Between Two Worlds

20 June 2024

Cultural events, dissemination of understanding of Judaism, building an awareness of our common history… is Kraków becoming a platform for Polish-Jewish dialogue?

Dr Edyta Gawron

In recent month, the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kraków presented an exhibition of photographs by Agnieszka Traczewska titled Kroke. Orthodox Jews in Kraków. The beautiful images took us into a world “just around the corner” – a world completely unknown to many, often associated with the interwar era or contemporary Orthodox communities in Israel or the US. Yet Jewish life with all its religious traditions exists right here and now.

Seeing the surprised faces of visitors to the exhibition provoked the following question: to what extent is the heritage of Cracovian Jews, their past and present lives, an integral and familiar part of the city in the present day?

Learning and understanding

In recent decades, Kraków has initiated many events and discussions important to the Christian/Jewish and Polish/Jewish relationships, from a debate in the “Tygodnik Powszechny” weekly inspired by an article by Jan Błoński (The Poor Poles Look at the Ghetto, 1987), via the first editions of the Jewish Culture Festival (since 1988) and the Covenant Club of Christians and Jews, to the annual Fr. Stanisław Musiał Prize (since 2008). The preserved infrastructure in the former Jewish quarter of Kazimierz and traces of the community which once dwelled there were and remain important reasons why interest in Jewish history and culture is as powerful as ever. The Jagiellonian University has been offering courses in Jewish Studies for over 30 years; they were formalised with the foundation of the faculty and then the Institute of Jewish Studies. Undergraduates, PhD students and readers of the University of the Third Age expand their understanding, improve their competencies and experience Jewish culture in practice. However, the most prominent group regularly gaining qualifications in understanding Judaism and the history of Cracovian Jews and their heritage, in particular of the material kind, are educators and guides.

Jewish heritage in tourism

The demand for tourist guides, first in Kazimierz and soon after in Podgórze, appeared rather suddenly in the early 1990s. It was likely driven by several processes, such as the fall of communism, opening of borders and growing numbers of tourists. Additionally, the global success of Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List bolstered interest in past and contemporary Jewish life in Kraków, with a particular focus on the Holocaust and its tangible after-effects. It’s been over 30 years since the film’s premiere, yet it remains a source of inspiration or reference point for vast numbers of visitors to Kazimierz and Podgórze. Millions of tourists visit locations linked to Jewish heritage, meaning that Kraków has had to rethink the city’s tourism policies. When you look at what travel agencies and tour guides offer to visitors, apart from sightseeing around Kraków’s Old Town, Wawel Castle and taking a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mine, it is specifically Kazimierz, the former Jewish ghetto and Oskar Schindler’s Factory which are must-see destinations.

This wouldn’t be possible without the involvement of municipal institutions and many non-governmental organisations, foundations and associations. The Historical Museum of the City of Krakow (now Museum of Krakow) was one of the first to get involved with Jewish culture and heritage. The exhibition at the Old Synagogue outlines the foundations of Judaism, concepts of Jewish heritage and selected elements of local history to Cracovians and visitors alike. Other institutions soon followed, including the Pod Orłem Pharmacy in the former Jewish ghetto in Podgórze and the Oskar Schindler Factory, and, more recently, the KL Plaszow Museum, now independent of the Museum of Krakow. Their permanent and temporary exhibitions and extensive programmes of meetings, educational projects and remembrance initiatives are helping to improve the integration of Jewish history with that of the city in general. This is an important reminder of the role played by the local Jewish community over the centuries; before the Second World War, around a quarter of the city’s population was Jewish.


The process of restoring the memories of local Jews involves numerous non-governmental institutions and local initiatives, many from beyond the traditional association between Jewish heritage exclusively with Kazimierz and the ghetto. Events held as part of the Jewish Culture Festival, film screenings and discussions as part of various film festivals and exhibitions, both at the Galicia Jewish Museum and presented outdoors, reveal Jewish presence in the cultural life of our city and throughout Poland. Many events take the format of cultural dialogue and reflection on this coexistence, for example through the activities of the Center for Jewish Culture and the Stradom Centre for Dialogue which operated for many years. Recent years have seen the arrival of new cyclical events such as FestivALT and projects commemorating specific people, places, events and traditions.

