Jewish Kraków: A Virtual Tour through the Kazimierz and Podgórze Quarters
Kazimierz is a very different part of the historical Kraków. Less frequented by tourists, but popular with young people. Some houses have already been renovated and look as pretty as in the Old Town, but others still need some new paint or a sandblasting. It gives the place a slightly rundown, but charming atmosphere.
Street Café in Kazimierz
Originally, the part of the historical centre of Kraków today known as Kazimierz was an island in the Vistula river. There had been a Slavic shrine and a sacred pool before Poland was Christianised. Nearby was the seat of a local chief and a cattle market which later became the Bawół district. Those merged into a settlement; the first church was built on the site of the shrine in the 11th century. The town that developed on the site was independent from the Wawel and the city of Kraków (today the part known as Old Town) for several centuries.
Lane with old houses in Kazimierz
King Kazimierz Wielki (Casimir III the Great) declared the settlement on the island to be named after him: Kazimierz; Casimiria in Latin. The town walls of Kraków were extended to surround the central section of the island, yet the newly named town remained an independent Town of the Royal Crown. Casimir granted it the Magdeburg Law, and burghers were encouraged to settle on the island. The site of the former pagan shrine was occupied by the Augustinian Order.
Corpus Christus Basilica
The one remaining building that dates to the time of Casimir the Great is the Corpus Christus Basilica, built in the Gothic style. It was founded in 1335 by the king; its construction took place in several stages from 1340 to the mid-15th century. Later, some Baroque chapels were added. The ground where it stands – including a cemetary – was once surrounded by a separate wall, since the church was independent from the town jurisdiction.
A square in Kazimierz
After the Partition of Poland in 1795, Kraków came under Austrian supremacy. Kazimierz lost its independent status and became a suburb of the city of Kraków.
Kazimierz was connected to Kraków by an important bridge, the Pons Regalis, which was part of the trade route that went from Kraków to the salt mines of Wieliczka and then continued into Hungary. The bridge was dismantled in 1880, after the branch of the Vistula river separating Kraków from Kazimierz had been filled in by the Austrian government.
One of the inner yards in the older houses
The new town flourished in the 16th century when many fine buildings of the Renaissance architecture were created. Those included several synagagues.
I went to visit Kazimierz in the evening, so those synagogues open to tourists were already closed, though I got some photos of the exterior. Yet it turned out that one needs more time than a single day to do Kraków justice. Good reason to return some day.
Lane in Kazimierz
I've briefly mentioned the situation of Jews in Poland in the comments to my post about the history of Ogrodzieniec Castle. The privileges granted to the Jews in the Statue of Kalisz, issued by Duke Bolesław the Pious of Greater Poland in 1264, were unprecedented in Europe. They allowed the Jews ‒ among other rights ‒ freedom of worship, the right to have their own legal courts, freedom of movement in the realm, and protection from attacks by Christians. The statue was ratified by several other Polish rulers, including King Casimir the Great (1334) and thus extended to the entire of Mediaeval Poland and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
Nevertheless, the Jewish community in Kraków suffered some setbacks in the 15th century. There were riots in 1407, after the Syonod of Constance had whipped the local clergy into a less tolerant attitude, though the riots were quelled by the royal guards. In 1494, a great fire destroyed part of Kraków, and a year later, King John Albert (Jan Olbracht) ordered the Jews to resettle in the the Bawół district of Kazimierz.
Remains of the Jewish walls
In 1553, the Kazimierz town council allowed the Jewish community to build a wall that cut across the western end of the town walls to protect their quarter. The walls were extended in 1608 due to the growth of the Jewish community. The area was known as Oppidum Judaeorum; it encompassed about a fifth of the area of Kazimierz, but held half of its inhabitants.
For centuries, the Jewish Quarter was the spiritual and cultural centre of the Polish Jews, and Kazimierz an example of a mostly peaceful coexistence of Jewish and Polish cultures. After Austria acquired the city of Kraków, many of the wealthy Jews moved out of the crowded quarter in Kazimierz, though they stayed near their synagogues and the graves of their ancestors. Kazimierz remained a 'Jewish district' until 1941, when the German occupants moved the Jews to the ghetto in Podgórze (see below).
