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Virtual Jewish World: Kraków, Poland

Kraków (also Cracow) is the second largest, and one of the oldest, cities in Poland. Situated on the Vistula River, the city dates back to the 7th century and has been one of the leading centers of Polish academic, cultural and artistic life. Jewish history in the city can be traced back to the 14th or 15th century.

Early History
15th Century
16th Century
17th Century
18th Century
19th Century
Inter-War Period
The Holocaust
Post-Holocaust Period
Jewish Tourist Sites

Early History

Jews arrived in krakow in the late 13th century among German immigrants traveling on a commercial route to Prague. Kazimierz, located on the outskirts of krakow and founded in 1335 by King Casmir the Great, became the main center for Jewish settlement. By the 14th century, Jews had established an organized community. Records reveal a mikveh, bathhouse and cemetery by the 1350's. Jews owned homes and building plots in their quarter and in neighboring quarters of the city in 1312; however, Jewish ownership was resented and protests began in 1369 against Jewish activities. A municipal council requested in 1392 that Jews should only be allowed to sell their homes to non-Jews.

15th Century

Disagreements continued between the Jews and the other residents of krakow during the 15th century. One disagreement flared due to the construction of a university building on a street in the overcrowded Jewish district. University students frequently attacked the Jewish residents and forced Jewish bankers to give low-interest loans to them. Blood libels and mob attacks against Jews broke out in 1407 and 1423. Another set of anti-Jewish riots followed the visit of a Franciscan Preacher John of Capistrano in 1457. In 1469, Jews were forced to vacate the street that housed the university building and move to another area near one of the synagogues. In 1485, Jews signed an agreement under duress, barring them from most branches of commerce. More riots were set off after a fire spread from a Jewish street to one inhabited by Christian residents in June 1494. Finally, in 1495, Jews were expelled from krakow to Kazimierz, by order of the King.

In 1407, construction began on the Alte Schul, the oldest medieval synagogue preserved in Poland. By 1487, a Jewish bathhouse, marketplace and cemetery were in existence in Kazimierz. The Kazimierz Jewish community was run by four elected elders who judged lawsuits between Jews.

Also in the 15th century, Jacob Pollack settled in Kazimierz and founded the first yeshiva, and talmudic learning began to spread throughout Poland.

16th Century

An influx of immigrants from Bohemia-Moravia, as well as from Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal came to Kazimierz in the 16th century. Among those who came were wealthy men and physicians who had special tax exemptions from the King of Poland. These privileges were revoked into 1563, after complaints from Jewish community leaders.

Overcrowding in Kazimierz became a problem because of the influx of immigrants. In 1553, Jews were allowed to extended the size of Kasimierz. In 1564, they were given the sole right to acquire residence in the Jewish town. By the 1570's, the Jewish population of Kazimierz numbered about 2,060.

One of the greatest rabbis of the 16th century Rabbi Moses ben Isserles (1525-1572) lived and taught in Kazimierz. He is known for his commentaries to the Shulkhan Arukh, which expanded the religious code to Ashkenazic Jews, as well as Sephardic Jews. Rabbi Isserles’ works were printed in the Hebrew printing press, which had started in the 1530's and was active until the 19th century.

17th Century

This period is marked by intense struggle between Jewish traders and Christian merchants over Jewish commercial rights in Christian sectors. An agreement was made in 1609, which allowed Jews to trade freely in Kazimierz and in another local town. Limited Jewish economic activity was permitted in krakow proper and depended on bribery; nevertheless, Jewish trade continued to develop in krakow and was recognized by de facto royal decisions.

Cultural life in Cracow-Kazimierz flourished in this period. Seven main synagogues were functioning by 1644, including the Alte Schul and the Rema Synagogue. A number of yeshivot founded in the late 16th century continued to grow, making krakow a center of Jewish learning. Cracow-Kazimierz became one of the principal communities in the Council of Lands.

The Council of Lands is the council of Jewish communities of Poland. It was in charge of Jewish livelihood, muncipal affairs, disputes, loans, fairs, commerce, interaction with non-Jews, Torah study, appointment of Rabbis and tax collection. It could impose punishments for infractions of their rulings, such as imprisonment, expulsion, fines and a herem (ban).

Cracow’s population grew during the 1630's with a large immigration from Jews fleeing from Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. The Jewish community experienced hardships, however, during the Swedish invasion and occupation from 1655-57. Jewish property was harmed and Jews were accused of collaboration with the Swedes.

In the late 17th century, Jews were increasingly subject to attacks by students and to blood libels. A plague in 1677 killed 1,000 Jews in Kazimierz and most of the Jewish quarter was abandoned. The community reorganized in 1680 and reopened its yeshivas, but was buffeted again two years later by renewed anti-Jewish rioting.

