There once was a poor Jew from Krakow named Izaak Jakubowicz who had a dream: Buried near Prague’s Charles Bridge was a great treasure waiting just for him. The first time Izaak had this dream he ignored it. But after having the same dream many times, he decided to go to Prague to claim his fortune. To his dismay, a battalion of soldiers was camped near the bridge. Izaak waited and waited for the soldiers to leave. Meanwhile, the commander had noticed Izaak and decided the Jew must be a spy. He ordered a few of his soldiers to bring the Jew to him for questioning.
Izaak had no choice but to reveal his reason for being there. The commander burst out laughing. “Foolish Jew!” he said. “I also keep having the same dream. But I’m not so foolish as to go to Krakow and start digging under the stove of a poor Jew named Izaak Jakubowicz!”
When he heard that, Izaak hurried back to Krakow, where he did indeed find a great fortune buried under his stove.
It’s a nice story, but is it true? In Krakow, to ask such a question seems almost sacrilegious. After all, you can still see the magnificent Izaak Synagogue, which was built by Jakubowicz in 1664, after he became rich, and is one of the city’s treasures. You can also see Izaak Jakubowicz’s house, from the famous cemetery in back of the Rema’s shul, which is also the stuff of legends.
In fact, you can barely turn around in Krakow’s Jewish quarter without bumping into a legend of some sort. Sometimes the legends involve a poor Jew like Izaak and sometimes they involve a great talmid chacham like the Rema or the Megaleh Amukos, because Krakow was as known for its simple but pious Jews as for its scholars – a distinguished history that earned Krakow the title of Mother City in Israel.
Krakow vs. Kazimierz
In the 960s, a Jewish merchant from Spain named Ibrahim ibn Jakub made a journey to Western and Central Europe. Along with his descriptions of Vikings and a meeting with Holy Emperor Otto I, the intrepid traveler became the first to mention in writing the city of Krakow. While Ibrahim, or Avraham ben Yaakov, encountered other Jewish merchants during his travels, known as Radhanites, it is thought that a permanent Jewish settlement in Krakow only occurred a century later.
That initial kehillah grew during the 1300s, when Jews fleeing from persecution in Germany found refuge there. King Casimir the Great granted the growing kehillah certain rights in 1334, such as the ability to engage in trade and practice the Jewish religion. But during the 1400s, Krakow’s non-Jewish businessmen openly expressed their displeasure with Jewish competition. Things came to a head in 1494, when a fire broke out in a street in Krakow’s Jewish quarter and spread to a neighboring Christian area.
Although it wasn’t the first fire to destroy parts of Krakow, the angry populace accused the Jews of starting this one and the kehillah was expelled to nearby Kazimierz, where they remained for several centuries. Thus, much of what we think of as Krakow’s Jewish history didn’t actually take place in Krakow, but in Kazimierz. But since the Jews continued to do business in the thriving metropolis, they still considered themselves to be members of the Krakow kehillah.
A Golden Age of Learning and Legends
During the 16th and 17th centuries, few kehillos were as blessed with spiritual riches as Kazimierz. Among the Jews who left Bohemia in the early 1500s and settled there was Rav Yaakov Pollak, founder of the pilpul style of learning Talmud. He established a yeshiva in his new home, and among his talmidim were Rav Shalom Schachna of Lublin and Maharam Padua.
Rav Moshe Isserles, the Rema, was born in Kazimierz to a wealthy and learned family, and the Rema synagogue, renovated several times during subsequent centuries, is still a functioning shul. Considered one of the greatest European halachic authorities, the Rema was the author of HaMappah, a commentary on the Shulchan Aruch. One legend involving the Rema concerns a lavish wedding that began on a Friday afternoon and continued into Shabbat. When the guests refused to listen to the Rema’s pleas to end the celebration and respect the holy day, the earth opened and swallowed them up. A small fenced in square on Szeroka Street marks the spot where this happened, and from that time on it was forbidden to have a wedding on Erev Shabbat.
The kabbalist Rav Nosson Nota Shapira, the Megaleh Amukos, was a chief rabbi of Krakow and played an important role in spreading the teachings of the Arizal throughout Poland. It is said that Eliyahu HaNavi was a frequent visitor to his house, which is located near the former marketplace and is still standing.
Rav Yoel Sirkis, called the Bach after his sefer Bayit Chadash, also lived in Kazimierz and served as rav of the city from 1618 to 1640. He was succeeded by Rav Yom Tov Lipman Heller, known as the Tosefos Yom Tov after his commentary on the Mishna. But by this time, Krakow and its suburbs were under attack and the city’s fortunes were starting to fade.
War and More War
Krakow’s status as Poland’s foremost city had already changed in 1596, when the administrative capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was moved to Warsaw. During the Chemielnicki Uprising of 1648-49, tens of thousands of Jews were slaughtered and many of those who survived were transformed into penniless refugees. The Uprising weakened the Polish leadership as well, and the Russians, Turks and Swedes subsequently attacked Poland.
