The Old Synagogue in the Kazimierz section of Kraków, first built in the fifteenth century, and reconstructed after a fire in the sixteenth century. Photograph by Alter Kacyzne. (Forward Association/YIVO)

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Kraków before 1795

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In 1138, Kraków (Yid., Kroke; Eng., often spelled Cracow) became the capital of one of Poland’s major principalities—that of the Piast dynasty. The city was largely destroyed during the Mongol invasion of 1241 but was quickly rebuilt and received the right of municipal self-government (Magdeburg Law) in 1257. In 1305, Kraków became the capital of the newly reunited Kingdom of Poland. It is during this period that we find the first references to a Jewish community in the city: in 1304, municipal documents first mention a Judengasse, or Jewish street, the modern-day St. Anne Street, which runs from the market square to the city walls. The first Jewish cemetery is mentioned in 1311, and the first reference to a synagogue dates to 1356. At that time, the Jews who settled in Kraków—as was the case with most of the city’s Christian population—came from German lands.

Interior of Kraków’s Old Synagogue. (YIVO)

King Casimir III (the Great) conferred a royal privilege on the Jews of Kraków and Małopolska in 1334. The privilege guaranteed certain basic rights, including freedom of religion, juridical autonomy, and rights to engage in moneylending and trade. It also stipulated that Jews were subject only to the jurisdiction of the king or his wojewoda (governor).

The city’s burghers considered the Jews to be economic rivals and used various methods to try to restrict their commercial activities. In 1485, they forced through an agreement by which Jews were virtually excluded from commerce and restricted to pawnbroking. Although that agreement remained in force until 1795, it had very little practical effect. After a fire in 1494 destroyed parts of the city including the Jewish quarter, the king ordered the Jews expelled from Kraków and resettled in Kazimierz, a suburban town on the other side of the Vistula River. From then until the nineteenth century, there was no Jewish community in Kraków proper, although a few families continued to live in the city and Jewish merchants still had warehouses and stores in the market square. Jews did not feel that they truly had left the city, and still called themselves, now settled in Kazimierz, the Kraków community.

Jewish families from German lands as well as Bohemia and Moravia continued to immigrate to Kraków during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition, the sixteenth century saw a notable influx of Jews from Italy, which was linked to Kraków both by trade and politics (Bona Sforza, queen of Poland from 1518 to 1557, came from Milan). The Jewish quarter, located in the center of Kazimierz, continued to grow. In the course of the sixteenth century, several agreements were signed with the city (in 1553, 1583, and 1608), allowing it to expand. The first somewhat reliable figures on the number of residents are found in the 1578 tax rolls, which show about 2,000 Jewish residents. The 1765 tax rolls cite 3,500 residents and those of 1796 show a Jewish population of 4,138.

Ark doors from the Bocian synagogue. Kraków, seventeenth century. Inscribed above the doors is the Hebrew saying: "Be strong as a leopard, light as an eagle, fleet as a stag, and strong as a lion [to do the will of thy Father]" (Pirke avot 5: 23). Heichal Shlomo Wolfson Museum, Jerusalem, Israel. (Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY)

During the sixteenth century, the Kraków community developed into a center of learning. Poland’s first yeshiva was founded there, probably in the last years of the fifteenth century, under the direction of Ya‘akov Pollak (d. after 1532), who had moved there from Prague. One of his successors was Mosheh Isserles (1520?–1572); his best-known work was a commentary on the Shulḥan ‘arukh known as Mapah. Other important rabbis who headed the yeshiva were Natan Spira (1585–1633), a student of Kabbalah; Yo’el Sirkes (d. 1640), known by the acronym Baḥ after his influential Talmudic commentary Bayit Ḥadash; and Yom Tov Lipmann Heller (1578–1654), author of Tosafot Yom Tov, a Mishnah commentary.

Just a few decades after the invention of printing, Kraków–Kazimierz became the first place in Poland where books were published in Hebrew. The Helicz brothers founded a printing press there in 1534, although it closed in 1539 after they converted to Christianity. Aharon Prostitz opened a print shop in 1568 that remained in business for several decades. 

In 1595, the Takanot Kraka were compiled. Composed in Yiddish, they constituted a virtual communal constitution, regulating trade and professions, health care and nursing, schools and religious services, legal jurisdiction and community organization, as well as every other aspect of public administration. The statutes, which remained in force until the end of the eighteenth century, show that the Kazimierz Jewish community was analogous in its complexity to the neighboring Christian municipality.

