Kazimierz’s Polyphonies

7 October 2023

Kazimierz isn’t just a silent witness to a complicated past – it is a living and inclusive space for Kraków’s new residents to come together.

Jakub Nowakowski

As Cracovians, we have the honour to live in a very special place: the city is Poland’s historic and cultural heart filled with traces of the past and tangible heritage which has withstood conflagrations, wars and epidemics. But Kraków, as well as the former Galicia region, is notable for another, darker reason: here, traces of Poland’s once thriving Jewish populations coexist with scars left by the Holocaust which are more literal and physical than anywhere else. Nowhere else is the destruction wrought by the Nazis as tangible as in today’s Polish and Ukrainian lands. And the evidence of the devastation is so enduring and omnipresent here because historic Galicia was Europe’s greatest centre of Jewish life and culture. This entire world, of which Kraków – Kroke – was an important part was ravaged in the wake of Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in September 1939 and the Second World War that followed. In an instant, Poland turned from being a centre of Jewish life into an epicentre of Jewish death. During the Holocaust committed by the Nazis and their supporters in conquered European lands, 90% of Polish Jews were murdered – that’s over three million people.

What’s more, the post-war political and social realities meant that the physical elements of this world which did survive remained forgotten for decades. Remembrance was replaced by a forced amnesia bringing a further mass devastation of the surviving shards of this shattered world. With a few exceptions, synagogues and temples were converted into workshops, offices and shops. Sites of mass murder became allotments, while the squares where people were deported from to the extermination site at Bełżec became a railway station. Buildings and other sites which were serving Jewish communities just a few years earlier turned into enigmatic artefacts only vaguely recalling pre-war times. That was the reality of Kraków and Poland just 40 years ago.

The shift came in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when we first started discussing publicly the remains of the Jewish heritage – a heritage we inherited whether we wanted it or not. It was our own Atlantis. The discussions were held in different locations and on different levels: Prof. Gierowski spoke at the Jagiellonian University, while Janusz Makuch and Krzysztof Gierat were starting to develop their Jewish Culture Festival. The Jewish Cultural Centre was created in 1993 – the same year when Steven Spielberg was filming Schindler’s List. I was ten years old, and I clearly remember the excitement which spread throughout Kazimierz, as well as the endless conversations that followed: of the film itself, of the story it told, and how it portrayed us Poles.

In the following years, we witness Kazimierz’s transformation as it was gradually being discovered by tourists – and by locals. Suddenly, to the great surprise of us, the district’s residents, Kazimierz became fashionable. New bars, restaurants, hotels, Klezmers, tour guides, hawkers… Progressing commerce and the ubiquitous kitsch offering the illusion of culture – Jew-rassic park

Fortunately, thanks to the city’s policies and tireless work of scholars and activists – as well as the gradual return of Jewish life – Kazimierz started to change once again. Fragments of the past were beginning to emerge from imagined threads of the story, and something unique started to arise on its foundations.

When the British photographer Chris Schwarz was founding the Galicia Jewish Museum, this was exactly what he was looking for. Chris wanted to create a space which would commemorate Jewish life and culture in this part of Europe; somewhere where visitors could interact with living Jewish culture regardless of their own background. Over time, the museum gained another, even more important goal: participating in the rebirth of Jewish life in Poland – a process taking place in front of our very eyes.

Today, institutions concerning the history and culture of Cracovian Jews exist alongside numerous dynamic Jewish institutions: the Jewish Community Centre, the Religious Community, Chabad, Or-Hadasz and FestivAlt. For the first time since the 1970s, Poland is hearing a growing polyphony of Jewish voices, testament to the existing opportunities and trends, from Orthodox, via progressive, all the way to completely secular. This polyphony, bustle, noise and pluralism, and even the tensions and problems they create, are testimony of the genuine vitality of this world.

