This magical district, which today gathers Kraków’s artistic and social life, was for centuries an enclave of the Jewish community, which left its rich culture – both secular and religious – there. A walk through the streets of Kazimierz is a journey through 500 years of Jewish history – from the beautiful interiors of synagogues and architecture to the charming corners, cafés and restaurants where you can taste the Judaic tradition.
Walking through the historic streets of Kazimierz, let’s go back to the past, when, on a marshy river island surrounded by the Vistula, on 27 February 1335, Polish King Casimir III the Great established a city bearing his name – Civitas Kazimiriensis. It had defensive walls with corner towers and four gates: Krakowska, Skawińska, Solna and St. Stanisław, and its central place was the Wolnica Square. The market square housed the town hall, which was the seat of the administrative and judicial authorities; today, this building houses the Ethnographic Museum. The establishment of the town of Kazimierz fulfilled two essential functions: trade and protection for the state capital, Kraków, with which it neighboured to the north.
In 1495, by the decision of King Jan Olbracht, the Jews, who had previously lived in Kraków, were relocated to the area of today’s Szeroka Street (the former Bawół village), creating in Kazimierz the so-called Jewish town (oppidum iudaeorum). As a result, a Jewish quarter was created, separated by a stone wall from the part of Kazimierz inhabited by Christians. From then on, Kazimierz gained the nickname “Jewish”. Thanks to the fact that it developed autonomously for many centuries, it became a significant centre of Judaic culture in Poland and the world. The Jewish town of Kazimierz encompassed the area of today’s Miodowa, Starowiślna, św. Wawrzyńca, Wąska, Józefa and Nowa Streets, with Szeroka Street as its heart and religious, social and cultural centre. There were mikvahs (ritual baths), and synagogues, whose thresholds were crossed daily by Orthodox Jews. Kosher butcheries, schools, cemeteries, and houses inhabited by the elite of Kazimierz at the time – rabbis, wealthy Jewish merchants and bankers – were built. In the 19th century, however, Kazimierz was incorporated into Kraków as a new district. The walls were demolished, and the Vistula River was filled in, creating Dietla Street in its place. Before the WWII, there were circa 60,000 Jews in Kraków, making up a quarter of the city’s population. After the war, Kazimierz became deserted, with no one taking care of the once vibrant streets, institutions, or houses of prayer, until the 2000s when large-scale revitalisation of the district began.
The must-see places in Kazimierz are the synagogues, which for Jews throughout the centuries have been central meeting places, houses of prayer or places for the study of the Torah and Talmud. You can visit them any day except Shabbat, which begins after sunset on Friday and ends an hour after sunset on Saturday evening. Please note that to enter the synagogue, men must wear a yarmulke or other head cover (e.g. a cap or hat), and women must wear blouses covering their shoulders and skirts below the knees.
There are four historic synagogues in Kazimierz which are still places of worship and serve religious purposes: Remuh Synagogue, Tempel Synagogue, Kupa Synagogue and Isaac Yakubovich Synagogue.
The Renaissance Remuh Synagogue of 1556, also known as the New Synagogue, is an important monument of sacred art and the second-oldest Jewish house of prayer in Kraków. Its current name comes from the Hebrew acronym ReMU, which refers to Moses Isserles – a prominent rabbi of the Kraków Jewish community, rector of the Kraków yeshiva, Talmudist, and philosopher who was one of the greatest rabbinic authorities in Europe. Inside, we can admire ornate bas-reliefs and polychromes, shimmering in thousands of different colours. To the right of the Aron ha-Kodesh is a special chair that is never occupied. According to legend, this is where Rabbi Remu always prayed, so now, as a sign of respect, his former seat remains vacant.
At 24 Miodowa Street, the Reform Tempel Synagogue was built between 1860 and 1862. In its beautiful Neo-Renaissance interior with touches of Moorish style, we can admire decorations taken from Islamic art, and the polychrome ceiling – from the decoration of the minbar of the Ibn-Tulun mosque in Cairo. The synagogue stained-glass windows are noteworthy and unique in Poland, having survived WWII. There are 43 of them, and they depict floral and geometric motifs, the Star of David, the menorah and the Temple of Jerusalem.
The Popper Synagogue, as well as the Jewish bookshop Austeria, and the Old Synagogue, are also worth a visit. The latter houses a branch of the Kraków Museum, where you can admire a rich collection of Judaica, presented in a permanent exhibition entitled The History and Culture of the Jews of Kraków. The exhibition is divided into three thematic sections: the synagogue, celebrations and annual rituals, and private and family life. The Old Synagogue, dating from 1407, is Kraków’s oldest synagogue and one of the oldest in Poland. Until 1939 it played the role of the central temple, and the main religious, cultural, social and organisational centre of the Kraków Jewish community.
