced by a number of various factors. Among them was the state of the Polish economy, a factor of key importance, but also one apparently trivial: the importance of the seasons of the year, due to which employment in certain sectors like construction was seasonal.

At the moment when the above-mentioned Act came into force in the summer of 1924, there were 2,750 persons registered as unemployed in Cracow. 9 At the end of 1925, that number was already 3,801, then in early 1926 it dropped to 2,500 to jump again to 3,000 persons in February. 10 In December 1926, the number of registered persons without employment stood at 1,602, and at the end of 1927 at 2,920.11 The unemployment rate in Cracow saw a steep increase during the economic crisis of the early 1930s.

In March 1930, there were 7,051 jobless persons; a year later, according to the census data, that number grew to as many as 9,810.12 In December 1933, the number of registered was almost half of that figure – 4,788,13 and in the preceding month even 3,118.14 At the end of 1934, there were 3,590 jobless persons in Cracow, almost as many as a year later (3,600) .15 In 1936, the average number of those registered at the PUPP was 3,210 persons, with the Cracow County Office estimating the actual number of unemployed to be around 4,500. A year later that average was 5,156, while the estimates from the County Office stood at around 8,500.16 In February 1938, there were 6,702 registered persons according to the PUPP data, while the County Office gave the figure of 9,000.17 In September, the number of unemployed according to the PUPP dropped to 1,955 persons.18 At the beginning of 1939, the number of those without employment was 5,585 persons.19

All those figures should be treated as approximations only, also given the increase in the number of Cracow residents from 178,588 in 1918 to around 259,000 in 1939, that is through the inter-war period.20 The conclusion is that the Cracow labour market was able to absorb a significant number of those coming to the city from the outside, particularly in the 1930s, and, importantly, both during the crisis and later when the economy picked up. According to the 1931 census, out of 17,760 persons working as domestic servants (98 % were women), as many as 16,056 lived on the employer’s premises, which I understand as meaning that such employment was almost entirely dominated by non-Cracovians, mainly young girls coming to the city from locations in its vicinity.21

The biggest employers were industry and commerce, employing 33,795 and 21,489 persons, respectively; in percentage terms, according to the 1931 census, that was nearly half of those professionally active outside agriculture.22 Those employment sectors, however, were hit hardest by the biggest crisis in the first years of the second decade of the interwar period. The unemployment rate in industry and commerce was as high as over 80 % of the total number of jobless registered at the Cracow branch of the PUPP.23 Particularly affected were construction workers, as more than 44 % of them lost jobs (1,650 persons). The following sectors shed more than 20 per cent of the workforce: timber (399 persons), steelmaking (1,083), clothing (1,217) and food (554). Also 2,175 white-collar workers were jobless.24

Researchers point out that Cracow’s unemployment rate was relatively low as compared with other large Polish cities since the great crisis hit mostly industry, which was not one of Cracow’s strengths.25 Leaving purely economic aspects aside, let us focus on the social dimension of unemployment. The quoted numbers let us develop a general idea of the scale of the phenomenon. Its essence, however, boiled down to economic aspects which would sometimes relatively quickly affect the lives of the unemployed to such an extent that their daily existence turned out to be a major challenge and piled a whole range of difficult problems before them.

Creeping poverty entering the homes of the jobless, which needed to be kept and paid for somehow, and the lives of their families, which had to be fed, at times triggered such behaviours as stealing or begging. Due to acute poverty, the subsistence of families would sometimes depend on young girls opting to sell their own bodies in the streets of Cracow or pushed out to the street by the parents or siblings against their own will. Most frequently, however, the jobless did what they could to weather the crisis with dignity, counting on assistance from the city and state authorities. Such aid was also provided by Church-based organisations, various charity and care institutions, or a legion of good-willed people who were not indifferent to the fate of those without employment.

It was truly a catastrophe for Cracovians given the fact that according to the estimates of the Bishop’s Emergency Committee, at the beginning of 1924 the city had around 30,000 people in need, excluding the Jewish community.26 That figure represented more than 21 % of all Christian residents of Cracow. We do not know the situation in the Jewish community of over 46,000 back then.27 Most probably it was not positive, either, if in the mid-1930s out of around 60,000 of Cracow’s Jews28 sometimes even as many as 16,000 persons (over 26 %), used the assistance offered mainly by the Jewish Community.29 During the great crisis in 1932, Jews from Cracow established an association called Zedaka Laanijim located in Paulińska Street. That institution, whose name meant “alms for the poor,” dealt with beggary among Cracow’s Jews. The poorest could rely on monthly financial benefits. For example, already when the economy picked up in 1937 such assistance was received by 400 Jewish beggars.30 It is worth mentioning that the Jewish Assistance Committee cooperated closely with Bishop Sapieha’s committee.31

