Kazimierz district has become newly fashionable in the recent decade. With its mushrooming cafes and nightlife spots, it has become Kraków’s equivalent of London’s Soho, Paris’ Quartier Latin, and New York’s Village. Kazimierz district’s recreated Jewish past and newborn reputation as a haven of artists and the youth have made the rundown area near the Old Town trendy among tourists and the locals alike.
Worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg
Well-known for its associations with Schindler and Spielberg, Kazimierz was the centre of Jewish life in Kraków for over 500 years. During WWII the Nazi Germany was systematically destroying the Jewish Quarter and the communist regime “stuck the course” making that one of Kraków’s dodgiest districts. Rediscovered in the 1990s, thanks to the fall of the system and worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg on “Schindler`s List” movie, Kazimierz has rebounded and today it`s Kraków’s most exciting district – a bustling, bohemian neighbourhood packed with numerous cosy art cafes, galleries and antique shops, paved street and monuments of Jewish culture which draw tourists with a magnetic force.
The return of contemporary Jewish culture
In fact, no other place in Europe conveys a sense of pre-war Jewish culture on the continent better than Kazimierz. Traces of its Jewish history have not only survived, but literally abound in the form of the district’s numerous synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. As a result, the district has become a major tourist draw and pilgrimage site for Jews, which has led to the return of contemporary Jewish culture in the area.
Famous academy throughout medieval Europe
Three early medieval settlements are known to have existed on the island defining Kazimierz. The most important of these was the pre-Christian Slavic shrine at Skałka (“the little rock”) at the western, upstream tip of the island. This site, with its sacred pool, was later Christianised as the Church of St. Michael the Archangel in the 11th century and was the legendary site of the martyrdom of St. Stanisław. There was a nearby noble manor complex to the southeast and an important cattle-market town of Bawół (buffalo), possibly based on an old tribal Slavic borough, at the edges of the habitable land near the swamps that composed the eastern, downstream end of the island. There was also a much smaller island upstream of Kazimierz known as the “Tatar Island” after the Tatar cemetery there. This smaller island has since washed away.
In the beginning of the 14th century, Kraków`s inhabitants led a popular rebellion against King Ladislas the Short. In order to avoid similar events from occurring in the future, the next king of Poland, Casimir the Great, founded a separate town located on a large island on the Vistula River in 1335, which was to take over as Poland’s capital.
It was there that the Kraków`s Academy which was to become famous throughout medieval Europe (today known as the Jagiellonian University) as well as splendid churches which still stun with rich ornamentation were erected. Yet with time, the king’s wrath with the Kraków`s inhabitants diminished, and as it also turned out that Kazimierz is threatened with frequent flooding, the investments were halted. Even if Hartmann Schedl’s 1493 “The Chronicle of the World” portrays the quarter as impressively as the town of Krakow, in reality it was much more modest.
A model of every Eastern European shtetl
At the end of 15th century King Jan I Olbracht transferred Kraków`s Jews to the nearby royal city of Kazimierz, which gave rise to its once bustling Jewish quarter and a major European centre of the Diaspora for the next three centuries. With time it turned into virtually separate and self-governed 34-acre Jewish Town, a model of every Eastern European “shtetl”, within the limits of the gentile city of Kazimierz. As refugees from all over Europe kept coming to find the safe haven here, its population reached 4,500 by 1630.
One of the most influential Polish towns during the Middle Ages
The construction of Kazimierz was never completed and the quarter was not so attractive, which, paradoxically, was to become a reason for its future glory. When in 1495 Jews were prohibited to settle within the Kraków city walls, they began to move to Kazimierz. They took over a fifth of the town’s surface, and in this way, Europe’s only Jewish-governed town of the time was created, surrounded by city walls and endowed with its own government, subject only to the King’s power.
Awarded its Magdeburg Rights, which allowed markets to be held on what is now Pl. Wolnica, Kazimierz prospered and became one of the most influential Polish towns during the Middle Ages. By the 17th century Jewish life was flourishing and numerous synagogues had been constructed when the plague hit in 1651. Four years later Kazimierz was ransacked by Swedish invaders, famine, floods and anti-Jewish riots followed in quick succession, and a mass migration to Warsaw began, leaving the once vibrant Kazimierz a shadow of its former self.
