Kazimierz. A microcosm of cultures
An independent town that developed independently of Krakow for almost 500 years. A magnificently preserved Jewish quarter with 7 synagogues, a multicultural melting pot radiating across the entire Central Europe. Neglected after the war, today it’s the centre of Krakow’s cultural life, experiencing the dual consequences of revitalisation and gentrification. All subsequent historical incarnations of the Krakow’s Kazimierz are equally fascinating. Similar to the Old Town, we can experience here, on a relatively small space, the highest concentration of heritage!
On the market of the former town
To imagine the beginnings of Kazimierz, let’s start our walk at the Wolnica Square. Its present surface is barely a part of the original market square of the town of Kazimierz – a locality independent from Krakow, founded in 1335 by King Casimir I the Great and named after him. The western part of the square is dominated by the building of the former Kazimierz Town Hall with its 17th-century tower clock, which now houses the Ethnographic Museum.
On the other side, the popular cafe and club Piękny Pies (No. 9) has been operating for several years; right next door, in Stanisław Kurkowski ‘s violin-making workshop (No. 8), you can watch through the window how custom-made violins are manufactured. The south-east corner of the square changes into the intimate Mostowa Street ending at the footbridge to the Podgórze district. A few steps down this street, at No. 1, you can take a look at one of the favourite bookshops of all Cracovians: Lokator.
In the opposite corner of the square, our attention is attracted by the sizeable body of the Corpus Christi Basilica. It’s one of two Gothic churches, along with the nearby Church of St. Catherine, founded by King Casimir in the early days of the town. The interior of the basilica at 26 Bożego Ciała Street was densely packed with Baroque decoration in later centuries. Particularly memorable is the sight of the unusual boat-shaped pulpit – a masterpiece of the 18th century woodcarving art. Both of the above-mentioned churches host concerts of early music, including the Misteria Paschalia festival held each Easter.
The independent town of Kazimierz
Kazimierz was built, among other things, to protect Krakow from the south. It’s hard to believe today, but the district was originally created on an island! It was formed by the existing Vistula riverbed and the main riverbed running through the site of today’s Dietla Street and the proximity of the Daszyńskiego Street. Krakow was connected to Kazimierz by the suburb of Stradom, sometimes called the ‘Royal Bridge’. It was Krakowska Street, which is still known today under this name, that ran towards the city from Wolnica Square.
The new town covered an area of 50 hectares (compared to the 89 hectares then occupied by Krakow) and cultivated its independence up to the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. It made use of the pre-existing buildings of the village of Bawół (the area of today’s street of that name)and the Romanesque rotunda on the small Skałka Hill. A few centuries earlier, the Bishop of Krakow, Stanislaus, later declared a saint, was executed there by King Bolesław II. The site of the rotunda is nowadays occupied by a Baroque basilica with an underground pantheon consisting of the figures of merit in Polish culture.
Established under Magdeburg (German) law, Kazimierz was granted newly laid out, right-angled streets and the right to hold weekly Friday markets. Attempts were even made to locate the buildings of Krakow’s university there. The town was surrounded by walls with four gates, fragments of which have been preserved in the area of Warszauer Street and the Old Synagogue.
The identity of Kazimierz, however, was mostly defined by the centuries-old heritage of the Polish-Jewish community. Jews had been settling in Kraków since at least the 11th century, arriving mainly from present-day Germany and Bohemia. They originally lived mainly in the Old Town, in the area of Św. Anny Street and Szczepański Square.
Complicated relations with the Christians, manifested by alternating periods of tension and religious tolerance, led to King Jan Olbracht’s decision in 1495 to establish the ‘Jewish Town’ (Oppidum Iudaeorum) in the north-eastern part of Kazimierz. Many Jews continued to live in the old Krakow, but communal motivations took over and it was the Kazimierz Jewish Town that attracted more settlers.
Walking down the Bożego Ciała Street from Wolnica Square, one can well sense that still-present atmosphere of a Central European Jewish town, a shtetl. Compact, low-rise buildings, charming courtyards and passageways, including the courtyard between the Józefa and Meiselsa streets, immortalised in the film Schindler’s List and today occupied by the garden of the Mleczarnia club, tell the story of a world that was brutally cut short by the tragedy of World War II.
After a few steps, we enter the Nowy Square, once known as Jewish Żydowski (Jewish) Square. It’s a popular market, launched in the post-war period as a flea market and then, from the 1990s onwards, also one of the centres of nightlife in Krakow. The square is surrounded by atmospheric cafés bathed in twilight with candles on the tables, including the oldest sites such as Singer and Alchemia. The focal point is marked by the characteristic circular building of the former Jewish butcheries, the so-called Okrąglak, which today serves street food, including the popular zapiekanki (long toasted sandwiches). A few steps further on, in the area of Kupa and Izaaka streets, we enter the heart of the former Jewish Town.