Cracow’s Jews lived mainly in the quarter of Kazimierz, where – as recalled by a Pole residing there – “there was a specific smell of sweat, stuffy flats, unaired bed-sheets, spicy condiments, a sour smell of poverty.”32 Even if the optimistic scenario was assumed that the percentage of Jews in need was the same as that of the other Cracow inhabitants, one must conclude that at least every fifth local resident was living in poverty, many of them unemployed with families. One should be under no illusion, however, that the other Cracow residents lived comfortably and in luxury. However, as is written in an article on high prices published in the Goniec daily, “for now, society is bending under this burden, clenching the teeth and, determined, believes that times will change soon.”33

On 18 July 1924, the aforementioned Act was adopted on social assurance in the case of unemployment. Those entitled to benefit included persons who had lost a job and registered the fact at the PUPP within a month, and had worked for at least 20 weeks in the year preceding the job loss. The Act also provided for setting up Unemployment Funds to manage the monies to be paid out as benefits. .34 The Act was supposed to enter into force by 31 August, yet for not entirely clear reasons Cracow experienced a delay of almost a month and the registration of the unemployed began as late as in early October.35 Still, a relatively large group of the jobless failed to meet any registration conditions anyway. For example, out of around 3,000 unemployed persons registered at the PUPP at the end of 1926, the benefits were paid out to just half and they were a mere drop in the ocean of the needs of the unemployed.36

Worse still, the Act completely ignored white-collar workers, which they received with an angry uproar.37

In February 1926, Cracow’s regional management of the Unemployment Fund wrote a letter to the Ministry of Labour and Social Care where it demanded “in the face of the ever-growing poverty of unemployed white-collar workers, [...] the adoption of an amending act [...]” in order to include them in the Act in question.38 A month later desperate jobless white collars staged a demonstration.39 They continued to complain about their living conditions in the years to come.

The living conditions of the unemployed receiving benefits improved as compared with those who failed to meet the registration requirements. The situation of the latter – both blue – and white-collar workers – was not to be envied although they were taken care of by the Union of Parish Committees (Związek Komitetów Parafialnych; hereinafter, ZKP) headed by Bishop (and later Archbishop) Adam Sapieha, of which more later.

The hardship of the jobless was exploited by many Cracovian crooks, particularly at the time of the great crisis of the 1930s. For example, preying on other people’s misfortune, a group of men set up a fake job agency in 1931. Job seekers were supposed to pay 2.85 zloty and then to find employment in less than 20 days. It was not long before it became obvious that the whole project was a sham created and managed by professional tricksters, but the Cracow police soon managed to apprehend them.40

In the period discussed here, extensive charity work – which started even before the outbreak of the First World War under the supervision of Bishop and from 1926 onwards Archbishop Adam Sapieha – was done by the Catholic Church.

Soon after the end of the war Bishop Sapieha set up the Duke and Bishop’s Committee for Assisting the Affected by the War Calamity,41 later renamed as the (already mentioned) ZKP, whose tasks included job agency.42 Roughly at that time, Committees for Combating Unemployment were being set up across the country, yet they failed to operate extensively or effectively, .43 unlike the ZKP, which had 7,000 families under its wings in the 1920s. The Union collected and distributed cash benefits, food, clothes, medicines, etc. It also organised summer camps for poor children and took care of old and ill persons as well as orphans. “In short,” – as Bronisław Panek wrote – “the Union managed almost the entire social care provided in Cracow.” .44

From 1926 onwards, the Archbishop’s Emergency Committee (Arcybiskupi Komitet Ratunkowy; hereinafter, AKR) another body set up by the Cracow archbishop, also operated efficiently. The Committee focused, above all, on helping orphans, yet it did not neglect unemployment-related problems. For instance, the AKR tried to organise as many free-of-charge and cheap canteens for the unemployed as possible. Incidentally, canteens and kitchens were the basic form of assistance offered to the jobless by both Churchbased organisations and the city authorities. In 1920 alone, the kitchen run by Ladies of Charity of St Vincent de Paul gave out 169,313 meals to poor adults and 108,500 to children.45 The Catholic Union of Polish Women managed a canteen for the poor in the quarter of Kazimierz based in Bożego Ciała Street, and one for unemployed and poor white-collar workers in Franciszkańska Street and św. Tomasza Street.46

In November 1923, the city, too, launched two budget canteens for whitecollar workers which gave out 1,300 lunches daily.47 In Warszawska Street, there operated a kitchen under the auspices of the AKR.48 The Committee had its canteens in such locations as the quarter of Prądnik Czerwony and Smoleńsk Street.49

The need to offer cheap or free meals was also addressed by the Municipal Committee for Combating the Consequences of Unemployment (Miejski Komitet do Walki ze Skutkami Bezrobocia; hereinafter, MKB), established in 1931 as a response of the Cracow city authorities to the crisis and its local consequences. Lunches were given out in kitchens in Franciszkańska Street, Bożego Ciała Street, Warszawska Street, Krakowska Street, św. Tomasza Street, and Nadwiślańska Street.50 The lunch cost 0.25 zloty and included a piece of meat, vegetables and bread.51 The Jewish community also had its own canteen for the poorest located in Gertrudy Street.52