The Old Synagogue
Despite the migration of Jews to other parts of Kraków, Kazimierz still had 120 syangogues and prayer houses in 1930. Now but a few have been left or were repaired after the war. I managed to see four of these remaining ones, among them the oldest and finest, aptly named the Old Synagogue.
Old Synagogue, from a different angle
There are two contested dates for the erection of the synagogue: 1407 which would put it shortly after the riots in Kraków (maybe some Jews left the city because of those) or 1492, but three years before the Jewish community was ordered to settle in Kazimierz. In both cases, there already seemed to have been some migration to the island prior to 1495.
The synagogue was damaged by a fire and had to be rebuilt in 1570. The Italian architect Mateo Gucci added defensive features to the architecture, like windows placed above ground level and thick walls with buttresses, thus turning the Old Synagogue into a rare example of a fortress synagogue that could shelter and defend people in case of war.
They synagogue was looted by the Germans and used as warehouse, but it was not destroyed. It was renovated in 1959 and is today used as museum.
The High Synagogue
The High Synagogue – the third to be built in Kazimierz ‒ was commissioned by a rich Jewish merchant called 'Israel' in 1556-63. It was the tallest synagogue in the city for several centuries, with an upstairs prayer room. The style is influenced by Italian and French Renaissance. This synagogue, too, was rannsacked by the Nazis,
The Izaak Synagogue was built in 1644 by Izaak Jakubowicz, also known as 'Isaac the Rich', a banker to King Władysław IV. He employed the Italian architect Francesco Olivierri who worked in Poland at the time. King Władysław was a generous protector of the arts, so his reign attracted artists from other countries. Izaak seems to have financed more than one of the king's grand projects.
The interior of the synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis. After the war, it became the workshop of a a threatre company until a fire destroyed the interior in 1981. As result of the fall of communism, the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community who restored the damage. It now serves its original purpose as synagogue again.
The Temple Synagogue is a younger building, dating to 1860-62. It was built in the Moorish Revival style, though not all elements are truly Moorish. The architecture was influnced by similar buidlings in Austria – Kraków was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time – as well as the golden-domed Sigismund Chapel in the Wawel (1533), a fine example of the Renaissance architecture. The synagogue is still in use today.
Classicist buildings at the Podgórski Square in Podgórze
It was already late evening, though still light at the time of the year, and I just wanted to walk back to my hotel, when some vehicles best described as e-bike rikshas caught my attention. They offered tours to Podgórze, a district of Kraków situated on the southern bank of the Vistula river, and the remains of the Jewish ghetto. Well, at least I could rest my feet that way, so I made a deal with a young Pole who spoke pretty good English to show me the most important sites. It would prove to be the most emotional part of my visit.
Wall of Memory –
The remaining part of the wall that encircled the Jewish ghetto
After the occupation of Poland by the German army in September 1939, Kraków became the capital of the General Government, the Nazi administration of Poland. The town was intended to become a 'German' town, so Polish and Jewish inhabitants were at first encouraged to leave (at that stage, they were allowed to bring along their possessions), and later forced out of the city by various means. The Jewish population lost many of their civilian rights; a Jewish Council (Judenrat) of 24 Jewish members was established to govern the Jewish comunity, but mostly to carry out the orders of the Nazis, like registration, the collection of taxes and the organisation of forced labour groups.
Another shot of the ghetto wall
In March 1941, part of the Podgórze district was turned into a ghetto and all Jews still resident in Kraków had to move into its boundaries. They were forced to erect the walls that enclosed the ghetto, which were deliberately designed like Jewish tombstones by the German government. 16,000 Jews were crammed into quarters that prior had held 3,500 inhabitants.
Life in the ghetto was difficult, quarters cramped, food scarce, diseases common. In December 1942, the ghetto was divided into two parts: 'Ghetto A' for people who were working, and 'Ghetto B' for the others. In the following months, 13,000 Jews not being able to work were transported to the concentration camp of Auschwitz and the extermination camp at Bełżec; several hundred were murdered in streets. The ghetto of Kraków was liquidated in March 1943, the camp of Bełżec closed in June 1943. 2,000 members of Ghetto A were sent to the work camp in Płaszów.
