By Allan Rabinowitz
AFTER arriving in Poland for the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival, I awoke in the night to the high-low scream of a police siren, like those from numerous Second World War films.
Dream-heightened visions — jackboots on the stairs and storm troopers bursting in — gripped me and lingered while I was sipping morning coffee in Kazimierz, the renovated Jewish quarter of Krakow in which the festival was centred.
That night, in a cellar club, Gili Yalo, a wiry Ethiopian-Israeli, pranced across the stage like Mick Jagger, singing in Amharic and Hebrew as the Israeli band rocked.
He told how his family carried him across Sudan to Israel. “Now I want to take you to Ethiopia!” The mass of Catholic-raised Poles cheered. Behind Yalo flashed images of Jerusalem and the Israeli flag.
Contradictions and contrasts characterise this largest Jewish festival in Europe.
Poles overwhelmingly outnumber Jews. Cafes prosper in one-time shtiebels. “Lucky Jew” figurines sit in shops next to Santa Claus dolls.
But for nine days every summer, the festival immerses almost 30,000 visitors — Poles and foreigners — in Jewish culture, history, spirituality, issues and art, with concerts, theatre, lectures, local tours, exhibitions and workshops ranging from Hebrew calligraphy to Polish-Jewish reconciliation.
Jerusalem was this year’s festival theme, deliberately linked to the jubilee celebration of the city’s reunification.
There were lectures by renowned archaeologist Dan Bahat and author Yossi Klein Halevi, sessions on Jerusalem poet Yehuda Amichai, virtual tours and a real-time link with a Jerusalem taxi.
The Machaneh Yehuda market was recreated in Krakow’s Old Market Square, near an exhibition of early Jerusalem photos.
Kazimierz itself has been a central theme since the festival’s inception, as a festival walking tour with guide Agneieszka Legutko (“Agi”) clearly illustrated.
Weaving among today’s bars, cafes, restaurants and galleries (some with mezzuza indentations visible on the doorposts), Legutko called attention to the mikva, the old kosher slaughterhouse (where kiosks now serve sandwiches), several Jewish cemeteries and some of the 127 synagogues and prayer houses that filled Kazimierz (some facing churches).
For six centuries, encompassing periodic territorial shifts, regime changes and Jewish-Catholic tensions, Jewish communities flourished here.
Moses Ben Israel Isserles, the Remu, studied, taught and wrote Ashkenazi halachic codes comparable to contemporary Joseph Karo’s in Safed.
Kabbalistic and chassidic thought, fine craftsmanship and klezmer music flowered. Before the war, Krakow’s 70,000 Jews comprised 25 per cent of the city’s population.
Legutko’s tour confronted the complexities of the Polish-Jewish relationship.
She noted, angrily, a building with a plaque marking its short-lived use as a workers’ theatre but ignoring its rich history as a Yiddish theatre.
We saw courtyards and alleys where Steven Spielberg filmed scenes from Schindler’s List in 1993.
The subsequent “Schindler tourism”, as Legutko phrased it, spurred renewal.
But the ghetto, covered by festival tours, stood across the Vistula in the Podgórze district, where 15,000 Jews were crowded into blocks normally housing 3,000. Raised a Catholic in communist Poland but drawn to Jewish subjects as a teenager, Legutko once told her parents that, strangely, some friends asked if she was Jewish.
Her parents responded that she was in fact Jewish on both sides. But in the communist era, that was something not discussed.
Such Polish “Jewish roots” stories are proliferating. An antisemitic biker wound up in a yeshiva.
A girl searching her family name on Google discovered a name change.
Rabbi Avi Baumol, splitting his time each month between Krakow and his home in Efrat, tells the tale of a Jewish girl adopted by a Christian family during the war, sworn to never reveal her roots.
Decades later she told her granddaughter, promising to teach her to bake challa, but died the very next day.
The granddaughter’s journey took her to Israel — and baking challa for others.
Baumol finds those making such discoveries “completely authentic, interested in learning to live as Jews.
“Maybe I’ll meet one more who’s discovering roots. There are thousands more. This is what pulls me back”.
For Anna Kiesell, who guides through Jewish Krakow beyond Kazimierz and the ghetto, the Jewish pull originally involved not roots but anger.
While noting Jewish landmarks — a once-Jewish hospital, the workshop in which seamstress Sarah Schenirer launched the first Bais Yaakov school for Jewish girls, the home of Natan Gross (the Israeli writer and film director) — she remembered how, during her guide course, she was shocked to discover this previously erased legacy.
Janusz Makuch, co-founder and long-serving director of the festival, faced his own kind of blindness when, as a teenager studying his town’s history, a local professor revealed that it had once been 50 per cent Jewish.
Under the professor’s tutelage, “I discovered my own Jewish Atlantis. Polish Jews helped me realise who I am”.
In Krakow for university in the 1980s, Makuch discovered friends similarly fascinated by Jewish history, culture and spirituality.
In 1988, he and a friend organised the first — and successful — Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival, with workshops, concerts and Yiddish films, running it every two years.
In 1992, three years after communism fell, Makuch engaged such American artists as the Klezmatics, Andy Statman and Shlomo Carlebach.
The festival became annual and added something new and vital: Israel, following Makuch’s first visit there.
