History by Jewish Virtual Library
Jews arrived in Krakow in the late 13th century among German immigrants traveling on a commercial route to Prague. Kazimierz, located on the outskirts of Krakow and founded in 1335 by King Casmir the Great, became the main center for Jewish settlement. By the 14th century, Jews had established an organized community. Records reveal a mikvah, bathhouse and cemetery by the 1350's. Jews owned homes and building plots in their quarter and in neighboring quarters of the city in 1312; however, Jewish ownership was resented and protests began in 1369 against Jewish activities. A municipal council requested in 1392 that Jews should only be allowed to sell their homes to non-Jews.
Disagreements continued between the Jews and the other residents of Krakow during the 15th century. One disagreement flared due to the construction of a university building on a street in the overcrowded Jewish district. University students frequently attacked the Jewish residents and forced Jewish bankers to give low-interest loans to them. Blood libels and mob attacks against Jews broke out in 1407 and 1423. Another set of anti-Jewish riots followed the visit of a Franciscan Preacher John of Capistrano in 1457. In 1469, Jews were forced to vacate the street that housed the university building and move to another area near one of the synagogues. In 1485, Jews signed an agreement under duress, barring them from most branches of commerce. More riots were set off after a fire spread from a Jewish street to one inhabited by Christian residents in June 1494. Finally, in 1495, Jews were expelled from Krakow to Kazimierz, by order of the King.
Jews stayed in Kazimierz until 1868, when the Kazimierz and Krakow communities merged. During the interim, Jews had some rights to trade and work in Krakow. In 1407, construction began on the Alte Schil, the oldest medieval synagogue preserved in Poland. By 1487, a Jewish bathhouse, marketplace and cemetery were in existence in Kazimierz. The Kazimierz Jewish community was run by four elected elders who judged lawsuits between Jews.
Also in the 15th century, Jacob Pollack settled in Kazimierz and founded the first yeshiva, and talmudic learning began to spread throughout Poland.
An influx of immigrants from Bohemia-Moravia, as well as from Germany, Italy, Spain and Portugal came to Kazimierz in the 16th century. Among those who came were wealthy men and physicians who had special tax exemptions from the King of Poland. These privileges were revoked into 1563, after complaints from Jewish community leaders.
Overcrowding in Kazimierz became a problem because of the influx of immigrants. In 1553, Jews were allowed to extended the size of Kasimierz. In 1564, they were given the sole right to acquire residence in the Jewish town. By the 1570's, the Jewish population of Kazimierz numbered about 2,060.
One of the greatest rabbis of the 16th century Rabbi Moses ben Isserles (1525-1572) lived and taught in Kazimierz. He is known for his commentaries to the Shulkhan Arukh, which expanded the religious code to Ashkenazic Jews, as well as Sephardic Jews. Rabbi Isserles’ works were printed in the Hebrew printing press, which had started in the 1530's and was active until the 19th century.
This period is marked by intense struggle between Jewish traders and Christian merchants over Jewish commercial rights in Christian sectors. An agreement was made in 1609, which allowed Jews to trade freely in Kazimierz and in another local town. Limited Jewish economic activity was permitted in Krakow proper and depended on bribery; nevertheless, Jewish trade continued to develop in Krakow and was recognized by de facto royal decisions.
Cultural life in Krakow-Kazimierz flourished in this period. Seven main synagogues were functioning by 1644, including the Alte Schul and the Rema Synagogue. A number of yeshivot founded in the late 16th century continued to grow, making Krakow a center of Jewish learning. Krakow-Kazimierz became one of the principal communities in the Council of Lands.
The Council of Lands is the council of Jewish communities of Poland. It was in charge of Jewish livelihood, muncipal affairs, disputes, loans, fairs, commerce, interaction with non-Jews, Torah study, appointment of Rabbis and tax collection. It could impose punishments for infractions of their rulings, such as imprisonment, expulsion, fines and a herem (ban).
Krakow’s population grew during the 1630's with a large immigration from Jews fleeing from Germany during the Thirty Years’ War. The Jewish community experienced hardships, however, during the Swedish invasion and occupation from 1655-57. Jewish property was harmed and Jews were accused of collaboration with the Swedes.
In the late 17th century, Jews were increasingly subject to attacks by students and to blood libels. A plague in 1677 killed 1,000 Jews in Kazimierz and most of the Jewish quarter was abandoned. The community reorganized in 1680 and reopened its yeshivas, but was buffeted again two years later by renewed anti-Jewish rioting.
