History of Jews in Krakow: From sorrow to hope

The first published information about Jews in Poland came from a Jewish merchant writing at the end of the first millennium. Abraham Ben Jacob, also known as Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, described trade journeys he had made. The stories became part of Abu Abdullah al-Bakri?s ?Book of Highways and of Kingdoms,? published in 1068.

The merchant?s account was also the first written description of the country ruled by Poland?s first king, Mieszko I.
Krakow attracted so many Jews so quickly that it became one of Europe?s most important centers of Jewish business and culture.
Unfortunately, much of Krakow?s early Jewish growth was the result of other countries driving out Jews. England expelled Jews in 1290, France in 1306 and 1394, Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1496.
Poland?s unique tolerance of Jews between the 11th and 17th centuries was a key reason so many flocked to Krakow.
Historical accounts indicate that in the 14th Century Krakow had two Jewish enclaves. The first was what is today known as St. Ann?s Street but at the time was called Jewish Street. The second was today?s Plac Szczepanski, where there was a synagogue.
A fire in June of 1494 consumed a big chunk of the city between Mikolajska and Szewska streets, including part of the Jewish quarter.
King John Olbracht gave those who had been burned out new parcels along what is now Szeroka Street in Kazimierz, which at the time was a separate city.
King Kazimierz the Great, who lived from 1333 to 1370, designated the area a city in 1335. Jews gradually moved in to the area that is now part of Krakow.
Krakow?s economy stagnated during the 17th and 18th centuries. As often happens, Jews were blamed.
Relations between Jews and non-Jews in Poland have had their rough spots.
Christians and Jews competed with each other in business, particularly in Krakow, which was on an early trade route. Non-Jews were jealous of Jews? success, asserting that Jewish fortunes were made in unscrupulous ways, including usury.
A bleak moment in Krakow?s Jewish history came in 1772, when the Russians, Prussians and Habsburg Austrians divided a third of Poland?s territory among them.
The Austrians occupied Kazimierz. They slapped new taxes on the Jews and made them perform military service.
They also replaced the traditional Jewish educational system with one rooted in the European Enlightenment.
A brighter moment in Krakow?s Jewish history was the founding of Poland?s first Jewish library in 1899. It helped spark a Jewish cultural renaissance.
The six years of World War II in Poland were the darkest days in the country?s, and Krakow?s Jewish history. About 60,000 Jews lived in Krakow before the Nazis invaded Poland — the fourth largest concentration in the country. The Nazis exterminated most of Poland?s Jews. Krakow?s population had shrunk to 4,000 by the end of the war.
The Soviets suppressed Poland?s Jews as part of a Communist effort to stamp out religion. Many Polish Jews turned their backs on their culture, believing their lives would be easier by doing so.
It took almost 40 years for Jewish culture to begin being revived in Krakow.
In 1988, during the waning days of the Soviet Union, the city held its first Festival of Jewish Culture. The festivities, centered in Kazimierz, commemorate the almost 1,000-year presence of Jews in Poland ? their religion, culture and history.
The festival, which is held in June and July, has became larger each year. These days it consists of more than 100 events that draw dozens of artists and thousands of participants from around the world.
There are workshops where you can learn Jewish dances, songs and Hebrew calligraphy, how to make Jewish food, even how to make paper cut-outs.
This year?s 17th annual festival will be between June 23 and July 1. For more information, check the festival web site at:
* Seven synagogues ? Old, Remuh, Popper?s (all in ul. Szeroka), High (ul. Jozef), Isaac?s (ul. Jakub), Kup?s (ul. Warszauer) and Tempel (ul. Miodowa)
* The Old Synagogue has been the home of the Museum of Jewish History and Culture since 1959 (www.mhk.pl.)
* The Remuh Cemetery on ul. Szeroka is the oldest Jewish cemetery in Krakow, dating to 1551
* Kazimierz offers some excellent Jewish restaurants and cafes.
* Krakow has many places connected with Oskar Schindler, hero of the book and movie ?Schindler?s List,? who saved more than 1,000 Jews during World War II
–         The Center of Jewish Culture is on ul. Meisels (www.judaica.pl)

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