Jews probably lived in Kraków already in the 11th century. The first documented evidence of their presence here is from the 13th century. They enjoyed a wide range of freedoms following a charter issued by Bolesław the Pious, Duke of Greater Poland, in 1264. That charter, known as the Statute of Kalisz, was ratified by later kings of unified Poland and came to define the situation of Polish Jews in the subsequent centuries. King Casimir III the Great, who ratified the statute in 1334, took Jews under his special protection and let them play an important role in the economy of his kingdom’s capital.
Jews of Kraków originally lived near the Wavel Hill. Later they settled around today’s Świętej Anny Street, which came to be known as Judengasse. In 1364, King Casimir III established the Jagiellonian University, the main building of which was located on the Jewish street. Consequently, many Jews had to move further north, to the area of today’s Szczepański Square and Świętego Tomasza Street.
Jews also lived in Kazimierz, an independent city southeast of Kraków, founded by King Casimir III in 1335. Although some Jews settled here already in the 14th century, their first arrival en masse took place after their expulsion from Kraków by King John I Albert in 1495. Relations between Jews and local Polish townspeople had soured in the last decades of the 15th century. Jewish bankers were accused of usury and impoverishment of many Poles, and there were various conflicts about trade. Jews were blamed for the fire that ravaged a large part of Kraków in 1494 and were subsequently targeted in a wave of pogroms. The establishment of a Jewish ghetto in Kazimierz served to avoid such instances in the future.
Jews settled in the northeastern part of Kazimierz, on the site of the medieval village of Bawół, located around today’s Szeroka Street. Their community here grew significantly in the 16th and 17th centuries. In 1553, the Jewish area was separated from the rest of Kazimierz by walls, which were expanded in 1608. The area between these walls covered only about one fifth of the territory of Kazimierz, but was home to nearly half of the city’s inhabitants.
The Jewish town of Kazimierz was one of the main spiritual and cultural centres of Polish Jewry in the early modern period. Numerous synagogues and yeshivas were located here, together with the houses of powerful Jewish bankers and merchants. It was home to many of Poland’s finest Jewish scholars, such as Moses Isserles and Nathan Nata Spira, as well as artists and craftsmen, exerting influence wide beyond the city limits.
In the 19th century, under the Austrian rule, Kazimierz lost its status as a separate city and became a district of Kraków. The walls around the Jewish town were torn down. Richer Jews began to move from the overcrowded streets of eastern Kazimierz to the other districts of the city. Nonetheless, the reputation of Kazimierz as a Jewish neighbourhood remained.
During World War Two, most Jewish inhabitants of Kraków (including Kazimierz) were relocated by German occupying forces into the ghetto in the Podgórze district. Most of them were killed during the liquidation of the ghetto or in death camps.
After the war, Kazimierz was devoid of Jews and largely neglected by communist authorities. Its synagogues, looted or destroyed by the Nazis, stood in ruins or were used for various secular purposes for many years.
The key event that brought Cracovians back to Kazimierz was the Jewish Cultural Festival. It was first organized in 1988 and its purpose was to educate people about Jewish culture, history and religion. International attention came in 1993, when Steven Spielberg shot a big part of his Schindler’s List here. Since then many historical sites have been restored and many Jewish-themed restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and bookstores have opened in Kazimierz. It has become a fashionable district of Kraków. The Jewish Cultural Festival has become one of the most celebrated Jewish festivals in the world.
In this portfolio I will introduce the Jewish architectural heritage of Kazimierz. The portfolio consists of four parts:
I will not mention Jewish sites in the other districts of Kraków in this portfolio. Also, my emphasis is on historical sites. I will describe some Holocaust-related monuments of Kazimierz, but I believe that the sites representing the annihilation of Jewish life in Kraków during World War Two deserve a separate portfolio.
The portfolio is fairly representative. It lists all the major historical synagogues as well as some major and minor 19th-century synagogues of Kazimierz. The portfolio also includes all the Jewish cemeteries of Kazimierz. The list of secular buildings could be expanded with structures such as the Landau building, houses where famous Jewish personalities (Mordechai Gebirtig, Helena Rubinstein, etc.) lived, houses with a mezuzah at the entrance, and so on. The portfolio also does not mention the exhibits of the Galicia Jewish Museum.
