If Krakow’s old town is all about massive squares, grand buildings and authentic Polish eateries, then Kazimierz, or the Jewish quarter of Krakow, is the complete opposite with a very bohemian charm that is found in its narrow streets, pre-war history and bare bones bars. It was once the centre of Jewish life in Krakow, before falling into disarray during communist rule, and only picked up again during the 90’s to now becoming quite a draw especially on weekend nights.
Walking through, I found the area quieter and more laid back than the old town at least during the day, a welcome change from the crowds of Rynek Glowny. Starting from the Jewish quarter, I meandered through the alleys interspersed with synagogues getting to know some very poignant stories of Kazimierz’s history.
The Quarter came to be
The area pretty much got its name from the Great Polish King Kazimierz, in whom Jews found support and freedom to trade and follow their religion, eventually making Krakow and the very centre of the city their home. Soon they had to move outside the main city, firstly because of the establishment of the Jagiellonian Univeristy right near their dwellings and later, because of the fire of 1494 which the Jewish population was blamed for starting culminating in frequent conflicts and pressure on the governing authorities.
And that is how majority of the Jews came to live in the district of Kazimierz where they established their Jewish quarter. For a while there was prosperity – more Jews poured in, trade and education flourished but the persecution started soon after, first by the Swedish invaders who looted their goods and properties and then by Austrians who declared them illegal.
The worst, however, was to come later which did in the form of the Nazi occupation which saw to it that Jews were expelled from Kazimierz to nearby Podgorze district within which the Krakow ghetto was established. With their executions and extermination camps, they reduced the thriving population of 66,000 to a mere 3,000.
Memorials commemorating the victims can be seen around the quarter, covered with stones and not flowers as an offering. There is a reason for that. Back in the day when Jews were crossing the desert, the graves of dying men could only be marked by stones, and this tradition has continued even today.
Spielberg was here
It is impossible to be in Krakow’s Jewish quarter and not have a mention of Oskar Schindler. His story is well documented – a member of the Nazi party who arrived in Poland for war-time business opportunities. He set up an enamel factory near the Krakow ghetto and employed Jews as they offered cheap labour. It was later that he started bribing Germans with his own personal wealth to protect his Jewish employees, even averting their deportation to concentration camps, eventually saving a thousand Jewish lives, the lives of Schindler’s Jews.
It was here in Krakow’s Jewish quarter that Steven Spielberg shot Schindler’s List, the movie based on Oskar Schindler’s story. His movie literally brought Krakow and its Jewish quarter in front of the world, and changed the course of the area. There is the restaurant in Jewish square which he frequented while filming, probably its only claim to fame as the reviews are just about average.
Going further inwards, not so easy to spot is a narrow complex of buildings which served as the backdrop for Jewish ghetto scenes in the movie. Even though the actual Jewish ghetto lay in the district of Podgorze across the Vistula river, Spielberg preferred the quarter to showcase the ghetto as the streets are original and narrow (what with the limited space given to Jews for living) giving the place the desired look. Plenty of original buildings also survived and their run down facades worked well as a backdrop. Podgorze on the other hand underwent massive modernisation and could not have looked the part.
That Polish lady
Close by, there is the house where Helena Rubenstein once lived. I only came to know about her fascinating story in Krakow. Eldest of eight sisters, she was born in a not-so-well-off Jewish family. Armed with bare essentials and a face cream made by her mother, she emigrated to Australia to live with her uncle. Soon, word got around and the humble face cream found popularity – Aussie women wanted to know the secret to her pale skin.
And that was the beginning of her multi million dollar empire that she set up in USA. Interestingly, she sold off her business to Lehman brothers in 1929 for $4 million. Then, with the financial recession of 1930, she eventually bought her business back for around $1 million making a cool $3 million off the transaction. How true those numbers are I am not sure, but she was one of the richest and most influential Poles in history.
Amidst all the stories of the famous, in complete contrast to its surroundings, rests humble Plac Nowy – a square surrounded on all sides by bars and their dilapidated charm, and hole-in-the-wall eateries at the centre handing out zapienkanka, a type of Polish bread pizza, by the dozen – which really comes to life during weekend nights with people swarming the place for vodka shots and later their favourite Polish baguette. During the day, its quiet here with some pop-up shops selling their wares.
Jewish ghetto of then
From Kazimierz, we crossed the Vistula river over to the Podgorze district, part of which back in 1941 had been marked by the Germans as a Jewish ghetto. Following that, residents were evacuated and the area was packed with Jews sealed within high walls of the ghetto. Except for a piece of the ghetto wall which still stands, the walls do not exist anymore- in fact walking around Podgorze with all its redevelopment and tree-lined, quiet residential streets, it is difficult to imagine that the area had once been a place of utter despair. There are, however, still some traces of that time scattered around.
Right after entering Podgorze, the Plac Bohaterow Ghetta (Ghetto Heroes Square) tell a sad story. It was the main square of the ghetto where Jews were brought in and forced to part with their meagre belongings. That displacement is symbolized by 70 bronze chairs assembled across the square, the distance between the chairs somehow conveying immense loneliness.
Also located next to the Heroes square is Apteka pod Orłem, a pharmacy which had existed before the ghetto was formed, and somehow continued to do so even after the area was deemed a ghetto. It was probably the only non-Jewish business running in the ghetto at the time. For the following years, the pharmacy and its owner Pankiewicz helped Jews get access to then luxuries of food, clothes, medicines and often helped them in escaping deportation to the camps, and providing outside information. Almost like an oasis in the desert of no hope.