Inside Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter

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First the artists move in; with them come improvements to the buildings and trendier night spots. Then, lured by a newfound sense of respectability, comes the bourgeoisie, and finally the neighbourhood is protected with a historic preservation statute. This is what’s called “stage gentrification,” and you can learn about it in any 100-level urban geography class.

In fact, the idea of gentrification is no longer the exclusive preserve of urban geographers and economists, like it was in the mid 1980s when David Ley published some of the first portraits of gentrifiers and Neil Smith described its economic principles. Today, gentrification is in the greater public eye; it’s in newspapers that describe today’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods, and in magazines that wonder about the segregation and inequalities it causes. So gentrification is old news. It’s boring. Played out.

Or it would be, anywhere west of here. I’m now in Krakow, one of Poland’s largest and most famous cities, and one of its most important economic engines. Today, Krakow is also a tourist hub with a storied Old City like many European cities. It’s a massive centre of learning as well, with practically too many universities to count. Just outside Krakow’s southen city walls, between the thirteenth-century royal palace known as the Wawel and the Vistula River that flows north to Warsaw and the Baltic Sea, is a neighbourhood called Kazimierz. Until 1939, Kazimierz (pronounced “KA-zee-meersh”) was Krakow’s Jewish neighbourhood. Today, it’s become one of the city’s trendy neighbourhoods and tourist landmarks.

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Krakow’s storied culture is centred around what is today the Jagiellonian University. That university was created in the fourteenth century by King Casimir the Great, and it was installed on land expropriated from the city’s Jewish community. The newly homeless Jews responded by moving their businesses, their institutions, and themselves to the south of town. They built their own city, Kazimierz, with a charter and city hall. As Krakow and Kazimierz grew in lockstep, the latter was annexed to the former. By 1939, when the Nazis marched into Poland, Kazimierz (and Podgórze south of the Vistula river) were important Jewish population centres.

The swift mechanics of Nazi extermination are by now well known. But in the context of Krakow, let me spell them out anyway: first herded into a ghetto in Podgórze, some were then sent to the Płaszów forced labour camp two miles to the south. A few were summarily shot in a small, set-off square that today is hemmed in by rusty metal gates and whose walls are still pocked with bullet holes. Most went directly to Auschwitz. Either way, by the time of the Red Army’s 1945 entry into Poland, Kazimierz stood essentially empty.

The half-century of Communist rule did little to change this state of affairs. Krakow was seen by the Communists as an insubordinate city, an intellectual and bourgeois place to be subdued. Instead of filling in existing parts of the city, the leadership decided to construct the city of Nowa Huta, a model socialist enclave and workers’ paradise, outside Krakow proper. Nowa Huta, which translates to “New Foundry,” was to be the site of the industrial jobs that the Communists valued and sought to create. The privation of these jobs from Krakow proper was considered a punishment. And for half a century, Kazimierz sat in fallow, decaying, frozen in an easier time.

It’s been sixteen years since communism. Poland has embraced capitalism headlong in the intervening time, and in 2004 the country joined the European Union. Just to the west of the Schengen customs union, Poland loosened its borders and allowed the tourists to trickle in. Unlike Warsaw, which had been destroyed during World War II by the Nazis and was rebuilt along the Soviet model, Krakow was comparatively unharmed by the years of Nazism and Soviet communism: its market square and old roads were still intact. The old storefronts were repainted and land values started to climb. But Kazimierz, outside the old city fortifications, was slower to develop. It was a less obvious place to revamp, and its buildings in worse condition.

I must admit that I am no expert on either Krakow or Poland. But it would seem to me that in the context of a picturesque city in an ascendant country, there must have been two processes operating in parallel. The first, and less interesting, is the process of stage gentrification that I described earlier, which can be clearly detected in parts of the neighbourhood today, where buildings are repainted and the nightclubs and bars smack of the influence of too-cool teenagers.

The second trend is a concerted effort by the Krakow tourism bureau.

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BUT BEFORE I move on, I need to first note that I, myself, am Jewish. My ancestors arrived in North America in the latter part of the nineteenth century, fleeing persecution and poor conditions in various parts of Eastern Europe. Like the tales of immigrants that have become part of America’s cliché bedtime-story lore, my ancestors worked tirelessly, to the point that today, my family and I are happily situated in the American middle-class mainstream.

My family’s story is hardly unique. Today’s North America is home to millions of Jews, most of whom are more or less like me: relatively happy and comfortable in the Canadian or American middle classes. We’ve never thought to spend that much time in Europe, but today’s age of low-cost airlines, Eurail passes, the Schengen Zone, and college exchanges, has suddenly rendered the sexy Old World attainable. Programs like March of the Living have found great success by sending Jewish teenagers to the lands of their European antecedents.

Krakow has taken note of this trend, and has seen the success of other former-Soviet Bloc cities like Budapest, Tallinn, and Prague in drawing tourists. So the city has put its tourism bureau to work: Kazimierz is now noted on all the Old City maps and official tourist materiel. The Jewish neighbourhood is now also demarcated on the city’s new, sleek directional signs. So are at least four synagogues, one of which is now a museum of Jewish history. The Plac Bohaterów Getta, from where the ghetto’s Jews were herded onto trains, is demarcated on an officially signed walking tour.

