Interrogating Place: Kazimierz, Kraków, Poland

an email letter, summer 2010

a hundred and twenty five years ago, the branch of the vistula river that separated the island of kazimierz (pronounced in polish "ka ZEE myezh") from the rest of kraków was filled in to create jozefa dietla street--the bed of the river having grown progressively shallower over the centuries, to the point that it was little more than a marshy stream.  the new street--as seen here by the polish-jewish photographer ignacy krieger--was a conceived as an upscale promenade, with a park in the center and, before long, a trolley.  

the new street marked the removal of the last vestige of formalized segregation for the city's jewish community.  jews had first settled in kraków's old city after the polish king bolesław the chaste granted residential privileges in 1264.  these privileges were ratified and extended by king kazimierz the great in 1334, who recognized the economic value of the jewish community to the city and the country, and welcomed jews to poland in great numbers, offering protection as "people of the king."  later polish kings honored this protection but grew more distant from the jewish community (the reference in the jewish imagination is exodus 1:8:  "in egypt, a new king arose who did not know joseph"), and by the mid-fifteenth century parts of the community had begun to relocate to kazimierz (named after the polish king), fearing the anti-jewish violence that had begun to appear sporadically in the city.  the community as a whole did not relocate to kazimierz until it was expelled from kraków following the great fire of 1494, under pressure from a mob convinced that the jews were responsible for the fire.  eventually the community built walls to protect itself, and for over three centuries lived across this river, behind these walls.  in yiddish the town came to be known as kuzmir oyf der vaysl (in distinction to the town of kazimierz dolny in the lublin upcountry, also named after the king, known in yiddish simply as kuzmir).  the first synagogue built in segregated kazimierz was a fortress style structure designed both for worship and asylum, giving some indication of the fear that pervaded the community's consciousness in the late fifteenth century.  here is a late nineteenth century view of that structure by ignacy krieger, and a panoramic view i made a few days ago:

growing up in this stare ("old") synagogue, among the first generation in the formally segregated jewish enclave, was kazimierz's greatest native son, rabbi moshe isslerles (1520-1572), known by his acronym as "the remu," an eminent talmudist and author of the commentary on the shulchan aruch (the definitive guide to jewish law) that created the foundation for the ashkenazic interpretation of halakha.  isserles' brilliance and profound learning essentially founded the town as a center of jewish education, which in turn seeded its later cultural prominence in jewish poland.  isserles' student and son-in-law was the great talmudist joel sirkes (1560-1640), known as "the bach," and isserles' school later produced joseph teomim (1720-1792), "the shach," among other celebrated scholars.  by the beginning of the nineteenth century, chasidism (originally a folk revivalist movement) had arrived in kazimierz, though the town did not produce a dynasty, perhaps owing to the long shadow of isserles' scholarly accomplishment.  

by the 1820s, the austrian rulers of polish galicia decided to unify kraków and kazimierz into a single city, and ordered the separation walls torn down.  jews began to settle (once again, as centuries before) in the center of the city, and assimilation began to take root.  by the end of the century, upscale jewish businesses came to line the new dietla street, as on kraków's main square, while artists and intellectuals moved across the river to podgórze (later the location of the nazi ghetto), where debates between bundists, yiddishists, zionists, secularists, nationalists and internationalists were the order of the day.  the historic neighborhood of kazimierz became increasingly poor and religiously conservative, though it was still considered the community's cultural center, not least for its patrimony of remarkable synagogues all situated near one another around the szeroka street square (the stare synagogue, the synagogue later founded by the remu himself, the izaak synagogue, the wysoka synagogue, the kupa synagogue, the popper synagogue, the tempel synagogue), plus dozens of prayer houses, study houses and various other community buildings.  kazimierz remained a place apart, though not by official decree and not in ways that represented the demography of the whole community.  here is a view of the open air market in front of the isaak synagogue from the turn of the twentieth century--

and the flea market in front of the remu synagogue from the same period--

and a street scene from kazimierz from the 1920s by the folklorist, yiddish ethnomusicologist and sometime photographer menachem kipnis--

the poverty and unassimilatedness of kazimierz's jews was precisely what drew the famed pre-holocaust photographer roman vishniac to the neighborhood in the 1930s, in his search for what he construed as the essence of jewish civilization in the ashkenazic heartland of galicia and ruthenia.  vishniac transformed the particularities of jewish life in kazimierz into an emblematic and specifically picturesque form of jewish authenticity, as for example his pictures of pious old jews braving heavy snow to attend religious services in the neighborhood--

