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Poland’s King Kazimierz and its Jewish Community

Kraków, Poland

Kazimierz the Great ruled Poland from Kraków in the 14th century. Tolerant and progressive, he welcomed Jews, who thrived here until World War II, when they were decimated. Today their rich heritage lives on in klezmer concerts and historic synagogues.

Complete Video Script

If you’re going to remember one Polish king, remember Kazimierz the Great, who ruled Poland from Kraków in the 14th century. Kazimierz was one of those larger-than-life medieval kings who left his mark on all fronts. He was a great warrior, diplomat, patron of the arts, and womanizer.

His scribes bragged “Kazimierz found Poland made of wood, and left it made of brick and stone” — he even made it onto the 50-złoty note.

Most of all, Kazimierz was remembered for being a tolerant and progressive king. In the 14th century, when other nations were deporting Jews, King Kazimierz actively welcomed them. He granted them special banking and trading privileges and established the long-standing tradition of Poland being a safe haven for Jews in Europe.

The neighborhood of Kazimierz — named for the king — was a thriving and autonomous Jewish community for centuries when most of the world’s Jews lived here in Poland. In the 1930s, a quarter of Kraków’s population was Jewish.

While few Jews actually still live here, the spirit of the Jewish tradition survives. Perhaps the best way to enjoy that is at a klezmer dinner concert.

Several restaurants offer Jewish music from 19th-century Poland with their traditional cuisine. As Polish and Jewish culture mingled here for so many centuries, it’s hard to distinguish between Jewish and Polish cuisine. But with ambience like this, it’s clear the Jewish heritage here is a rich one.

While Poles and Jews managed to live together relatively well, the story became a nightmare with the rise of Nazism in the 1930s. This thriving Jewish community — like most in Europe — was decimated during the Holocaust.

The fragile remains of the community, historic exhibits, and its synagogues provide a meditative look at how the town was walled in, and its residents eventually shipped off to nearby concentration camps. Ultimately less then 10 percent of Kraków’s Jews survived the war and the death camps.

The Jewish cemeteries of Kazimierz were defiled by the Germans, bulldozed by Nazi tanks. Headstones — broken under tank treads — now create a moving mosaic wall and Holocaust monument.