Krakow is known for its well-preserved downtown (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site), a diverse cultural life as well as a cheap party destination. However, when I had the opportunity to visit Krakow last year, it was soon clear for me that the former Jewish district – Kazimierz, is one of the most exciting attractions.
Overall, the architecture in Krakow has been spared from the war. Kazimierz is the largest single Jewish building complex in Central Europe – and this is special. The “hardware” is present, so to speak. It is fascinating to visit, because in other European cities, the architectural heritage of the Jewish Holocaust was destroyed. And since the fall of the Berlin wall, a very lively cultural neighbourhood has emerged.
Led by the klezmer music festival and in the wake of the film “Schindler’s List” (which was filmed on location in Krakow), a tourist stream on the search for Jewish culture came in. Eastern Europeans come to search for a Jewish heritage that was denied for decades, Western Europeans are in search of a Jewish culture that was razed to the ground in their home countries. And then there are American Jews in search of their roots.
As in other European cities, there was no living Jewish culture in Krakow for decades. The Nazis might have spared the architectural heritage, but the Jewish community was almost completely destroyed. Thus, although there is almost no Jewish community in Krakow, a new Jewish “culture” was developed, which is gratefully accepted by the numerous tourists . The annual klezmer music festival, the many Jewish restaurants, dishes with “Jewish” names and supportetd by gentle klezmer music. All this has been established from the 90s on and is enjoying increasing popularity. The interesting thing is, that neither the operator nor the actors and guests have a Jewish background.
The history of the extermination of Jews in Krakow is simultaneously present and perceptible – however, there is a new staging of the shtetl, as a lost tradition, but almost without Jews. This Jewish theme tourism is now is its own niche – with restaurants, souvenir shops and kitsch which establish themselves within the built heritage. Ruth Ellen Gruber writes:
“Jewish” has now come to represent something bygone but fondly remembered; a losst world, with the overlay of lost possessions, lost comforts; low-lit and sepia toned, yet slightly exotic.
No doubt there is a fine line between commercialisation and the revival of a long-submerged heritage. In any case it is good to see, that these developments may be a small contribution against anti-Semitism.
Further reading and photos:
Ruth Ellen Gruber – The expert regarding jewish theme tourism in Europe, a richt source with many textes.
A lovely site about Kazmierz – with a lot of pictures and explanations
Scenes from a Krakow Cafe – good article, drawing the development of Kazimierz from the fall of the Berlin Wall until today