By the mid-seventeenth century, there were six synagogues in Kazimierz. The Old Synagogue had been built in 1407. The Rema’ (Remuh) Synagogue, named (later) for Isserles, followed it in 1553. At the beginning of the seventeenth century came the Kupa and the High synagogues; in 1620 the Popper (or Bocian) Synagogue (see image above); and finally, in 1644 the Ajzyk (Isaak) Synagogue, named for Reb Ajzyk Reb Jekeles. There were also numerous smaller houses of prayer.

Just as in much of the rest of Europe, the teachings of Shabetai Tsevi found receptive adherents in the crisis-ridden Kazimierz community. Under the leadership of Berekhyah Berakh Spira, a relative of Natan Spira, a few actually may have joined Shabetai Tsevi’s messianic group in Turkey, later converting to Islam.

In the 1780s, adherents of a new religious movement, Hasidism, could be found in Kazimierz but were rejected by the rabbinate and the community leadership. In 1785, Rabbi Yitsḥak ha-Levi pronounced a ban of excommunication against the new sect. The Haskalah, whose first followers appeared in Kraków at about the same time, seems to have fared little better. According to an albeit undocumented tradition, Moses Mendelssohn’s German translation of the Torah (1780–1783) was burned in Kazimierz’s market square.

As both a bishopric and home to a university, Kraków was the site of much religious debate, both among Christian denominations and between Christians and Jews. University professors wrote antisemitic tracts and their students were known to attack Jews physically. In 1539, a Christian woman named Katarzyna Weigel was condemned for “Judaizing” and was publicly burned at the stake for her religious views. A cantor from the Jewish community was accused of having converted her to Judaism. When he fled from his persecutors, a community elder and the rabbi were imprisoned instead and released only after a payment of 20,000 florins.

Against the background of the Counter-Reformation, religiously motivated accusations and attacks on Jews grew in frequency during the seventeenth century. The year 1631 saw the first trial in Kraków of a Jew for ritual murder and, in 1635, Jews were accused of Host desecration. On 4 May 1660, following the St. Florian’s Day mass, students attacked the Jewish quarter. In 1663, Matityahu Calahora, a doctor and pharmacist, was accused of blasphemy. The diet of Piotrków ordered him publicly tortured and burned at the stake.

Poland’s mid-seventeenth-century wars reached Kraków and its suburbs by 1655, when the Swedish army occupied the city for two years. During the fighting, the Jewish quarter was pillaged by both Swedish and Polish soldiers. After the Swedes withdrew, the Jewish community was accused of treason and collaborating with the enemy. This period also spelled economic decline for Kraków, including Kazimierz and its Jewish community. Between 1678 and 1776, the royal court was forced no less than seven times to suspend the insolvent community’s debts. Jews not only owed taxes to the king, but also had large debts to nobility, burghers, churches, and monasteries. In 1722, a state commission reported that the Jewish community’s total debt was 500,000 florins. Fifty years later, that amount had doubled, according to records from the Habsburg treasury. After the third partition of the country in 1795 when Poland ceased to exist as an independent state, the Jews of Kraków and Kazimierz came under the rule of the Habsburg Empire.

Suggested Reading

Majer Bałaban, Historja Żydów w Krakówie i na Kazimierzu, 1304–1868, 2 vols. (Kraków, 1931–1936), also in Hebrew as Toldot ha-yehudim be-Krakov uve-Kaz´imyez´, 1304–1868 (Jerusalem, 2002); Aryeh Bauminger, Me’ir Bosak, and Natan Mikha’el Gelber, eds., Sefer Krako (Jerusalem, 1958/59); Heidemarie Petersen, “‘Daz man nit zol in der shtat gin . . . ’: Jewish Communal Organisation in Sixteenth-Century Polish Towns,” Jewish Studies at the Central European University 2 [1999–2001] (2002): 153–162, available at; Elchanan Reiner, ed., Krako-Kaz’imyez’-Krakov: Meḥkarim be-toldot yehude Krakov (Tel Aviv, 2001); Abraham Wein and Aharon Weiss, eds., “Kra’kov / Kraków,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Polin, vol. 3, Galitsyah ha-ma‘arivit ve-Silezyah, pp. 1–43 (Jerusalem, 1984); Bożena Wyrozumska, “Did King Jan Olbracht Banish the Jews from Cracow?” in The Jews in Poland, ed. Andrzej K. Paluch, vol. 1, pp. 27–37 (Kraków, 1992); Bożena Wyrozumska, ed., Żydzi w średniowiecznym Krakowie: Wypisy źródłowe z ksiąg miejskich krakowskich (Kraków, 1995), records chiefly in Latin with some in Middle High German, introduction in English and Polish; Hanna Zaremska, “Jewish Street (Platea Judeorum) in Cracow: The 14th–the First Half of the 15th C.,” Acta Poloniae Historica 83 (2001): 27–57.



Translated from German by Rebecca Stuart