In the compilation of this portfolio, my main source of information was the Virtual Shtetl portal of the Museum of the History of Polish Jews (POLIN), located in Warsaw.
I took all the photos in June 2019.
You will find the locations of the mentioned sites on the map below.
Part One: Old Synagogues (15th to 17th Centuries)
1. Old Synagogue
15th century (1407 or 1492?); Mateo Gucci, 1557-1570; 17-18th centuries; Jan Ertl, 1888-1889; Jan Sas-Zubrzycki, 1891; Zygmunt Hendl, 1904-1910, 1913-1914 & 1923-1925; Józef Jamroz & Józef Ptak, 1956-1959
The Old Synagogue of Kazimierz is one of the oldest Jewish prayer houses standing in Poland. It was built some time in the 15th century. Sources usually mention years 1407 and 1492. The first of these years may be related to the arrival of Jews who had escaped Prague following a pogrom that took place there in 1389. The second year may be related to the expulsion of Jews from Kraków and their forced settlement in Kazimierz following the order of King John I Albert (although this took place three years later). Even if the synagogue was built in the last decade of the 15th century, it was probably not the first synagogue in Kazimierz, as it is known that a mikveh existed here already before that.
The building was a double-nave synagogue in Gothic style, following the examples of the old synagogues in Worms (1174/1175), Regensburg (1227) and Prague (1270). It burned down in a fire in April 1557. After the fire the synagogue was reconstructed, supposedly by the Italian architect Mateo Gucci, although some sources mention that he died already in around 1550.
The reconstructor kept the previous double-nave plan and added the rib vaults.
The reconstruction gave the building a Renaissance character. Its walls were raised to the present height, the windows were placed high above the ground level, and the structure was covered by an arcaded attic with loophholes. The walls of the reconstructed synagogue were thick and had heavy buttresses to withstand siege. All these features were borrowed from military architecture. They make the Old Synagogue of Kazimierz a rare surviving example of a Polish fortress synagogue.
East façade of the Old Synagogue, with the defensive walls of Kazimierz
The prayer hall of the synagogue is surrounded by annexes, some of which are from the second half of the 16th century. These include the women’s gallery and the vestibule to the north and the women’s room to the west. The women’s gallery is connected to the main prayer hall by small barred windows. The main entrance to the prayer hall is through a Renaissance portal with an inscription, which is also from the second half of the 16th century. There is a cantor’s hall to the south of the main prayer hall, and there was also a hall for the Kehilla in the west.
There are many valuable elements on the inside of the synagogue.
The Torah ark is in Late Renaissance style with Mannerist elements. Its niche is framed by two slender columns, and it is topped by a big Torah crown with a Hebrew inscription from the Book of Proverbs under it and elaborate plant motifs carved in stone around it.
To the left of the Torah ark is an oblong cabinet for the Ner Tamid, while on the right is a cantor’s desk from the 17th century.
The bimah as we see it today is a reconstruction of the bimah from 1570. Its stands on a stone platform with steps on the sides and has beautiful wrought iron in the shape of a canopy.
The synagogue has a treasury in Baroque style from the first half of the 17th century.
There are also some fragments of paintings on the interior walls of the synagogue, either in the form of plant ornaments or inscriptions in Hebrew. These are from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
Fragment of an inscription in the cantor’s hall to the south of the main prayer hall (19th century)
On the wall of the vestibule is a memorial plaque in honour of Tadeusz Kościuszko, who spoke from the Old Synagogue in 1794 to gain the Jewish support for the fight alongside Poles for the freedom of their homeland.
The synagogue underwent several modifications over the history, especially around the turn of the 20th century. Jan Ertl, who led the renovation in 1888-1889, added the Gothic Revival portals to women’s gallery in the north and slightly modified the roofs. Jan Sas-Zubrzycki, in 1891, demolished the Kehilla hall and reconstructed the west façade of the synagogue.
The next series of renovations was led by Zygmunt Hendl, who added new, Renaissance Revival elements to the structure, such as a loggia on the west façade and a portal of the main entrance on the north façade.