The Kupa Synagogue, built in the 17th century, is currently the main temple of Kraków’s Jewish community. Although it may not look impressive from the outside, its colourful interior covered with early 20th-century paintings is certainly worth visiting. Interestingly, there are four other layers of paintings under this polychrome, the oldest dating back to the 17th century! Of great interest to Polish-speaking tourists visiting Kazimierz is the name of the synagogue [the word kupa in Polish means a pile of something but often refers to a poo – Ed.]. In Hebrew, the word means treasure of the kahal, i.e. the money of the Jewish community from which the synagogue was built. The Synagogue also gave rise to the name of Kupa Street, located in Kazimierz.
A PEBBLE ON A GRAVE
At Miodowa Street, it is worth visiting the New Jewish Cemetery, established in 1800. When you cross the gate, you will notice pebbles left on the matzevot, symbolising the so-called mitzvah – the obligation, the commandment to mark the grave by adding small stones to the existing large stone (matzevot). The tradition dates back to ancient times, when the rocks protected the corpse laid in the grave from desecration by animals. It is customary not to place flowers or decorative shrubs on the graves of Orthodox Jews, as this was considered a pagan custom. Some, however, leave kvitel on the resting places of God-fearing rabbis or tzaddikim – these are small pieces of paper on which the mother’s name and one’s own are written, along with a request or thanks to God.
Adjacent to the Remuh Synagogue, on the other hand, is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Europe, established back in 1535. Many prominent Jews of Kraków are buried there, and although it was destroyed during World War II, you can now admire the restored historical matzevot and tombstones. The synagogue and cemetery form a unique and priceless Jewish architecture and sacred art complex.
To feel the atmosphere of Jewish Kazimierz, take a stroll to Ariel – one of the most renowned and valued restaurants serving Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine, where we can enjoy cholent (Shabbat meat and vegetable stew), potato kugel, Galician dumplings or Jewish roast meat. For dessert, you can treat your palate to Pascha cheesecake or charoset – tart apples with sultanas, cinnamon, and mead.
In the evenings, in the restaurants on Szeroka Street, you can listen to live concerts of klezmer music performed by ensembles whose work draws on the traditional Jewish melodies, songs, and dances of the numerous Jewish bands that once operated in the Galician region.
Lovely spots to enjoy delicious breakfasts in the morning, such as meze or shakshuka, as well as Israeli, Middle Eastern or Oriental dishes, are i.e. Hamsa, Hummus Amamamusi, Ranny Ptaszek or the Cheder, which once housed a Jewish elementary school for boys.
An unusual place where tradition and history intertwine with the present and the sacred mixes with the profane is the Hevre restaurant. In the former building of the Chevra Thilim Synagogue, while eating falafel, hummus or caviar the Jewish way, we can admire the sacred architecture and the precious wall polychromes, alluding to biblical scenes.
To experience the frenetic party life in Kazimierz with loud music, you can check out the Eszeweria bar, the Mleczarnia pub-café, the Singer bar or the pub called Alchemia, where you enter the room through a wardrobe door.
JEWISH CULTURE TODAY
There are currently around 1,500 members of Jewish organisations in Kraków. The office of the Jewish Community is located at 27 Miodowa Street, and at
24 Miodowa Street is the Jewish Community Centre (JCC). The JCC hosts lectures, workshops, and meetings about Judaism, Jewish history, culture and tradition, and Hebrew and Yiddish language courses. A senior citizens’ club and a Jewish kindergarten are based there.
The Galicia Jewish Museum has its building at 18 Dajwór Street, where we can admire (among others) Chris Schwarz’s photographic exhibition entitled Traces of Memory. The collection is a photographic reminder of the heritage of over 800 years of Jewish culture in Poland.
An excellent excuse to visit Kazimierz is the Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków – in the last week of June and the first week of July (this year: 28.06 – 02.07.2023) walks, lectures and workshops are held on Judaism and Jewish life, Hebrew and Yiddish courses, Jewish dance and singing or paper-cutting workshops, and concerts by Jewish bands from all over the world. The culmination of the JCF is a wonderful concert on Szeroka Street, which is a celebration of Jewish music and a symbol of Jewish presence in Kazimierz. The festival has been organised since 1988.