One of the many surprises of my trip to Krakow was finding that much of the city escaped unscathed during World War Two. My visit to Warsaw had revealed a city devastated by the war, and I was expecting Krakow to be the same. I was wrong. I was completely surprised to find a mainly intact former Jewish quarter. There were even synagogues. The Kazimierz District of Krakow has a long and fascinating history, and is a must visit on your trip to the city.
WHAT IS THE KAZIMIERZ DISTRICT?
Jewish people have long lived in Poland. In the mid-14th century until the early 19th century, they were required to live in a separate Jewish city. This isn’t unusual. You’ll recall that our visit to Rome revealed a similar arrangement. The Jewish city was an autonomous enclave governed by Jewish authorities. In the mid 19th century, the city was abolished and made a part of Krakow proper. Many Jewish people remained in the area where they had developed a vibrant culture. It hosted six synagogues, and a variety of Jewish shops, artisans, services and schools.
Prior to World War Two, around 65,000 Jewish people lived in Krakow. This was one in four of the total population of the city.
WHAT HAPPENED TO KAZIMIERZ DURING WORLD WAR TWO?
Poland fell to the Nazi’s in 1939. During 1939 and 1940, thousands of Jewish people from Kazimierz were deported from the city, mainly into labour camps. In 1941, the remaining Jews were moved from Kazimierz into the new ghetto in Podgórze. An area that had previously housed 3000 people was now home to over 16,000. Polish people that were displaced by the creation of the ghetto moved into the apartments in Kazimierz vacated by the Jews.
After January 1942, the Nazis began to initiate ‘The Final Solution’. This was Hitler’s plan for the annihilation of European Jewry. It resulted in the dissolution of the Podgórze ghetto by 1943.
Around 5000 Jewish people survived the war, a number of them thanks to Oskar Schindler. Most of the Jewish population of Krakow perished at Płaszów, or at Auschwitz Birkenau.
WHY DIDN’T THE NAZIS DESTROY THE SYNAGOGUES OF KAZIMIERZ?
Apparently, the Nazis went to great pains to prove that Krakow was actually an ‘Ancient German City‘. While they made every effort to Germanize the city, the five-year occupation hosted few battles. At the end of the war, the Germans avoided fighting with the Soviets and retreated hastily. It is unclear to me why exactly the Nazi’s left Kazimierz unscathed. They likely used the buildings for other purposes during the war. Unlike many other religious buildings, the synagogues were relatively small and unadorned, and could easily be converted to other uses. Many buildings were, however, still damaged to some degree during the war. They were rebuilt in full or part afterwards.
WHAT HAPPENED AFTER THE WAR?
By the 1970s signs of Jewish life had been eradicated from Kazimierz. With Krakow behind the Iron Curtain, the Kazimierz District became one of Krakow’s dodgiest. It fell into disrepair, and was an area to avoid.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, interest began to grow in the area. In 1993, Steven Spielberg decided to use the Kazimierz District to film a significant portion of his film Schindlers List. Although Kazimierz wasn’t the site of the Jewish Ghetto, it has similar architecture. It was the best location to replicate what the ghetto would have looked like in the 1940s. Podgórze was damaged during the liquidation, and no longer resembles its former self.
Following the release of the movie, Jewish culture saw a revival in the area. Tourists began to flock to Kazimierz to learn about its history, and to see its filming locations. Restaurants and hotels opened, and information on the important sites in the district erected.
WHAT IS KAZIMIERZ LIKE TODAY?
Kazimierz is a buzzing bohemian district, popular with tourists, and easy to access on foot from central Krakow. It has a huge number of cafes and restaurants, many of them kosher. While the number of Jewish people living in the area today is small, there is a distinct Jewish feel. It also hosts many shops, art studios and galleries. It also hosts a lot of Krakow’s street art. Most of the action clusters around Szeroka, Izaaka, Miodowa, Józefa and Podbrzezie streets, and Places Nowy. A handy map of the area is available on the Discover Cracow site.
A WALK THROUGH KAZIMIERZ’S MAJOR SITES
First of all – the best advice I can give you is to duck down side-streets, and to explore alleyways and courtyards. The main street, Szeroka, is very cool, but pretty busy. There sits a horde of electric carts ready to transport tourists in and out of the area. Visit Szeroka, but also take the time to wander the back streets. You’ll be pleased you did!
THE OLD SYNAGOGUE
One of the key sights of Kazimierz is the Old Synagogue. The Synagoga Stara is the oldest surviving Jewish place of worship in Poland. Since 1961 it has housed the museum of Jewish history and traditions, and it’s worth a visit if you have time. It contains lots of information about Jewish life in the area before World War Two. 24 Szeroka, 8PLN.
This is the main street of the Kazimierz District. On it, you’ll find two of the restaurants I have noted further in this post, plus the Old Synagogue. Jewish music echoes throughout the street. A green space in the centre hosts a memorial to the thousands of Polish Jews who died from the city during World War Two.
The street is also the location of the home of Helena Rubenstein, the Remuh Synagogue and Cemetary, and a number of Jewish shops. At the entrance of the Remuh Synagogue is a monument to Jan Karski, a Polish resistance figher. He is commemorated for trying to notify the Allies of the Nazi genocide during World War Two.
If you duck into the courtyard on Jozefa Street, you’ll see the location of one of the most famous scenes in Schindlers List. This was where some of the liquidation of the ghetto scenes were shot. Unfortunately, it was under renovation when I visited. However, you can still clearly see the stairs that featured in the movie.
If you’ve seen Schindlers List, you’ll recognize this street as the one where one of the characters escapes from the sewers. He then clears luggage off the street. In the immediate area is an amazing outdoor food market, and there are lots of hotels, if you are thinking of staying nearby.
STREET ART OF KAZIMIERZ
Keep your eyes peeled at all time for murals and street art. Some are pretty, some are weird, and some of them have important political messages. Don’t forget to look up!
CORPUS CHRISTI CHURCH
It’s not just Jewish sights to see in the district. Thousands of Roman-Catholic Poles lived in the area throughout history, too. The Corpus Christi Church was founded in 1342 by King Kazimierz the Great. Amongst many, many other shiny objects, the pulpit features a golden boat being held aloft by two mermaids. Sassy! You can visit the interior for free, as long as mass isn’t taking place. Bożego Ciała 26.
TIME FOR A SNACK?
The Kazimierz District is teeming with eateries and bars. However, some of the kosher restaurants are stretching it a just a little (ham on the menu?!). There are still a number of legitimate restaurants. I ate at Ariel, a popular but touristy Jewish restaurant. You can sit outside and enjoy the music, and lunch only cost around 45PLN. Szeroka 18.
Other places to dine include:
– Piwnica Wolnica, a little corner restaurant serving cheap Polish specialities (plac Wolnica 11)
– HAMSA Hummus and Happiness, a middle Eastern inspired Kosher restaurant (Szeroka 2); and
– Plac Nowy, where you can pick up cheap street food with the locals, including the famous Polish zapiekanki.