Keeping alive the memory of Krakow's "golden era" of Jewish life

In pre-war Poland - Jews were one of the largest minorities. And in the southern city of Kraków they played a prominent role in everyday life with a thriving and dynamic culture. Eighty years after this golden era, the International Cultural Centre is hosting an exhibition that serves as a reminder of what everyday life in Jewish Kraków was really like.

KazimierzKazimierz Walking through the streets of Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Poland’s southern city of Kraków, one begins to wonder… What was life really like for Jews who lived in this neighbourhood, and what did everyday life look like? The question may seem ordinary enough, but Kraków’s Jewish heritage reaches far beyond the confines of the district of Kazimierz. The International Cultural Centre, a museum and NGO in Kraków’s Main Market Square, is holding an exhibition of photographs and various memorabilia, as a testament to the city’s Jewish heritage in the interwar period of 1918 – 1939.

“The idea of the exhibiton came from Professor Aleksander Skotnicki, a doctor who looked after Jewish Cracovians after the War. He has a number of friends at home and abroad, and has been collecting photographs and memorabilia from people who survived the War in Kraków, and proposed the idea to us to hold such an exhibiton.”

Urszula Podraza, a communications officer from the International Cultural Centre, explains how the exhibition came to light:

“The exhibition was put together by three curators, Agnieszka Sabor, Katarzyna Zimmerer and Barbara Zbroja. They put a lot of work into collecting the documentation and history of pre-war Jews living in Kraków. Apart from photographs, there are many sources from the “Nowy Dziennik” daily Jewish newspaper, which was published in Polish, and also recorded conversations with old Jewish residents of Kraków who remember that time.”

The exhibition is also a reminder of the social make-up of the city. In true Cracovian style, I went for a coffee with Dr. Annamaria Orla-Bukowska, a social anthropologist at the Jagiellonian University, and spoke to her about the exhibition, and its importance to the history of Kraków.

“… to make that world come back to life, and to see that it was real, and extremely natural and normal, that in Kraków, where 25% of the population was Jewish, that you could walk down the street and you could see religious Hassidic Jews, who looked stereotypically Jewish, but you could also walk down the Planty [park] and see Polish Jews who looked very Cracovian, who looked very Polish, and to show this multi-mix that was so normal and everyday in the interwar years and before the light goes out, to shine a light on it, on this world…”

What is forgotten is that the Jews of Kraków were not just limited to the confines of the district of Kazimierz, which is now commonly called the Jewish quarter.

“The Jews historically lived in one quarter of Kazimierz, then in the 17th century when the walls came down they started living everwhere in Kazimierz but also near Wawel castle, across Dietla [street], from Kazimierz, from in fact the Christian side of Kazimierz.”

“We tend to think stereotypically. When it comes to Jews in Kraków before the War, we think of Jews wearing kippahs and with ringlets, walking around or trading in the district of Kazimierz. That’s only part of the picture. Our exhibition shows a map of pre-war Kraków. So many places were associated with the Jewish community: not just in Kazimierz, but also the Main Market Square, and all the streets leading to it. Jewish citizens before the War were doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Even the president of the city at one time was a Jew. They were soldiers and fought for the Polish Army, above all they were patriots. Of course they remembered their Jewish roots, but they also felt Polish, and as such played a role in the country’s everyday life.”

The exhibition carries the title “A World Before A Catastrophe”, and with due cause. Jewish life in Kraków was all but wiped out during the Second World War, and even though the terrors of the Shoah cannot be undone, at least there is a chance that the memory of Kraków’s Jews before the War can be relived, somehow.