Krakow, Poland - About 13,000 people crowded the main square in the cobblestone-paved former Jewish quarter of Krakow last week for the finale of this year’s Jewish Culture Festival. The event — which is funded by the Polish government, the city of Krakow, the Friends of the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival in New York and the San Francisco-based Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture — boasted a dizzying array of activities, including daily tours of seven synagogues and cemeteries; Yiddish- and Hebrew-language classes; films, lectures and exhibits; workshops in Jewish cooking, calligraphy and Hasidic dance; meetings with Jewish authors, and traditional Sabbath prayer services.
Indeed, the festival in Kazimierz, as the city’s former Jewish quarter is known, has mushroomed into one of the largest events of its kind in the world, with one major difference: Hardly any of the participants were Jewish.
To be precise, almost 85% of the Krakow festival’s participants, and most of its organizers and activity leaders, were non-Jews. And to hear communal leaders explain it, it’s only one occurrence underscoring a much larger phenomenon.
“There is a huge, empty void in Poland left behind by the Jews, and the only way to deal with it is to talk about what happened to Polish-Jewish relations in the 20th century,” said John Cudak, an American-born Pole living in Chelm. Cudak added that there might be another, related trend at work: “Jewish culture sells well in Poland. Good food, and music you can really dance to. Oskar Schindler combined with ‘Fiddler on the Roof.’”
For hundreds of years, Kazimierz was the main spiritual and cultural center of Polish Jewry, and the home of many well-known Jewish scholars, most notably talmudist Moses Isserles, popularly known as the Remu. In fact, the cemetery that holds his and the other local rabbis’ graves is called the Remu Cemetery, and during the festival, a detailed tour of the site was led by the head rabbi of Galicia, Edgar Gluck.
Between the two World Wars, Kazimierz was also a hotbed of active secular Yiddish culture.
The prolific Yiddish songwriter Mordkhe Gebirtig, best known for the song “S’Brent!” (“It’s Burning!”), lived there all his life.
After the Holocaust, nothing remained of that world. By the late 1980s, Kazimierz had become a blighted neighborhood known for its drug peddling and crime — a sad consequence of the postwar decision by the communist government to use the emptied Jewish quarter as a dumping ground for the poor and the disenfranchised.
But as artists and musicians began moving in, the area took on a more chic reputation, and the city government as well as private investors began to recognize its potential, particularly in light of the fact that in contrast to those in Warsaw, which had been flattened by bombings during World War II, Kazimierz’s buildings, many as old as 200 years, are still intact. Today, the freshly painted renovated buildings give off the unique Old World charm that had been missing during the communist era.
Organizer Janusz Makuch, who was raised Catholic, explained in an interview that his goal is not to entertain but to educate Poles and other gentiles about the Jewish culture that thrived in their country for hundreds of years but has been virtually forgotten due to the double tragedy of the Holocaust and the postwar repressive communist government.
“Most adults in Poland who do know what happened, or should know, have still not accepted responsibility for what the Poles did to the Jews,” agreed Cudak, who explained that most Polish children know almost nothing about the Holocaust, since the topic does not appear in the curriculum until high school. “When you mention the pogroms led by Poles after the Holocaust, they will usually respond with, ‘That’s true, but let’s not forget that many Poles also rescued Jews from the Nazis.’ Right away, they get defensive.”
If the goal has been to bridge the divide between Poles and the Jewish culture that once thrived in their midst, the festival has clearly had success on the individual level. Agnieszka Legutko, a 32-year-old woman born and raised in Krakow, led a daily English-speaking tour of the synagogues of Kazimierz. Although raised in a Catholic home, Legutko revealed a detailed knowledge of Jewish ritual objects and practices that would shame many Jews — and she used the Hebrew terms for all of them. Legutko explained that it was her devoutly Christian mother who had first introduced her to Jewish life by bringing her to the festival a number of years ago. Thus began a deep-rooted fascination with Jewish culture that eventually led her to become a doctoral student in Yiddish literature at Columbia University, where she now teaches undergraduate students — almost all of whom are Jewish — the intricacies of Yiddish syntax.
As in previous years, the highlight of the festival was a series of nightly, back-to-back concerts of Yiddish, klezmer and cantorial music, sometimes three or four in one evening. Most of the concerts took place in the huge, majestic Tempel Synagogue (the only Reform temple in Kazimierz), but there were also more intimate performances at local pubs.
Joanna Kruczak, a 32-year-old Catholic marketing manager from Krakow who has been attending the festival for four years, said that the cantorial concerts were her favorite part of the event.
“It made me cry, because you could tell that the singing comes straight from the heart,” she said. When asked why she attends the festival every year, she replied: “There’s nothing else like it. You have people of all ages and cultures coming together. In fact, the first time I came to the festival I was so moved that soon afterwards, for the first time in my life, I traveled to Israel and visited Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Tel Aviv.”
Makuch is sure that the yearly festivals, if well-attended, could have an impact on Polish-Jewish relations.
“I’m hoping that by teaching them about the Jews that used to live here, we can prevent antisemitism,” he said.
Does Makuch think antisemitism is no longer a problem in Poland?
“I’m not naive, of course it is,” he conceded. “This is a process, and it will take a long, long time. On the other hand, when you compare Poland with what’s been happening in the rest of Europe, ask yourself: Could you imagine such a huge open-air Jewish concert in any other European country today?”