Kazimierz – the district south of the Old Town between the Wisła River and ul. Dietla (where a tributary of the Wisła once flowed) was the centre of Jewish life in Kraków for over 500 years, before it was systematically destroyed during World War II. In the communist era it became one of Kraków’s dodgiest districts while gradually falling into disrepair. Rediscovered in the 1990s, thanks to the fall of the regime and worldwide exposure through the lens of Steven Spielberg, Kazimierz has rebounded 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 Jewish cemeteries. In fact, no other place in Europe conveys a sense of pre-war Jewish culture on the continent better than Kazimierz. As a result, the district has become a major tourist draw and pilgrimage site for Jews, which has led to the return of contemporary Jewish culture in the area. Each summer since 1988 the massively popular Jewish Culture Festival has filled Kazimierz’s streets and cafes with music, while educating Kraków’s residents and guests about the city’s pre-war Jewish history and celebrating modern Jewish culture. The fact that it’s one of the year’s biggest parties proves that there’s more to Kazimierz than sepia photographs and old synagogues. Here you’ll find the heart of Kraków’s artistic, bohemian character behind the wooden shutters of dozens of antique shops and art galleries. 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 cafe culture and nightlife. Alternative, edgy and packed with oddities, Kazimierz is an essential point of interest to any visitor.
The history of Kazimierz can be traced back to 1335 when it was officially founded on an island outside of Kraków by King Kazimierz the Great. It was not until 1495 when Jews began to be expelled from Kraków that they started to move over the river to Kazimierz en masse. Awarded its Magdeburg Rights, which allowed markets to be held on what is now Pl. Wolnica, Kazimierz prospered and became one of the most influential Polish towns during the Middle Ages. By the 17th century Jewish life was flourishing and numerous synagogues had been constructed when the plague hit in 1651. Four years later Kazimierz was ransacked by Swedish invaders, famine, floods and anti-Jewish riots followed in quick succession, and a mass migration to Warsaw began, leaving the once vibrant Kazimierz a shadow of its former self.
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 3-5,000 survived the Holocaust, a large proportion of them saved by Oskar Schindler.