Day 30: A Quick History of the Jewish Quarter in Krakow

Here is a partial history of Kazimierz, also known as the Jewish Quarter in Krakow, Poland, as scribbled down during a Free Walking Tour with Krakow Explorers.

King Casimir III who ruled Poland from 1333 to 1370, was known as King Casimir the Great because he was a peaceful ruler. He built 52 castles and a major University. He build Kazimierz and named it after himself. The location was chosen as a way to protect his main castle in Krakow from the south. This new city would be along a major trade route between the Salt Mine and Krakow.

Krzysztof lecturing on the Jewish Quarter.

Salt was extremely valuable at the time.

The King was known to be a womanizer with over 200 mistresses.

(Maybe he should have written a book about how to deal with 200 women at a time.)

One of his favorite mistresses was Esther, a Jewish woman.

(What is it they say? Behind every strong man is a …….)

Many people believed at the time that the Jewish people were responsible for the Black Death plaque (1346 - 1353), but the archeologist, Krzysztof, who led the tour I went on, said the reason the Jewish people stayed healthier during that plaque was due to their ritualized washing practices.

Regular washing wasn’t common at the time.

King Casimir made a law that the Jews could only be judged by him, the King.

So many Jewish people moved to Kazimierz from around Europe. At one time 80% of all Jews in the world lived here. From the 14th to the 17 century life was good.

Then things changed in the 17th century.

Wars and takeovers spoiled the good mood. But many Jewish people stayed on.

Before WWII 30% of Krakow was Jewish.

Two Famous people who came from this Quarter:

Here is a photo of Chaja Rubinstein’s house.

She was born into poverty in 1872. She did not like the man her parents wanted her to marry, so she ran away to Australia--which was quite a feat. She stole her grandmother’s notebook filled with skincare recipes and changed her name to Helena.

She was a beauty. People asked her the secret. She said, “There are no ugly women, only lazy women.”

Helena Rubinstein became the richest woman in the world with her cosmetics company HR which she knowingly sold days before the Great Depression for 7 million dollars, then bought it back later for 1 million dollars.

Her skin care company sold to Loreal.

Maksymilian Faktorowicz was also born here. His company became Max Factor.

Ok. I’m going to be very unprecise about this part.

When the Nazis took over, they decided they wanted Kazimierz for themselves and put up notices giving Jews 2 weeks to move to a ghetto area—across the river, further away from Krakow.

The people who lived in that area were also forced out. One man, a pharmacist refused to move. He gave the Germans vodka. Let them win at cards. Gave them expensive gifts.

So the Germans decided that since the Jews were sickly – Black Death and all – that this man and his family could stay in the ghetto and force the Jews to take medicine.

The pharmacist's house in the ghetto.

He was an ally to Jewish people. He could write prescriptions for them to go to Krakow to get medications. In this way he was able to smuggle food, information and other things into the ghetto.

Information was valuable. They started an underground newspaper to keep the Jewish people informed. The Germans never found out about the newspaper.

How did the pharmacist help? Here is an important example: The Nazis lied. A lot. They told people that for a price they could send money and packages to their loved ones in the camps.

This pharmacist told them the truth. He could see the Jewish people being loaded into train cars across the square from his shop. No food was loaded. Only people. He stopped the Jews from paying huge fees to help their loved ones in the camps.

He later wrote a book that I want to read called “Pharmacy in the Krakow Ghetto.”

It’s supposed to be a short book. If I have a chance to get back to that area, there is an old books store that’s still open that sells it in English.

I like the idea of buying the book here.

Every two weeks the laws in the ghetto became stricter. Jewish people had to stay inside after dark. No Jewish people on public transportation. After a while, they were locked inside all the time.

(Unless they had a script from the pharmacist to go into Krakow. That pharmacist was a brave, brave man.)

The start of the ghetto. This area no longer looks like a ghetto. After the war people wanted to forget their history and rebuilt right away.

The Ghetto was divided into two sections: A/B. A was for people who were useful for the Nazis, B for all children, old people, disabled people and other weak people who would be sent to a death camp.

Parents could opt to move to Section B. Nobody in Section B ever made it back to Section A.

The park where Jewish people were lined up and counted and sent to the camps. Each chair represents 1,000 Jews who were killed.

(Remember, there were two parts to the camps: death camps and concentration camps. Some people from the concentration camps lived. Nobody from the death camps lived.)

The Nazis always waited for holidays, like Purim, to force people into the square and fill the trains.

There was a death camp set up near the ghetto. Many, many people from the ghetto were killed there. First they were buried. But when the Germans knew they were going to lose the war, they dug up the bodies and burned them.

Now this area it is a park and a bunch of businesses. People walk there. Dogs play there.

From time to time dogs pull out human bones from the ground.

My guide, Krzysztof and others want to make a museum on those grounds. There is a lot of opposition from people in the area that prefer cafes, bars and places to make money in that area.

We also had a lecture on Schindler, the man from the movie Schindler’s List.

In short, he was an opportunist. He helped start the war through some guise of dressing released prisoners as Polish guards and having them attack Germany. That started the war. Germany said that Poland attacked.

He did move his factory to save his workers, but historians don’t believe now that he did it as an act of good, but as a way to protect his factory. There were some other shady things that he did. At the time of the lecture I was so appalled that I forgot to take notes.

The older people whom he saved claimed he was a crook. The young children whom were saved claim he was a God.

Many people are upset today that Schindler was given a “Hero’s” burial in a Jewish cemetery when he wasn’t Jewish.

Music at the tram stop.

I wanted to stay and explore the area, but the moment the tour ended and I gave Krzysztof 100 Zloty as a donation towards this free walk, it started to rain. So I ran for the tram.

The rain set a bleak mood.

In four stops on the #74 tram, I went from the area of Krakow’s darkest history to the touristy area.

But for me, the two parts will be forever connected.

After the tour and after the rain, I went to a playground to recharge. This helps.

An old building in Kazimierz.

The bath house in the main square in Kazimierz.





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