Hebrew and Middle Eastern rhythms now shared stages with Yiddish and clarinets. Striving to “preserve the space of remembrance, and build a space of vitalit”, Makuch focused on “the amazing, beautiful culture of today, especially in Israel.We cannot exist without Israel”.
Today the festival operates as an NGO, funded by the Krakow Municipality and various foundations, with a yearly budget of about £780,000.
Makuch and a small staff are supplemented by 70 volunteers (mostly non-Jews) called “machers”.
“Why do they volunteer?” asked Makuch. “They say, ‘I belong to this world. As a Pole and a Catholic, I have to understand what Judaism is about’.
Makuch shares that sense of intertwining. “I started to assimilate to Jewish culture. Am I a Polish Jew? No. I am a Jewish Pole.”
But that intertwining can take other forms, such as the jarring mini-theatrical display of Lucky Jew, created by an independent troupe.
A young bearded Jewish man dressed in cap and vest sits at a table within a picture frame, shmoozes, jokes and writes blessings for visitors, who leave a few Polish zlotys.
Is this a prejudicial image deeply ingrained. Self-satire? Homage to folkloric traditions?
On Shabbat eve, Jewish student groups from abroad (most had already visited Auschwitz) danced and sang before entering the Temple Synagogue, the large, lavishly decorated liberal house of prayer built 150 years ago.
A synagogue elder welcomed “all these Jews and friends of Jews”, then declared: “We are not skulking in basements or hiding in attics. We are here!”
When the prayers began, a young nun in a sky-blue habit sitting near me fluently sang Lecha dodi.
Prayers were followed by a community Shabbat dinner for about 650 people, hosted every year by the adjacent Krakow Jewish Community Centre (JCC).
During the festival, the JCC offered concerts, films and workshops ranging from women in Judaism to making hummus.
Its lecturers included Jewish Telegraph columnist Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, who said he came to Krakow “to see for myself this truth beyond the myths I’d been hearing”.
The JCC’s unlikely origins began with a 2002 visit to Krakow by Prince Charles, who was struck by the plight of isolated Holocaust survivors.
Contacting the London-based World Jewish Relief, a proposal to aid this Jewish remnant expanded to one fanning a Jewish revival.
Six years later, Prince Charles affixed the mezzuza to the new JCC.
Without Prince Charles, the centre would not exist, said Jonathan Ornstein, its director. “And without the JCC, the community would not be so revitalised.”
Ornstein, an American Jew, keeps the JCC gates as widely open as possible.
Ironically, the Jewish Festival’s popularity among Poles, said Ornstein, “raises awareness for Jews, making it easier for Jews to act and to ask.”
From before the close of Shabbat to beyond midnight, a gala concert was held, as usual, in the Szeroska central plaza in Kazimierz (the festival would continue on Sunday).
That moment and spot formed a microcosm for the festival’s many layers and contrasts: the crowded “Jewish-style” restaurants on the perimeter (one sign read “Hummus and Happiness); the tiny green 15th-century Jewish cemetery bordered by wrought-iron menorahs (Spielberg filmed a scene here); the Remu synagogue and attached cemetery, where he is buried; the nearby stand selling kippot, menorahs, chassidic figurines; the statue of Jan Karski, the heroic Polish partisan who widely reported the Holocaust.
On stage, before almost 20,000 people, singer Gili Yalo again re-lived the Ethiopian experience, followed by an Israeli-Indian fusion group and a New York combo playing a jazzy Lecha dodi.
Machers floated through the crowd. An old Auschwitz survivor danced his heart out to a folkish Israeli band.
Then thousands of Poles hushed and pressed forward to hear Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich close Shabbat with an explanation of the havdalla symbols (it was also broadcast by TV satellite).
Around this plaza, it seemed that the ghosts, graves, gaonim, gerim (converts), almost-gerim and the gauche, were the intertwoven wicks of a huge havdalla candle, creating a light bigger than its parts.
Schudrich condemned (as Janusz Makuch had done earlier in Polish) the impending UNESCO meeting scheduled to start in Krakow, to declare Hebron — the home of Abraham — a Palestinian heritage site devoid of Jewish significance.
This audience — perhaps alone in Europe — cheered supportively as Schudrich accused UNESCO of attempting, within the shadow of Auschwitz, to wipe out the Jewish spiritual heritage and identity.
The festival’s final event, a Sunday evening concert in the Temple Synagogue, honoured 98-year-old Leopold Kozlowski — pianist, composer, scion of an old Jewish klezmer dynasty and dubbed “The Last Klezmer” in a biographical film.
He had survived concentration camps, lost his family and fought with partisans.
After the war he moved to Krakow and immersed himself in a wide range of musical enterprises (most of the 300,000 Polish Jews who survived the war did not return to Poland; of those who did, many left after a series of pogroms).
Kozlowski charmed the audience with beautiful piano work and hilarious lines.
As a woman singer serenaded him with a sultry Yiddish song, I imagined sitting in a smoky, shadowy pre-war cabaret in vibrant, creative, Jewish Krakow, blissfully oblivious of the monster about to devour the city and people I loved.
For the closing number, Kozlowski led the singers and musicians in Hevenu Shalom Aleichem.
The overwhelmingly Polish audience sang and clapped. As the crowd shuffled out smiling and humming, I remembered something that Kozlowski had said earlier that was translated for me: “Music is my revenge.”