Krakow, Poland's historic royal capital, lives and breathes historic memory.

Its magnificent main market Square, the Rynek Glowny, serves as a vast urban living room at the heart of a medieval Old Town that rivals that of Prague.

There, each hour on the hour, day and night, a trumpeter climbs to the top of St. Mary's Basilica and plays a fanfare that is cut off abruptly in mid-note to recall a trumpeter who was killed by invading Tartars while playing the very same call to arms in 1241.

Krakow's old Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, is a unique district about a mile from the Rynek where Krakow Jews moved virtually en masse after being expelled from the city proper in 1495..

It forms Central Europe's most important complex of Jewish historical monuments, encompassing seven synagogues that date back centuries, nearly a score of former prayer houses, two Jewish cemeteries, dwellings and other structures amid a welter of cobbled streets, market places and courtyards. 

The bustling home of 65,000 Jews on the eve of World War II, Kazimierz was left a ghost town after the Holocaust. Under communism, it became a rundown slum.

Since the fall of communism 15 years ago, however, Kazimierz has undergone a remarkable transformation.

A vibrant tourist, cultural and educational industry has grown up based on the district's Jewish character. Many buildings, including several historic synagogues have been restored; maps, information plaques and other tourist-friendly infrastructure have been put in place; and chic new "Jewish style" restaurants, cafes, bookstores and galleries draw a growing number of patrons. A Center for Jewish Culture located in a renovated former prayer house on Meisels St. programs lectures, concerts and exhibits on Jewish themes -- and so does the new Galicia Jewish museum set in a former factory on Dajwor st.

Every summer, the annual Festival of Jewish Culture draws thousands of fans. Founded in 1988, the weeklong extravaganza of education and entertainment is so varied that it has been dubbed a "Jewish Woodstock". And the ambience of Kazimierz provides a special backdrop that sets the festival apart, for performers and fans alike.

"At one point, as I was walking around, I had a rush of emotion, as if I sensed the spirits of the ages go by," violinist Sophie Solomon, of the British klezmer-rock group Oi Va Voi, told me the first time she came to play at the festival. "I could feel the spirits of the people around me, like a culmination of all the energy and emotion at the festival."

Kazimierz is a pleasant 20 to 25 minute walk from the Rynek Glowny. I like to stroll there down Grodzka, a lovely shopping street that passes below the imposing hilltop Wawel Castle, where Polish kings and national heroes are buried. A Jewish prayer room once stood in the courtyard of Grodzka 28/30.

Procede down Stradomska, cross broad Dietla avenue, and after one block turn left on Miodowa street. In a few minutes you will come to the imposing Tempel, a magnificent synagogue built in the 1860s for use by the local Reform community. The only 19th century synagogue to have survived the Holocaust in Poland intact, it was fully restored in the 1990s and is now used for services by visiting groups and also serves as a concert hall.

Continuing along Miodowa, you find the Kupa synagogue, set in a fenced garden on your right. Originally built in the 1640s, it was renovated extensively over the centuries and severely damaged during World War II. It became further dilapidated after the war, when it was used as a workshop. In the past few years, however, it was fully restored by the National Fund for the Restoration of Krakow's Monuments and features brilliantly colored murals from the 1920s and 1930s -- the only examples of this type of 20th century Jewish art to have survived in Krakow.

A few minutes' walk away is Szeroka St., the heart of Jewish Kazimierz, an elongated open space that is the site some of the district's most historic monuments as well as some of its most popular new cafes.

The gothic Old Synagogue, now used as a Jewish museum, dominates one end of Szeroka. Probably built originally in the early 15th century, the massive, fortresslike building was the first synagogue to be constructed in Kazimierz. It has undergone remodeling and renovation over the centuries, and today its distinctive façade, marked by slim corner towers, is a symbol of Jewish Krakow.

Ruined during World War II the synagogue was rebuilt in the 1950s and became a Museum of Jewish History and Culture -- a branch of the Krakow History Museum. There is a permanent exhibition of Judaica and other objects, but the main exhibition is the synagogue itself, with its elaborate wrought-iron bimah, vaulted ceilings and other decorative and architecture elements.

At the other end of Szeroka, in a courtyard behind a large stone gate, stands the tiny Remuh synagogue, built in the mid 16th century and still the center of religious life in Krakow.

The synagogue was founded by Israel Isserles, the father of the important sage Rabbi Moses Isserles, or Remuh, whose tomb in the Old Jewish Cemetery next to the synagogue is still a place of pilgrimage.
Used from 1551 to 1800, the Old Cemetery was already in poor condition in the 1930s and was devastated by the Nazis. In 1959, however, excavations unearthed hundreds of ancient tombstones and fragments that had been buried under the surface. More than 700 tombstones were re-erected in neat rows, providing what is more of a museum of cemetery art than a real cemetery. Broken fragments of tombstones, meanwhile, were used to create a mosaic memorial wall, known today as the Wailing Wall.

