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Cracow: Kazimierz, the trendy Jewish quarter

Cracow: Kazimierz, the trendy Jewish quarter

Éric Boucher - 2008-06-16

From 28th June to 6th July, the 18th Festival of Jewish Culture will take place in Cracow, in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. A district which is coming back to life and trying to find itself, between quest for the past, trendy bars, clubs, students and artists.

If Kazimierz is finding its soul again, it is perhaps more of a mix than a real Jewish identity. Because Kazimierz was not a ghetto and the Jewish community of Cracow today numbers barely 200 to 250 people.
On the other hand, Kazimierz has been a mixed district for a long time: once a religious mix, when churches stood alongside synagogues; an all-out mix now that paths cross between curious tourists and orthodox Jews from Brooklyn or Israel, carefree students and children of migrants in search of their roots, the rich and the poor, the living and the dead.
From Casimir the Great to Steven Spielberg
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 brand new Jewish Community Centre, officially opened and co-financed by Prince Charles, or the Galicia Jewish Museum, backed by British donors. The latter has a permanent photo exhibition that bears witness to a civilisation that developed in Galicia for almost ten centuries.
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 IsaacSynagogue (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.
The Festival of Jewish Culture
The creator of this festival is Janusz Makuch whom we arranged to meet in Jỏzefa Street, near the High Synagogue. This 48-year-old bearded man welcomed us over a cup of cinnamon-flavoured coffee and told us his incredible story in English.
Janusz Makuch is not Jewish. Born under the communist system in Puławy, a small town in southeast Poland, really nothing predisposed him to such a career. “Until the age of 13 or 14, I literally knew nothing about Jewish culture. But I was lucky enough to meet a very wise man, Professor Michał Strzemski, who told me that before the war, half the population of my hometown was of Jewish origin. I had never heard the word “Jewish” before.”
For two years, Janusz Makuch studied the culture and history of the Jews of Puławy with Professor Strzemski before continuing his studies in Cracow, where he met other people who shared his interest in this bygone world. In 1988, when they organised the first Festival of Jewish Culture together, the communist government was still in place and the event very much resembled an underground affair in a small local theatre.
After the collapse of communism, the festival took on another dimension, became international and broadened its reputation: it is now probably the biggest event of its kind in the world, in a country that was nonetheless renowned for being anti-Semitic: over 200 events and performers from Israel, the USA, Europe and Russia, and no fewer than 20 to 25,000 visitors in 2007.
Of course, Jewish culture no longer exists in Poland, but Janusz Makuch believes in its revival. Little by little, Jews are settling in Kazimierz, which is coming back to life. It is still a small community, but one must bear in mind how much progress has been made in 20 years: “In the 1980s, Kazimierz was nothing like it is today. What was once the biggest Jewish quarter in Eastern Europe seemed empty, deserted, like a ghost town.”
Chopped herring, gefilte fish (stuffed carp), klopslers (meatballs), cholent (stew)… The menu of certain restaurants in Kazimierz is enough to make your mouth water, but the quality varies. Here is our selection.
Ul. Szeroka 20 PL - 31 053 Kraków
Probably the best restaurant in Szeroka Street, listed in the Michelin Guide. The menu looked more Polish than Jewish to us and includes pork-based dishes, but the food is finely crafted. The zurek, a sour soup made with fermented rye flour, hard-boiled eggs, pieces of sausage and marjoram, has a fine balance between the various ingredients. Whether made with cabbage and mushrooms or meat, the pierogi (ravioli) is better and made with finer dough than in many of the restaurants we tried. Good marks too for the marinaded fillet of duck with apples. Klezmer concert in the evening at weekends. Reckon on paying 50 zlotys for a starter and a main course. 
Ul. Szeroka 6 – 31 053 Kraków,
This restaurant, set in an old mikvah (Jewish ritual bath), probably offers one of the most authentically Jewish cuisines of Kazimierz, but we were disappointed by the cholent (Sabbath dish made with kidney beans, meat and potatoes) of rather mushy consistency. On the other hand, the zupa szabasowa wegetarianska (vegetarian Sabbath soup) proved to be particularly tasty. People come here above all for the concerts and artistic director, Leopold Kozłowski. Born in 1918 near Lwów, this composer and conductor is the last authentic representative of klezmer music in Poland, and maybe even the world. He had a role in the film Schindler’s List and was also musical consultant for the ghetto music
Where to have a drink
Ul. Meisela 20 - 31 053 Kraków
You can have a beer outdoors in the flower-filled courtyard of the building where some of the scenes of Schindler’s List were shot. 
Ul. Estery 5 - 31 053 Kraków
Strange atmosphere in this alternative place lit only by candles, near Plac Nowy. 

From 28th June to 6th July, the 18th Festival of Jewish Culture will take place in Cracow, in the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz. A district which 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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