Saved by Oskar Schindler
For centuries, Kazimierz remained an independent town and was only joined with Kraków at the end of the 18th century. In 1796 Kraków came under Austrian control. Ironically this would bring about the area’s rebirth as the Austrians worked hard to redevelop the city: the streets were cobbled, the crumbling defensive walls were torn down, the first gas lamps were illuminated in 1857, and the suburb had a power station by 1905.
The Austrian authorities allowed Jews to settle anywhere in Kazimierz, and eventually also in Kraków. Soon, the wealthier members of the Jewry moved to the town centre, and Kazimierz remained the quarter of the poor, resulting in its unique atmosphere.
By 1910 the Jewish population stood at 32,000, a figure that was to nearly double during the inter-war years. This, as we know, would come to a dramatic end with the Nazi occupation of Kraków and Hitler’s systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe. Herded across the river to a ghetto in Podgórze, Kraków’s Jews met their end there, in Płaszów, or Bełżec primarily. A mere 3-5,000 survived the Holocaust, a large proportion of them saved by Oskar Schindler.
A movie that would put Kazimierz on the world map and irrevocably change its fortunes
Although 5,000 Jews were registered as living in Kraków in 1950 any hopes of rekindling the past soon vanished. The anti-Zionist policies of the post-war communist authorities sparked waves of emigration to Israel, and by the 1970s signs of Jewish life had all but disappeared and the area had become a bandit suburb. The fall of communism in 1989 sparked new hope, however; investment began trickling in, 1988 saw the first Jewish Festival take place, and five years later the Judaica Foundation was opened. That was also the year Spielberg arrived to film “Schindler’s List”, a movie that would put Kazimierz on the world map and irrevocably change its fortunes. Today a visit to Kazimierz ranks just as high on itineraries as a trip to Wawel, illustrating the historical importance and public regard the area possesses. No visit to Krakow would be complete without a tour of Kazimierz.
The quarter lives a real “golden age” now rather than under the reign of Casimir the Great
Nowadays, as many centuries ago, Kazimierz is once again a meeting place between nations and cultures. Kraków`s inhabitants decided to renovate the quarter, thus saving a part of the national and European heritage. Kazimierz’s glory began to be recreated dynamically and the quarter started to attract tourist from all over the world. It almost seems that the quarter lives a real “golden age” now rather than under the reign of Casimir the Great or in the splendid Jagiellonian times. Kazimierz was never so well off and so admired.
The most famous cultural event which takes place here is an internationally renowned Jewish Culture Festival − each year attracts thousands of participants from all over the world. During the festival days streets of Kazimierz are full of multilingual talks, klezmer music and concerts − people dance and sing together.
Unique on a global scale
An urban complex of the former Jewish settlement which existed there from the end of the 15th century until the beginning of the 19th century, unique on a global scale, have been preserved. The most important elements of this complex are the historical Old, New (Remuh) with the adjacent cemetery, High, Popper, Izaak and Kupa synagogues.
The latest-built and the easternmost of all the two-nave synagogues built in the Middle Ages in Europe
The Old Synagogue is not only the most valuable monument of Jewish sacral architecture, but also the cradle and bastion of traditional culture of Kraków`s Jews. It is also a good place for a museum exhibit about itself, named aptly for the subject it touches on, The Bastion of Tradition.
The Old Synagogue, build ca. the mid–1480s by Jews leaving Kraków, which was inhospitable to them at the time. It is the latest-built and the easternmost of all the two-nave synagogues built in the Middle Ages in Europe.
The original building was rebuilt in 1570 under the watchful eye of an Italian architect Mateo Gucci. The rebuilding included the attic wall with loopholes, windows placed far above ground level, and thick, masonry walls with heavy buttressing to withstand siege, all features borrowed from military architecture. The Old synagogue is a rare, surviving example of a Polish Fortress synagogue.
The synagogue was completely devastated and ransacked by the Germans during WWII. Its artwork and Jewish relics, looted. During the occupation, the synagogue was used as a magazine. In 1943, 30 Polish hostages were executed at its wall. The Old Synagogue was renovated from 1956 to 1959 and currently operates as a museum. It is a Division of the Historical Museum of Kraków, with particular focus on Kraków’s Jews. The exhibits are divided into themes dealing with birth, prayer rituals, diet, divorce and death. The beautiful women’s prayer room, which dates from the 17th century, is often used to hold temporary exhibitions.
