Finding Jewish Life in Eastern Europe

Poland and Moravia Fests Spotlight All-But-Vanished World

Jewish Quarter: Scenic Třebíč includes an 18th-century ghetto.
Hans Weingartz/Wikimedia commons
Jewish Quarter: Scenic Třebíč includes an 18th-century ghetto.

By Sarah Wildman

Published May 25, 2012, issue of June 01, 2012.
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More than 150 performers from around Poland, Europe and the world are expected to play this year, and some 20,000 people will attend. Many, if not most, are not Jewish by birth or descent; instead they are Poles and Europeans learning about the culture that flowered in the years before the war, a culture that many Poles now celebrate. “I have heard people ask how we can do something like this when not far away we had death camps,” Makuch said. “How much can we focus on what we have lost? With our youth, we now celebrate Jewish culture and study song, dance and bring Jewish life back to a country that almost saw it disappear.” That means music and literature that stretches back to the origins of the Polish-Jewish community, but it also means disc jockeys and modern dance, Israeli music and modern literature.

A trip to the Krakow festival can easily be accompanied by a trip to Auschwitz. The Guardian, last year, called it the “most prominent symbol of an apparent [Jewish] rejuvenation in the shadow of the Holocaust.” And that mix may be appropriate.

The Třebíč Jewish Festival is not nearly so big as Krakow’s, but it is set in a town that has fabulously preserved architectural Jewish heritage. Nestled in an area once known as Southern Moravia, about two hours from Prague by car, Třebíč and nearby Brno have a well-organized online presence that allows tourists to arrange their own tours of towns that had a Jewish history stretching back to the early 14th century. Together with the annual music festival, this is a region of the Czech Republic that enables visitors to experience the past in the present.

The Třebíč Jewish Quarter was originally an 18th-century ghetto. Though Jews eventually lived outside the neighborhood, much of Jewish life was centered there, for generations. The entire Jewish Quarter, a marvelous representation of early Eastern European life, managed to survive both the Nazis and the Communists. In 2003 it was named a UNESCO heritage site. It is made up of the 123 original houses, two synagogues and a “Jewish Town Hall.” Some of the buildings are older still: The Renaissance-style Rear Synagogue, which hosts a number of festival events, was built in the 17th century.

The Třebíč festival is made up of storytellers, musicians, historians and dancers. Most are local, though some come from nearby Prague; the well-known mix with newcomers, locals who are investigating their history by learning the music, dance and literature of the past.

Krakow and Třebíč offer an alternative way to feel what was lost and experience what remains. Festivals are a means for heritage-oriented tourists to engage in more than anguish; a chance for those who want to experience a center of Jewish culture to do so unabashedly and, in the process, meet locals of a variety of faiths gathered for a communal celebration of Jewish life.

Sarah Wildman writes about the intersection of culture, politics and travel for The New York Times and the Guardian.

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