Kraków’s early history begins with evidence of a Stone Age settlement on the present site of Wawel Hill. A legend attributes Kraków’s founding to the mythical ruler Krakus, who built it above a cave occupied by a dragon, Smok Wawelski.
The first written record of the city’s name dates back to 965, when Kraków was described as a notable commercial center controlled first by Moravia (876–879), but captured by a Bohemian duke Boleslaus I in 955.
The first acclaimed ruler of Poland, Mieszko I, took Kraków from the Bohemians and incorporated it into the holdings of the Piast dynasty towards the end of his reign.
In 1038, Kraków became the seat of the Polish government. By the end of the tenth century, the city was a leading center of trade.
Brick buildings were constructed, including the Royal Wawel Castle with St. Felix and Adaukt Rotunda, Romanesque churches such as St. Andrew’s Church, a cathedral, and a basilica.
The city was sacked and burned during the Mongol invasion of 1241.
It was rebuilt practically identical, based on the new location act and incorporated in 1257 by the high duke Bolesław V the Chaste who following the example of Wrocław, introduced city rights modeled on the Magdeburg law allowing for tax benefits and new trade privileges for the citizens.
In 1259, the city was again ravaged by the Mongols. The third attack in 1287 was repelled thanks in part to the newly built fortifications.
In 1335, King Casimir III the Great (Kazimierz in Polish) declared the two western suburbs to be a new city named after him, Kazimierz (Casimiria in Latin). The defensive walls were erected around the central section of Kazimierz in 1362, and a plot was set aside for the Augustinian order next to Skałka.
The city rose to prominence in 1364, when Casimir founded the University of Kraków, the second oldest university in central Europe after Charles University in Prague.
Casimir also began work on campus for the academy in Kazimierz, but he died in 1370 and the campus was never completed.
The city continued to grow under the joint Lithuanian-Polish Jagiellon dynasty.
As the capital of the Kingdom of Poland and a member of the Hanseatic League, the city attracted many craftsmen from abroad, businesses, and guilds as science and the arts began to flourish.
The royal chancery and the university ensured the first flourishing of Polish literary culture in the city.
Kraków’s “Golden Age”
The 15th and 16th centuries were known as Poland’s Złoty Wiek or Golden Age. Many works of Polish Renaissance art and architecture were created, including ancient synagogues in Kraków’s Jewish quarter located in the northeastern part of Kazimierz, such as the Old Synagogue. During the reign of Casimir IV, various artists came to work and live in Kraków, and Johann Haller established a printing press in the city after Kasper Straube had printed the Calendarium Cracoviense, the first work printed in Poland, in 1473.
In 1520, the most famous church bell in Poland named Zygmunt after Sigismund I of Poland was cast by Hans Behem. At that time, Hans Dürer, a younger brother of the artist and thinker Albrecht Dürer, was Sigismund’s court painter. Hans von Kulmbach made altarpieces for several churches.
In 1553, the Kazimierz district council gave the Jewish Qahal a license for the right to build their own interior walls across the western section of the already existing defensive walls.
The walls were expanded again in 1608 due to the growth of the community and the influx of Jews from Bohemia. In 1572, King Sigismund II, the last of the Jagiellons, died childlessly.
The Polish throne passed to Henry III of France and then to other foreign-based rulers in rapid succession, causing a decline in the city’s importance that was worsened by pillaging during the Swedish invasion and by an outbreak of bubonic plague that left 20,000 of the city’s residents dead.
In 1596, Sigismund III of the House of Vasa moved the administrative capital of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth from Kraków to Warsaw.
Already weakened during the 18th century, by the mid-1790s the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth had twice been partitioned by its neighbors: Russia, the Habsburg empire, and Prussia. In 1791, the Austrian and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II changed the status of Kazimierz as a separate city and made it into a district of Kraków. The richer Jewish families began to move out.
However, because of the injunction against travel on the Sabbath, most Jewish families stayed relatively close to the historic synagogues. In 1794, Tadeusz Kościuszko initiated an unsuccessful insurrection in the town’s Main Square which, in spite of his victorious Battle of Racławice against a numerically superior Russian army, resulted in the third and final partition of Poland.
In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte captured former Polish territories from Austria and made the town part of the Duchy of Warsaw. Following Napoleon’s defeat, the 1815 Congress of Vienna restored the pre-war boundaries but also created the partially independent Free City of Kraków.
An insurrection in 1846 failed, resulting in the city being annexed by Austria under the name the Grand Duchy of Kraków (Polish: Wielkie Księstwo Krakowskie, German: Großherzogtum Krakau).
In 1866, Austria granted a degree of autonomy to Galicia after its own defeat in the Austro-Prussian War. Politically freer Kraków became a Polish national symbol and a center of culture and art, known frequently as the “Polish Athens” (Polskie Ateny).
Many leading Polish artists of the period resided in Kraków, among them the seminal painter Jan Matejko, laid to rest at Rakowicki Cemetery, and the founder of modern Polish drama, Stanisław Wyspiański.