--or his widely reproduced, mistitled masterpiece, "entrance to the old ghetto," which is in fact an entrance only into a courtyard passageway between meiselsa and jozefa streets, though the importance of the mistake is that kazimierz was not a ghetto and had no single or ritual entrance--

along with the rest of kraków's 70,000 jews, kazimierz's pre-war population was deported to the nazi-created ghetto in the podgórze district beginning in march 1941--the nazis having decreed a year earlier that kraków would become one of the "cleanest" cities in the nazi-occupied but unannexed part of poland known as the general government.   the overwhelming majority of kazimierz's jews were murdered at bełżec in the spring and summer of 1942.  

for the half-century of communist rule, the neighborhood persevered in a slow decline.  only a handful of jews remained in the city, and impoverished poles came to live in the vacuum left by the community's destruction.  by the early 1990s, occasional groups of jewish tourists began to visit the neighborhood as a stopping point in their tours of poland (centered on tours of the death camps).  vishniac's courtyard had become notable as the place where steven spielberg filmed the scene of the ghetto's liquidation in the film schindler's list--once again playing on the picturesque quality of the site, and eliding the historical fact that there was no ghetto in kazimierz. 

a derelict and unsafe neighborhood was more or less what i found when i first visited kazimierz in the late 1990s, when a years-long recession still gripped the country in its "adjustment" to capitalism.  i remember thinking at the time that the communist era had the effect of pickling the neighborhood, of making its jewishly-signed emptiness more pungent and sour over the decades.  the work i made in kazimierz that appeared in far from zion (only part of the extensive series of pictures i made) contemplated the ways that this forsaken condition was itself a part of jewish patrimony.  i have only one of those pictures on my computer as i write now:

all the same, it was apparent to me even then that changes were coming to kazimierz, as to the whole city.  allen haberberg, an american-jewish businessman i met during that first visit, was in the process of buying properties in the neighborhood, envisioning a lucrative business in jewish tourism in the coming years.  he was ahead of the curve, and came to prosper as the owner of the eden hotel, where he installed a kosher mikvah (ritual bath) in the basement, the first in post-war kraków, and still the only one in the city.  in retrospect, his vision of a revived town for visiting religious jews looks almost quaint.  by the early to mid 2000s, as capital poured into kraków (per the uneven development characteristic of capitalist change), kazimierz was hit with a tidal wave of gentrification, and became one of the most fashionable areas of one of the most newly fashionable cities in europe.

today the intersection in front of the isaak synagogue (site of the flea market above) is lined with fancy bars and restaurants, which likewise spill out onto the sidewalks all over the district--

golf carts zip about with tourists (this building was a talmud torah, now a medical clinic)--

the plac nowy (new square) throbs with tourists and locals alike--

on many corners you can find vendors selling souvenirs.  i've seen (for example) a german tourist buying vintage SS belt buckles displayed in a case alongside prewar yad-torah pointers (used for reading torah in the synagogue)--alas i have only film pictures of this transaction, not digital--and it's common to see images of coin-counting jews in many varieties, along with other stereotypes--

around szeroka street, where the historic synagogues are clustered, the gentrification mimics the jewish past to the point of kitsch, with jewish gift shops, jewish-styled restaurants and outdoor cafes broadcasting dulcet yiddish tones.  vishniac's courtyard is now a drinking hole, not to mention a popular destination for wedding photographs, in yet another instantiation of the jewish picturesque, which is no longer distinguishable from the pseudo-jewish picturesque--

the cultural apotheosis of post-communist kazimierz is the annual jewish cultural festival in late june, a weeklong extravaganza whose final concert is a seven hour open-air party that fills historic szeroka street, its stage situated just in front of the old synagogue (in the foreground space of ignacy krieger's picture above), all the way to the steps of the synagogue that the remu founded in 1553.  it's known as one of the best parties of the year in kraków.

many visitors i've talked to look cynically on the changes in kazimierz, sometimes hypocritically (i.e. as they enjoy spending money in trendy bars and expensive hotels), and failing to grasp the larger political-economic forces (i.e. how the changes in kazimierz share much with, for example, williamsburg, brooklyn).  many jewish visitors respond angrily to the changes, seeing kazimierz as a theme park that exploits and insults jewish culture after the devastation of the shoah.  some jewish visitors i've met see the neighborhood as a retributive form of polish anti-semitism, a way of using the ersatz jewish to make money from jews and others.