18th Century

The 18th century was marked by the struggle between the citizens of krakow and the Jews of Kazimierz over closing krakow to Jewish trade and crafts. The anti-Jewish restrictions were ineffectual and Jews became involved in many areas of trade, including furs, wax, soap, salt and tobacco. Jews served as gold and silversmiths and worked in the import-export industries. Unfortunately, the majority of Kazimierz Jews remained impoverished, despite the rise of a Jewish merchant class. Then, in 1761, the Senate of Poland prohibited Jewish commerce in krakow.

From 1772-1776, Kazimierz became part of Austria and krakow remained part of Poland. Austrian authorities permitted the Jews to travel to krakow, but the krakow municipality tried to stop them. In 1772, Kazimierz returned to Austria, however, Jewish commerce in krakow was still forbidden.

In late 1776, the king allowed the Kazimierz municipality to increase Jewish commerce rights. During this period, many wealthy krakow Jews moved to Warsaw.

The period between 1768-72, known as the Confederacy of the Bar, is marked by violence perpetrated against the Jews by both the Russians and the confederates, whom both considered the Jews to be the enemy. Jews were hung on branches of trees and both sides demanded that Jews provide them with food, housing of soldiers and help in espionage services.

In 1795, krakow and its surrounding areas were annexed by Austria and in 1799 all Jewish businesses were removed from krakow by order of the Austrian Authorities.

19th Century

krakow changed hands again in 1809 and became part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The krakow Republic was formed between 1815-1846. During this period, Jews were allowed to live in the Jewish section of Kazimierz and "cultured" (assimilated) Jews were permitted to live in the Christian sections.

By 1833, the Jewish population of krakow numbered 10,820. A Jewish elementary school was opened in 1830. In 1844, the first Reform synagogue opened in krakow. In 1846, the krakow Republic ceased functioning and krakow became part of Austria once again.

Jews stayed in Kazimierz until 1868, when the Kazimierz and krakow communities merged. During the interim, Jews had some rights to trade and work in krakow. Jews had freedom of movement and only the poor stayed in Kazimierz.

krakow was emancipated in 1867-68 and Jews were given permission to settle in krakow proper. Jewish community institutions were abolished and assimilationists and maskilim (Followers of the Jewish enlightenment) became the new leaders of the Jewish Religious Council. The first secular Hebrew public Library in krakow opened in 1876.

krakow had a diverse network of schools by the end of the 19th Century, including traditional hederim (the Heder was small elementary school classroom, often located in the house of the Rabbi), as well as elementary and secondary schools taught in Polish and German.

Jews became part of the Polish-German cultural life in krakow. At the same time, Jewish nationalists became popular and chapters of Zionist Organizations were established.

In 1900, krakow had a Jewish population of 25,670.

Inter-War Period

Anti-Semitism continued to grow since the late 19th century and pogroms broke out. A self-defense group of Jewish youth organized and was able to defend themselves against the riots.

The Jewish community continued to grow in the period and reached 56,800, in 1931. krakow became a center of Jewish political and social life in Poland.

The Holocaust

At the start of World War II, there were 60,000 Jews living in krakow, one-fourth of the entire population. The German occupation began on September 6, 1939. The Germans dismantled the Jewish community organization and appointed a Judenrat to administer to Jewish affairs. An order was given in April 1940 for Jews to evacuate krakow within four months. In that period, 35,000 Jews left the city and 15,000 were allowed to remain. krakow became the capital of Nazi-occupied Poland.

In March 1941, a ghetto was built and housed 20,000 Jews, including 6,000 Jews from neighboring communities. Deportations began in June 1942; 5,000 Jews were sent to the Belzec death camp. In October 1942, 6,000 Jews were deported to Belzec. Patients at the hospital, residents of the old age home and 300 children at the orphanage were killed in the aktion. Another several hundred Jews were put to death in the ghetto itself.

Oskar Schindler

The Jewish Combat Organization was active in organizing resistance in the ghetto. A Zionist resistance group, Akiva, and a leftist group, joined together to form the ZOB. Their group ceased to function after the ghetto was liquidated and the remaining Jews were sent to the Plaszow labor camp in March 1943.

In the Zablocie district of krakow, Oscar Schindler had a factory, which he used to save 1,098 Jews from Plaszow. His factory became a subcamp of the Nazi concentration camp system, and he paid the German Reich for their labor. The film Schindler's List was filmed across the river from the location of the actual krakow ghetto, in the town of Kazimierz, out of respect for the victims.

Post-Holocaust Period

Only 2,000 Jews from krakow survived the war. Some Jews who lived in Russia during the war returned to krakow in 1945-46. A Jewish community was not re-established because of a fear of progroms. The last Jew left Kazimierz in 1968. About 700 Jews remained in krakow after 1968. Today, approximately 1,000 Jews live in krakow, but only about 200 identify themselves as members of the Jewish community.

Despite the dwindling population, interest in preserving Jewish history has been rekindled. A new Jewish research institute was established in Jugiellonian University and a Jewish Cultural Center was set up in Kazimierz. Every two years, Kazimierz hosts a Jewish cultural festival that has music, dance, film and theater.

