In 1335, the town of Kazimierz was founded by King Kazimierz (Casimir) the Great. At that time, it was a town in its own right, with its own Town Hall, defense wall and position of wealth and prestige. In the 15th century, Kraków’s Jewish population was moved there. As a result of this, Kazimierz became a place for Jewish culture to grow – then came WWII and the Nazis’ determined attempts to wipe out both the people and the culture. Today, Kazimierz is thriving: building facades have been lovingly renovated, cafés and restaurants with great ambiance line the cobbled streets, art galleries abound and the music plays long into the night. This is one part of Kraków that must be seen to be believed – and simply cannot be missed.
The Kazimierz Galicia Museum
Towards the end of the 18th century, Poland was divided up between Russia, Austria and Prussia. The part annexed by Austria was known as Galicia and it included Kraków. The Kazimierz Galicia Museum (www.galiciajewishmuseum.org), which takes its name from that region, was opened officially on June 27, 2004 and since then, has attracted great international attention. Three years ago, Dick Cheney held a reception at the museum for U.S. Holocaust survivors. Elie Wiesel, a veteran campaigner on Holocaust issues, also attended.
The museum’s initial purpose was to exhibit photographs taken by the late Chris Schwarz over a ten-year period. At the time he was a professional and award-winning photographer, then he was the founder, owner and director of the museum. Having discovered a suitable building, it seemed natural to add a café and a bookshop. Then, Chris also decided to put on cultural events, a practice that has continued under the Museum’s new directorship since his death on July 29, 2007 of cancer: every month, there are concerts, lectures, dance workshops and lessons in Hebrew and Yiddish. The museum is at ul. Dajwór 18, and you can get there by walking towards the Old Synagogue on ul. Szeroka, then turning left down a short road and then turning right into ul. Dajwór. The museum is about 80 metres down the street on the left.
The main exhibit is the Traces of Memory permanent exhibition, which shows some of the photographs Chris took. It is divided into five sections: the ruins, the original culture, the horror of destruction, efforts to preserve traces of memory and the people involved. Some of the images are positive. One shows a small clump of trees in the middle of an area of cultivated land. The local people know that beneath the trees lies a Jewish cemetery; they respect the sanctity of the area. Another picture provokes both sadness and anger: it shows Jewish tombstones used to pave the entrance to a private dwelling.
For Chris the museum’s activities gave rise to a troubling, even tormenting, question: How can there be Jewish culture without Jews? If young Poles play Jewish music or learn Hebrew or Yiddish from a Polish teacher, is that Jewish culture? The harsh truth is that such things can never be more than a pale shadow of what existed before, but the alternative is to let the elements of culture preserved at the museum die and become forgotten in Kazimierz. The Jewish community is ageing and within ten to fifteen years there may be no genuine Jewish presence in Kraków. It can be argued that a pale shadow is better than total erasure. After all, as Henryk Halkowski – a surviving Kraków Jew – said, “(The) Jews are gone. One can only try to preserve, maintain and fix the memory of them - not only of their struggle and death (as in Warsaw and Auschwitz), but of their life, of the values that guided their yearnings, of the international life and their unique culture. (Kraków) was one of the places where that life was most rich, most beautiful, most varied, and the most evidence of it has survived here.”
At the south end of ul. Szeroka stands the Old Synagogue. It was built about 600 years ago and rebuilt in 1570; today it is a museum. Here, you can see what the interior of a synagogue looks like and the various artefacts used in Jewish worship. There is also an exhibition on the history of Hasidism (Hasid means ‘pious’ or ‘God-fearing’). Another synagogue you can visit in ul. Szeroka is the Remuh synagogue, which is open to the public from Monday to Friday. The gates are also open on Saturdays, but tourists should not wander absentmindedly in because this is a working synagogue with worship every Sabbath. It was built in the 16th century and named after a rabbinical scholar whose codification of Jewish law helped to make Kraków an important place of learning for Jews.
On the way into the synagogue and cemetery you pass a number of plaques commemorating the dead, some as recent as 2004. There is a charge of zł.5, which goes into the restoration fund. Men must cover their heads whilst inside.
One way to honour and preserve the memory of the Jewish culture and its people is through music. The music most frequently advertised in Kazimierz is klezmer music, a sort of Yiddish jazz that originated in Eastern Europe, but this form - which traditionally has no singer - is only one type of traditional Jewish music. As with any culture, there are many kinds of song. There are love songs of the traditional genre as well as parental love songs addressed to their children, songs of nostalgia and a particularly beautiful song dedicated to Vilnius (Wilno). There are also songs of the ghetto, of resistance and of the Shoah. They are sad songs sung beautifully and with great integrity.
