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Cracow: Kazimierz, the trendy Jewish quarter

Cracow: Kazimierz, the trendy Jewish quarter

Éric Boucher - 2008-06-16

In Cracow, Poland, the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is coming back to life and trying to find itself, between quest for the past, trendy bars, clubs, students and artists.

In the 14th century, Kazimierz was a separate town from Cracow. It bears the name of its founder, King Casimir the Great (1333-1370), who had welcomed the Jews and granted them generous privileges. But it wasn’t until the 15th century, following pogroms, that the Jews were forced to leave the centre of Cracow for Kazimierz, where they cohabited with Christians for almost five centuries.
 
In the 19th century, Jews settled here en masse and Kazimierz became a typically Jewish quarter, even though Christians were still present. This topography is, moreover, social as much as denominational, because the assimilated Jewish elite, for its part, resides in the fashionable districts of Cracow whilst the poorer and more orthodox ones are concentrated in Kazimierz, with the most impoverished Poles.
 
This diversity constituted an obstacle to the “ghettoisation” and destruction of the district by the Nazis, who forced the Jews out and confined them to a ghetto created in Podgórze, a suburb just opposite, on the other bank of the Vistula River.
 
Deserted and impoverished for nigh on 45 years by the communist government, Kazimierz still bears the scars. The revival of the district came with the success of Schindler’s List, filmed in situ in 1993 by Steven Spielberg.
 
The influx of visitors from all over the world coming to explore the film locations convinced the Cracow authorities of the touristic interest of Kazimierz, encouraged its renovation and attracted investments such as the Jewish Community Centre, officially opened and co-financed by Prince Charles, or the Galicia Jewish Museum, backed by British donors.
 
Podgórze
 
The first evacuation of the Podgórze ghetto took place in June 1942, the following one in October of the same year, with the camps of Belżec and Auschwitz-Birkenau as the final destination. On 13th and 14th March 1943, the ghetto was completely cleared. Only 10% of Cracow’s Jewish community, which numbered over 64,000 people, survived the war.
 
A “route of remembrance” has to pass through Podgórze, with the main stop being the Heroes of the Ghetto Square (Plac Bohaterów Getta) where the Jews were gathered together prior to deportation. On the corner of the square, the old “Pharmacy under the Eagle” has been transformed into a little memorial. Tadeusz Pankiewicz, the pharmacist, was the only Pole authorised to stay in the ghetto and was honoured with the title of “Righteous Among the Nations” in 1983.
 
A piece of the ghetto wall survives at numbers 25-29 Lwowska Street. It was by passing him over the top of it that the parents of Roman Polanski, then aged 6, were able to save him.
 
A walk among ghosts
 
The challenge of this revival is to reconcile the city’s economic interests and the respect owed to the memory of the victims… This still seems to be the case for the time being and, in the sunny month of June when we visited, Kazimierz was steeped in a melancholic languor, in contrast with the festive bustle of the centre of Cracow.
 
A stroll through the roughly cobbled streets will allow you to successively explore the Christian and Jewish parts of Kazimierz, linked together by Jỏzefa Street.
 
Towards the southwest and the Vistula River, the tall silhouette of the Gothic Church of Corpus Christi (Kościỏł Bożego Ciała) marks your entry into the Catholic town. Erected in 1340 by Casimir the Great, it is the oldest church in the district. Inside, the gilded wooden decor from the Baroque era is amazing and contrasts with the austerity of the brick and stone structure. The boat-shaped pulpit is particularly remarkable.
 
Saint Catherine (Kościỏł Św. Katarzyny), also founded by Casimir the Great in 1363, remains one of the city’s most beautiful Gothic churches.
 
The Baroque-style Pauline church and monastery (Kościỏł Paulinỏw) is more recent, but cloaked in a strong national symbolism. On the one hand it stands on the site where Bishop Stanislas, patron saint of Poland, is said to have been martyred. On the other hand, it constitutes a sort of pantheon where great figures of the country’s artistic and intellectual life lie, such as the painter Wyspianski, the composer Szymanowski and the poet Czesław Miłosz, who was interred with great pomp and ceremony in 2004. This church holds a special place in the hearts of the people of Cracow.
 