When the Swedish army occupied Krakow in 1655, both Swedish and Polish soldiers pillaged the Jewish quarter. Even after the two-year occupation came to an end, there was no relief for the city’s Jews, who were accused of collaborating with the Swedes. And, as the economic fortunes of the city further declined, the rise of anti-Semitic attacks against the kehillah increased. In 1677, a plague devastated the community and most of the Jewish quarter was abandoned.
The tug of war for control over Poland continued in the 1700s. By the end of the century, Poland ceased to exist as an independent state and Krakow and Kazimierz came under the rule of the Habsburg Empire.
Emancipation and Assimilation
Napoleon’s conquest of much of Europe in the early 1800s brought with it the spirit of freedom, equality and brotherhood that had inspired the earlier French Revolution. Emancipation of Poland’s Jews occurred in 1867-8, and Jews were once again permitted to settle in Krakow. It was also in 1868 that Krakow and Kazimierz merged and become one city.
But as happened elsewhere, the new freedom wasn’t only about physical movement. Many of Krakow’s Jews joined the Enlightenment and entered the Polish-German cultural life of the city. It was against this background of growing assimilation that a Krakow seamstress named Sarah Schenirer decided that Jewish girls also needed a formal Jewish education, one which would instill in them a love for Torah and mitzvos. While there was some resistance, by the time she passed away in 1935, Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov movement had grown to 200 schools and some 35,000 students.
By 1931, Krakow’s Jewish community had grown to about 56,000 souls, about one-quarter of the city’s population. As the Nazi menace grew, Jews driven from the countryside or deported from German-occupied Wartheland poured into the city. By November 1939 the Jewish population had risen to about 70,000.
The End of the Kehillah
After the Nazis occupied Krakow, they expelled many of the Jews who had fled there hoping to find shelter. Thus, when the remaining Jews were forced into the Krakow Ghetto, they numbered only about 20,000. The ghetto wasn’t constructed in Kazimierz but in Podgroze, which was located in the south of the city. After the ghetto’s liquidation in March 1943, the remaining Jews were deported to the Plaznow concentration camp.
Krakow’s Jews had been required to register for forced labor at the beginning of the war, and there were several factories located in the ghetto. One of them, German Enamel Products, which had been owned by Jews before the war, was bought by Oskar Schindler. When the factory was moved to the Plaznow concentration camp, Schindler used his influence, and probably bribes as well, to protect the approximately 1,000 Jews who worked as forced laborers in his factory, which by then also included an armaments division. In March 1944, Schindler received permission to move his factory to Brunnlitz, Moravia, and reopen it to make only armaments. It was during this period that an assistant drew up the famous “Schindler’s List” – a list of 1,200 Jews that Schindler said he needed for his new factory. While the bogus factory produced only one wagonload of live ammunition during its eight months of existence, Schindler’s ruse did keep the Jews employed there alive until Brunnlitz was liberated by the Soviets on May 9, 1945.
Less well known is the righteous gentile Tadeusz Pankiewicz, who refused to move his Podgroze pharmacy after the area became the Jewish ghetto. While his Pod Orlen (Under the Eagle) pharmacy was the only one in operation in the ghetto, his work wasn’t confined to handing out badly needed medications. He and his staff also smuggled food and information into the ghetto and provided shelter for Jews facing deportation to the camps.
Voices from the Past
Only a few thousand of Krakow’s Jews survived the war. The communist regime that ruled Poland after the war precluded any rekindling of the once vibrant community. And even though communism is a thing of the past, many of Krakow’s Jews are still afraid to openly identify as Jewish. Therefore, even though it’s thought there are perhaps 1,000 Jews living in the city, officially there are only about 200.
Most of the interiors of the shuls in the Kazimierz district were destroyed during the Holocaust, but several of them, including the Rema and Izaak synagogues, have been renovated and are open to the public. Also renovated is the famous Old Cemetery next to the Rema shul – and, of course, because this is Krakow there is a story.
While the Nazis destroyed much of the cemetery and used it as a garbage dump, for some reason they left the kever of the Rema intact. Legend has it that when a German soldier tried to destroy the monument, he fell senseless to the ground; no one tried a second time.
During the late 1950s, about 700 old tombstones were found buried underground. One theory is that they were hidden there before the Swedish occupation. The tombstones were set back in place, but since no one knew who was buried where, the names on the stones most probably don’t correspond with people whose graves they stand behind.
Yet we do know that buried within the cemetery are those who contributed to Krakow’s Golden Age: the Rema, the Megaleh Amukos, the Bach, the Tosefos Yom Tov and many other scholars. Also buried there are Izaak Jakubowicz and Yossele, the Holy Miser, who hid his beneficence beneath a stingy façade. But as you will frequently hear in Krakow, that’s another story.