Traditional Yiddish music existed long before WWII, but the music born in the Jewish ghettos of Poland is unique: it gave Jews comfort, courage and hope. The music lives on today, all over the world, from Israel to the USA – anywhere people still remember the ghettos, and what happened in them.
Jewish musicians, composers and poets, trapped within the walls of Polish ghettos, used music to say forbidden things. The songs were a way to resist, to show solidarity – and to laugh. One popular Warsaw tune said, “Me hot zey in dr’erd, me vet zey iberlebn, me vet noch derlebn” (“To hell with them, we will survive them, we will yet survive.”)
Ghetto music was also used to scoff at the Nazis. Jewish musicians – many of whom were well-known professionals - were forced to play at Nazi parties; they would play a popular melody, which had been given new words of resistance, and the Germans would dance, oblivious to the hidden meaning. For most Jews, music was the only defiant voice that they had.
The most famous ghetto song is undoubtedly“Zog nit keyn mol” (“Never Say”), which was written by Polish-Jew Hirsch Glick (1920-1942). Every Jew in every ghetto and every camp in Eastern Europe knew this song: “Never say that this is your last road, but always go further. Wherever our blood flows, our courage and strength shall grow stronger”. It became the anthem of the Polish partisans who led the 1943 Uprising in the Warsaw ghetto, where a small group of Jews held out against the Germans for 27 days. The Uprising itself inspired“Varshe” (“Warsaw”). Shmerke Kaczerginski wrote the lyrics: “‘There will be no day’ - calls the Jew - ‘and no night’, ‘The world will never be forgiven! They who are lost, those who fell in the fight, will live on in us forever!’”
If you’re interested in hearing some klezmer music this summer, Kraków has its annual Jewish Culture Festival in Kazimierz, highlighting Jewish film, music, cuisine and culture (www. jewishfestival.pl). Falling between June 27 and July 6, it boasts klezmer, as well as films, lectures, dancing, food and more.
For those who perhaps need musical accompaniment while walking through Kazimierz’s cobbled streets, bring your discman and Polish singer Justyna Steczkowska’s album, Alkimja. It has its roots in Yiddish music, and many of the lyrics refer to Jewish culture. There are numerous quotations in Yiddish, and although you won’t be able to understand, they’re performed so spectacularly by this Polish siren that it doesn’t matter. She sings about love, optimism and survival: perfect for visiting the places which inspired Kraków’s ghetto music of resistance and hope.
Tadeusz Jakobowicz (pictured here), was little more than a toddler at the time of the liquidation of the Podgórze ghetto (this is an area of Kazimierz, made famous by Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List: the scene with the little girl in the red coat was filmed there). It might be thought odd to think of someone so young at the time as a survivor, but the liquidation of the ghetto on the 13th and 14th of March in 1943 began with the shooting of around 100 infants. Jakobowicz escaped with his family to the forest and lived there until the end of the war. He has lived in Kazimierz all his life. In 1968, his father was imprisoned for nine months for refusing to sign a petition condemning Israel as the aggressor in the six-day war of 1967. Because of the Polish government’s anti-Semitic policies at this time, many of the Jews remaining in Poland fl ed to other countries.
More recently, as the man in charge of the Jewish Community’s affairs, Mr. Jakobowicz has been responsible for the progamme of buying back and renovating the synagogues of the area: “Jestem właścicielem,” (“I am the owner”) he told Discover Poland’s Andy Dobson with a smile.
The community also provides meals for the old and sick, both in their homes and with a kosher kitchen that makes 13 dinners a day. Mr. Jakobowicz is one of the youngest members of the Jewish community, and he estimates the current number of Jews in Kraków at between 150 and 160.
When Mr. Dobson asked Mr. Jakobowicz how he viewed the museums and restaurants in Kazimierz which preserve Jewish culture, he replied that the Kraków that existed before the war had vanished into history and would never return, but that it was important to remember the past. He saw the restaurants like Klezmer Hois (ul. Szeroka 6) and Alef (ul. Szeroka 17) as playing a positive role and he added that Chris’s photographs in The Kazimierz Galicia Museum were wonderful.
Mr. Dobson finally asked him the question that Chris had put to him a few years earlier, “How can there be Jewish culture without Jews?” Mr. Jakobowicz smiled and said that there were examples of Jewish cultural centres without Jews, but that he did not see institutions like The Kazimierz Galicia Museum in that way. Kazimierz still has a Jewish spirit...just waiting to be discovered by visitors.
Andy Dobson and Michelle Smith