Another could also be found at the registration office for the unemployed in Krótka Street. Reports have survived concerning that facility which give us an idea of how humiliating it must have sometimes been for the jobless to use the “services” of such canteens. “The provisions are poor [...]” – we read in a police document – “the potatoes and cabbage are rotten, meat of the lowest quality.”53 To make things worse, canteen staff treated the unemployed very badly. They behaved with disdain, sometimes just brutally “[...] pushing or even kicking women and elderly people.”54 One of the cooks “[...] was hitting [...] the unemployed with a ladle as they cried for equal and better meals.”55 Such stories intensified the sense of bitterness, low selfesteem and despair, or even personal meltdown experienced by the jobless. Humiliated and discouraged from accepting such a form of assistance by unpleasant experiences, the unemployed occasionally turned to theft and robbery as a means to provide for themselves and their families.

The MKB’s support was to target those who were registered at the PUPP but lost their right to receive benefits.56 The MKB opened several sections in charge of such areas as promotion, economic and financial affairs, food provision for children, clothes and labour, as well as commissions for medical and legal aid, and an audit commission. Between September 1931 and June 1932, the MKB collected over 482,000 zloty sourced from various contributions, collections and the tram ticket tax. Interestingly, it was as early as 1926 that the Townhall started to interfere in ticket or electricity prices in order to collect more funding for combating unemployment.57 A sum of 40,000 zloty was fed into the city coffers monthly, which according to the Townhall was enough to employ 600 jobless people to perform public works.58

At the same time, Cracow’s cafes and restaurants also supported the MKB’s charity work by raising their tea and coffee prices by 0.05 zloty, with the extra sum going to the Committee. As many as 6,825 unemployed people approached the MKB for assistance and they were subject to special verification so as to ensure that the support would go to those who needed it most. As a result 1,694 single persons received assistance as well as 3,045 families, i.e. 13,320 in total. The results of the Committee’s campaign were truly impressive. More than 267,000 lunches were given out, food vouchers worth 244,286 zloty were offered to unemployed persons, around 250–270 were employed on various public works, also children of unemployed parents were taken care of.59

It seems that all this could not have happened without the generous approach of fellow Cracovians. Appeals to support the MKB and Church-based organisations reverberated throughout the city. Help came from industrialists,60 office workers,61 labourers,62 artisans,63 tradesmen,64 physicians,65 tram drivers,66 and scouts.67 The selflessness of Cracow residents which went down in the history of the city was impressive to all. The MKB report read that “Cracow has excellently passed [...] a test of dedication to public good, and in terms of generosity it [...] overtook Poland’s largest towns by several counts [...].”68

The MKB collaborated with Archbishop Sapieha’s Committee. Although there had been some squabbles and misunderstandings between the Townhall and the archbishop in the past, now, in the face of the progressive economic downturn and raging unemployment, it was clear that all hands were needed to work for the improvement of the living conditions of the poor and unemployed. The MKB provided Church-run canteens with certain quantities of meat free of charge and supported the archbishop’s Committee with small sums of money. The Church, in turn, was doing some things for the City as regards helping the needy. In the face of the great crisis, Archbishop Sapieha established in 1931 the Committee for Assisting the Hungry (Komitet Pomocy Głodnym; hereinafter, KPG), which served free meals for the jobless in four kitchens.69 Throughout the inter-war period, several dozen Sisters of Charity worked at St Lazarus Hospital in Kopernika Street, and a dozen or so at St Ludovic Hospital in Strzelecka Street.70 Yet that was not the only contribution of the Church to medical assistance for the poorest. In Trynitarska Street, there operated a hospital of the Order of Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, popularly known as the Fatebenefratelli.71

Still, poor residents of Cracow liked best the hospital operating under the auspices of the aforementioned Ladies of Charity of St Vincent de Paul in Lea Street. It is often thought that such establishments offer poor conditions. Was this really the case? Looking at the hospital’s weekly menu which has partially survived (albeit without the menus for Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday) one can conclude than many patients hospitalised today would eagerly swap places with the patients of Ladies of Charity:

“Sunday: breakfast – sandwiches, borsch or tea; lunch – chicken broth with fine pasta, chicken, cauliflower, potatoes; dessert – punch cake and stewed pear beverage; dinner – roasted veal in mayonnaise with vegetable salad or fish in vegetables and potatoes;

Monday: breakfast – ham, borsch or tea; lunch – Naples soup, roasted veal in batter with potatoes and cabbage with tomatoes; dessert – cream puffs with sour cream; dinner – rice ragout or French dumplings and apple soufflé;

Thursday: breakfast – ham, borsch or tea; lunch – chicken broth with dough, roasted veal with cream, potatoes and beetroots; dessert – fruit cake – stewed apple beverage; dinner – schnitzel, cucumbers, potatoes or apple pie, cauliflower;

Friday: breakfast – cheese, borsch or tea; lunch – mushroom soup and fried fish, red cabbage, potatoes; dessert – sweet sponge-cake dish with sweet cream sauce, stewed apple beverage; dinner – dumplings with plum filling with sour whipped cream.”72

No comment seems necessary; let us just remember that the menu is not from a restaurant but a kitchen in a hospital for the poor.

