Last month I finally got on a plane again! I completed my first international solo trip as I headed to Krakow, Poland. Though is it really a solo trip when you have amazing friends waiting for you at the other end? I have fallen in love with this beautiful city. And have made some lifelong friends along the way. Every trip is more magical than the last and the more I see the more I know what a special place this city is. If it’s not on your must see list, go add it now. I’ll wait.
All done? Okay, good. Now I want to share with you my most moving experience of the trip. On Monday I was fortunate enough to take a tour of the Krakow Jewish quarter, or Kazimierz as it’s known. Not to be confused with the Jewish Ghetto across the river, where the Nazi’s forced the Jewish population to reside between 1941 and 1943, Kazimierz was and is a thriving neighborhood with a long history of importance to those of the Jewish community. Volumes could be filled with the history of this amazing place but since we don’t have that much time, I’ll share a brief history of this amazing place for you.
In the middle ages, Jewish people flocked to Poland after being expelled from cities and countries for their faith. For a time, they found peace within the royal city of Kazimierz. Created as a royal city by King Casimir III of Poland in the 14th century, this walled city was a place where Jewish citizens could live peacefully beside their Polish neighbors without fear of being driven from their homes.
Over the centuries, this city became the epicenter for Polish Jews and housed many of the leading Jewish artists, authors and intellectuals. When Jews were forced out of Krakow and told to move to Kazimierz, the Jews petitioned to build their own internal walls inside the walls of Kazimierz to attempt at keeping the Jewish part of the city safe from those who were filled with hate.
The walls lasted until the 1800s when, under the occupancy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Kazimierz became a district of Krakow and not it’s own city. Though the physical reminders of the separate part of the city were gone, the neighborhood of Kazimierz remained a Jewish neighborhood.
By the 1930s Kazimierz had over 120 synagogues and prayer houses, but no longer housed the intellectual Jewish. The rich and educated had left the neighborhood, many fleeing the country knowing what was coming at the hands of Hitler. Those left in Kazimierz were the poor and the very conservative. These poor and conservative unable to or unwilling to read the newspapers about what was coming, could not flee to countries of safety.
It was these poor souls that were driven from their homes, across the river into the Jewish Ghetto. Walls built around a neighborhood that was already bordered by a river and a hill, enclosed an area of about 300 buildings. Where 3,000 people had lived before it’s construction, 16,000 Jewish people were forced to live. This was approximately three people per one window, and while this may not sound terrible, we must remember each room then had multiple windows and it was likely about ten people per room. This lasted for two years until the liquidation of the ghetto in 1943. The remaining people in the ghetto were sent to concentration or death camps. any of the to Belzec death camp.
Back in Kazimierz, the Nazi’s destroyed most of the synagogues unless they deemed them “useful” to their purposes. Disturbingly, they used these holy places as houses for Nazi uniforms and horse stalls, to further insult the Jewish people whom they deemed less than human. The oldest Jewish cemetery of Kazimierz was used as a trash dump.
After WWII, Poland was ruled by soviets and Kazimierz no longer housed any Jewish life. Its synagogues and buildings destroyed, the neighborhood was a ruin of its former golden age. The soviets didn’t care to clean up the neighborhood either and left it to the poorest and most dangerous people. Kazimierz became a place where you wouldn’t venture unless you wanted to find trouble.
After the fall of the Soviet Union and Poland’s regained independence, Kazimierz slowly came back to life. The Jewish population of Krakow have reclaimed their land, cleaning the cemeteries of debris from the Nazis, again worshiping in their synagogues and even building a Jewish Community Center that is now a shining star of the neighborhood. Today trendy bars and restaurants line the streets of Kazimierz and it’s no longer a dangerous place to visit.
As I walked through Kazimierz with Dominika, I marveled at my surroundings. I don’t know much about Jewish history outside of their persecutions of World War II and it was wonderful to hear happy stories too about brave business women and world-changing Rabbis mixed in with the heart wrenching stories of lives lost at the hands of the Nazi regime. There are bright spots in the dark if we look hard for them. In today’s world I’m finding that more and more necessary.
To take a tour of the Jewish Quarter when you come to Krakow, you can book yours with Walkative! here. (Not a sponsor).
Click on the photos below to enlarge the images.