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The exact date of Jews settling in Kraków is difficult to determine. Based on sources from 1028, mentioning two Jewish merchants travelling towards Ruthenia and offering their wares to the Jewish community council in Kraków, one may assume that a Jewish presence in Kraków extends back to as early as the first half of the 11th century. At the end of the 11th century, Prague was hit by a wave of pogroms provoked by crusaders. Bohemian chronicler, Cosmas of Prague, stated that some of the Jews were forced to convert to Christianity while the rest fled to Hungary and Poland. Even though the name “Kraków” is not mentioned, one may suspect that most of the refugees chose this particular city as a destination because living conditions were relatively safe (in addition to being the place of residence of the ruler, the city was notable for being located away from the route frequented by crusaders).

The first mention of a Jewish presence in Kraków appears in the chronicle of Wincenty Kadłubek (also known as Vincentius de Cracovia). The chronicler noted that during the reign of Mieszko III Stary as the Duke of Kraków (1173-1177), a Jew was assaulted, a crime for which the perpetrators were put on trial for “sacrilege.” The legal qualification of this act was the consequence of the privilege granted to Jews, who, at the time, were considered to be the “servants of the Treasury.” An assault on any Jew was thus tantamount to a violation of ducal law (ius ducale) – the provision was included in the privilege granted to Jews in 1157 by Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, later also adopted in certain parts of Poland.

Nonetheless, it was only in 1287 when any name of a Jew residing in Kraków was first recorded. His name was Chranisz, and he was murdered by Jakub, most likely a burgher from Kraków, whose house was then confiscated as punishment.

In the beginning of the 14th century, the amount of information on the Jewish community in Kraków becomes much more extensive thanks to the surviving municipal records. Additionally, there was a Jewish street (ulica Żydowska) in the town, currently known as St. Anne street (ul. Św. Anny), showing that Jews lived in a vicus Judeorum (or Jewish district) where two synagogues, a bathhouse and a hospital were located. The Jewish cemetery was situated outside the city walls, by the Rudawa River, near the local mills. The second known Jewish settlement was situated in what is now known as Szczepański Square, near another synagogue.

The Jewish community had a highly organised structure. It was led by a rabbi, referred to as the “Jewish bishop” (episcopus Judeorum) in official documents, along with the four to six community elders. The school assistant assisted the rabbi with performing his judicial and pastoral duties. Various judicial bodies handled Jewish legal disputes; disputes between Jews themselves were resolved by the kehilla court, whereas disputes between Jews and Christians were handled by the province governor’s court. In cases where the plaintiff was a Jew, his case would be tried before the court having jurisdiction over the defendant, i.e. a municipal or itinerant provincial court (the court of the noble estate). Today, court registers provide a wealth of information on the numerous conflicts between Jews and Christians.

On a number of occasions there were violent attacks directed against Jews in medieval Kraków. The earliest known event of this kind took place around 1369. The City Council of Kraków submitted a long letter to the king about numerous “iniquities” the city was forced to withstand due to the fact that Jews were allowed to “run rampant.” However, in their written complaint, the councillors were clearly trying to explain themselves before the king. In early 1370, the same council, acting upon the request of King Casimir III the Great, issued a document promising to protect and care for a Jew named Lewek and his family, as well Rabbi Kasym. One might suspect that earlier pogroms against the Jews prompted the king to intervene and request cooperation from the municipal authorities, at least to protect some of the more influential Jewish citizens.

The second conflict broke out in 1407. According to chronicler Jan Długosz, who reported on these events a few dozen years after they occurred, the cause of the uproar was the alleged ritual murder of a Christian child. As a result, a mob attacked the Jewish district, where many people were killed and houses were plundered. Once news of the riots broke out, the castle guards moved in from the Wawel Castle to the city, restoring order and recovering the stolen goods, most of which belonged to Christian citizens but were in Jewish possession because of a pledge that had been made. Approximately 30 people were put on trial. The judicial proceedings lasted well into 1409; the outcome, however, remains unknown. Smaller anti-Jewish riots also took place in 1423. Members of the city council were accused of having placed Jews under unlawful arrest; however, the council members have failed to appear in court.

In 1453 a wave of anxiety passed through the Jewish community in Kraków with the arrival of John of Capistrano, a preacher whose sermons brought about a great pogrom in Wrocław, claiming more than 100 lives and forcing conversions upon Jews. However, the city of Kraków was spared the violent clashes that were feared by many at the time. Subsequently, however, the position of Jews in Kraków began to deteriorate. In 1462 a dispute arose between the Jewish community council and the municipal authorities. The details of this conflict remain unknown, although the case must have been important because the king himself intervened, ordering both sides to remain calm. If either party disobeyed, they would have to pay a massive penalty of 10,000 grzywnas; additionally, the king ruled that all contentious issues must be resolved in court.

In 1469, the Jewish district was moved to a different location. The buildings at today’s Św. Anny Street were purchased by the Chapter of Kraków (represented by Jan Długosz), which subsequently exchanged the properties acquired for other ones owned by the university. In exchange, Jews were allocated land behind the St Stephen’s Church. In 1485, substantial restrictions were imposed on Jewish merchants operating in Kraków and its environs. Consequently, Jews waived their right to pursue trade and craftsmanship within the city limits. Although this agreement was never actually complied with until the fall of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the formal restrictions constituted the basis of all subsequent agreements concluded between the Kraków municipal government and Jews.

On the night of June 29 into June 30, 1494, a fire engulfed a number of buildings between the Mikołajska and Szewska streets, including a section of the Jewish district. Jews were blamed for causing the disaster and before the flames died down, many Jewish houses were attacked and plundered. The extent of damage done to the Jewish district must have been significant indeed, for shortly after the fire King Jan I Olbracht allocated the northwestern part of Kazimierz – the area in question being located between the current Józefa and Bożego Ciała streets and the city walls – to the Jews for development. However, the king did not order for the expulsion of the Jewish community from Kraków. At the end of the 15th century the resettlement of Jews to Kazimierz began; to a great extent, this process was a voluntary one, as the Jewish Town, which was already developing at a rapid pace, gave the Jews a greater sense of security compared to Kraków, where fewer and fewer Jews chose to settle.

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