While the MKB was doing its charity work, the voivodeship authorities began to combat unemployment too, and in numerous letters sent to the institutions they controlled called on officials to pay voluntary taxes to benefit the Committees fighting the consequences of unemployment, both at the county and municipal levels.73 The county governors – as imagined by the voivode – were kindly asked to “present to the clerks who reported to them the need for and importance of the action aiming to alleviate the unemployment calamity and call on the clerks to pay voluntary taxes to benefit the campaign.”74 The tax was supposed to be at a rate of 1–2 % of the gross salary for clerks earning in excess of 500 zloty who supported their own families, and for single clerks earning more than 400 zloty. Those earning less could choose to be taxed or not,75 although – as was said at one of the meetings devoted to the matter – “only in exceptional circumstances will a petty contribution from a clerk be justified.”76 In practice, it seems, the “voluntary” nature of the initiative was illusory and superiors exerted much pressure on the subordinates to support the action benefitting jobless Cracovians.

The scenario was similar in the case of special stamps that officials offered to their clients who wanted to attend to some administrative business at a given institution. The proceeds from the stamp sale were also supposed to support the Committees. To what a degree such gifts were to be voluntary can be inferred from the words of the voivode, who instructed the clerks bluntly that “a given person’s refusal to buy the stamp [...] may not be a reason for a negative outcome of their case.”77 However, regardless of the motivation informing the people who paid for the stamps, the results of the voivode”s initiative was satisfactory. By April 1932, that is when the collection ended, the MKB coffers received 4,447 zloty.78 By the end of the year, the stamp sale brought 7,565 zloty.79

Another type of assistance for the unemployed different from cash contributions were in-kind donations offered by both the city authorities and Church-based organisations. Most typically, the donations included such products as bread, lard, groats, rice, flour, fat, beans, soap, clothes, underwear, fuel, etc.80 Regrettably, sometimes those were products – as we read in one of the reports – “of inferior quality.”81 “One week,” – another document reads – “while the donations were given out to the jobless, they received zinc white instead of flour. When they voiced their concern, a notice was put up in the canteen saying that the zinc white received might be exchanged for flour.”82 The very distribution of the in-kind donations, the unemployed said, was slow; and those in charge of the process often expressed unwillingness and disdain towards the beneficiaries.83

Nonetheless, the donations had a significant impact on the material standing of the needy and, which I find of particular importance, their morale.84 Only by the end of January 1932, the MKB gave out over 10,000 in-kind donations, whereby beneficiaries, including the unemployed, were offered the content of 54 train cars of coal and 6 of potatoes.85 In 1933, Ladies of Charity of St Vincent de Paul gave out to the poor 191 kg of sugar, 234.5 kg of lard, 66 kg of apples, 49 coffee packets, 71.5 kg of soap, 112,000 kg of coal, 453 items of underwear, 614 of clothes as well as 138 sets of bedlinen and 79 pairs of shoes.86

For its part, the AKR distributed not just in-kind donations. For example, in late 1931 Christian residents of Cracow were offered vouchers worth 0.05 zloty each which could be exchanged for a piece of bread, a glass of tea, or used as a lunch subsidy for the poorest, something the buyers were particularly encouraged to do.87 After all the campaign was launched by the aforementioned KPG of Archbishop Sapieha, which began its operation in early 1931. The Committee was set up to help all those who “suffer hunger due to lack of work and insufficient income or illness.”88 Lunches served in the Committee’s kitchens cost 0.25 zloty, but the needy paid just 5 groszy. Usually, however, people could not afford even that little, which I think speaks volumes of the situation of Cracow’s poor back in the day. If that was the case, they received a hot meal free of charge. In total, over the nine weeks when the kitchen operated, more than 2,600 persons ate there. As many as 113,171 lunches were given out, including 65,924 free of charge.89

As much as they could, the local authorities also made efforts to offer jobs to the unemployed. There was pressure exerted on entrepreneurs to take on new staff, if only on a part-time basis. Unfortunately, the jobless often did not enjoy their posts for long as some companies were forced to cut jobs just a few months after employing new staff.90 Sometimes people were holding on to their jobs for dear life or vehemently defended at least part of their income. When in November 1928 the Townhall decided to transfer six cabman posts from the city centre to the suburbs, the owners of horse-drawn cabs threatened to do all they could to change the decision of the authorities, “even if 6 November were to repeat itself and if blood were to flow.”91

The jobless could also count on various training programmes helping them improve their qualifications or acquire new ones. Consequently, the labour market prospects became much better for those people, as with additional skills they were more attractive for employers. Such courses were delivered, for instance, by the Committee for Winter Assistance to the Unemployed, which in early 1937 prepared such training schemes for blue-collar workers (courses on central heating maintenance, on reinforced concrete, on roads and sewage systems, and on technical drawing), white-collar workers (such as instructors, accountants and shorthand writers/typists), and jobless women (cutting and sewing, manual and machine knitting, embroidery, leather haberdashery or corset-making).92