In the circle of synagogues and rabbis
The 16th century wasn’t just a golden period in the history of Poland, but also in the history of the Jewish community that contributed to the Polish culture. Its most important centre at the time was Kazimierz, near Krakow. The influence of the Italian Renaissance architectural patterns also extended to the local synagogues, most notably the 15th-century Old Synagogue (24 Szeroka Street), topped by an attic designed by Matteo Gucci. It’s one of the most valuable monuments of Jewish sacred architecture in Europe. This brick synagogue dominates the view of Szeroka Street – the former centre of the Jewish Town.
Separated from the rest of the town, first by a fence and later by a wall, this part of Kazimierz became the site of an incredible flowering of cultural and religious life. The local yeshiva (religious school) founded by Jacob Pollak ben Yosef educated prominent Torah commentators, Talmudists and rabbis. These included Moses ben Israel Isserles, known as Remu, a commentator on religious law, highly respected by pious Jews from all over the world. At 40 Szeroka Street we can see the Renaissance synagogue Remu named after him, with the old Jewish cemetery behind it. Numerous visitors leave symbolic stones on the scholar’s tombstone there.
The quiet, small cemetery forms an island of greenery lost between the centuries-old townhouses. Another important figure for Jewish culture buried here is Natan Spira, a representative of Kabbalah – the mystical current of Judaism, known for his work Megale Amukot (Explorer of Mysteries). The author presented there 252 interpretations of the famous biblical passage in which Moses pleads with God for permission to enter the Promised Land. Spira is said to have died while poring over texts in Kabbalistic books.
In the following years, other synagogues founded by wealthy merchants sprang up in the tiny Jewish Town: the High Synagogue (38 Józefa Street) with an unusual prayer room on the first floor, the magnificent Isaac Synagogue (18 Kupa Street) with a distinctive double staircase on the main façade and a Renaissance cloister in the granary, as well as the Popper Synagogue (16 Popper Street) and Kupa Synagogue (27 Miodowa Street).
Neighbours behind the wall. The time of decline and renewal
In the western part of Kazimierz, behind Krakowska Street, the non-Jewish population predominated for many centuries. Its life revolved around the aforementioned Church of St Catherine located by the Augustinian monastery, known for its cult of St Rita, the ‘patron saint of hopeless causes’ – and the nearby Pauline abbey at the Skałka Hill. Isolated for a long time from the outside world, the Jewish Town developed autonomously.
The 17th and 18th centuries marked the twilight of the glory of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which, in the history of Krakow and Kazimierz, translated into the times of the greatest decline. The Swedish invasion, remembered in historiography as the Deluge, had particularly severe consequences for the city. In September 1655, the Swedes captured and rampaged through Kazimierz, pillaging and looting. The deserted city was to be a shadow of itself for decades afterward.
Over time, the division that had been maintained for centuries and the independence of Kazimierz from Krakow became anachronic. The decision to merge these two urban centres was taken in the last years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, but the merger was actually carried out by the Austrian authorities as late as in 1800. 22 years later, the walls of the Jewish Town were demolished.
At the same time, the movement known as Reform Judaism was slowly emerging in Germany, focusing on assimilation and reform of the law that had been fossilised for centuries. In Kraków, the main centre or this movement was the Tempel Synagogue at 24 Miodowa Street, built in the Moorish style typical of Jewish religious construction in this era, cultivating a somewhat idealised image of religious tolerance in the former Spain of the Moors. Today the synagogue hosts numerous concerts.
Turning from the Miodowa Street into Bożego Ciała Street, we reach the former riverbed of the Vistula. Following the bold decision taken by the Krakow’s mayor Józef Dietl in the late 1870s, it was entirely buried. This led to the creation of a green belt and a communication artery known as the Dietl Planty, which linked Kraków and Kazimierz forever. Several elegant townhouses for the wealthy bourgeoisie grew up on both its sides over time.
It was a time of dynamic change taking place across the entire city. The Habsburg monarchy, which had refashioned itself as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, established religious equality, and the more liberal-minded and better-off Jews moved to other areas of the city: for example, to the area of the Łobzowska Street or the Wesoła district. The former Jewish Town, with some exceptions, became a space of religious orthodoxy, inhabited mostly by the poorer sections of society.
Pre-war Jewish Krakow
Before World War II, approximately 54% of Krakow’s Jews lived in Kazimierz. They also represented 71% of the district’s population. Despite the ethnic and religious tensions that grew apace with the national movements, cultural life flourished in the city. There were Jewish libraries, reading rooms, a Jewish theatre with a Yiddish repertoire (at the Bocheńska Street), cinemas, sport clubs (Jutrzenka and Makkabi); Jewish journalism in Polish, Hebrew and Yiddish flourished.
Krakow Jews co-founded various associations and were involved in different, often antagonistic political movements. Just as was the case centuries ago, many of them were involved in trade and crafts, remaining in the familiar but rather poor environment of the Yiddish language speakers living in the Jewish Kazimierz, remaining attached to religious tradition. Others were studying at universities, choosing the paths of assimilation or joining the national Zionist movement, led in Krakow by Ozjasz Thon, the long-time rabbi of the Tempel Synagogue. They were doctors, lawyers, solicitors, architects, publishers, booksellers and printers.