The Popper Synagogue (also called the Bocian Synagogue) stands on the opposite side of Szeroka, at the end of a deep shady courtyard that is used in summer by one of the café-restaurants. Built in 1620, its heavily buttressed structure remains intact, but all interior decoration has been lost, and the synagogue has long been used as a cultural center.

Leave Szeroka by Jozefa, a lively street now crowded with interesting shops, boutiques, restaurants and cafes, that historically connected the Jewish and Christian parts of Kazimierz.

At the corner of Jozefa and Jakuba streets stands the so-called High Synagogue, built in around 1560 near what was then a gate into the Jewish town. The façade of the synagogue, with its four buttresses and three arched windows, remains intact, but after World War II the interior was converted to offices and studios. Two doors away, a Hebrew inscription and two stars of David can still be seen on the façade of a former prayer house.

Turn right on Jakuba and walk one block to Izaaka street, where you will find the splendid, 17th century Izaak synagogue, whose entrance is around the corner on Kupa street. The synagogue was restored in the 1990s, revealing beautiful, if fragmentary, frescoes and richly decorative stucco work and other architectural detail under a lofty vaulted ceiling. The upstairs women's gallery is set off by a wonderfully graceful arcade.

Today, the synagogue hosts an exhibition that includes life-sized cut-out figures of pre-war Jews, material on the Holocaust and a film of re-war Jewish life. The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation has its premises in the synagogue complex, where it hosts a variety of youth and educational activities.

Izaaka street leads to Plac Nowy, the other main square of Jewish Kazimierz, whose central area is dominated by a circular market building dating from 1900. The square is still used as an open market place, and it has also become a popular hub for cafes, pubs, and music clubs, some of which stay open into the wee hours. In warm weather the scene spills outside onto Plac Nowy itself, where crowds of young people make music, drink beer and even grill sausages until nearly dawn.

There are several Jewish sites worth visiting a bit further afield. The New Jewish Cemetery, at Miodowa 55, was founded in 1800, after the Old Cemetery went out of use. It is a vast expanse that encompasses thousands of tombstones, many of which are beautifully carved.

The World War II Krakow Ghetto was set up by the Nazis in March 1941 in the Podgorze district, just across the Vistula River from Kazimierz. In Plac Bohaterow Getta (Ghetto Heroes Square), a Museum of National Commemoration contains exhibits on the ghetto and the Nazi occupation. Fragments of the Ghetto walls are also visible in the area, and the one-time enamel factory run by Oskar Schindler still stands at Lipowa 4.

Southeast of the former Ghetto is the site of the infamous Plaszow concentration camp, which was built on the site of a Jewish cemetery. There are monuments here to Jews and others murdered in the camp.


As part of the gentrification of Kazimierz, a clutch of new hotels has opened in the old Jewish quarter. The Hotel Eden, run by an American, is fully kosher and also has a mikvah. Many Kazimierz hotels feature a nostalgic atmosphere harking back to the pre-war past, replete with old paintings and antique furniture. The Klezmer Hois (located in a former Mikvah, tel: +48-12/411-1245) and Alef (tel: +48-12/421-38-70), both on Szeroka, have good restaurants. Hotel Abel is at Jozefa 30 (tel/fax +48-12/411-87-36).

Outside Kazimierz there is a growing choice of hotels on all levels. The Copernicus provides elegant, upscale luxury in a renovated building in the heart of the old town. (Ul. Kanonicza 16; Tel: +48-12/424-3400; Fax: +48-12/424-3405). The Grand, just off the Rynek main market square, dates back to the 1860s and features period décor. (Ul. Slawkowska 5-7. Tel: +48-12/421-7255; fax: +48-12/421-8360). A modern, five-star Sheraton recently opened near Wawel Castle. (Ul. Powisle 7, tel: +48-12/662-1000; Fax +48-12/662-1100).


Klezmer Hois and Alef are just two of the cozy cafes and restaurants serving Jewish style cuisine that are clustered in Kazimierz. Most of them are run by non-Jews and base their appeal on a nostalgia for the lost Jewish past. Locals also recommend Kuchnia I Wino, an intimate bistro at ul Jozefa 13. There is a terrific organic vegetarian cafeteria called Momo at Dietla 49. Don't miss the Persian chlodnik (cold yoghurt soup).

Ruth Ellen Gruber
author of:
Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
University of California Press