Above all, however, the unemployed were posted to public works, a popular practice throughout the inter-war period. Thanks to such opportunities, 1923 saw the start of the construction of the Cracow-Ojców road, modernisation of levees on the Vistula river from Niepołomice in the direction of Oświęcim, and in the city of Cracow itself efforts to regulate the Rudawa river and the construction of a bridge on the Vistula where Krakowska Street ended.93 The Townhall offered the jobless some other work too, like cleaning trunk sewers and their tributaries in newly connected districts, and in early 1926 around 1,400 persons found employment in that sector.94

In 1934, as many as 741 jobless persons were employed, including 277 in road construction and repair and 298 in sewer building; also 200 persons doing the earthwork on the Mound of Krakus.95 In winter, the city authorities engaged the jobless in snow removal.96 Such work was principally managed by a body established in the late 1930s called the Municipal Committee for Winter Assistance to the Unemployed (Miejski Komitet Pomocy Zimowej Bezrobotnym; hereinafter. MKPZB). As late as in early 1939, the MKPZB employed around 250 jobless persons and, weather permitting, their number rose, including women, who were usually employed to do the gardening in the Krakowski Park, Henryk Jordan Park, or along Mickiewicz Avenue.97

At the same time the Townhall, sometimes in conjunction with the voivodship authorities, called on the Polish government to provide considerable funding for that purpose98 or to offer appropriate loans.99 The costs of such project were high after all. Just in 1926 alone, the expenditure for public works amounted to 668,299.14 zloty. Thanks to the charges collected on top of the electricity bills and tram tickets, a sum of 476,278.77 zloty was collected, which means that over 190,000 zloty was still missing.100 In total, those monies allowed for the employment, chiefly for earthworks, of 878 persons who received a daily pay of 3.50 zloty, later increased to 3.80 zloty.101 That seems a sound amount. Analysing the prices back then, one can see that for such a daily sum, a worker could buy, for instance, a loaf of wheat bread (0.90 zloty), 1 kg of rice (1.53 zloty), a few kilograms of potatoes (0.14 zloty), a few eggs (0.16 zloty per egg) and a litre of milk (around 0.30 zloty).102 In the monthly perspective, shopping prospects were of course much better.

With time, particularly in the 1930s when due to the crisis the number of unemployed was growing, less was paid for their public work. In 1933, blue-collar workers received 2.75 zloty daily and a half of the amount in kind.103 By way of comparison, those who drew the unemployment benefit received around 12–16 zloty biweekly, i.e. still less than those involved in public works.104 No wonder then that public works were massively popular with the jobless and some did all they could to get their share, which sometimes led to regrettable cases of rabid rivalry between job seekers. In June 1935, the decision was made to employ them during the preparatory work for railway track replacement on the Cracow – Cracow Płaszów – Skawina line. As many as 400 came on the opening day although only a half was needed. A selection had to be made, ending in a bitter dispute between the chosen and rejected ones.105

Sometimes, however, it would turn out that despite their hardship the jobless were not that desperate to take any given post. More precisely: they were not ready to work far from home. Still in the 1920s, workers would keenly travel to Upper Silesia to work in mines and steelworks or to France to do some seasonal work. With time, however, some of the unemployed preferred to work in the city of Cracow or as close to it as possible. Such an attitude was not appreciated by the authorities. In May 1938, workers were sought to construct the Zakopane-Cracow road and regulate the Vistula river near Sandomierz. Around 700 persons were needed in total. Those with families were to be paid 2.70 zloty and the others 2.50 zloty. Still, no-one reported for work.106 It was only after the authorities threatened to stop the payment of benefits and allowances to the jobless that around 350 persons decided to go, and bachelors received an increase of the original rate up to the standard 2.70 zloty.107 At the same time, around 150 unemployed persons left Cracow to work on road construction near Szaflary.108

To summarise briefly the considerations presented above, one must say that – contrary to what is sometimes thought – the unemployed residents of Cracow usually were not left to their own devices unaided, and that throughout the inter-war period. As I have shown, the great crisis that hit the city in the early 1930s did not mark any breakthrough in the policies pursued by the local authorities and Church-based organisations as regards support offered to the jobless and the poorest. One could even risk saying that with their rich – as I intended to show in this text – experience in mobilising such support they were still ready to do more, as it was necessary in the face of an economic downturn induced by the crisis. Consequently, the range of assistance offered by the Townhall, the Catholic Church, and Jewish associations was relatively impressive, although, given the realities of Cracow back then, far insufficient. After all, not all unemployed residents were able to cope not just with the conditions in which they had to subsist, sometimes from one day to the next, but also with their own weaknesses which in times of hardship tend to haunt one with doubled force.