In June 2005, the Rabbi Moses Isserles Remuh Jewish Library, named for the famous 16th-century rabbi and scholar who lived in Kraków, opened in the city’s Jewish youth club. The library will house approximately 1,100 books, among them 500 in Yiddish, 200 in Polish and 250 in English. Young people will deliver books to elderly Jews.

In October 2005, the Shavei Israel organization reported that it was dispatching Rabbi Avraham Flaks to become the city’s first full-time rabbi since the Holocaust. The Jerusalem-based organization, which reaches out to “lost Jews” and tries to reconnect them with the Jewish community, will try to rekindle Jewish life in the city.

Tourist Sites

Kazimierz District

The streets of the old Jewish city still evoke a sense of the past. Be sure to visit ul Szeroka, the old town square, which was the center of Jewish life in Kazimierz.

Seven synagogues can be found in Kazimierz, but only one is still in use.

1. Old Synagogue: ul Szeroka 24

The synagogue was established in the 15th century and was remodeled many times. It is the oldest synagogue left standing in Poland. During World War II, the Nazis used the synagogue as a warehouse and most of its artwork and Jewish relics were looted during World War II. Afterward, the synagogue was remodeled and today it houses the Museum of Jewish History, containing collections of liturgical items, ancient Torah scrolls, textiles, dishes, utensils and shofars, as well as photographs, documents and artwork showing the history of the Jews of krakow. In the plaza in front of the synagogue, there is a monument to 30 Poles shot by the Nazis.

2. Remuh Synagogue & Old Cemetery: ul Szeroka 40

This synagogue was founded in 1553 by Israel Isserles. He and his family are buried in the cemetery next to the synagogue. The cemetery was in use between 1551-1800. Both the synagogue and the cemetery were devastated by the Nazis during World War II; however, the synagogue has been remodeled and is in use today.

In the 1950's the cemetery was excavated by archaeologists who found hundreds of ancient tombstones dating back the 1550's. Theories have arisen that these tombstones were actually hidden during the period of the Swedish invasion in 1704. Today, 700 tombstones have been re-erected, along with other tombstones donated from the remains of cemeteries throughout Poland. A beautiful mosaic wall of tombstone fragments was also built.

3. Bociana or Popper’s Synagogue - ul Szeroka 16.

Built in 1620 by a wealthy merchant, this synagogue is no longer used for ritual purposes. All of its interior decorations were destroyed during the Holocaust. Today it hosts the cultural center.

4. Tempel Synagogue (also known as Reformed Synagogue): ul Miodowa 24

A wealthy community elder, Izaak Jakubowicz, built this synagogue in 1683. It has been remodeled many times since and it is currently undergoing restoration. During World War II, the Nazis looted its interior and little remains.

5. High or (Tall) Synagogue - ul Jozefa 38

Originally built in 1553-56 as a prayer room on the second floor above ground floor shops, it was destroyed during the Holocaust. Today its is used for a monument restoration workshop.

6. Kupa Synagogue - ul Warszawera 8

This synagogue was built in the late 17th century. After WWII, it was turned into a matzah factory. Little remains of the original interior beyond a few 20th century frescoes.

7. Izaak Synagogue - ul Miodowa

The synagogue was founded in 1644. The exterior stairway goes up to the women's gallery. This Synagogue invites non-Jews to events, such as movies, which it sponsors.

Other sites

* Bath house and mikva - ul Szeroka 6

This building housed the community bathhouse and mikva during the 16th century. It was remodeled in the 19th century. The Jewish practice of ritual baths kept them from getting epidemics. Today there is a café located there.

* New Cemetery ul Miodowa 55.

The cemetery was founded in 1800, after the closing of the old cemetery, and it is still in use today. It was devastated by the Nazis, but restored in 1957. One can find thousands of gravestones, dating back to the 1840's. Engravings on the gravestones can be found in German and Polish, revealing the assimilation of the time. The cemetery also contains a Holocaust Memorial.

* The Ghetto

Memorial at Plaszow

The ghetto was built in March 1941, on the opposite side of the Vistula River from Kazimierz. In Bohaterow Ghetta (Ghetto Heroes) Square, the Jews were deported to Nazi death camps, mainly Belzec and Auschwitz-Birkenau. At No. 18, one can find the Museum of National Commemoration that was built in 1983. It contains exhibits on the ghetto and the Nazi occupation. Fragments of the ghetto walls are still visible.

* Plaszow

Close to the former ghetto is the site of the Plaszow concentration camp. At this camp, Oscar Schindler saved almost 1,100 Jews by putting them to work in his factory. A monument was built in commemoration of the 10,000 who did not survive. Nearby on ul Lipowa 4 is Schindler’s pot and pan factory, which is in use today for making electronic parts. In the courtyard of the factory, there is a monument.

There are two restaurants serving Jewish-style food, both named Ariel. Café No. 17 has kosher food and evening concerts of Jewish and Gypsy (Roma) (Roma) music. Next door, Café No. 18, is the other Jewish-style restaurant. Next door is the site of the former Poppers Synagogue.

Sources: Photos courtesy of Scrap Book Pages.