Plac Bohaterów Getta – Place of the Ghetto Heroes in Podgórze
The Place of the Ghetto Heroes, formely Place of Unity (Plac Zgody), was the main square of the ghetto, situated at one of the four gates. It was the place where the Jews had to gather for appeals and selections; it was the starting point for the deportations to the concentration and extermination camps.
Today, the place is a memorial. The Polish architects Piotr Lewicki and Kazimierz Łatak created a number of metal chairs. 30 are oversized and face the former Eagle Pharmacy (see below), another 3 face the remains of the ghetto wall; further 37 chairs spread in between are of normal proportions. The memorial was opened in December 2005.
On that sunny spring evening, young people gathered on the square, using the chairs to sit on and having a good time with a snack and their smartphones. It felt a bit odd at first, when the guide told me about the history of the place – I thought the square should be empty and stern. But then I realised that the normality of life is a sign of hope.
'Eagle Pharmacy' (Apteka pod Orłem)
At a corner of the place sits the former Eagle Pharmacy. It belonged to Tadeusz Pankiewicz, a Pole of Roman Christian faith. When all non-Jewish inhabitants were ordered to leave the area of the ghetto, Pankiewicz managed to remain and continue to run the pharmacy which had been established by his father in 1909. He bribed some officials, proved 'Arian descent', promised to only employ other Arians and talk to Jews only about medicine.
Pankiewicz's pharmacy developed into a meeting point not only for the sick, but for all the Jews in the ghetto. He and his coworkers maintained contact to the world outside the ghetto, delivered messages, smuggled valuables, obtained fake passports. When the mass transportations began – Tadeusz could see the sad gatherings on the square – he hid a number of Jews in his pharmacy, among the a lot of children, and thus saved their lives.
After the war, the pharmacy was nationalised by the Sovjets; later it was turned into a museum which opened in 1983.
Schindler's Factory; the administration building
Another important monument in Podgórze is Oskar Schindler's Enamelled Goods Factory, well known from the movie 'Schindler's List' and now a museum. The factory had belonged to a Jewish trust which Schindler first joined as another trustee; he then used his position with the Nazis to take over the factory.
Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist born in Moravia in 1908, joined the Nazi Intelligence Service (Abwehr) and collected information prior to the occupation of Czechoslovakia and later Poland. At first, Schindler was only interested in the financial gains of the factory he had obtained, and hired Jews because they were cheap.
But at some point – perhaps after witnessing the cruel liquidation of the ghetto ‒ he must have had a change of conscience and used the factory to save as many Jews as possible. He started to produce ammunition shells and field cooking gears to have the factory considered an 'essential part of the war effort'. Schindler employed Jews the German administration deemed unfit to work, put his own fortune into feeding them, bribing the government – he was still a member of the Intelligence and had some influence – and sometimes he bought products elsewhere to cover up the low output of his factory. He managed to set up a subcamp of the Płaszów work camp on the premises of his factory to protect more Jews from the Nazi guards.
Schindler saved the lives of about 1,200 Jews. After his death in 1974, he was buried in Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations.
St.Joseph's Church in Podgórze
On the way back to the Old Town, my guide passed the St.Joseph's Church. It is situated outside the former ghetto at the Podgórski Square. St.Joseph is the largest church in the area and dates to 1909. It is a fine example of the Gothic Revival style, basically Gothic with extra Fancy. It looked pretty in the golden sun of late evening.
I've only given some of the mere facts about the ghetto, since my blog is more a documentary than a personal travel diary, but I will say that walking along the river back to the castle and my hotel in the Old Town restored my peace of mind.
The Lost Fort is a travel and history blog based on my journeys in Germany, the UK, Scandinavia, the Baltic Countries, and central Europe. It includes virtual town and castle tours with a focus on history, museum visits, hiking tours, and essays on Roman and Mediaeval history, illustrated with my own photos.
This blog is non-commercial.
All texts and photos (if no other copyright is noted) are copyright of Gabriele Campbell.
- Name: Gabriele Campbell
- Location: Goettingen, Germany
I'm a blogger from Germany with a MA in Literature and History, interested in everything Roman and Mediaeval, avid reader and sometimes writer, opera enthusiast, traveller with a liking for foreign languages and odd rocks, photographer, and tea aficionado. And an old-fashioned blogger who still hasn't got an Instagram account.
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