Literature on the great economic crisis – its root causes, course and consequences both in the field of economy and society – is very rich. However, not much attention is paid to the issue of remembering the crisis. This is not surprising: after all the matter at hand is highly complicated. The same is true for Cracow itself. I consider that the main problem is the nature of the crisis itself and its characteristics against a backdrop of the city’s socioeconomic situation over the course of the entire inter-war period. In the case of Cracow, as I have shown in my considerations presented above, the crisis did not leave a wasteland in its wake as was the case in some other parts of Poland, partly due to the fact that the city was poorly industrialised. Coupled with the fact that Cracow had known unemployment, poverty and social exclusion – permanently, although more or less acutely felt – since the end of the Great War, this helps to understand why the crisis of the late 1920s and the early 1930s was seen as just another economic slump. It was not a collapse to mark a divide between the times of prosperity and a great recession. Additionally, the intensified efforts on the part of the city authorities and Church-based organisations described here reduced those negative consequences.

Yet another aspect is the perspective of Cracow residents on what was happening around them. It must be remembered that in the first years of the inter-war period Cracovians compared their situation not with the global conflict that had just ended but with the pre-war times, which in their recollections were much better than their contemporary realities. That first post-war period, a time of high prices and shortage of provisions, was some sort of a benchmark and a reference point in the successive years leading to the crisis. While describing the mood of the local public in June 1924, the Cracow police stated that “the current sentiments of the public are predominantly influenced by the reform action of the Government. Although an economic crisis is just at the doorstep,” so went the analysis by the police, “society, which for a long time felt the acute consequences of the recent inflation-driven economy, appreciates the benefits related to the stable currency. Fresh in the public memory are the impoverishment of broad strata of society, the atrophy of savings and healthy credit, and, in terms of ethics, the decline of morality. [...].” However, as concluded by the police, “the general public usually approaches the actions of the Government trustfully and favourably, despite the economic crisis and growing unemployment [...].”109

Because of all this, the memory, and today – since there are very few left who have direct experience of those times – just the post-memory (the memory of the memory) of the great crisis did or does not arouse much emotion. It has become part of the general reflection on the weakness of the Polish economy in 1918–1939 and its consequences: unemployment and poverty. The obvious focus here is on Cracow. The end of the crisis, or its actual delineation, is still a difficult notion as chronologically it was close to the outbreak of the Second World War. The war, in turn, and then its repercussions, forced a completely different perspective on how Cracow residents and others see the Second Polish Republic and its economic and social problems. The great crisis became part of the background.

Text translated into English: Mikołaj Sekrecki


Krzysztof Kloc. A PhD student at the Institute of History of the Pedagogical University of Cracow, where he is drafting a biography of Ambassador Michał Sokolnicki under the supervision of Professor Mariusz Wołos. His interests include the history of diplomacy and the political history of the Polish Second Republic, with special focus on the history of Piłsudski’s camp, the Reborn Poland’s historical policy, and biographies of the period as well as the history of inter-war Cracow. A bursary holder from the Jerzy Peterkiewicz Educational Foundation (2013) and the Z Brzezia Lanckorońskich Foundation (2016) as well as a finalist of Scientific Awards of the “Polityka” weekly (2015). Krzysztof Kloc’s publications have appeared in such sources as “Dzieje Najnowsze,” “Klio,” “Niepodległość,” “Pro Fide Rege et Lege” and “Zeszyty Naukowe UJ.” He is currently working also on the publication of “Korespondencja 1946–1960” between Jerzy Giedroyc and Michał Sokolnicki.



1 After Władysław Zajewski, Czy historycy piszą prawdę (Cracow, 2015), p. 9.

2 Elżbieta Tarkowska, “Bieda, historia i kultura,” in Elżbieta Tarkowska (ed.), Zrozumieć biednego. O dawnej i obecnej biedzie w Polsce (Warsaw, 2000), p. 15.

3 Łukasz Linowski, “Enklawy biedy w miastach Wielkiego Pomorza w dwudziestoleciu międzywojennym i ich miejsce w polityce lokalnych władz,” in Mateusz Rodak (ed.), Margines społeczny Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej, Warsaw 2013, p. 313.

4“Drugi powszechny spis ludności z dn. 9 XII 1931 r. Mieszkania i gospodarstwa domowe. Ludność. Stosunki zawodowe. Miasto Kraków,” Statystyka Polski, series C, issue 64; Elżbieta Adamczyk, “Społeczność Krakowa i jej życie,” in Janina Bieniarzówna, Jan M. Małecki (eds), Dzieje Krakowa, vol. IV: Kraków w latach 1918–1939 (Cracow, 1997), pp. 29–30.

5 Paweł Grata, Polityka społeczna Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej. Uwarunkowania – instytucje – działania (Rzeszów, 2013), p. 190.

6 The National Archive in Cracow (Archiwum Narodowe w Krakowie; hereinafter, ANKr), the Cracow County Office (Starostwo Grodzkie Krakowskie; hereinafter, StGrKr), ref. 111, p. 7.

7 Zbigniew Landau, Jerzy Tomaszewski, Gospodarka Polski międzywojennej, vol. II: Od Grabskiego do Piłsudskiego: okres kryzysu proinflacyjnego i ożywienia koniunktury 1924–1929 (Warsaw, 1971), pp. 89–90.

