The Jews of Kraków and its Surrounding Towns

Balaban's Book now in Hebrew

Newspaper Article
David Assaf
(Israel's Ha'Aretz Newspaper: May 4, 2003)

Professor David Assaf teaches Jewish History at Tel Aviv University.
His recent book is
Journey to a Nineteenth Century Shtetl: The Memoir of Yekhezkel Kotik
published by Wayne State University Press, 2002.

Toldot Hayehudim Bekrakov Uvekazimierz, 1304-1868
(The History of the Jews in Kraków and Kazimierz, 1304-1868)
by Majer Balaban.
Translated from the Polish by
David Weinfeld, Asher Wilcher, Sinai Leichter, and Elazar Fershker
The Center for Research on the History and Culture of Polish Jews
and Magnes Press, 1,089 pages (two volumes), NIS 94

Kraków, the historic capital of the Kingdom of Poland (until 1596), is one of the oldest and most beautiful cities in the country. For many years, the Jews who lived there, at the foot of Wawel Castle, in a neighborhood abutting the thick walls of the ancient Jagiellonian University, led a relatively secure existence. In the early 14th century, they were all clustered on one street. Ordered to leave in 1495, they settled in a nearby town, Kazimierz (Kuzmir), built by King Kazimierz the Great in 1335. It was surrounded by a wall and watchtowers, and separated from Kraków by a tributary of the Vistula, which has since dried up.

Unlike Warsaw, where Jews and Poles rose up against the Nazis and had their city razed to the ground as punishment, Kraków was doubly "privileged." From the outset, it became the administrative headquarters of the Nazis, and because its inhabitants were docile and obedient, the infamous governor-general, Dr. Hans Frank, had mercy on Kraków and spared the city and its lovely vistas. Soon after the occupation, the old Jewish quarter was evacuated and German officers moved into the more attractive apartments. The ghetto was built nearby, in the Podgorze district on the south side of Kraków. Those who have seen the movie "Schindler's List" will no doubt remember the heartrending scenes filmed there.

The Kazimierz district today is a rare example, possibly the only one of its kind in Europe today, of a complete medieval Jewish neighborhood preserved within the perimeters of a modern city. Anyone who walks its flagstone streets, visits the Altschule, the old Gothic-style synagogue built in the early 15th century, or the "new" synagogue where Rabbi Moses Isserles (the Rema) prayed in the 16th century, goes into the courtyards, touches the doorposts, walks up the ancient flights of stairs - cannot help but feel the spellbinding uniqueness of this place.

The dramatic cultural and political events that changed the face of Kraków over the centuries also left their mark on the city's Jews. Indeed, the geographical shifts of the Jewish neighborhood, from the center of town to the periphery and back again, are more than symbolic. At first, the Street of the Jews was part of the old city, very close to the city wall and the Gate of the Jews. In 1495, the Jews were expelled from the city and settled in Kazimierz. When the boundaries of Poland were redrawn for the third time in 1795, Kazimierz, which by this time had a large Christian population, became part of Kraków. The city thus had a Jewish neighborhood again, right in the heart of town, and its residents became both an integral part of the city and a community with its own distinct identity.

With a wealth of historical sources and sites that are unusually well preserved, the history of the Jews of Kraków has become a popular research subject. Two impressive books on this subject have been published within a year of one another. One of them is "Kroke-Kazimierz-Cracow," edited by Elchanan Reiner (Diaspora Research Institute, Tel Aviv University, 2001), a collection of outstanding articles, new and updated, on the history of Kraków Jewry. The title refers to the three names by which this city has been known. The other is "The History of the Jews in Kraków and Kazimierz," a new Hebrew translation of the magnum opus published 70 years ago by the great Polish Jewish historian Majer Balaban. After more than two decades of translation and editing work, the publication of this book is nothing short of a historiographical-cultural event.

Initial Amateur Efforts

Attempts to document the local history of the Jewish communities of Poland began in the second half of the 19th century. Usually, it was the product of some scholar or educated person's interest in recording the history and special achievements of his community and its leading personages - community leaders, rabbis and scholars. These amateur historians invested great effort in reconstructing the past based on printed sources, archival documents in a variety of languages, and visits to historical sites such as synagogues, study halls, Jewish neighborhoods, Kahal chambers and cemeteries. Thanks to the endeavors of people like Shmuel Yosef Fuenn of Vilna, Menachem Mendel Biber of Ostra, Arye Leib Feinstein of Brisk, Shimon Eliezer Friedenstein of Grodno and Shlomo Baruch Nissenbaum of Lublin, a great deal of information has been amassed and hundreds of important sources have been copied and preserved, including tombstone inscriptions, communal ledgers and regulation books, some of which were lost or destroyed in the Holocaust.

Kraków was also fortunate to have its local historians. Among the more well known are Yechiel Matityahu Zunz, Haim Natan Dembitzer, Feival Hirsch Wettstein and Bernard (Haim Dov) Friedberg, whose efforts provided the basis for historical descriptions of this community.