Hendl’s original plan from 1904 included an elaborate decorative scheme for the attic as well as decorative portals for the women’s gallery in the north, but these were abandoned due to high costs. In 1913 he drew a much simpler plan, but only parts of it were executed before the outbreak of World War One: a new attic with pinnacles and a new roof of the women’s gallery. In 1923-1925 Hendel added a second floor to the north annex for the purpose of opening a museum. In 1936, the first Jewish museum of Kraków was inaugurated here.
During World War Two the synagogue suffered a lot. Its furnishings were removed and many of its metal elements were melted. On October 28, 1943, thirty Poles were shot near the synagogue.
A cubic monument commemorating thirty Poles who were shot at the synagogue walls in 1943, the women’s gallery in the background
The ruined synagogue was renovated in 1956-1959. It now hosts a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków dedicated to the history and culture of Jews.
2. Remah (Remuh) Synagogue
Stanisław Baranek, 1557 or 1558; August Pluszyński, 1829; 1882; Herman Gutman, 1933; Stefan Świszczowski, 1958-1968; 2008-2013
This synagogue was built by Rabbi Moses Isserles, better known by the Hebrew acronym ReMah (ReMuh), or his family member. It was originally called the New Synagogue, to distinguish it from the Old Synagogue. It is the smallest of the historic synagogues of Kazimierz and was probably a house of prayer for its founder and his family and friends.
The original synagogue was a wooden building constructed in late 1556 or early 1557. It was destroyed in a fire in April 1557. A new masonry synagogue in Renaissance style was built later in 1557 or in 1558.
The main prayer hall of the synagogue is a rectangular single-nave space. There are large windows with round arches in the east and west walls. The prayer hall is covered by a barrel vault, the current version of which dates back to the reconstruction works in 1829.
The synagogue has an attractive Torah ark. It is in Renaissance style and dates back to the time of the construction of the synagogue. The niche is flanked by narrow double pilasters with ornate capitals. Above it is a small inscription surrounging a crown, higher up a larger inscription in a frame, and then further up a panel with the Tablets of the Law, surrounded by colourful plant motifs. On the top is a big Torah crown with red curtains framing the composition.
Next to the Torah ark is the cantor’s desk, reconstructed after World War Two. To its right is a special chair which is always kept vacant. According to the tradition, this is where ReMah used to pray.
Torah ark as seen through the wrought iron of the bimah
The bimah of the synagogue was reconstructed during the renovation works that took place between 1958 and 1968. Its most notable features are the polychrome double doors in Baroque style from the 18th century. These are decorated with reliefs and paintings depicting, among other things, a menorah, a table with showbreads, pitchers and flower baskets. These were probably the doors of the Torah ark of another synagogue in or near Kraków. A one-sided painted door from around 1670, formerly used as an insert under the doors with reliefs, also seems to be exposed here.
Entrance to the prayer hall is through its north wall. Near it is the stone treasury of the synagogue, with a Hebrew inscription mentioning donations and alms. It is a part of the original furnishings of the synagogue, just like its foundation plaque, which is located on the south wall.
There are also remains of paintings on the walls of the synagogue. The oldest ones on the north wall of the main prayer hall are probably from the 17th century.
Wall painting with an inscription above the north entrance of the prayer hall
Wall painting between the openings of the women’s gallery on the west wall of the prayer hall
The women’s gallery was originally located above the vestibule on the north side of the main prayer hall. During the 1829 reconstruction it was moved to the west annex of the synagogue, with three openings connecting it to the main prayer hall. Above these openings are 20th-century paintings, depicting the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb and Noah’s Ark.
Under the main prayer hall is a basement with a portal in Gothic style. It is possibly a remnant of a building from the time before the establishment of the Jewish town in Kazimierz.
The synagogue has various outbuildings and a courtyard. The outbuildings were originally wooden, but were later, mostly in the 19th century, replaced by masonry and metal structures. On the wall of the courtyard there are numerous plaques commemorating the distinguished Jews of Kraków killed during the Holocaust.
The gate that leads to the synagogue has an arch with a Hebrew inscription and a pediment with a beautiful stone relief above it.