8 Ibidem, p. 89.

9 Andrzej Pilch, Dzieje ruchu robotniczego w Krakowskiem (Cracow, 1987), part I, p. 314, table 20.

10 Ibidem; “Bezrobocie na terenie województwa krak.,” Goniec Krakowski (hereinafter GK) 1924, issue 29, p. 5; ibidem, no 33, p. 5.

11 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part I, p. 314, table 20.

12 Ibidem, part II, pp. 76–77, table 26; “Drugi powszechny spis ludności z dn. 9 XII 1931 r. Mieszkania i gospodarstwa domowe. Ludność. Stosunki zawodowe. Miasto Kraków,” Statystyka Polski, series C, issue 64, p. 79, table 30.

13 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part II, pp. 76–77, table 26.

14 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 131.

15 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part II, pp. 228–229, table 30.

16 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 279.

17 Ibidem.

18 Andrzej Pilch, op. cit., Part II, pp. 228–229, table 30.

19 Ibidem.

20 The population of Cracow in the inter-war period: 1918 – 178,588; 1921 – 183,706; 1924 – 185,843; 1925 – 187,283; 1926 – 188,734; 1927 – 190,196; 1928 – 206, 829; 1929 – 210,632; 1930 – 214,504; 1931 – 219,286; 1932 – 224,384; 1933 – 228,684; 1934 – 233,066; 1935 – 237,532; 1936 – 242,084; 1937 – 246,723; 1939 – 259,000 (an estimate), “Drugi powszechny spis ludności z dn. 9.XII 1931 r. Mieszkania i gospodarstwa domowe. Ludność. Polska,” Statystyka Polski, series C, issue 94a, p. 1; Miesięczne sprawozdania statystyczne: miasto Kraków, 1924–1937; Skorowidz miejscowości Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej, vol. XII, Województwo krakowskie. Śląsk cieszyński (Warsaw, 1925).

21 Elżbieta Adamczyk, op. cit., p. 30, table 4.

22 Ibidem.

23 Ibidem, s. 37, table 5.

24 Ibidem, p. 36.

25 On industry in interwar Cracow, see Jan Szpak, “Gospodarka. Przemysł,” in Dzieje Krakowa, vol. IV: Kraków w latach 1918–1939..., op. cit., pp. 191–202.

26 Czesław Brzoza, Kraków między wojnami. Kalendarium 28 X 1918 – 6 IX 1939, Cracow 1997 (hereinafter Kalendarium...), 18 Jan 1924, p. 122.

27 Cracow’s population was 184,415 then, including 138,218 of those classified as Christians and 46,197 Jews, Miesięczne sprawozdania statystyczne: Miasto Kraków, 1924, January, p. 1.

28 Ibidem, 1935, April, p. 2.

29 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 226.

30 Stanisław Piech, “Życie religijne,” in Dzieje Krakowa, vol. IV: Kraków w latach 1918– 1939..., op. cit., p. 291.

31 ANKr, StGrKr, sygn. 155, pp. 23–24.

32 Andrzej Chwalba, Dzieje Krakowa, vol. V: Kraków w latach 1939–1945 (Cracow, 2002), p. 97; B. Panek in turn, wrote that “Kazimierz, Cracow’s southern quarter, was commonly known for two reasons: abject sanitary conditions and the ethnic dominance of Jews, often very rich and so ‘ruling the roost’ in the area, largely inhabited by the blue-collar poor,” B. Panek, Krakowskie organizacje charytatywne w latach 1918–1939, Cracow 1986, p. 54.

33“Obłędny taniec drożyzny,” GK 1926, issue 4, p. 1.

34Ustawa o zabezpieczeniu na wypadek bezrobocia z dnia 18 lipca 1924 r., Dz. U. 1924, no. 67, item 650.

35 GK 1924, issues 228–229, p. 6.

36 Elżbieta Adamczyk, op. cit., p. 38; during the payment of the benefits often chaos reigned supreme, difficult to contain for the officials. In the late 1930s, money was paid out in alphabetical order: for instance, on Monday to the unemployed persons whose family names started with letters A-J, on Tuesday – K-P, and on Wednesday to all the rest. On specific days those in need also received benefits in alphabetical order, Głos Narodu 1939, issue 22, p. 9.

37 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 111, tables 5–7.

38 “Skrajna nędza bezrobotnych pracowników umysłowych,” GK 1926, issue 34, p. 5.

3“Demonstracja bezrobotnych pracowników umysłowych w Krakowie,” ibidem, issue 70, p. 5.

40“Żerowanie niebieskich ptaków,” Ostatnie Wiadomości Krakowskie (hereinafter, OWK) 1931, issue 117, p. 6.

41 Bronisław Panek, op. cit., p. 18.

42Ibidem, p. 33.

43Zbigniew Landau, Jerzy Tomaszewski, op. cit., vol. I, p. 123.

44Bronisław Panek, op. cit., p. 37.

45 Ibidem, p. 40.

46S. Piech, op. cit., pp. 264–265.