The 18th century was marked by the struggle between the citizens of Krakow and the Jews of Kazimierz over closing Krakow to Jewish trade and crafts. The anti-Jewish restrictions were ineffectual and Jews became involved in many areas of trade, including furs, wax, soap, salt and tobacco. Jews served as gold and silversmiths and worked in the import-export industries. Unfortunately, the majority of Kazimierz Jews remained impoverished, despite the rise of a Jewish merchant class. Then, in 1761, the Senate of Poland prohibited Jewish commerce in Krakow.
From 1772-1776, Kazimierz became part of Austria and Krakow remained part of Poland. Austrian authorities permitted the Jews to travel to Krakow, but the Krakow municipality tried to stop them. In 1772, Kazimierz returned to Austria, however, Jewish commerce in Krakow was still forbidden.
In late 1776, the king allowed the Kazimierz municipality to increase Jewish commerce rights. During this period, many wealthy Krakow Jews moved to Warsaw.
The period between 1768-72, known as the Confederacy of the Bar, is marked by violence perpetrated against the Jews by both the Russians and the confederates, whom both considered the Jews to be the enemy. Jews were hung on branches of trees and both sides demanded that Jews provide them with food, housing of soldiers and help in espionage services.
In 1795, Krakow and its surrounding areas were annexed by Austria and in 1799 all Jewish businesses were removed from Krakow by order of the Austrian Authorities.
Krakow changed hands again in 1809 and became part of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The Krakow Republic was formed between 1815-1846. During this period, Jews were allowed to live in the Jewish section of Kazimierz and "cultured" (assimilated) Jews were permitted to live in the Christian sections.
By 1833, the Jewish population of Krakow numbered 10,820. A Jewish elementary school was opened in 1830. In 1844, the first Reform synagogue opened in Krakow. In 1846, the Krakow Republic ceased functioning and Krakow became part of Austria once again.
Krakow was emancipated in 1867-68 and Jews were given permission to settle in Krakow proper. Jewish community institutions were abolished and assimilationists and maskilim (Followers of the Jewish enlightenment) became the new leaders of the Jewish Religious Council. The first secular Hebrew public Library in Krakow opened in 1876.
Krakow had a diverse network of schools by the end of the 19th Century, including traditional hederim (the Heder was small elementary school classroom, often located in the house of the Rabbi), as well as elementary and secondary schools taught in Polish and German.
Jews became part of the Polish-German cultural life in Krakow. At the same time, Jewish nationalists became popular and chapters of Zionist Organizations were established.
In 1900, Krakow had a Jewish population of 25,670.
Anti-Semitism continued to grow since the late 19th century and pogroms broke out. A self-defense group of Jewish youth organized and was able to defend themselves against the riots.
The Jewish community continued to grow in the period and reached 56,800, in 1931. Krakow became a center of Jewish political and social life in Poland.
At the start of World War II, there were 60,000 Jews living in Krakow. The German occupation began on September 6, 1939. The Germans dismantled the Jewish community organization and appointed a Judenrat to administer to Jewish affairs. An order was given in April 1940 for Jews to evacuate Krakow within four months. In that period, 35,000 Jews left the city and 15,000 were allowed to remain. Krakow became the capital of Nazi-occupied Poland.
In March 1941, a ghetto was built and housed 20,000 Jews, including 6,000 Jews from neighboring communities. Deportations began in June 1942; 5,000 Jews were sent to the Belzec death camp. In October 1942, 6,000 Jews were deported to Belzec. Patients at the hospital, residents of the old age home and 300 children at the orphanage were killed in the aktion. Another several hundred Jews were put to death in the ghetto itself.
The Jewish Combat Organization was active in organizing resistance in the ghetto. A Zionist resistance group, Akiva, and a leftist group, joined together to form the ZOB. Their group ceased to function after the remaining Jews were sent to the Plaszow labor camp in March 1943.
In the Zablocie district of Krakow, Oscar Schindler had a factory, which he used to save 1,098 Jews from Plaszow. His factory became a subcamp of the Nazi concentration camp system. He paid the German Reich for their labor. The film, Schindler’s List, was filmed on site in the Krakow ghetto.
Only 2,000 Jews from Krakow survived the war. Some Jews who lived in Russia during the war returned to Krakow in 1945-46. A Jewish community was not re-established because of a fear of progroms. The last Jew left Kazimierz in 1968. About 700 Jews remained in Krakow after 1968. Today, roughly 200 Jews, mainly elderly, live in Krakow. Despite the dwindling population, interest in preserving Jewish history has been rekindled. A new Jewish research institute was established in Jugiellonian University and a Jewish Cultural Center was set up in Kazimierz. Every two years, Kazimierz hosts a Jewish cultural festival that has music, dance, film and theater.