The High Synagogue (Synagoga Wysoka, 16th century), if you head up Jỏzefa Street in the opposite direction, seems particularly severe and ancient with its four massive buttresses. None of this part of the street has been done up; it is completely untouched. With its old cobblestones, its faded façades and its prayer house a little further away (at number 42), the atmosphere is particularly moving, exactly like in some of the old photographs.
 
In Kupa Street, a short distance away, the Isaac Synagogue (Synagoga Izaaka) dates from the 17th century and boasts stucco from the Baroque era. Here you can watch poignant archive films about pre-war Kazimierz and the Podgórze ghetto.
 
However, the soul of Jewish Kazimierz lies mainly in Szeroka Street, which looks more like a long square than a street, as its name suggests (literally “wide street”). This area was at the heart of the religious and commercial activity of this district from the 15th to the 19th century and is now the tourist epicentre.
 
Lined with restaurants and cafes, it is now hard to imagine what life was like here before the Shoah, or even just 15 years ago : buildings in ruins still stand adjacent to freshly restored façades and the inhabitants testify to the rapid changes carried out in recent years. To be visited while there is still time, before the whole area is taken over by trade. The place is nevertheless quieter than the old town and offers lovely terraces for dining, away from the great tourist circus of Rynek Głỏwny (the main square in Cracow).
 
The guardian conscience of the place, the Old Synagogue and Remu'h Synagogue are nevertheless a link to the old world. The former (now Cracow’s Jewish History Museum) is the oldest Jewish building in Poland (15th century). The latter (16th century) found its vocation as a place of worship again in 1945 and remains an active place of prayer. A visit to the adjacent cemetery is the climax of this immersion in the past.
 
The oldest Jewish necropolis in Cracow (16th century), and probably one of the oldest in Europe, was vandalised by the Nazis. Archaeological excavations have, however, made it possible to find and restore over 700 funerary stelae.
 
Remu'h cemetery is also a place of pilgrimage for many orthodox Jews from all over the world, who come to meditate at the tomb of Rabbi Moses Isserles, known as Remu'h, an eminent philosopher and Talmudist for whom the synagogue was built. Curiously enough, the Nazis spared his grave, which the most religious people interpret as a miracle. Legend has it that the Nazis did intend to vandalise it, but gave up when the first worker who attacked the stone fell down as if struck by lightning.
 
Other more recent places bear witness to the continuity and evolution of the Jewish culture in Poland up until its sudden interruption by the war.
 
The Tempel Synagogue was thus built in 1862 in a neo-Roman style close to the artistic ideas of the time. It is also called the “Progressive Synagogue” because it was frequented by a good number of intellectuals and bourgeois people claiming equal rights, non-denominational education and rejecting the use of Yiddish and the wearing of traditional dress.
 
The new Jewish cemetery (1800) – a little out of the way – actually proves to be the most intense experience of these wanderings through Kazimierz. Deserted and overgrown with vegetation, it is probably the best metaphor for this bygone world that is trying to come back to life.
 
Trendy Kazimierz
 
In the heart of Jewish Kazimierz, New Square (Plac Nowy) symbolises all the contrasts of this district that is undergoing profound change, where many bars, art galleries, kosher restaurants, antique and second-hand dealers are being set up, on account of the cheap real estate. But for the same reasons, you also find housing in serious disrepair here and a population with limited financial means, indeed living on the fringes of society.
 
Until late into the night, a feverish excitement takes hold of the square and surrounding cafes, overrun by a crowd of young people and some merry upstarts. Excessively made-up sylphs step out of a few luxurious sports cars. It’s all change on Sunday morning, when the square is transformed into a popular flea market, but still with the same buzz.
 
 
Poland Travel
 

In Cracow, Poland, the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz is coming back to life and trying to find itself, between quest for the past, trendy bars, clubs, students and artists.

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