i see this is a narrow, condescending view that more or less deliberately fails to register the complexity of the emerging kazimierz, on several counts.  most of kazimierz's investors are foreign and many are jews (as against charges of a polish anti-semitism as responsible for the changes), and the creation of high-priced apartments and expensive hotels has brought in its wake money and determination to restore the neighborhood's historic synagogues.  today the tempel synagogue, the popper synagogue, the kupa synagogue, the high synagogue and the old synagogue are all open and restored:  all were dilapidated and shuttered when i was here more than a decade ago.  beyond this, new and specifically jewish institutions have been built in the neighborhood and are thriving, most importantly the galicia jewish museum and the jewish community center.  the jewish cultural festival is not just a party, but day after day of lectures, panels, films and substantive discussions on a range of historical and contemporary topics pertaining to jewish poland, many of which i attended--

likewise, all year round and not only during the festival, tour groups lead visitors into the neighborhood in thoughtful ways.  here is a british youth group in discussion in the courtyard of the remu synagogue:

and a tour of the remu cemetery i took with edgar gluck, a chassidic rabbi from brooklyn:

does this seriousness of interest amount to a jewish revival?  in some senses, yes:  young poles with some jewish heritage are beginning to explore that heritage openly, particularly at the jcc, whose fresh-air attitude stands in contrast to the holocaust-laden heaviness that otherwise pervades polish jewish heritage.  kazimierz currently has three active congregations:  a young progressive group led by a woman rabbi named tanya seigel, a chabad group from brooklyn, and a group of mostly elderly jews that practice in the remu synagogue.  these religious jews are few in number, perhaps 200 altogether, but their jewish lives are real and not disney-like.  not least, young non-jewish poles are learning about and embracing poland's jewish past with an eagerness and a lack of equivocation distinct from older generations, as evidenced by the flourishing jewish studies program at kraków's venerable jagiellonian university, which offers a highly regarded a ph.d program and enrolls some 200 undergraduate majors.  

at the same time, there's no denying that jews comprise the minority in this jewish revival:  it is a jewish revival largely without jews.  from my perspective, this is most of all what makes kazimierz interesting, inasmuch as it suggests that the jewish future there--whatever it looks like--will not be an atavistic reclamation or an essentializing grasp at jewishness, but something new, hybrid and international.  this sounds to me not like an insult to the jewish past but the opposite, a prescription for jewish survival, another instance of the ways that jewish civilization has always grown by adaptation and interactivity with the world.  or to put it differently, kazimierz is not a jewish tourist trap in any familiar sense, and it will be interesting to see if it sidesteps the self-exploitation characteristic of most tourist locales.   its commoditized jewishness is, after all, fake to everyone, but valuable precisely for its inauthenticity, per the late-capitalist logic of the spectacle.  paradoxically, it is the spectacle of ersatz jewishness that (at least in part) funds the new jewishness slowly emerging now in the the same streets as the jewishness of other centuries.  to ask whether kazimierz today is real or fake, authentic or inauthentic is the wrong question.  the better question is how the two co-exist symbiotically, each a source of growth for the other.

the point was driven home to me a few days ago in an interaction with a new friend, zbigniew, the caretaker of the remu synagogue--a melancholic man full of experience, a jeweller by trade who never quite established himself, and lives more or less by his wits, and the graces of the head of the jewish community, tadeusz jakubowicz.  as one of the few jews to grow up in kazimierz after the 1960s, the remu synagogue and its adjacent cemetery are and have always been his spiritual home, the marvel of time in the ancient building in dialogue with the nazi-smashed fragments of headstones recovered after the war, made into a long lamentation wall that now bounds the adjacent ancient cemetery--  

the building experienced serious flooding last year, but was able quickly to undertake repairs, principally as a result of the neighborhood's newfound prosperity.  as zbigniew and i were talking one evening after the compound had closed to visitors, i asked him why there was a trench dug around the whole building, even though the damage had been in the back (the scaffolding around the trench is visible in the photograph above of the youth group in the courtyard of the building).  with a gleam in his eye, he began to describe to me that in the course of the repairs a major discovery was made:  a rainwater-fed mikvah beneath the building that no one knew existed, likely isserles' own mikvah, built prior to the synagogue itself, probably in the 1540s.  spontaneously, he offered to take me to see it--questioning himself as he offered, telling me that it is strictly off limits to everyone except the archaeologists working there.  i followed him down.

standing beneath the ancient sanctuary in excavated darkness--save for the flash of my camera when i made a picture--the sources of origination, destruction, renewal, disappearance, explicability and inexplicability all seemed for a moment improbably near.