Near the main gate of the synagogue is a bench dedicated to Jan Karski, a secret emissary of the Polish underground state who informed the Western leaders of the extermination of Jews that was taking place on Polish territory during World War Two. The bench was designed by Karol Badyna in 2016 and is a part of a series of monumental sculptures installed in the cities of Washington, New York, Tel Aviv, Warsaw, Łódź, and Kielce.
3. High Synagogue
1556-1563, or after 1563; 1657; late 1880s & before World War Two; 1969-1972
The name of this synagogue comes from the fact that it is located on the first floor of a building. There are various reasons that could explain why this synagogue was, uniquely in Poland, placed higher up than what was ordinary. First of all, this plan may have been justified by security reasons. It may also be related to the fact that the synagogue was located in a busy part of the Jewish town and the merchants could better use the economic spaces on the street level. According to one hypothesis, the synagogue was built by Sephardic Jewish immigrants, who preferred to follow the architectural principles of the synagogues of the Venetian Ghetto, all of which are located on the upper floors of a building.
The High Synagogue of Kraków has a counterpart in Prague. The buildings have the same name and a similar general look. The High Synagogue of Prague was completed in 1568 and was modeled on the Kraków synagogue.
The façade of the High Synagogue of Kraków shows a Renaissance portal on the ground floor, a cornice between the ground and first floors, three windows with a semicircular arch on the first floor, a round niche above the central window, and four buttresses between and on the sides of the windows.
The prayer hall was originally accessed by a door which was located in the place of the left window in its north wall. It was originally covered by a barrel vault with lunettes and stucco decoration.
Just like the other historic synagogues of Kazimierz, the High Synagogue was modified numerous times throughout the history. In 1657, a small annex with the women’s gallery was constructed to the north wall. In the late 1880s, a building was added to the west of the synagogue (Józefa 36). The Chewra Ner Tamid Synagogue occupied its ground floor, while on the first floor was a new women’s prayer hall of the High Synagogue. The latter connected to the main prayer hall of the High Synagogue via semicircular openings, which were later expanded so a proper women’s gallery came into being.
The main prayer hall was also connected to the building on the east (Józefa 40), most probably during the reconstruction that took place in 1969-1972. It was at that time that the barrel vault of the main prayer hall was replaced by a flat ceiling, a second floor was added (together with the glass structure seen on the façade), and a new staircase was constructed.
On the east wall of the main prayer hall one finds what I think is the most beautiful Torah ark of all the synagogues of Kraków. It is the oldest Torah ark in Renaissance style in Poland. Its frame probably dates back to the end of the 16th century, while its top is from the late 18th century. Its niche is flanked by slender fluted columns with composite capitals. The rectangular part above it shows two griffins and a Hebrew inscription mentioning the Torah crown. The griffins originally held the crown between their paws. There were also painted curtains on the sides of the columns.
The Torah ark was closed with double doors. The outer doors were made in openwork metal, showing the Polish eagle, a crown, two bears holding a shofar, and birds. At the bottom of these doors was the signature of its authors: Zelaman and Chaim, sons of Aaron. It is the oldest known example of a signature of Jewish artists in a synagogue in Poland. The inner doors were made of wood and were covered with colourful reliefs depicting a menorah, oil jugs, and tables with showbreads. The inner doors are now stored in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
One also notices fragments of paintings on the walls of the synagogue. These are mostly in the form of inscriptions in frames, such as the quotation from the Book of Genesis between the windows on the south wall. Painted images also included liturgical ornaments, such as images of blessing hands or a menorah, as well as biblical motifs, such as Noah’s Ark, the sacrifice of Isaac, the Babylonian captivity, and the Temple of Jerusalem. Many paintings and inscriptions are illegible, because of multiple layers painted between the 17th and the 19th centuries.
Fragments of inscriptions to the left of the Torah ark
Most of the interior and equipment of the synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis. A fire during World War Two completed the destruction. Only the Hanukkah menorah from the 17th century survives. It was taken to the Wavel Castle during the war and is now on permanent display in the Old Synagogue.
