Having recently rewatched Steven Spielberg’s multi-award-winning epic, Schindler’s List, I felt compelled to write about Krakow, the city in which the atrocities of Nazi occupation were so chillingly depicted on film some 20 years ago. Shot almost entirely amongst the cobbled squares and medieval streets of Krakow’s Kazimierz district, Spielberg’s blockbuster showcases Krakow at its two extremes, its architectural beauty (having escaped the bombardment of war) providing a backdrop for scenes of persecution and injustice.
Worthy of a blog in its own right, it’s more than appropriate that we take a look at Kazimierz in more detail. For centuries it represented Krakow’s Jewish Quarter, yet following the war, only a handful of survivors remained; indeed, some estimates put the total at just 150, compared with a staggering 68,000 Jews in pre-war Krakow. Thanks to Spielberg’s cinematic exposure of Kazimierz however, the suburb has been firmly put back on the map following years of neglect and is today one of Krakow’s most vibrant and atmospheric communities, jam-packed with historical sites, bustling cafes, antique shops and art galleries.
Given its former religious importance, it’s no surprise that Kazimierz has an endless array of synagogues and Jewish cemeteries and visitors can meander along the cobbles taking in some striking examples of architectural and historical beauty. Built in the late-15th / early-16th centuries, the Old Synagogue represents the oldest surviving example of Jewish religious architecture whilst Temple Synagogue claims the title of Kazimierz’s most modern building, dating back to 1824.
Synagogues aside, there’s also a wealth of non-Jewish religious establishments offering architectural awesomeness, from the beautiful Gothic St Catherine’s Church and 14th-century Corpus Christi to Skalka, a serene riverside sanctuary and one of Krakow’s most important religious sites, its crypt a popular resting place for prominent Poles.
From a museum perspective, the City Engineering Museum and the Ethnographic Museum lead the cultural charge for Kazimierz. For anyone with a hidden passion for public transport, the City Engineering Museum is a must. Housed in an old tram depot, the museum presents five distinctive collections, two of which pay homage to the Polish automotive industry with a collection of old trolleys and tram cars in addition to a number of vintage vehicles. Located in Kazimierz’s former Town Hall meanwhile, the Ethnographic Museum often gets overlooked for some of Krakow’s more prominent museums and yet offers a fascinating insight into Polish folk culture.
Talking of culture, each summer there’s a popular annual Jewish Culture Festival that floods the streets and cafes of Kazimierz, celebrating music, modern Jewish culture and the district’s pre-war Jewish roots. If you’re looking for a touch of bohemia, Kazimierz is where you’ll find it, for the district oozes an artistic, alternative and edgy character that proves an alluring enticement for those looking for a break from the standard city sights. Renowned for its café culture, Kazimierz even gives the Old Town a run for its money when it comes to nightlife, particularly around Plac Nowy, chock-full of the hippest bars, clubs and restaurants.
In short, an absolute pre-requisite on any Krakow city break.