Some had become famous in very different fields. In 1870 (or, according to other sources, 1872) in a tenement house at 14 Szeroka Street, the creator of the world-famous cosmetics brand Helena Rubinstein was born (she also grew up there), and a few years later Mordechai Gebirtig, the folk singer and poet whose lullabies are known to Jewish children all over the world, was born in the same neighbourhood but in a poor family.
The end and the continuance
This beautiful, although tense and sometimes conflictual story of centuries of coexistence and neighbourliness was interrupted by the brutal and annihilatory Nazi occupation. In March 1941, Krakow’s Jews were forced to move to the other side of the Vistula, to a ghetto established in the eastern part of the Podgórze district. Stay safe, my Krakow / Blajb gezunt mir, Kroke, wrote Gebirtig in a poem in which he said goodbye to his home.
In the post-war period, the deserted district was – like the entirety of old Krakow – deliberately neglected by the communist authorities. Deemed worthless by the decision-makers, there was even a plan to level the area, demolish it, and replace it with a housing estate typical of the early post-war era. Fortunately, no such thing happened. Apartments were allocated to new residents by allotment; for a long time, new generations grew up in the courtyards with little knowledge of the past of their neighbourhood. Social problems arose and the entire district was long regarded as dangerous.
The situation began to change slowly after 1978 and entering the historic centre of Krakow, including Kazimierz, on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The seven synagogues that survived the war were gradually placed under conservation care. The real revolution in the life of the district, however, only came about after the political transformation of 1989.
Cultural projects initiated at that time, such as the Jewish Culture Festival, gradually restored the memory of Kazimierz’s multicultural Polish-Jewish identity. The great impetus for change came in 1993 with the making of the film Schindler’s List, which became a driving force for the development of foreign tourism.
Szeroka Street, in the post-war years known mainly for the police station located there, saw the first restaurants serving specialities of traditional Jewish cuisine. The original building of the mikvah – the Jewish ritual bath – at 6 Szeroka Street was turned into the atmospheric Klezmerhojs hotel and the seat of the prestigious Austeria publishing house, specialising in Jewish literature from Central Europe. In 1993, at 17 Meiselsa Street, the Centre for Jewish Culture was inaugurated; 11 years later, the Galicia Jewish Museum was established at the initiative of British photographer Chris Schwarz (18 Dajwór Street), and, finally, in 2008 the Jewish Community Centre opened its doors (24 Miodowa Street).
The revival of the memory of Jewish Kazimierz was accompanied by the district becoming a space for artistic and cultural activities. Thanks to the initiatives of artists such as Leopold Kozłowski, known as the ‘last klezmer of Galicia’, or the Kroke trio and the Cracow Klezmer Band (now the Bester Quartet), representing later generations, there was a boom in traditional klezmer music. The first cafés were established around the Nowy Square; art galleries appeared along Józefa Street, while at the Cheder club (36 Józefa Street), the ideas for successive editions of the Jewish Culture Festival were and are being developed over cups of aromatic mint leaf tea.
Final concerts under the Old Synagogue, called ‘Shalom at Szeroka Street’, gathering crowds of people, became a hallmark of the event. In later years, the ranks of events popularising Jewish culture were joined by FestivALT. Independently, Kazimierz became the space for the world music festival EtnoKraków/Rozstaje with wrap-up concerts held at Wolnica Square.
Today’s Kazimierz is the cultural heart of Krakow. Numerous events, cultural institutions, and nearly 300 clubs and cafés coexist in a small space. The Popper Synagogue is home to the eye- and mind-pleasing Austeria bookshop, while the townhouse at 41 Krakowska Street attracts with ambitious performances of the Nowy Proxima Theatre; the former tram depot, part of the former industrial heritage complex at Św. Wawrzyńca Street, houses the expanding Museum of Engineering and Technology.
Between revitalisation and gentrification
The several-decades long fashion for Kazimierz, however, also has its negative aspects. The huge tourist traffic has caused irreversible changes to the character of the district with rising rents, an exodus of existing residents, the conversion of entire townhouses into hotels and the intensive development of short-term rentals.
However, despite these difficult processes common to historic city centres, the district has retained its residential character to a greater extent than the Old Town. Strolling along Krakowska Street, we can still find numerous craftsmen’s workshops, and places such as the iconic hardware shop at the Bożego Ciała and Dietla streets will satisfy every domestic need, competing with dignity with the largest supermarkets.
The first step in protecting the historical substance of Kazimierz was the inclusion of the district’s urban complex on the UNESCO World Heritage List. In 1994, the district was included in the area of the Historical Monument, and in 2022 the Kazimierz and Stradom Cultural Park was implemented to regulate the standards of advertising in public space and the principles of coexistence of residential and cultural-entertainment functions.
The end and the beginning
We end our walk through the Kraków’s Kazimierz just where we started it: at Wolnica Square. We squat on a bench under the willows, by a fountain with a sculpture by Bronislaw Chromy depicting three players. Two steps further on, behind the Bernatka footbridge, Podgórze awaits us with another episode of wanderings through historic Krakow!