Kraków. Location of the nineteenth-century Jewish district on a modern map.

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Kraków after 1795

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The Jews of Kraków and neighboring Kazimierz, annexed to the city in 1802, experienced several changes throughout the nineteenth century. First under the Duchy of Warsaw (1809–1815) and then under the Republic of Kraków (1815–1846), Jews continued to be subject to domestic and economic restrictions. The ideologies of liberal Polish nationalism and Jewish enlightenment became influential.

Dov Berush Meisels, appointed rabbi in 1832, supported Polish nationalists in their failed 1846 uprising, after which Kraków was awarded to Austrian Galicia. The city’s Jewish elite increasingly identified themselves as enlightened progressives; the Tempel synagogue (established in 1862) served as their center. The Orthodox community also maintained its strength, and the influence of Hasidism grew. Following emancipation in 1867, each of these groups sought to control the kahal, the Jewish community’s self-governing body, as well as local educational and charitable institutions. Members of Kraków’s Polish-speaking Jewish elite served on the city council from the 1840s to 1939.

Street scene, Kraków, ca. 1917. Stereograph published by Keystone View Co. (Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-74822)

The arrival in 1897 of Ozjasz Thon as rabbi of the Tempel synagogue spurred the development of Kraków’s Zionist movement. Thon’s rabbinical leadership, embrace of Zionism, and mastery of Polish were signs of future trends. The Hebrew journal Ha-Mitspeh (The Observer; 1903–1921) chronicled Zionist activity, and the Yiddish-language Zionist labor journal Der yidisher arbeter (The Jewish Worker) was published there as well (1905–1914). The collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918 paved the way for Polish nationalists to achieve their goals. Anti-Jewish violence immediately following World War I, including pogroms in April 1918 and June 1919, made plain the need for Jewish self-defense. Zionist leaders then published the Polish-language Nowy Dziennik (New Daily) from 1918 to 1939 and fought for Jewish national rights within Poland.

In 1900, Kraków’s Jews numbered 25,000, representing 28 percent of the total population. The proportion of Jews remained constant at 25 percent. Jews totaled 56,000 in 1931. Most lived in Kazimierz, but significant numbers lived in other districts, including the city center. The majority of Jews were engaged in commerce and crafts, but at the beginning of the twentieth century Jews were also well represented in the professions, making up almost a quarter of Kraków’s doctors and roughly half of its lawyers. During the interwar period, many Jewish cultural and social initiatives flourished, including private bilingual Polish and Hebrew schools and the Beys Yankev Seminary, which trained teachers for Sarah Schenirer’s Beys Yankev schools for Orthodox girls. Led by individual Jews working outside the kahal, these groups reflected the diversity of the Jewish community and the attempt to establish a Jewish national identity within the Polish environment.

Members of the well-to-do Faust family in Planty Park, Kraków, 1931. (YIVO)

While assimilationism as a political alternative failed, Kraków’s Jews continued to favor the Polish language in greater numbers than Jews elsewhere. The Bund published the journal Walka (Struggle) in Kraków from 1924 to 1927. Notwithstanding the importance of such Yiddish cultural figures as the poet and composer Mordkhe Gebirtig, the city deserved its reputation as a center of Polonized Jewish culture.

Soon after the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, mass persecutions began. The ghetto in Podgórze was established in March 1941. Young Jews formerly active in Zionist youth clubs led resistance efforts, culminating in a December 1942 attack against Nazi officers in the Cyganeria café. A series of deportations to Bełżec ended in the ghetto’s liquidation in March 1943, after which the remaining Jews were transferred to the Płaszów labor camp. The German industrialist Oskar Schindler rescued more than 1,000 Jews by hiring them to work in his factory and then arranging for their transport to Czechoslovakia. Few Jews returned to Kraków after the war, and tensions between Poles and Jews remained high. An August 1945 pogrom claimed an estimated five lives.

Passersby, including Hasidic Jews, on Ułica Szeroka (Broad Street), the main street of the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz, Kraków, Poland, 1935. (Amateur footage by tourist Earl Morse.) (YIVO)

A very small community of Jews stayed in Kraków, and in the 1990s a revival of Jewish culture took place. The Center for Jewish Culture, located in Kazimierz, organizes a variety of public events; a popular Jewish cultural festival is held each year. A center for Jewish studies has been established at the Jagiellonian University, while many of the remaining synagogues in Kazimierz are gradually being restored.

Suggested Reading

Aryeh Bauminger, Me’ir Bosak, and Natan Mikha’el Gelber, eds., Sefer Krako (Jerusalem, 1958/59); Halina Nelken, And Yet, I Am Here!, trans. Halina Nelken with Alicia Nitecki (Amherst, Mass., 1999); Abraham Wein and Aharon Vais, eds., “Kra’kov / Kraków,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 3, Galitsyah ha-ma‘arivit ve-Silezyah, pp. 1–43 (Jerusalem, 1984).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 105, Films, Collection, 1930s-1950s; RG 116, Territorial Collection: Poland 2, , 1939-1945 (finding aid); RG 215, Berlin Collection, Records, 1931-1945; RG 760, Louis Lewin, Papers, .