Many of these initiatives wouldn’t be possible without research and educational projects being held alongside them, many of which uncover fascinating and important stories from the depths of archives and memories of local residents. The Institute of Jewish Studies and the Centre of the Study on the History and Culture of Kraków’s Jews, both at the Jagiellonian University, are some of the academic institutions which have made major contributions to the development of Jewish studies in recent years, as well as improving the understanding of Jewish history and heritage in Kraków and publishing many important papers on the subject. The local publishing house Austeria has produced many important monographs, while the Wydawnictwo Literackie publishing house launched the extensive, illustrated Not Only “Kroke”. History of Kraków’s Jews in 2022. There are other examples and there are likely to be more in the future.

Jewish life here and now

When we discuss Kraków’s Jewish heritage and the increasingly clear dialogue between cultures, we mustn’t forget the experiences of Jewish people living in our city today – the city which was home to one of the first Jewish districts in Poland. Cracovian Jews are about far more than history dating back over a millennium and the extensive material and intellectual heritage: the contemporary Jewish community in Kraków may not be large but it is active and dynamic. As well as the conservative Jewish Religious Community in Kraków, in 2008 the Jewish Community Centre (JCC) was founded as a far more contemporary institution. Kraków is also home to progressive Jewish communities, originally associated through Beit Kraków and later also Or Hadasz. The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has been active in Kraków for a few years, supporting Orthodox Hasidic ways of life. There are growing numbers of initiatives aimed at Jewish children and young people provided by the Hillel Gimel club. As well as the few hundred Jewish people living in today’s Kraków, the city also welcomes thousands of Jewish tourists and pilgrims. The latter mainly include Hasidic Jews travelling to Poland to visit graves of their ancestors and Tzadikim, and seeing Kraków as an important place to visit. They are aware of the unique heritage of Cracovian rabbis, for example Moses Isserles, and the Jewish Orthodox educator Sarah Schenirer, but they don’t know the city’s secular Jewish history, which is far better understood by Cracovians, both Jews and gentiles alike.

New dimensions of coexistence

From both historical and contemporary perspectives, Jewish Kraków remains on the boundary between worlds, in the intertwining space of heritage which is international and local, Jewish and Polish, diasporic and Cracovian; a world which is real and imagined at the same time. Our city’s Jewish heritage gives its inhabitants opportunities to discover a far broader world of Judaism and the extent of the Jewish diaspora; in turn, for Jews visiting Kraków it serves almost as an excuse to discover the city and country’s gentile heritage. For many Jews in Israel and diaspora countries, Poland is a land of their ancestors. Past censuses reveal that the local Jewish community mainly combines Jewish and Polish identities. For many centuries the Kazimierz district was an example of a coexistence – yes, with restrictions imposed from above, but still existing. Today this coexistence has a new dimension: it is a Jewish district with Christian neighbours, and it is a district of entertainment, cafés, pubs and restaurants. This blend, while not always perfect, is symbolised by the intersections of Meiselsa and Bożego Ciała streets (with the Hevre bar and arts venue at the former Jewish prayer house) and Berka Joselewicza with Św. Sebastiana streets (with the Jewish Association Czulent).

Finding the right dialogue

Neither the presence of Jews in Kraków nor the myriad educational projects of recent years have managed to eliminate stereotypes and their visual depictions, such as figurines of Jews holding coins and other knick-knacks bordering on typecasting, kitsch, superstition and, yes, antisemitism. Still, Kraków can be proud of the fact that it was the first city in Poland to start eliminating such “souvenirs” and showing how damaging they are for social reasons and for the city’s image in general. Discussions on forums of cultural and educational institutions reveal the continuing need for education and improved awareness when it comes to traditions, such as the negative portrayal of Jews in nativity plays. As long as there is openness to discussion and learning, we can continue developing dialogue; a dialogue which won’t be limited to the Jewish Culture Festival and the Day of Judaism in the Catholic Church but which will continue on all levels throughout the year. A dialogue which won’t shy away from difficult questions and complicated relationships and which is absolutely essential, not just because of our city’s past but, more than anything, thinking about its future.

Dr Edyta Gawron
photo by Anna Wojnar
A historian working at the Institute of Jewish Studies at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. Expert at the European Commission and head of the Galicia Jewish Institute Foundation. She specialises in contemporary history of Jews in Poland, the Holocaust and the Jewish diaspora of the 20th century. Publicist, curator and co-curator of historical exhibitions, for example the permanent exhibition at the former Oskar Schindler Factory (branch of the Museum of Krakow); member of the Programme Board of the KL Plaszow Museum and the International Cultural Centre in Kraków.

Article published in 1/2024 issue of Kraków Culture quarterly.


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