In 1335, Casimir the Great established the town of Kazimierz specifically for Jews. His benevolence towards the Jews was based supposedly on his love for a Jewish girl Esther, who lived in Krakow. Although Kazimierz was originally a separate and independent city, it later became incorporated into Krakow. The original area of Kazimierz, however, remained a Jewish district and was even called the Judenstadt.
Unlike Kraków, which was largely populated by Germans, Kazimierz was dominated by Poles. It was not until 1495 when Jews were expelled from Kraków that they started to arrive to Kazimierz in force. Awarded its Magdeburg Rights, which allowed markets to be set up in the town square, Kazimierz prospered and is recorded as being one of the most influential Polish towns during the middle ages.
The Rema synagogue and was founded in 1553 in Kazimeirz. The Rema (Rav Moshe Isserlish) was considered to be the “Maimonides of Polish Jewry” and was known for his universal outlook, his extensive Talmudic and secular knowledge, his manner of study, and his humility. His published works included treatises on halakhah, philosophy, kabbalah, homiletics, and science.
By the 17th century Jewish life was flourishing and numerous synagogues had been constructed. But in 1651 the area was hit by the plague, then four years later ransacked and ruined by the Swedish invaders. Famine, floods and anti-Jewish riots followed in quick succession, and it wasn’t long till a mass migration to Warsaw began, leaving the once vibrant Kazimierz a broken shell.
In 1796 Kraków came under Austrian control, and four years later Kazimierz was incorporated into Kraków. It was to signal the area’s rebirth. The governing Austrians ordered Kraków’s Jews to resettle in Kazimierz, and the area was slowly redeveloped; timber houses were banned, streets were cobbled and walls that once ringed Kazimierz demolished. By 1910 the Jewish population stood at 32,000, a figure that was to nearly double during the inter-war years, and a rich cultural life arose around them. Of the 60,000–80,000 Jews who lived in Krakow, approximately three to five thousand of them survived the horror of the Holocaust, a large proportion of them saved by Oskar Schindler.
Miriam Romm writes in her book “My first journey to Krakow in 2000 had unexpectedly changed my life. I had journeyed there to search for traces of my father and his family, about whom I knew nothing. In Krakow, I followed the ghostly tracks and fragments of memories left behind by my father – a quest that resulted in a great gift, the revival of a new, warm family.”
Ostrich Feathers is the story of Miriam Romm’s search for her father, Moshe (Moniek) Grajower, who disappeared after being arrested and turned over to the Gestapo at the border between Hungary and Slovakia during the spring of 1944. This moving book relates a very personal story, and yet it carries a broader significance in relation to the Israeli and Jewish reality of our times. This is a story of closure. Not only does it reveal to us the fascinating, breathtaking story of Miriam Romm’s success in her difficult, complex, almost impossible mission to find her lost father, it also illustrates various aspects of life in Israel for the European Jews whom the Holocaust had uprooted from their homes in Europe- and their children.
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