One of Europe’s most interesting graveyards
Remuh cemetery by the Remuh Synagogue was named after the nickname of famous 16th-century rabbi and religious writer Moses Isserles. Even today pious Jews keep coming to pray at his grave and the graves of their other great men who were buried there. The cemetery was used from 1551 to 1800. Its hundreds old tombstones, dating mostly from the Renaissance, as well as its history and surroundings make the Remuh Cemetery one of Europe’s most interesting.
A booming centre of Jewish culture
The newest of the synagogues in Kazimierz, this was built in the second half of the19th century by the Association of Progressive Israelites. Services were delivered there in Polish and German, changes were introduced to the liturgy, which raised protests among Orthodox Jews. The interior of the synagogue has been renovated by the World Monuments Fund. The women’s gallery and the ceiling are richly adorned with stuccoes and frescoes in an Oriental-Moorish style. The fine 19th-century stained glass windows on the ground floor and the upper floor add to the charms of the synagogue interior.
Tempel Synagogue is not only a major place of worship, but also a booming centre of Jewish culture, which hosts numerous concerts and meetings, especially during the Festival.
Kupa means “fund”
The Synagogue was founded in 1643 by the Kazimierz Jewish district’s kehilla (a municipal form of self-government), as a foundation of the local qahal (a theocratic organizational structure in ancient Israelite society according to the Masoretic Text of the Bible). That`s why it is called Kupa, as the word means “fund”. A contribution of 200 zlotys by the Jewish goldsmiths’ guild helped to bring the construction to its successful completion. The Synagogue was built in a baroque style with a square prayer hall inside. The building underwent many renovations throughout the centuries. In the 19th century it was repeatedly extended: first in the wake of the construction of Miodowa street. At that time a garden was designed between the street and the synagogue wall, and a storeyed wing and a balcony were built leading to the women’s area. Conservation and renewal works were also carried out between the two world wars. The interior was decorated with new paintings, and the entire building was surrounded with decorative fencing.
During the German occupation the synagogue was devastated. The bimah (the raised roofed podium in the centre of the synagogue) was entirely destroyed, and so was the platform with stairs and kantor’s pulpit in front of the Aron Kodesh. The movable furnishing was also lost.
For a number of years after the war, the synagogue again assembled a congregation for prayer. It also performed other functions, as it housed a matza producer and a ritual slaughterhouse for poultry. Moreover, Jewish families who arrived in Kraków from the USSR after 1945 lived in the wing. The synagogue was also used by a production cooperative. Today, after a thorough renovation supervised by heritage preservation services, it is a place of meetings, concerts, and exhibitions conducted primarily as part of the Jewish Culture Festival. It is also the main synagogue of the Jewish community of Kraków.
A Jewish world without Kazimierz would be as empty as a body without a soul. In a different time, in a different Kazimierz, one of the greatest Jewish scholars to ever live said: “the aim of man is to search for the cause and the meaning of things”. Kazimierz is an enchanting place, and a place to reflect on what has gone before us. That`s why it is a “must-see” place.
!להתראות בקרוב [Lehitraot be-karow!]
See you soon!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski
Next to the Remuh Synagogue you’ll see a space set aside to the memory and legacy of Jan Karski – a member of the Polish underground army, known to the history books as the “man who tried to stop the Holocaust.” During World War II, Karski smuggled himself into the Warsaw Ghetto and Nazi concentration camps with the express intent of witnessing and recording the horror being perpetrated against the Jews, in order to report it to the West. In 1942 he successfully escaped the European continent to meet with the London-based Polish government-in-exile, as well as the Allied leaders, including UK Foreign Secretary Antony Eden and US President Franklin Roosevelt. One of the first to present credible evidence of the extermination of European Jews by the Third Reich, unfortunately Karski’s report largely fell on deaf ears. In 1944 he published a memoir of his mission titled My Report to the World: The Story of a Secret State, which was a wartime bestseller. He lived out his life in the US, teaching at Georgetown University for 40 years, and was awarded numerous honours including the Order of the White Eagle (PL), the Silver Cross of the Virtuti Militari (PL), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (US), and is recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations.
The monument in Kraków was installed in 2016 and takes the form of a bench, emulating similar Karski benches in Łódź, Warsaw, Kielce and Tel Aviv.
Text: Source: inyourpocket Krakow
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