While it is easy to simply google “free walking tours in Krakow”, I recently came across an app called freetour.com. It is great! I typed in Krakow and found a walking tour of Krakow’s Jewish Quarter and one of Krakow’s Old Town.
Today I joined the tour for Krakow’s Jewish Quarter. The English-speaking tour met at in front of St. Mary’s Basilica in Old Town at 2:30pm. Given it was winter time and dark very early, the tour was two hours rather than the advertised two and half hours. That was fine with me.
The Old Synagogue
From the church we walked to Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, also called Kazimierz. Our first stop was at the Old Synagogue. The Old Synagogue is the oldest synagogue still standing in Poland. It was very important to the Jewish community prior to the invasion of the Germans during World War II. It’s thick masonry walls and heavy buttressing are examples of a rare Polish Fortress Synagogue.
The Germans ransacked the building and then used it for ammunition storage. In addition, the Germans executed 30 Polish prisoners at its wall. Due to blood being at the scene, the building is not kosher, and no services were ever resumed. Today the synagogue operates as a museum.
Nissenbaum Foundation Memorial
While learning about famous Polish Jews such as Roman Polanski, we carried on through Krakow’s Jewish Quarter to the Nissenbaum Foundation Memorial which commemorates 65,000 Polish Jews who were killed by the Nazis during World War II. It is located in a cute square with surrounding restaurants and retail across from the Remuh Synagogue.
Remuh Synagogue and the Old Cemetery
The Remuh Synagogue is named for Rabbi Moses Isserles who is regarded as a great author and scholar. As with the Old Synagogue, the Germans looted the Remuh Synagogue and destroyed its cemetery. Remarkably, one of the few headstones left in tact was that of Rabbi Moses Isserles.
After the war, the Jewish Denominational Council restored the synagogue and cemetery. Many tombstones were dug out of the ground and replaced while pieces of stones were attached together to create the Wailing Wall. The free walking tour doesn’t include the 5 zloty admission, but it’s a good place to return and see after the tour. Unfortunately for us, we were on a late tour and it was Saturday, so the synagogue was closed, and we couldn’t see the Wailing Wall.
Statue of Jan Karski
Next to the synagogue is a statue of Jan Karski. Jan Karksi was part of the Polish underground. He smuggled news of the German atrocities to the Polish Government in exile in France as well as to the allies. Twice Karski was smuggled into the Warsaw ghetto to see the conditions with his own eyes.
In 1944, he published a book about his experiences in wartime Poland and after the war he attended school at Georgetown where he continued as a teacher for 40 years. For his actions, Jan Karksi was awarded the Polish Order of the White Eagle, the American Presidential Medal of Freedom, and is an honorary citizen of Israel.
Around the corner from Remuh Synagogue and the Old Cemetery is Plac Nowy, a cute historic square in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter. It’s center features a round building that used to be a kosher slaughter house. Around its outside are stalls that sell street food, produce, clothes, antiques and more. It is an eclectic area with tasty food.
Schindler’s List Movie Scene
From Plac Nowy, we walked a few blocks to a courtyard with a stairwell. This location was used for the scene in Schindler’s List when Mrs. Dresner hides from the Jewish police who were helping the Germans round up all the Jews from the ghetto to send to Belzec extermination camp.
Spielberg chose to film the scene in Kazimierz (Krakow’s Jewish Quarter) instead of the Podgorze ghetto as the Kazimeirz district has remained authentic compared to the Podgorze ghetto which was partially built up with communist buildings.
Bridge of Love
From the movie scene, we passed by the Corpus Christi Church and the Ethnographic Museum on our way to the Bridge of Love which crosses the Vistula River to the former Jewish Ghetto. The bridge, lit up in blue and purple, features acrobatic figurines which are really cool. Of course, many locks of love also decorate the bridge, thus the name. From the bridge, visitors can see another bridge where Jews were forced to crossed to the ghetto.
Ghetto Heroes Square
After crossing the river, we headed to the Ghetto Heroes Square. This square originated in the mid- 1800’s as the second market square for Podgorze, which was a separate town. With the incorporation of the city into Krakow in 1915, the sqaure’s name changed to Zgody Square.
During World War II, the square became the center of the Jewish ghetto. The Jewish ghetto, enclosed by walls, housed 15,000 Jews, five times the amount of people that used to live in the area. Upon the liquidation of the Ghetto, abandoned furniture and personal belongings were strewn across the square.
The square is now called Ghetto Heroes Square and features a memorial to those from the Ghetto who died in World War II. The memorial includes 33 large iron chairs, one for every 1,000 Jews sent to extermination camps. While most of the chairs face the same direction, one chair points toward Auschwitz and one chair is outside the square representing the 1,200 Jews saved at Oskar Schindler’s factory. In addition, the memorial includes three smaller chairs representing children. The emptiness the memorial portrays makes it very poignant.
Apteka Pod Orlem
Next to the memorial is the Apteka Pod Orlem, an old pharmacy which is now part of the Historical Museum of Krakow. The pharmacy was operated by the only non-Jewish person living in the Ghetto, Tadeusz Pankiewicz. He convinced the Germans to keep the pharmacy open (a rare occurrence) in the event the German guards might need medicine due to the rampant disease. The pharmacy, which helped the Jews in many ways, became a meeting house for the Jewish intelligentsia.
Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory
Our tour ended here which required us to return to Old Town in the dark. We could do so by foot or tram. I went home by foot but came back the next day to see Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, which now hosts two museums: The Museum of Contemporary Art in Krakow and the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow. If you visit during a crowded time, you may buy a skip the line ticket at Get Your Guide.
While most people have likely heard of Schindler due Stephen Spielberg’s renowned film based on Thomas Keneally’s book Shindler’s Ark, I’m compelled to write a small snippet of history about him.
During the War
Schindler was an ethnic German from Czechoslovakia who was a member of the Nazi party. He came to Poland and through bribes to German officials acquired an enamelware factory. Initially, he was motivated by profit and hired Jewish workers because they cost less, however, after witnessing the ghetto massacre, he began paying more bribes to the Germans to keep his workers alive.
As the Germans began to lose the war, orders were sent to ship the remaining Jews to Auschwitz. With a huge bribe, Schindler convinced Goeth, a German official overseeing liquidation, to let him move his workers to Brinnlitz labor camp where he had built a munitions factory (that did not produce ammunition). He handed over list and these Jews were sent to his camp.
As a member of the Nazi party and a war profiteer, he had to flee upon the arrival of the Red Army, but he pleaded with the German guards not to kill the Jewish people. He is credited with saving 1,200 lives, many of whom wrote a statement attesting to his role in saving the Jews which he could present to the Americans so that he wouldn’t be charged with war crimes.
After the War
After spending his fortune on the Brinnlitz camp and bribes, by the end of the war Schindler was broke. He moved to Germany, then to Argentina, and then back to Germany. He tried is hand at many businesses, but ultimately failed at them all and relied on Jewish donations until his death in 1974. He is buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the only member of the Nazi party honored in this way.
I’m certain I only scratched the surface of Krakow’s Jewish Quarter and its history. I can’t even imagine what German occupied Poland or Soviet occupied Poland was like. I’m thankful I experienced a different Jewish Quarter, an eclectic neighborhood with wonderful cafes and lots of history. ETB
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