4. Wolf Popper Synagogue
1620; 1813, 1827, 1860, 1898, 1904, mid-1960s & 2005
This synagogue was founded by Wolf Popper, one of the wealthiest merchants and bankers in Kazimierz in the early 17th century. He was supposedly called the ‘Stork’, because of his habit of standing on one leg when lost in thought.
The synagogue was located in the back room of Popper’s house on Szeroka Street. Its eastern wall adjoined the defensive wall of Kazimierz. The walls are supported by huge buttresses.
The synagogue is in Baroque style. It originally had rich furnishings, which made it one of the most beautiful buildings in Kazimierz. The maintenance of such a synagogue was, however, extremely costly and contributed to the impoverishment of the heirs of Wolf Popper. Consequently, around the mid-17th century, the synagogue was taken over by the Jewish community of Kazimierz, who did not care much about maintaining its magnificence.
The synagogue was first renovated in 1813. The northern annexes that served as the women’s gallery and the tripartite entrance gate were added in 1827. Subsequent renovations and reconstructions took place in 1860, 1898 and 1904.
Most of the historical furnishings of the synagogue were destroyed by the Nazis during World War Two. Only the oak doors with polychrome bas-reliefs of the Torah ark survive (now in the Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art in Jerusalem).
In the mid-1960s, the building was extensively renovated. The recess of the Torah ark was walled in, the wooden outbuildings were demolished, and the entrance door from Dajwór Street was converted into a window. In the last major renovation, which took place in 2005, the windows were replaced by those resembling pre-war windows and the walls were plastered.
The building was used as a cultural centre for the youth for several decades. Since 2017 it has housed a bookstore and an art gallery.
5. Kupa Synagogue
Miodowa 27 / Warszauera 8
1643; 18th century; 1830-1834; 1861; late 19th century; 1920s
This synagogue got its name from the Hebrew word for a communal treasury, as it was built with the funds from the donations of small merchants and craftsmen. It was located close to the Jewish hospital and was used by the poorest members of the Jewish community of Kazimierz, which is why it was also called the Hospital Synagogue and the Synagogue of the Poor.
The building has a rectangular plan, high semicircular windows, and a gable roof.
The northern wall of the synagogue was originally adjoined to the defensive walls of Kazimierz and its floor was c. 80 cm below the current level. In the 18th century, when the defensive walls of Kazimierz lost their purpose, the building was reconstructed: its walls were raised, new windows were opened in the north wall, a wooden barrel vault was built over the main prayer room, and a garden was created on the north side of the building.
The synagogue was modified multiple times over the 19th and 20th centuries. The most important reconstructions took place in 1830-1834 and 1861, when the western wing was added, with a vestibule on the ground floor and a women’s gallery on the first floor. Two wooden galleries for women were also added to the north and south sides. At the end of the 19th century, the synagogue was connected to the building on its northeastern side.
The synagogue suffered a lot during World War Two. Nonetheless, most of the features of its interior survived the Nazi destruction and were meticulously restored at the beginning of the 21st century.
The Torah ark dates back to the 17th century and is in Baroque style. It is made of carved wood and stucco. It was changed multiple times in the subsequent centuries, most notably in 1778-1779 and 1911-1912. The red curtain painted over the ark is from the 18th century.
In the right window on the eastern wall there is the foundation plaque of the Brotherhood of Priests and Levites. Its top shows hands in the gesture of blessing, a symbol of priests, and a pitcher, a symbol of the Levites. The plaque is from 1646-1647.
One also finds various paintings in different parts of the interior. The oldest of them date back to the 17th and 18th centuries, while the newest are from the 1920s.
The older paintings, on the southern and western walls, show sacred texts and ornaments with predominant floral motifs. To the left of the Torah ark is an image of a table with twelve showbreads, symbolising the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The western wall of the main prayer hall shows three paintings with biblical scenes, separated by images of Corinthian columns. On the level of the women’s galleries in the north and south, there is a rare cycle of zodiac signs.
Fragments of ornamented text in the southeastern corner of the main prayer hall
Ornamented text in the southwestern corner of the main prayer hall
Paintings on the western wall of the main prayer hall
Remarkable, too, is the painted decoration of the ceiling of the main prayer room. Between elaborate colourful geometric patterns one spots panels with images of the Western Wall, the Oak of Mamre, the Great Flood and the views of Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias, Jaffa and Haifa. The panels at the corners show musical instruments. The paintings are from 1925. Their authors are unidentified.