Fin de siècle Kraków evolved into a modern metropolis; running water and electric streetcars were introduced in 1901, and between 1910 and 1915, Kraków and its surrounding suburban communities were gradually combined into a single administrative unit called Greater Kraków (Wielki Kraków).
Act of granting the constitution to the Free City of Krakow. After the Partitions of Poland, Kraków was an independent city republic and the only piece of sovereign Polish territory between 1815 and 1846.
At the outbreak of World War I on 3 August 1914, Józef Piłsudski formed a small cadre military unit, the First Cadre Company—the predecessor of the Polish Legions—which set out from Kraków to fight for the liberation of Poland.
The city was briefly besieged by Russian troops in November 1914. Austrian rule in Kraków ended in 1918 when the Polish Liquidation Committee assumed power.
20th century to the present
Following the emergence of the Second Polish Republic in 1918, Kraków resumed its role as a major Polish academic and cultural center, with the establishment of new universities such as the AGH University of Science and Technology and the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts, including a number of new and essential vocational schools.
The city became an important cultural center for Polish Jews, including both Zionist and Bundist groups. Kraków was also an influential center of Jewish spiritual life, with all its manifestations of religious observance – from Orthodox to Hasidic and Reform Judaism – flourishing side by side.
Following the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany in September 1939, the city of Kraków became part of the General Government, a separate administrative region of the Third Reich.
On 26 October 1939, the Nazi régime set up Distrikt Krakau, one of a total of four districts within the General Government. On the same day, the city of Kraków also became the capital of the administration.
The General Government was ruled by Governor-General Hans Frank, who was based in the city’s Wawel Castle. The Nazis envisioned turning Kraków into a completely Germanised city; after the removal of all the Jews and Poles, renaming locations and streets into the German language, and sponsorship of propaganda trying to portray it as a historically German city.
On 28 November 1939 Hans Frank set up Judenräte (Jewish Councils) to be run by Jewish citizens for the purpose of carrying out orders for the Nazis. These orders included the registration of all Jewish people living in each area, the collection of taxes, and the formation of forced-labor groups. The Polish Home Army maintained a parallel underground administrative system.
On the eve of World War II, some 56,000 Jews resided in Krakow, almost one-quarter of a total population of about 250,000. By November 1939, the Jewish population of Krakow had grown to approximately 70,000.
According to German statistics from 1940, over 200,000 Jews lived within the entire Kraków District, comprising more than 5 percent of the total population in the district. These statistics, however, probably underestimate the situation.
In November 1939, during an operation known as “Sonderaktion Krakau”, the Germans arrested more than 180 university professors and academics and sent them to the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, though the survivors were later released at the request of prominent Italians.
Before the formation of ghettos, which began in the Distrikt in December 1939, Jews were encouraged to flee the city. For those who remained the German authorities decided in March 1941 to allocate a then suburban neighborhood, Podgórze District, to become Kraków’s ghetto – there many Jews would die of illness or starvation. Initially, most ghettos were open and Jews were allowed to enter and exit freely.
However, with time ghettos were generally closed and security became tighter. In the autumn of 1941, the SS developed the policy of Extermination through labor, which further worsened the already bleak conditions for Jews.
The ghetto inhabitants were later murdered or sent to German Extermination camps, including Bełżec and Auschwitz, and to the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp.
The largest deportations within the Distrikt occurred from June to September 1942. More specifically, the Kraków ghetto deportation occurred in the first week of June 1942, and in March 1943 the ghetto was definitely liquidated.
Roman Polanski, the film director, survived the Kraków ghetto. Oskar Schindler selected employees from the ghetto to work in his enamelware factory Deutsche Emailwaren Fabrik (Emalia for short), saving them from the camps.
Similarly, many men capable of physical labor were saved from the deportations to extermination camps and instead sent to labor camps across the General Government. By September 1943, the last of the Jews from the Kraków ghetto had been deported.
Although looted by occupational authorities, Kraków remained relatively undamaged at the end of World War II, with most of the city’s historical and architectural legacy spared.
Soviet forces under the command of Marshal Ivan Konev entered the city on 18 January 1945 and began arresting Poles loyal to the Polish government-in-exile or those who had served in the Home Army.
After the war, under the Polish People’s Republic (officially declared in 1952), the intellectual and academic community of Kraków came under complete political control. The universities were soon deprived of printing rights and autonomy.
The Stalinist government of Poland ordered the construction of the country’s largest steel mill in the newly-created suburb of Nowa Huta. The creation of the giant Lenin Steelworks (now Sendzimir Steelworks owned by Mittal) sealed Kraków’s transformation from a university city into an industrial center.
The new working-class population, drawn by the industrialization of Kraków, contributed to rapid growth.
In an effort that spanned two decades, Karol Wojtyła, cardinal archbishop of Kraków from 1964 to 1978, successfully lobbied for permission to build the first churches in the newly-industrial suburbs.
In 1978 the Catholic Church elevated Wojtyła to the papacy as John Paul II, the first non-Italian pope in 455 years. In the same year, UNESCO, following the application of local authorities, placed Kraków Old Town on the first-ever list of World Heritage Sites.