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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 the crusaders. The Bohemian chronicler, Cosmas of Prague, stated that some of the Jews were forced to convert to Christianity while the rest fled Hungary and Poland. Even though the name “Kraków” is not mentioned, one may suspect that most of the refugees have chosen 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 was in the chronicle of Wincenty Kadłubek (also known as Vincentius de Cracovia). The chronicler noted that during the reign of Mieszko III the Old 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 provisions included in the privilege adopted in certain parts of Poland that granted to the Jews in 1157 by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa.

However, it was only in 1287 when a name of a Jew residing in Kraków was first recorded. His name was Chranisz, and he was murdered by Jacob, 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 Kraków Jewish community council becomes much more extensive owing to the surviving municipal records. Additionally, there was a Jewish street (ulica Żydowska) by the 14th century, 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. The Jewish cemetery was located outside the city walls, by the Rudawa River, near the mills. The second known Jewish settlement was situated in what is now known as the Szczepański Square, where a synagogue stood.

The Jewish community had a highly organised structure. The community council was led by a rabbi, referred to as the “Jewish bishop” (episcopus Judeorum) in documents, along with the four to six community elders whose number. The shkolnik 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 court of the kahal (community council), 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 Municipal 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.

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