Southern half of the painted ceiling above the main prayer hall
Panels with images of Tiberias, Jaffa and the Western Wall on the ceiling above the main prayer hall
Some paintings show realistic images of humans, such as Noah leading animals into the Ark, or the panel depicting the Gemini. These paintings are very rare, as the use of human images is discouraged in Jewish art.
6. Izaak Jakubowicz Synagogue
Giovanni Battista Trevano, Francesco Olivieri or Jan Laitner, 1638-1644; other modifications – 18th to 20th centuries; entrance porch with stairs – Zygmunt Prokesz, 1924
This synagogue got its name from its donor, Izaak Jakubowicz, a merchant and a banker of King Ladislaus IV. According to a legend first told by the Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa in the early 19th century, Izaak Jakubowicz, a poor but pious Jew, once had a dream of a treasure being hidden under a bridge in Prague. He woke up and went immediately to Prague to find the treasure, only to be stopped by soldiers guarding the bridge. He approached an officer, told him about his dream and promised him half of the treasure. The officer retorted, ‘Only fools like Polish Jews can possibly believe in dreams. For several nights now I have been dreaming that in the Jewish town of Kazimierz there is a hidden treasure in the oven of the home of the poor Izaak Jakubowicz. Do you think I am so stupid as to go all the way to Kraków and look for the house of this Izaak Jakubowicz?’. Izaak returned home, dismantled the oven, found the treasure and became rich. After this it was said: ‘There are some things which you can look for in the whole wide world, only to find them in your home. Before you realise this, however, you very often have to go on a journey and search far and wide.’
The synagogue looks rather plain from the outside. It is a tall structure with a strong vertical emphasis. 18th-century buttresses at the corners and between the windows on the south side support a large gable roof. The building was originally accessed through a stone portal in the south wall. In the 19th century the main entrance was moved from the south to the west façade. The current entrance with a porch and stairs is from 1924. In the north, the building adjoins the Mizrachi Synagogue, added in the 1930s.
Izaak Synagogue as seen from the west
Original south portal of the Izaak Synagogue
The interior of the synagogue is among the most beautiful in Kazimierz. When it was opened to the public for the first time, many thought that it was was too beautiful a building for Jews to have.
The prayer hall of the synagogue is covered by a barrel vault adorned with geometric patterns of stucco in Baroque style. These were probably designed by Giovanni Battista Falconi.
The Torah ark of the synagogue is a reconstruction from 1994-1995. It is topped by a painting showing the Tablets of the Law and the Torah crown as well as some remnants of an orange curtain in the background. Originally there were stone stairs in front of the Torah ark, and it was closed by a richly decorated metal gate.
The interior walls of the synagogue show numerous remains of polychrome paintings. These are mostly from the 17th and 18th centuries. The oldest painting, a biblical quotation at the top of the eastern wall, is from 1643-1644. On the both sides of the Torah ark are small panels with inscriptions of priestly blessings. The representation of a menorah to the right of the Torah ark is probably from the mid-17th century. To the left of the Torah ark were painted images of twelve showbreads, which symbolise the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Panel with an inscription of a priestly blessing and a menorah to the right of the Torah ark
There are many paintings on the other walls of the synagogue as well. Most of them show inscriptions of liturgical texts in decorative frames. The foundation inscription, which dates back to 1665-1666, can be found on the southern wall. The panels are of a similar size, proportions and composition. There are many plant ornaments in their decorative scheme.
Inscription on the south wall
Inscriptions on the north wall
To the west of the main prayer hall is a vestibule with a women’s gallery. The latter is separated from the main hall by five Renaissance arches and reminds one of the architecture of a Renaissance cloister.
The synagogue had a bimah with a wrought-iron canopy, modeled on the bimah of the Old Synagogue. This, together with the Torah ark and several other features, was destroyed by the Nazis during World War Two.
After the war, there were plans to convert the synagogue into a church. The building was used for secular purposes until it was returned to the Jewish community, renovated and opened to the public.