Kazimierz, a historical district of Krakow originally founded as a separate city, is well known for having been home to a significant Jewish community since the 14th century on until the Holocaust in World War II. Having been granted the freedom of worship, trade and travel, the Jews had played an important role in local economy since the end of 13th century.
The Jewish community in Krakow had lived undisturbed alongside their Christian neighbours under the protective King Kazimierz III, the last king of the Piast dynasty. The oldest synagogue building in Poland was built in Kazimierz either in 1407 or 1492 (the date varies with several sources).
The Jews were granted all the rights by Bolesław the Pious in his General Charter of Jewish Liberties issued as early as 1264. On 27 March 1335, King Casimir III of Poland (Kazimierz Wielki) declared the two western suburbs of Krakow to be a new town named after him, Kazimierz. In 1494 a disastrous fire destroyed a large part of Krakow. In 1495 the Polish king Jan I Olbracht transferred the Jews from the ravaged Old Town to the Bawół district of Kazimierz. The Jewish Qahal petitioned the Kazimierz town council for the right to build its own interior walls, cutting across the western end of the older defensive walls in 1553. Due to the growth of the community and influx of Jews from Bohemia, the walls were expanded again in 1608. In 1791, Kazimierz lost its status as a separate city and became a district of Krakow. The richer Jewish families quickly moved out of the overcrowded streets of eastern Kazimierz. Because of the injunction against travel on the Shabbat, however, most Jewish families stayed relatively close to the historic synagogues in the old neighbourhood, the so-called “Oppidum Judaeorum”, maintaining Kazimierz’s reputation as a “Jewish district” long after the concept ceased to have any administrative meaning. By the 1930s, Krakow had 120 officially registered synagogues and prayer houses scattered across the city and much of Jewish intellectual life had moved to new centres like Podgórze. During World War II, the Jews of Krakow, including those of Kazimierz, were forced by the Nazis into a crowded ghetto in Podgórze, across the river. Most of them were later killed during the liquidation of the ghetto or in death camps.
The area between the walls of Kazimierz was known as the Oppidum Judaeorum, the Jewish City, which represented only about one-fifth of the geographical area of Kazimierz, but nearly half of its inhabitants. The Oppidum became the main spiritual and cultural centre of Polish Jewry, hosting many of Poland’s finest Jewish scholars, artists and craftsmen.
Among the famous inhabitants of the Oppidum Judaeorum were the Talmudist Moses Isserles, the Kabbalist Natan Szpiro, and the royal physician Shmuel bar Meshulam. The golden age of the Oppidum came to an end in 1782, when the Austrian Emperor Joseph II disbanded the qahal. In 1822, the walls were torn down, removing any physical reminder of the old borders between Jewish and Christian Kazimierz.
After World War II, devoid of Jews, Kazimierz was neglected by the communist authorities. Since 1988, however, a popular annual Jewish Cultural Festival has drawn Cracovians back to the heart of the Oppidum and re-introduced Jewish culture to a generation of Poles who have grown up without Poland’s historic Jewish community.
Since 1993, there have been parallel developments in the restoration of important historic sites in Kazimierz and a booming growth in Jewish-themed restaurants, bars, bookstores and souvenir shops. There are also Jews returning to Kazimierz from Israel and America. Kazimierz is having a booming growth in Jewish population recently. A Jewish youth group now meets weekly in Kazimierz and the Remuh Synagogue actively serves a small congregation of mostly elderly Cracovian Jews.
In 1993, Steven Spielberg shot his film “Schindler’s List” largely in Kazimierz (in spite of the fact that very little of the action historically took place there). This drew international attention to the district.