Monday, April 6, 2015

Jewish history kept alive in revitalized Kazimierz

After admiring the Wawel Cathedral we decided to head off to the old Jewish section of the city, in Kazimierz. Unfortunately, lunch was mediocre with tomato soup that was so thick with tomato paste I could almost have stood my spoon up in it and a green salad with so much balsamic that I was in a sweat. However, the lovely orange wheat beer was superb. The restaurant faced out on to one of the filming locations for Schindler's List; its the scene in which a mother and her child try to escape the Nazis.

Kazimierz was the centre of Jewish life in Krakow for over 500 years before it was systematically destroyed during World War II. In the communist era it became one of Krakow's dodgiest districts. Thanks to the fall of the communist regime and worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg, Kazimierz was rediscovered in the 1990s, and is today Kraków’s most exciting district – a bustling, bohemian neighbourhood packed with historical sites, atmospheric cafes and art galleries. Well-known for its associations with Schindler and Spielberg, traces of Kazimierz’s Jewish history have not only survived, but literally abound in the form of the district’s numerous synagogues and cemeteries. Behind the wooden shutters are dozens of antique shops and art galleries, while peeling façades and obscure courtyards hide dozens of bars and cafes, many affecting an air of pre-war timelessness. Centred around the former Jewish square now known as Plac Nowy, Kazimierz has emerged as the city’s best destination for café culture. Usually, the square has lots of market stalls but today there were only a few because of the weather. We joined one of the free walking tours for a short while to learn more about the area.

In 1796 Kraków came under Austrian control, and four years later Kazimierz was incorporated into its neighbouring city. Ironically this would bring about the area's rebirth as the Austrians worked hard to redevelop the city: the streets were cobbled, the crumbling defensive walls were torn down, the first gas lamps were illuminated in 1857, and the suburb had a power station by 1905. The governing Austrians also ordered all of Kraków’s Jews to resettle in Kazimierz, and a rich cultural life arose around them. By 1910 the Jewish population stood at 32,000, a figure that was to nearly double during the inter-war years. This, as we know, would come to a dramatic end with the Nazi occupation of Kraków and Hitler’s systematic extermination of the Jews of Europe. Herded across the river to a ghetto in Podgórze, Kraków’s Jews met their end there, in Płaszów, or Bełżec (primarily). A mere three to five thousand survived the Holocaust, a large proportion of them saved by Oskar Schindler.

Although 5,000 Jews were registered as living in Kraków in 1950 any hopes of rekindling the past soon vanished. The anti-Zionist policies of the post-war communist authorities sparked waves of emigration to Israel, and by the 1970s signs of Jewish life had all but disappeared and the area had become a bandit suburb. The fall of communism in 1989 sparked new hope, however; investment began trickling in, 1988 saw the first Jewish Festival take place, and five years later Spielberg arrived to film Schindler’s List, a film that would put Kazimierz on the world map and irrevocably change its fortunes.

We decided to leave the tour group and headed towards Remuh Synagogue and Cemetery dating from the 1500s. The synagogue was under restoration so it was really a construction site but we could still admire the lovely, colourful ceiling. The cemetery was in use until the 1800s. Many of the tombs had little stones on them, and it was explained to me that people placed these instead of flowers. One part of the cemetery had a mosaic created from the remains of gravestones that had been run over by a Nazi tank.

Although the weather was still mixed, thankfully it was a little drier as we walked back to our hotel on the Main Square.


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