I was extremely lucky to have been witness to these changes, and, to some extent, their participant. I come from a Gentile family which happened to have lived in Kazimierz for generations. We never talked about Jews when I was growing up; we felt no sadness nor satisfaction that Jews were no longer here. The historic synagogues didn’t enchant us or make us proud. They were simply there, part of the landscape – which, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was frankly rather shabby.

Yet we were surrounded by traces of Jewish life. When I was naughty, my mum called me a “bachor” – a Polish version of the Hebrew bahur meaning a young boy. Important holidays were always accompanied by fish prepared according to a traditional Jewish recipe… And that was that. We adopted crumbs of this vanished world without even realising, and made them part of our own lives.

Of course, Kazimierz’s Jews left behind far, far more. Apartments, furniture, shoes, clothes, cushions, toys… an entire microcosm of the world which previously defined their social status and described who they were and who they aspired to be. We see such details in photos taken during the liquidation of Kraków’s ghetto – packages strewn around as Jewish people were being herded from Zgody Square (now Bohaterów Getta Square – Heroes of the Ghetto Square [trans.]) towards wagons awaiting in Płaszów.

My family had been living in Kazimierz since before the Second World War, but most of our neighbours moved in after 1945. They filled the empty space and drowned out the terrible silence left behind by the murdered Jews. In fact, they filled them with their own stories to the brim, so that they didn’t – we didn’t – leave any space for other sounds. We overwrote the history of this place to create a palimpsest of myriad human voices.

Still, things shifted over time. We started to notice that the stories we told each other were incomplete. We picked up on details which didn’t quite fit. We started asking questions, and – more importantly – we started searching for answers.

It was these questions which led me to the Galicia Jewish Museum; I have had the honour to serve as its director since 2010. In the intervening 13 years, the museum has changed considerably – as have Kazimierz, Kraków and the whole world around us. We have seen a shift in the demographics of our visitors: in 2010, over 90% of our approx. 20,000 guests came from abroad. By 2019, the total number rose to over 70,000 visitors, with around 40% from Poland. The same year, the museum held numerous programmes and events beyond its walls, with over 40,000 participants throughout Poland. This shift reflects the rapid growth of interest in Jewish history and culture in recent years.

Although these changes haven’t been halted by political tensions, the pandemic or the war in Ukraine, it’s true to say that the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees will have an impact on our city. It will bring new challenges, but I am quite sure that it will also bring fresh opportunities.

In any case, Kraków is already a multicultural city as we can see in the streets, kindergartens, schools, parks and shops. Kazimierz, the former Jewish district, is once again a centre of Jewish life with its synagogues, Jewish Community Centre and the Jewish Religious Community. However, while just twenty years ago the centre of Kazimierz was dominated by Jewish-style culture, today it is home to restaurants with owners from all over the globe; of course many serve Jewish and Israeli cuisines, but others also offer Polish, Mediterranean, Italian, Asian, Georgian, Mexican and French dishes.

This shift reveals that the extraordinary space of Kraków’s Kazimierz has moved beyond the framework of the phantasm which was prevalent for many years before. This was possible thanks to the returning Jewish institutions and life, as well as by the influx of new arrivals bringing in elements of their own cultures, religions and cuisines. Once again they are overwriting the existing space, enriching it in the process. And the process works both ways: Kraków’s history and heritage also have an impact on them. Our inclusivity means everyone is able to participate equally and fully in the city’s life. This openness isn’t just an element of our history; to a large extent it’s also an important element of municipal policies and programmes which all mean Kraków is so easy to fall in love with. And so hard to leave…

The text was published in the 3/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

Jakub Nowakowski

photo by Piotr Banasik
Graduate of the Faculty of Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University. He joined the team of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków in 2005, serving as director between 2010 and 2023. Co-author of numerous publications and curator and co-curator of exhibitions held at the museum. In 2023, he and his family left Kraków to move to Cape Town (South Africa), where he took over as director of the Cape Town Holocaust & Genocide Centre.


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