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Kazimierz Jewish District

Kazimierz is a fascinating historical district tied closely with the Jewish culture. It was built in 1335 by Kazimierz Wielki (in fact that's why the quarter was named Kazimierz). The idea was that there would be another center in competition to Kraków. For many years, the district has been well-known in the world as a seat of the biggest Jewish community in Europe. Unfortunately, World War II closed this historical chapter when the Nazis killed almost 70 000 Krakow Jews. Now it is part of the Old Town (Stare Miasto) urban district and is one of the most fashionable quarters of the city, where synagogues, old cemeteries, shops, and cafes still remain.

From the 14th until the 19th century, Kazimierz was an independent town, separated from Krakow by the branch of the Vistula river. Founded on the Magdeburg Law, the town was located on the right side of the river in the vicinity of the trade route connecting Wrocław with Rus and Hungary. Its main artery was Krakowska street, which exists to this day. Kazimierz was a place where Christian and Jewish cultures coexisted for centuries. In 1978, to cultivate the memory of this tradition, Kazimierz, together with Krakow’s Old Town and Wawel Castle, was placed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List.

Kazimierz was a very interesting and impressive city. Its square-shaped market square (Wolnica square) sized 195 x 195m used to be almost as large as the Krakow Market Square and served similar functions - trading activities took place there, it was town hall's location, where the highest administrative and judicial authorities of the city of Kazimierz had their seat. From each side of this square, there were leading three streets. On the corners of the square, two gothic temples were built, and both of them survived to this day in a great state. Those are Corpus Christi Church on the east side and St. Catherine's Church on the west. Today's Wolnica Square, half the size of the original one, gained its borders after Kazimierz was incorporated into Krakow in 1800. In its south-eastern part, there is a sculpture/fountain, Three Musicians - the work of the Krakow artist Bronisław Chromy. The only evidence of Kazimierz's former urban independence is the lofty town hall at Wolnica Square. Once gothic (relics of the 14th-century walls are preserved in the basement), it burned twice and was rebuilt each time. As a result of these changes, it gained battlement attics, rare in Krakow, and a tower covered with a modest helmet. After Kazimierz was incorporated into Krakow, the town hall lost its function and fell into ruin; with time, it was adapted to the needs of an industrial and commercial school, and later a primary school for Jewish youth. A plaque was placed on the eastern wall in 1996 to commemorate the admission to Poland of Jewish refugees persecuted in other parts of Europe during the reign of King Kazimierz Wielki: it replaced the original bas-relief removed by the Germans during the occupation. After World War II, the Ethnographic Museum found its place here. The branch of the museum is located near the Esterka House in Krakowska Street. Tradition rather unreasonably links it with Esterka, a colorful figure of the Jewish mistress of King Kazimierz Wielki, painted by Jan Długosz. What is certain is that this gothic house (preserved cellars and stonework of windows) in the 16th century belonged to the builder and councilor of Kazimierz, Bartolomeo Berrecci. Today, Wolnica Square has lost its market character. Only the name reminds us of its functions. There are no remains of a shearing room, scales, or cloth halls as on the Krakow market square. Currently, apart from the place of walks and meetings, he temporarily performs cultural functions. A number of events, especially culinary ones, take place here. The most famous are: Lesser Poland Festival of Taste, Soup Festival, Krakow Honey Harvest, or Bread Festival.

The history of Kazimierz on a bigger scale starts in 1495 when contemporary king Jan Olbracht forced all Krakow Jews to leave the city and move to the other side of the river. Thereafter, numerous groups of Israelites from various parts of Europe began to flood Kazimierz. Chased out of Czechia, Italy, Spain, Germany, or Moravia, here in Kazimierz they found their homeland. 

In the 16th century, Kazimierz became an important European center of Orthodox law, which was promoted here by the rabbi of the local community, founder of the Talmudic Academy in 1550, and its rector, eminent scholar, and philosopher, Moses Isserles. What is more, in 1530, the first Jewish printing house and bookshop in this part of Europe were established in Kazimierz.

