Efforts Under Way to Revitalize Jewish District of Krakow, Poland
City officials hope to turn it into important tourist, residential area
KRAKOW, POLAND — WITH derelict buildings, broken-down infrastructure, and virtually no commercial activity, Kazimierz is not one of Krakow, Poland's best neighborhoods. Once the core of cultural and religious life for the city's 70,000 Jews, most of Kazimierz's inhabitants perished at Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp a short drive west of Krakow. Home to squatters and refugees after World War II, the district fell into decay. Many buildings haven't been inhabited since the war.
Krakow's city government would like to change all that. It has formed a special body to forge links with community leaders, academics, and investors in an effort to revitalize the decrepit district. City officials hope with careful investment and restoration projects, Kazimierz can become an important tourist and residential area by the end of the decade. ``In 15 to 20 years, Kazimierz could become another pearl of Krakow,'' says Joachim Russek of the Jagiellonian University Research Center on Jewish History in Krakow. ``It's an area where 85 percent of the buildings are in ruins, but we aim to completely rehabilitate the district.''
City officials are working on a detailed development project in the district under a 60,000 ECU ($73,800) grant from the European Union's East European Community Cooperation Scheme, which forms development partnerships between East and West European cities. With the assistance of city officials from Edinburgh and Berlin, Germany, Krakow is drawing up plans to renovate or develop 12 to 15 properties in the historic district.
The project will focus on residential properties, with a strong emphasis placed on revitalizing the historic and cultural role of the 200-acre neighborhood, where Christians and Jews lived together for five centuries preceding the Holocaust. ``Kazimierz is a Jewish quarter without Jewish people,'' says Kazimierz Trafas, director of urban-development strategy for Krakow. (It is coincidental that his first name is the same as the district.) ``We must re-create this Jewish spirit that was lost in the war. The biggest question for us is where to focus development activities.''The city has contracted Ryden Property Consultants to survey and select properties and prepare a marketing portfolio for investors. The Edinburgh firm will release a portfolio later this year profiling 16 historic buildings; most of them would be suitable for residential space, but some could house low-rise offices, restaurants, and retail shops. A 50-bed three-star hotel is envisioned for Weglowa Street. Other expected developments include a memorial park on the Vistula River, a technology museum, and refurbishment of a synagogue, cultural center, and a building to house two Jagiellonian University departments.
``We're relying on the city council to identify sites which are appropriate for development,'' says Roy Durie, managing partner at Ryden. ``The biggest problem [the council] faces is tracing ownership. Some [owners] may have disappeared abroad, and many disappeared forever at Auschwitz.''
Establishing ownership is a difficult task across all of Eastern Europe, where nationalized property was often turned over to new occupants without regard for the previous owners or their relatives. In Krakow, the problem is compounded by the Holocaust and the wartime occupation. After deporting property owners, many German military officers moved into Jewish flats. So, after the Nazis were expelled, properties often were treated not as ``post-Jewish'' but as ``post-German,'' making them fair game for incoming refugees from Lvov and eastern Poland, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union. ``We identified a couple of promising sites where we learned there were as many as 25 parties claiming ownership,'' Mr. Durie recalls. The city is trying to locate owners or nationalize properties for which no owners can be identified. Mr. Trafas says owners who appear later will be eligible for some sort of compensation.
Other problems include low rental rates and the high cost of restoring the buildings; this cost often exceeds that of building new apartments. ``The free market has created competition, but renovation work remains very expensive,'' says Tadeusz Chrzanowski, chairman of the city's committee for historical renovations.
But increased interest in Kazimierz's past and a spurt in tourism have resulted in a handful of investments and renovations. A hotel and cafe have opened in a renovated building opposite the historic Remuh synagogue. Mr. Russek now serves as director of a new multimillion-dollar Jewish Cultural Center built with support from the United States. ``We're hoping this starts something of a snowball effect,'' Russek says.
Kazimierz, which always had a religiously mixed population, was founded as a separate city from Krakow in the late 14th century. Only 2,000 Krakow Jews are believed to have survived the Holocaust, and today only a few hundred remain in the city. Kazimierz has gained a higher profile abroad since segments of the film ``Schindler's List'' were shot here.