Klezmer Music and Memory at a Festival Celebrating Jewish Life in Poland

KRAKOW, Poland — There were lectures on the journey of Jews from shtetls in Poland to new homes in what would become Israel; workshops on chanting the Torah and cooking for Shabbat; exhibitions documenting the devastation brought by World War II; and debates about Jewish life in Poland today.

Everywhere, there was music. Gentle lullabies and Yiddish folk songs, thumping Israeli hip-hop, and rousing celebratory tunes played by scores of Klezmer bands filled the ancient alleyways of Krakow, a Polish city that was once at the center of Jewish life in Europe.

It was all part of the Jewish Culture Festival, a yearly event meant to celebrate the 1,000 years of Jewish life that had flourished in Poland before World War II, but had been erased by the Holocaust. Attracting about 30,000 visitors each summer and advertising itself as the largest Jewish festival in Europe, the event draws many Poles as well as internationally recognized performers.

This year, though, it took place against a backdrop of increasing xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Poland and across Europe. Its organizers did not shy from the topic.

At a lecture at the Galicia Jewish Museum, Ireneusz Krzeminski, a sociology professor at the University of Warsaw, was on a panel about anti-Semitism when he was confronted by a woman who sat in the front row.

“There are so many foreign guests here, which means that yet again, the message to the world will be that Poles are a bunch of anti-Semites,” she said. “Why? Why do you insist on saying that when it’s not true?”

A man who sat next to her demanded to see evidence that “Poles really do hate Jews.”

After the session, Mr. Krzeminski said he saw a direct line from the rhetoric of the current Polish government to the anger reflected in the questions.

“If you are always talking about Poles as good and great, when you mobilize people with this sense of martyrdom, and history is used cynically, this is what you get,” he said.

In the last couple of years, the Polish government has tried to control the historical narrative of the country in ways unseen since the end of Communist rule, particularly in relation to the history of Polish Jews.

It has exerted increasing control over prized cultural institutions, like the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews. In early 2018, it passed a controversial law that made it a crime to accuse the Polish nation of complicity in the Holocaust.

Critics said the law would stifle academic study. After a diplomatic furor — with the United States and Israel both putting pressure on the government — Polish officials backed down.

“Those were, by far, some of the most challenging months I have experienced,” said Jonathan Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center in Krakow.

The episode was followed by a tumultuous year in relations between Israel and Poland, which came amid rising anti-Semitism across Europe. And it raised profound questions about Poland’s understanding of its own past, and also about how much Poland remains misunderstood outside the country.

These questions were implicit in the programming of the Krakow festival, held this year in late June. The director of the festival, Janusz Makuch, has long pondered them.

Mr. Makuch, 59, was born in Pulawy, a small city in eastern Poland. It was not until he was 14 years old that he learned his town had once been home to thousands of Jews.

“No one had taught me about the Jews; the only victims of the war were Poles,” he said. A professor in his hometown, he said, “opened the door to this drowned Atlantis.”

In 1980, when he was 20, he moved to Krakow and went in search of the great synagogues. The city, unlike so many others in Poland, was largely spared destruction in the war.

But as he walked around, he encountered only ghosts.

“It was this empty, sad, gray, dark place,” he said. “I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something.’ ”

In 1988, he organized the first festival. It was small but after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, it gradually expanded. By 1992, it was a global event.

“The festival cannot only be about a smattering of cultural events,” said Mr. Makuch, who is not Jewish but considers himself a Zionist, on a walk during the festival days through an old Jewish cemetery in Krakow. “It has to be about education. Both remembrance and vitality. I made up my mind that six years of the Shoah cannot erase 1,000 years of culture.”

Established in 1535, the cemetery sits next to the 16th-century Remah Synagogue, named after Rabbi Moses Isserles, a renowned Talmudic and legal scholar. The Nazis destroyed much of the graveyard, taking tombstones and using them as paving stones in death camps or selling them.

But over the years, as stones have been found, they have been returned and the graveyard has slowly been restored.

Walking by the tombstone of Rabbi Isserles, one of the few that survived the war intact, Mr. Makuch grew emotional.

“I was born in the world’s largest Jewish graveyard,” he said, referring to Poland. “But I cannot live my whole life in the legacy of death.”

Mr. Ornstein, the director of the Jewish Community Center, said that while the festival celebrates the past, he wants to help restore Jewish life to the city today.

Krakow is not far from Auschwitz and each year, a March of the Living, which takes visitors on a walk from Auschwitz to the nearby Birkenau death camp, draws tens of thousands of participants.

Mr. Ornstein has organized what he calls a Ride for the Living — a bicycle ride from Auschwitz to Krakow for 250 cyclists.

Mr. Ornstein said the 100-kilometer journey, scheduled each year to coincide with the festival, was a chance for visitors to see how Jewish life is slowly but doggedly returning to Poland. In Krakow, there are now hundreds of practicing Jews.

Geoffrey Rolat, 65, has been visiting for decades with his father, Sigmund A. Rolat, who was born on July 1, 1930, in Czestochowa, Poland.

The elder Mr. Rolat survived the death camps and became a prominent philanthropist; he is one of the main donors to the POLIN museum.

This year, the son gathered with other bike riders at dawn at the community center in Krakow, waiting for a bus to Auschwitz, where they would begin the ride. A man stood at the gates of the center, rambling incoherently about Jews and “his country.”

“You have crazy people everywhere,” Mr. Rolat said, nonplused. “I truly believe the safest place for a Jew today in Europe is in Poland.”

As the bikers rode through small towns and villages, past churches and statues of the Virgin Mary, there were no cross looks or unkind words from people tending the fields along the way. There were mostly waves and smiles, and the occasional curious glance at the pack of riders, outfitted in bike jerseys emblazoned with the Star of David.

As the riders approached Krakow, they were met by small crowds cheering them on.

“To ride from this place of devastation to this place of the living is remarkable,” Mr. Rolat said.

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