Then there’s the Ulica Szeroka. The street has been doted with at least four separate restaurants offering purportedly authentic Eastern European Jewish cuisine. A (non-Jewish) Polish friend and I entered one restaurant, finding the walls covered in period ladies’ dresses and signboards offering the services of tradesmen with Jewish-sounding names. The tables were converted carpenters’ workbenches or sewing machine tables, each adorned with one Sabbath candle lit on an heirloom candlestick – Jewish law would have required two. The menu cited endorsements from an American rabbi, who liked the ambiance, and a Catholic priest, who found the food particularly authentic. It also offered a dozen main dishes, not a single one even slightly resembling a dish that I remember my grandmother making.

This, I reflected, must be how Chinese immigrants feel upon entering red, dragon-filled “Chinese” restaurants in North America. Who was Gerneral Tao, they must ask themselves, and why does he have a kind of chicken?

But authenticity is moot. In today’s North America, where Jews enjoy an unprecedented level of popular acceptance and, yes, assimilation, most of us probably can’t identify a difference between history and pastiche. And anyway, half of Kazimierz is now filled with bars and nightclubs and barely resembles the neighbourhood of my great grandparents’ generation. Who cares, then, if Kazimierz can never be returned to anything like its former state if this new one is two thirds as meaningful and twice as much fun?

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PERHAPS I’VE OVERSPOKEN. Much of Kazimierz is as yet unclaimed by both the gentrifiers and the historic preservationists. Bustling bars and Jewish bookstores with signboards in Yiddish stand starkly next to crumbling façades and rubble-covered lots. It’s clear that the neighbourhood is on the rise, but no one can predict how far it will go or how quickly success, whatever that means, will arrive.

And the fact is that whatever happens to Kazimierz is a sideshow. Sure, the city of Krakow would love to have a trendy nightlife quarter to raise its tax revenue and the number of incoming tourists, but Krakow has bigger fish to fry. Krakow is safe in the knowledge that it will continue to spring back from Communism’s years of neglect because of one factor that I’ve hardly even alluded to at all: Auschwitz. The death camp’s effect on the Jewish psyche is hard to overstate, and Krakow is its proverbial gateway.

So it’s not random that Krakow, more than most Eastern European cities, has chosen to emphasize its Jewish corners. Consider the example of Warsaw, for example: an equally important Jewish centre until World War II, Warsaw was largely destroyed by the Nazis following a 1944 uprising. Today, its slaughtered Jewish population is only commemorated by a series of awkward and recent plaques in strategic locations among the peeling Soviet towers. And even though Krakow’s re-cobbled plazas and touched-up houses are these days scarcely more ‘authentic’ than any of Warsaw’s asphalt and high-rise reconstruction, it certainly seems like they might be. In other words, the Krakow tourism board has a vested interest in maintaining the ‘historic Jewish’ nature of this neighbourhood, because it is an important means of appealing to a certain demographic.

But then, gentrifiers have shown time and time again that they, too, appreciate the attractive architecture, authenticity and “sense of place” that the right historic quarter can bring. Given enough time, they can remake entire sections of cities. The question is whether the pattern of a historic neighbourhood remodeled through gentrification will match the historic neighbourhood that Krakow wants to recreate. If anything, Kazimierz should remind us of just how many mercenary ways we can put history to use.

Kazimierz is a place caught between gentrification and tourist development: torn between a free market and the government’s plans, between individuals and the greater community, between what it is becoming without interference and what it “should be.” It’s a neighbourhood undecided. The question is really whose quarter it will become.

This entry was written by Sam Imberman , posted on Thursday April 26 2007at 01:04 am , filed under Europe, Heritage and Preservation, History, Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

6 Responses to “Inside Krakow’s Old Jewish Quarter”

  • slutsky says:

    Nice article. I visited Kazimierz a few years ago and found it pretty fascinating (especially those weird Jewish restaurants). Always meant to come back.

  • Greg says:

    Vive la Pologne!!:)

  • In Spain, being Jewish has suddenly become very popular and there is an unprecedented interest in excavating that country’s Jewish heritage. Some towns have even invented Jewish roots where none exist—after all, millions of tourist dollars are in question.

  • Sean says:

    Very nice article, well written and interesting

  • Ellen Kent says:

    Do you know the names of any of the main streets in Kazimierz (Krakow?)

  • Sylvia Stettler says:

    I have just returned from Krakow and of course went to Auschwitz death camp. The Jewish quarter is still run down and the absence of the 75,000 plus Jewish people that were murdered made the whole place for me and my companions depressing and bleak. Also, I was profoundly disturbed by profits made by the state in relation to these ‘tourist’ sites. Additionally, there are today still neo nazi marches which are not banned by the authorities. Antisemitism is still rife in Poland as well as anti gay etc. I won’t be going back and nor will my friends.