Unfortunately, when the capital was moved from Krakow to Warsaw, the city began to get impoverished. Then Kazimierz was acutely affected by the fights with the Swedes. After the partitions, it was incorporated into Krakow, where it served as a run-down suburb. In 1822, the walls, behind which the Jews were forced to live, were demolished, and they were allowed to populate the entire Kazimierz, as well as Kraków. Jews continued to settle mainly in this area. The Second World War changed everything. The synagogues and their valuable goods were plundered and converted into ammunition warehouses. Most of the local residents were either destroyed or fled and Kazimierz was deserted. Many buildings were destroyed or abandoned. But after the famous American director Steven Spielberg made the film "Schindler's List" in 1993, interest in Kazimierz increased again. The houses began to be restored, tourists came here. Now a walk around Kazimierz can become an independent and rather interesting excursion for a couple of hours.

The heart of the district was Szeroka Street - a big square with four synagogues and a few prayer houses and two cemeteries. It is in this square that for several years, at the beginning of July, the final concert of the Jewish Culture Festival - Shalom on Szeroka - takes place. The first and most important synagogue founded in Kazimierz in the 15th century (probably in 1407) is the Old Synagogue located at Szeroka Street at the end of Joseph Street. Rebuilt many times, it owes its present shape to the reconstruction from the 1950s. Currently, inside there is a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, presenting monuments from the field of Jewish history and culture. The synagogue building is adjacent to the reconstructed fragment of the defensive walls of former Kazimierz.

The only active synagogue today is the famous Remuh synagogue, founded in the middle of the 16th century by a wealthy Jew, Israel Isserles Auerbach, for his son, the outstanding rabbi Moses Isserles, called Remuh. In a modest interior, you can see a centrally located bimah, and on the eastern wall, a Renaissance altar cabinet, the so-called Aron Kodesh. Adjacent to the synagogue is one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Poland, unfortunately, destroyed to a large extent by the Nazis, and recently carefully tidied up and restored.

A very important part of the Jewish District in Krakow is Nowy Square (Plac Nowy). Back in the days, it used to be the heart of the bustling Jewish district, the main meeting point, and the crossing point for the daily paths of its inhabitants. It is difficult to call Plac Nowy a typical marketplace. The character of this place changes with the life of the whole district. If you ask anyone about Plac Nowy, he will immediately answer “Okrąglak”. Built in the years 1899-1900 as a covered market hall, now is full of little food kiosks serving a typical polish snack - zapiekanka. This is the kind of dish that you can buy at a small kiosk or cafe, or a bar, on every central pedestrian street in Poland and beyond. Zapiekanka is a famous Polish fast food, hot sandwich whose fame has long spread beyond Poland. Okrąglak is a destination for evening gastronomic pilgrimages, a meeting place, a point of sale of the cult casseroles. It occupies the central part of the square, but hardly anyone knows that the outer ring hides a historic inner hall. Not so long ago, it was possible to rent a place for trade there, but over the years there were fewer and fewer people interested in hidden points. In 1927, the building was leased to the Jewish Community and a ritual poultry slaughterhouse was established there. After the war, Okrąglak again became a market hall, although for most of the years it was only a warehouse for traders selling their goods here at stalls.

There are many abandoned houses on the old streets of the Jewish quarter. Almost all of them are of historical value and therefore cannot be rebuilt. The owners of the houses carry out only cosmetic repairs, slightly repainting the facades. Sometimes some of them have small art galleries or cafes.

Currently, Kazimierz is experiencing its second youth. It is eagerly visited not only by tourists but also by the inhabitants of Krakow. There are many cute cafes, adorable restaurants, and art galleries, which, combined with the unforgettable atmosphere of the district, create a very unique place that everyone is falling in love with. 

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