All roads lead to Krakow

Culture festival to explore Polish Jewry.

Krakow Festival (photo credit: Bloomberg)
Krakow Festival
(photo credit: Bloomberg)
For many Jews around the world, all roads at the end of this week will lead to Krakow. It’s not some massive roots mission in the traditional sense; anyone who feels the need to visit the concentration and death camps established during the Holocaust era can do so in their own time. But that’s not part of what’s happening at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, which takes place between June 25 and July 4. In a more nostalgic sense, the festival is a roots mission that will take participants back to the cultural origins of Polish Jewry in an attempt to recapture part of a world that was but is no more.
Although in recent years Jewish life in Krakow has been restored to a certain extent, especially since Chabad set up operations there. But the ghosts of old Jewish Krakow, prodded by – of all people – a gentile, have for the past two decades been rising for one week of every year in the historic Kazimierz district, with Jewish music, hassidic dance, paper-cutting, lectures on Judaism, Jewish philosophy, literature and history, Jewish films and more.
The person responsible for all this is a Polish Catholic by the name of Janusz Makuch, who as a teenager heard for the first time that there was once a vibrant Jewish community in Krakow that had left its imprint on both local Polish culture and national Polish culture.
When he asked his interlocutor where these Jews had gone, he also learned for the first time about the Holocaust. This awoke in him an almost obsessive drive to restore the Jewish spirit of Kazimierz.
He started with a relatively modest Jewish festival in 1988, and each year the festival grew and got better as more people became interested.
The tourism industry, for instance, quickly recognized the potential of the festival and began opening Jewish- style restaurants and small hotels with Jewish names.
Several synagogues still stand in the area. Most have been turned into museums, but at least two are in fairly regular use as places of worship, and a third is occasionally used.
Chabad took over one of the seven synagogues that were preserved, as a result of which religiously observant Jewish visitors to Krakow no longer have to worry about acquiring kosher food. There are also museums and bookstores of Jewish interest.
Jewish and non-Jewish lecturers – including, this year, Ambassador Zvi Rav-Ner – and entertainers, especially klezmer bands in the case of non- Jews, are drawn from Israel, the United States, Canada, Poland and other parts of Europe to the magnetic charms of Krakow.
Before the war, there were some 68,000 Jews in Krakow. The overwhelming majority was murdered, and most of those who survived and remained in Poland kept their Jewish identities secret. Now, they are gradually emerging from the woodwork.
For Poles who have been developing an extraordinary curiosity for all things Jewish, and are becoming increasingly aware of Jewish contributions to Polish culture, Krakow has become the temporary well of knowledge where they can quench their thirst. It’s amazing, but they come from all over Poland, and those who have two drops of Jewish blood that they might have once been ashamed of, now acknowledge that genetic ancestry with pride.