Jewish Kraków – Part I

imageThe initiated amongst you will know that “Jewish Kraków”, the title of this post, really means Kazimierz. Kazimierz, named after a Polish King, lies just outside Kraków’s old town. The Jews were banished there in the late fifteenth century. Once there, they built a thriving community, which the Nazis almost entirely exterminated during WW2.

Kazimierz lay dormant for many years after the War, other than being a refuge to drunks and the homeless. What to do with the homes of so many mostly Jewish people, tragically murdered (but whose distant families might have claims on their properties)? Development was piecemeal. But I’ve been coming here for over 20 years, and can see in my visit today that what were islands of development in Kazimierz, are now linking up. Kazimierz is gentrifying. It’s an intriguing (and last) chance to see, simultaneously, what it was and is becoming. An old, decrepit tenement block here; a spanking new restaurant there.

The shop you see in the photo is run by a nice old Polish lady. You can buy, amongst other things, sepia photos of Jewish families, 10 zl a throw. They look original. When I asked, the old lady told me the bric-a-brac is harder and harder to come by. It begs that old question of the rectitude (or otherwise) of selling off this stuff (you can be sure most of those posing in the pictures, if they were Krakowian, or even more widely Polish Jews, would have perished in the Holocaust). The shop wreaks of sadness. But I’ve explored this conundrum in previous blogs, and don’t think the old lady is doing anything wrong…

imageimageOn to Tempel Synagogue, the last of Kraków’s synagogues to be built. Mid-nineteenth century. Exquisite inside, after restoration, including an upstairs gallery where women sat. A Dutch-sounding man inside, evidently also a tourist, asked me if I was Jewish because I was wearing a skull-cap. I replied that everyone who came in was asked to wear one. He’d somehow avoided the ritual. But a theme was developing…

imageOn to Wysoka (Tall) Synagogue. Rather forbidding, as you can see, from the outside. And apparently not fully restored. I decided not to go in. But in the entrance hall a couple of energetic young Hasidim importuned me. “Are you Jewish”? they asked. Maybe it wasn’t just the skull-cap. “Ye-es”, I replied, hesitating. “Come and prey with us!”. I asked, “You need one more to make a minyan?” (a quorum for prayer). “Not exactly. D’you lay tefillin?” One of them fumbled in a felt bag for the small black boxes of prayers that Jews strap to themselves. He extracted one and made for my arm. I withdrew. “Hey, ‘fraid I’m not the same type of Jew as you”, I told them. “We’re all the same!” they countered. “Maybe in God’s eyes”, I said. “You bet!” they sang back in chorus.

Outside Remuh, Kraków’s most famous Synagogue – just to the right as you look – is a stunning bronze of Jan Karski. He’s the Pole who, during WW2, working for the Polish underground, voluntarily entered a concentration camp to observe the Holocaust first-hand. He then went personally to meet Anthony Eden and Franklyn Roosevelt to enlist their support to halt the genocide, but they barely believed him. This is something he never got over, but his bravery is unquestioned. His account of his wartime exploits – Diary of a Secret State – is a must-read.

As I was observing the statue, two (different) young Hasidic Jews approached me. “Are you Jewish?” they asked. I eyed them up and down, and noted their bag of tefillin. “No”, I replied, somewhat unconvincingly, and rather for fun. I have never denied by roots when it mattered. But after all, it was lunch time… They smiled uneasily, looking genuinely perplexed, and went away.


Link to Part 2 of “Jewish Kraków” below, and you can read more about Kazimierz – and other places of Jewish interest in Poland – in the first Polska Dotty book…


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Filed under Cracow, Holocaust, Jews, Krakow, News, Poland, Travel

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