47 Czesław Brzoza, Kalendarium..., 15 Nov 1923, p. 122.

48 Stanisław Piech, op. cit., p. 268.

49 Ibidem, p. 270.

50 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 19.

51 Ibidem.

52 S. Piech, op. cit., p. 291.

53 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 163.

54 Ibidem, p. 165.

55 Ibidem, p. 163.

56 “Miejski Komitet do walki z bezrobociem,” OWK 1931, issue 97, p. 6.

57Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1926, Year XLVII, issue 1, p. 16.

58 Ibidem, p. 158.

59 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, pp. 13–24.

60 “Przemysłowcy krakowscy na rzecz bezrobotnych,” OWK 1931, issue 99, p. 6.

61 “Ofiarność Krakowa dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 171, p. 6.

62 “Robotnicy dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 129, p. 6.

63 “Rękodzielnicy dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 119, p. 6.

64 “Kupiectwo krakowskie dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 126, p. 6.

65 For instance, the Board of the Association of Physicians of the Health-insurance Fund in Cracow passed a resolution on medical advice for the unemployed holding an attestation from the MKB, “Bezpłatna ordynacja lek. dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 137, p. 6.

66 On the initiative of City Mayor Władysław Belina-Prażmowski and the tram service director Tadeusz Polaczek-Kornecki, a special kitchen was launched for children of jobless parents, which gave out 130 lunches a day. “In the kitchen” – the press reported – “meals are cooked by women from the tramway service, as well as a conductor who used to be a cook. The children are serviced by a few girl guides free of charge,” “Kuchnia dla ubogich dzieci w Tramwaju Krak.,” ibidem, issue 134, p. 6.

67 “Krakowscy harcerze dla bezrobotnych,” ibidem, issue 115, s. 6.

68 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 17.

69Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1931, Year LII, issue 6, pp. 244–245.

70 Stanisław Piech, op. cit., p. 271.

71 Ibidem.

72 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 566, pp. 869–871.

73 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 93, p. 67; ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 3.

74 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 93, pp. 77–78.

75 Ibidem.

76Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1931, Year LII, issue 9, p. 321.

77 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 93, p. 70.

78 Ibidem, pp. 153–154.

79 Ibidem, pp. 165–166.

80 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 168; OWK 1933, issue 4, p. 6.

81 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 168.

82 Ibidem, p. 163.

83 Ibidem, p. 155.

84 Ibidem.

85 Czesław Brzoza, Kalendarium..., 31 Jan 1932, p. 254.

86 Bronisław Panek, op. cit., p. 43.

87 Czesław Brzoza, Kalendarium..., 30 Dec 1931, p. 251.

88Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1931, Year LII, issue 6, p. 244.

89 Ibidem.

90 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, pp. 213, 235.

91 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 111, pp. 623–625; On 6 November 1923 in Cracow, workers on strike staged violent protests, sometimes even called a revolt, inspired by the Polish Socialist Party and directed against the policy of the then conservative government headed by the leader of the Polish Peasants’ Party “Piast” (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe “Piast”) Wincenty Witos. The protest soon developed into violent clashes of the workers with the police and armed forces, and were brutally suppressed, with 3 officers, 11 privates, 18 workers and civilians dead, and a total of nearly 150 persons injured.

92 “Czego mogą się nauczyć bezrobotni?,” Głos Narodu 1937, issue 22, p. 7.

93 Jerzy Gołębiowski, “Podłoże ekonomiczne wystąpień strajkowych warstw pracujących Krakowa w 1923 roku,” in Józef Buszko (ed.), Rok 1923 w Krakowie. Rozprawy i studia (Cracow, 1978), p. 58.

94 “Jeszcze jeden doraźny podatek na rzecz bezrobocia w Krakowie,” GK 1926, issue 24, p. 5.

95 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 193.

96 “500 bezrobotnych zatrudniono przy usuwaniu śniegu w Krakowie,” Głos Narodu 1937, issue 31, p. 9.

97 “Akcja zatrudniania bezrobotnych,” ibidem, 1939, issue 68, p. 9.

98 “A pan Wojewoda i Magistrat krakowski w sprawie bezrobotnych tylko radzą, radzą, radzą...,” GK 1926, issue 6, p. 5.

99Dziennik Rozporządzeń stoł. król. miasta Krakowa 1927, Year XLVIII, issue 3, p. 106.

100 Ibidem, issue 1, p. 29.

101 Ibidem.

102Miesięczne sprawozdania statystyczne: miasto Kraków, 1926, June, p. 8.

103 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 155, p. 145.

104 Ibidem, p.221.

105 Ibidem, pp. 239–240.

106 Ibidem, p. 285.

107 Ibidem, p. 289.

108 ANKr, Cracow Regional Office, ref. 128, p. 1021.

109 ANKr, StGrKr, ref. 107, pp. 79–86.


logo studies

This article has been published in the fourth issue of Remembrance and Solidarity Studies dedicated to the memory of economic crisis.

>> Click here to see the R&S Studies site


© ENRS 2011-2017 | Design: m.jurko | Code: feb