Between the two world wars, a modern, critical historiography of the Jews of Poland began to emerge. New disciplines were introduced, professional historians entered the picture and methodical studies were published based on archival sources and collections of documents. Most importantly, the research went beyond preoccupation with the "Jewish neighborhood." Instead of concentrating entirely on famous Torah personalities, studies now encompassed such topics as demography, economy, urbanization, Christian-Jewish relations, material culture, Jewish autonomy, and the processes of enlightenment, secularization, assimilation and conversion.

The "founding fathers" in this field, who also made an important contribution to local historical research, were associate professors Moses Schorr (1874-1941) and Majer Balaban (1877-1942). Both were from wealthy, distinguished families in Galicia, and both settled in Warsaw after World War I, became university professors and were active in many educational and public spheres (Schorr was a member of the Senate and a rabbi and preacher at the Great Synagogue; Balaban was mainly involved in teaching and research, although he also preached regularly at the Nozyk synagogue).

Schorr, who later devoted himself to the study of the ancient East, published his first research study on the history of his hometown, Przemysl (1903). But as valuable as this book may be, it cannot compare in scope and scholarship to Balaban's studies of three leading Polish Jewish communities: Lvov (1916), Lublin (1918) and especially Kraków (first edition - 1912; revised, expanded editions - 1931, 1936). There is no finer, more meticulously researched book on any Jewish community in the world.

Considerable Influence

Balaban, scion of a family of printers and scholars, was born in Lvov, the capital of eastern Galicia, where also he studied for his doctorate. He spent World War I in Lublin, as a military chaplain for the Austrian occupation authorities. After some time in Czestochowa, he settled in Warsaw in 1920, where he was appointed principal of the Askola school, and taught history at the State Teachers Seminary for Jewish Religion (established in 1918). He also taught at the rabbinical school of Takhkemoni (established in 1922), and went on to head the school for 10 years. He began his career as a university lecturer in 1928, and together with Moses Schorr and other scholars, founded the Jewish Studies Institute, which developed into an important center of learning in the years leading up to World War II.

Even among educated Israelis, few have heard of Balaban. Until now, only his fascinating book on Jakob Frank and the Frankists (1934-35), and one major article on the history of Polish Jewry have appeared in Hebrew. But Balaban was the author of dozens of books and research studies in different languages, and his influence on the generation of young historians who grew up in Poland (in particular, his student Emmanuel Ringelblum) was considerable.

He also had an impact on those who attended his classes at Takhkemoni, a school founded by the Mizrahi movement offering a high-level religious and secular studies program for religious Zionists, in addition to a rabbinical track. One of his students was my father, Moshe Krone, who writes in his memoirs about a class taught by Balaban around Hanukkah time: "He began by asking the class a series of questions about the historical identity of Johanan the High Priest. Who held the title of `high priest' - Johanan or Mattathias? Who was called a Hasmonean - Johanan or Mattathias? Little by little, he developed an exciting historical-philosophical hypothesis, and we sat there, riveted to our seats, our mouths hanging open. When he was done, we burst into thunderous applause" ("My Teachers and Rabbis, My Brothers and Friends," page 17). Such an audience and such applause are something that history teachers of today can only dream of.

In his study of Lvov, Balaban delves, for the first time, into municipal and church archives as a historical source for the history of Polish Jews. He uses these same tools in his study of Kraków. He searches the archives of the Kraków Municipality and the Senate, the protocols and ledgers of the city and district council, the records of various courts, the records of trade societies and professional guilds, and the archives of both the Jagiellonian library and the Jewish communities, not to mention many archives outside Kraków. In all of Poland there is no city so rich in archival material as Kraków, writes Balaban. Indeed, the lives of the Jews of Kraków from the 14th century onward have been documented in astonishing detail.

Vivid Pictures

Balaban uses his wealth of knowledge to paint a vivid picture of an important Jewish community - important not only because it was close to the seat of decision-making and economic and political power, but because Kraków was home to families belonging to the financial elite of Polish Jewry - bankers, merchants and moneylenders (the lives of some are portrayed by Balaban in minute detail). Alongside the financiers, there were also illustrious scholars who turned Kraków into an important center of Torah learning, capturing the attention of rabbis and authors all over the Jewish world, especially in the 16th and 17th centuries.

In the finest classic historiographical tradition, Balaban links each turning point in the Jewish community to some outside event - economic, military or political. Unsurprisingly, he sees the ongoing battle with the Christian burghers over the right to engage in commerce in Kraków as the connecting thread. It was a battle, says Balaban, that went on for 400 years. Only in December 1867, after the inauguration of the new Austrian constitution, were all citizens of the country assured equal rights. Balaban thus devotes special attention to trade and commerce; relations with the authorities, aristocracy, church and other ethnic minorities; Christian and Jewish courts; taxation; communal debts; and the community's expenditures and sources of revenue.

The chronological structure of the book reflects this approach. The study begins in 1304, with the first recorded mention of Jews in Kraków, and ends in 1868, when the liberal constitution came into effect. Historical milestones along the way are the expulsion of the Jewish community to Kazimierz (1495), the Swedish invasion and the brutal war that followed (1655-1657), the first partition of Poland and the Austrian occupation (1772), the second Austrian occupation (1796-1809), and, of course, the establishment of the "Republic of Kraków" (1815-1846) - the tiny country under the protection of Russia, Austria and Prussia that was declared "neutral and free" until Austria repossessed it.

