Kazimierz, the former Jewish quarter, is an absolute must that defies easy description. It's a tumbled-down, decrepit former ghetto, filled with the haunting artifacts of a culture that was brutally uprooted and destroyed a generation ago. It also happens to be Kraków's coolest nightclub district, filled with cafes, cocktail bars, and trendy eateries that would not be out of place in New York's SoHo or East Village. The juxtaposition is enlivening and jarring at the same time. To their credit, Kraków city authorities have resisted (at least, for the time being) the temptation to clean up the area to make it more presentable to visitors. Don't expect an easy, tourist-friendly experience. It's dirty, down at the heel, and at the same time thoroughly engaging.
Kazimierz began life as a Polish city in the 14th century, but starting from around 1500 onward, it took on an increasingly Jewish character as Jews first decided to live here, and then were forced to by edict. The original Jewish ghetto incorporated the northern half of modern-day Kazimierz, bounded by a stone wall along today's Józefa Street. In the 19th century, the Jews won the right of abode, and the walls were eventually torn down. Many elected to stay in Kazimierz, and the 19th century through World War I and the start of World War II is regarded as the quarter's heyday.
The Nazi invasion in 1939 put an end to centuries of Jewish life here. The Nazis first imposed a series of harsh measures on Jewish life, and then, in 1941, forcibly expelled the residents across the river to the newly constructed ghetto at Podgórze. By 1943, with the liquidation of the Podgórze ghetto, nearly all of Kazimierz's prewar Jewish population of 60,000 had been killed or died of starvation or exhaustion.
There's no prescribed plan for visiting the former Jewish quarter. The natural point of departure is the central Plac Nowy, once the quarter's main market and now given over to a depressing combination of fruit and flea market (no doubt with real fleas). The Tourist Information Center maintains an office at Józefa 7 (tel. 12/422-04-71; daily 9am-5pm), and can provide maps and information. Look, too, for signposted routes marked "Trasa zabytków zydowskych," which include all the major Jewish sites. Visit the synagogues individually; each costs from 5 z to 9 z to enter, with prices for children and seniors about 60% of the basic adult admission fee. Don't expect to find gorgeous interiors; it's fortunate enough that these buildings are still standing.
After you've toured the major sites, don't overlook the Galicia Jewish Museum on Dajwór Street, just beyond the main ghetto area. Also check out the New Cemetery (Nowy Cmentarz) at the far end of Miodowa Street (Miodowa 55; Sun-Fri 9am-5pm); you have to walk below a railroad underpass to get to it. This became the main Jewish cemetery in the 19th century, and the thousands of headstones are silent testimony to the former size of this community.
Note: When entering all synagogues, men should cover their heads and women their shoulders.
South of Kazimierz, across the Vistula River, is the wartime Jewish ghetto of Podgórze. It was here, at today's Plac Bohaterów Getta, where thousands of the city's Jews were forcibly moved and incarcerated in March 1941. Much of the area has since been rebuilt, and walking the modern street plan today, you'll be hard-pressed to imagine what it must have been like for thousands of Jews to be pent up here with only the prospect of eventually being sent to the camps at Auschwitz or, more nearby, Paszów. The ghetto was eventually razed in 1943 and the inhabitants murdered. Look for the Apteka Pod Orem on the Plac Bohaterów Getta, which today houses a small but fascinating museum on the history of the ghetto.
This part of Kraków is sometimes called "Schindler's Kraków" since the enamel factory where German industrialist Oskar Schindler employed his Jewish workforce is a 10- to 15-minute walk away (follow Lipowa St., which leads away from the Plac Bohaterów Getta). The factory has recently been spruced up and now houses a museum to the history of Kraków during World War II.
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