But Balaban does not suffice with political and economic history. He burrows into the private lives and everyday existence of the Jews of Kraków, into the intellectual, scholarly and social life, into the influences of Shabbateanism, Hasidism, the Haskala and enlightenment, the world of books and printing, the educational system, charities and mutual aid societies, material culture, demography, topography, housing, furnishings and dress, art, architecture - and the list goes on.

In all this bounty, it is difficult to find one brief passage that is capable of conveying in full Balaban's lively, panoramic writing style. Perhaps this passage, which comes after his discussion of the war between Austria and France and the fall of the Duchy of Warsaw established by Napoleon in 1807, will serve the purpose:

"As if things were not bad enough, Kraków, especially the Jewish quarter, suffered a terrible flood, worse than anything even the oldest members of the community could remember. The Vistula, which flowed at the time where Ditla street is today, suddenly rose up (on August 26, 1813) and poured out over the river banks. Within a few hours, Kazimierz was submerged; the Jewish quarter, which was lower, was covered first. The water flowed from there to a tributary of the Vistula ... creating a gigantic lake between two raging currents. Anyone who could escape from the water's fearsome embrace picked up his heels and ran. Those who were not as lucky climbed onto roofs and chimneys and prayed for God's mercy. A night of terror passed this way. The next day, the water began to recede ... It took an exceedingly long time before the streets and public squares dried out. The wooden houses of the Jewish quarter rotted away completely. In houses made of stone, buckets were needed to draw the water out of the cellars and basement apartments."

Massive Masterpiece

Translating such a massive tome, so complex and laden with detail, is a costly and lengthy project that only an academic institution, not motivated by profit and accustomed to prolonged endeavors, could undertake. Making this masterpiece accessible to the Hebrew-speaking public and placing it on the history bookshelf is not just an achievement for the publishing world, but a credit to those who conceived the project and labored over the translation and editing - the people of Jerusalem's Hebrew University.

Since 1936, when the second volume of Balaban's book came out, dozens of books, articles and memoirs about the Jews of Kraków have been published. Stephen Corrsin's updated bibliography in "Kroke-Kazimierz-Cracow" lists almost 200 entries. But does this bountiful crop signify a new surge of interest in local and regional history? The answer is not so clear. While many historians regard the life of a city with a long, multi-ethnic history as a fascinating subject that even lends itself to a kind of biography (examples are the books of Peter Ackroyd on London, Patricia Herlihy and Steve Zipperstein on Odessa, Gershon Hundert on Opatov, Michael Hamm on Kiev), Israeli historians nowadays do not find this kind of writing appealing (Israeli cities and towns, which have been researched endlessly, are an exception).

The reason for this is fairly evident: In the 1950s and '60s, hundreds of yizkor [rememberance] books were published, commemorating Jewish communities destroyed in the Holocaust. These books, usually put out by survivors seeking to memorialize their hometowns and relatives, were a mixture of history and memories, nostalgia and guilt. One could not expect them to be critical, detached monographs. In any case, most of them were not really credible histories, but just an outlet for those who wanted to write about a certain place.

Indeed, since the great deluge of memorial volumes, Israeli-born historians have done little research on individual communities in Eastern Europe. Contributing to the sense of satiety was the fact that archives in Poland and the Soviet Union were inaccessible - a situation which has changed only in the last 15 years. The most important local history project now under way is Yad Vashem's Pinkas Hakehillot series, documenting Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. But this multi-volume series, with all its merits, is more of a lexicon, with the focus on the Holocaust period.

Finally, a few words on the fate of Majer Balaban. He died in the Warsaw Ghetto at the end of 1942, as the Holocaust raged, and was given a proper burial at the old Jewish cemetery. At the gravesite, in the presence of a small group of grim-faced mourners, he was eulogized by a fellow historian, Yitzhak (Ignacy) Schiper, who later died at the hands of the Nazis: "Majer Balaban, the great Jewish historian! Today, escorting you to your eternal rest are the communal leaders and the rabbis, the envoys of the Council of the Four Lands, the yeshiva heads and shtadlanim (intercessors) of previous generations of Polish Jews, for whom your books are an everlasting memorial, a monument to the holy Jewish communities of Lvov, Lublin and Kraków, their leaders and their people. Your great mission is over. You, Balaban, chronicler of the history of the Jews of Poland - have no work left to do ... The Jews of Poland are no more ... Only broken shards remain ... An era has ended - an era of glorious Jewish life. Polish Jewry is destroyed and gone."


This site is hosted at no cost by JewishGen, Inc., the Home of Jewish Genealogy.
If you have been aided in your research by this site and wish to further our
mission of preserving our history for future generations, your
JewishGen-erosity is greatly appreciated.

Jewish Gen Home Page | KehilaLinks Directory

Compiled by Eilat Gordin Levitan. Updated February 29, 2020 Copyright © 2007 Eilat Gordin Levitan (