Klezmers hot in Poland &mdash film captures trend

There’s a cultural revolution going on in Poland, and it’s not politically inspired. In line with the adage “You don’t miss what you had until it’s gone,” Poles — especially the young ones — have gone nostalgic for klezmer.

In Krakow you can find a good kosher meal, a number of klezmer bands, Jewish cabaret, art exhibits and folk dancing. The only thing you probably won’t find — unless you look very hard — are Jews. There are only about 100 of them in town, not counting the tourists. The Jewish population of the entire country is estimated to be between 4,000 and 5,000, many of those “in the closet.”

“Jews tend to think of Poland as a Jewish cemetery,” says an American Jew interviewed on-camera in Yale Strom’s new documentary “Klezmer on Fish Street.” And who can blame them? After all, this is the historically anti-Semitic home of such notorious killing fields as Auschwitz and Treblinka. After marginalizing its large Jewish population for centuries, Poland watched them march to the Nazi slaughter, evidently without qualm. Now, apparently, it wants them back. But those who have fled return only as visitors. Jews don’t want to live there anymore.

Strom, a fine filmmaker whose “The Last Klezmer” was a hit at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival in 1994, kicks off the festival’s monthly series Wednesday at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

Examining the revival of Jewish culture in Poland, the film follows a Boston klezmer group as it attends a Jewish summer festival in Krakow. The band’s experience is a frame for the larger picture in Poland, where the outdoor festival concerts draw thousands, even in the rain. Not only is a major part of the audience non-Jewish, many of the performers are as well.

“Klezmer is a soundtrack for the Jewish experience,” notes one Jewish observer. “If the goyim are interested, it is also good for us.”

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. One young Polish woman likens the situation in Krakow to Hollywood. “It’s not real.”

Others find it incongruous. A Polish-born Jew, visiting from America, says: “You can go to a Jewish restaurant but who’s cooking? Is there a Jewish mama in the kitchen? Same with the Jewish music.”

The ghosts of the Holocaust hang heavy here, and the Jewish events do not attract the Polish Jews who remain. A latent anti-Semitism beats in counterpoint to the craze for Jewish songs and, as the Boston kids dance the hora and sing their songs late into the night, angering some of the residents of a quiet neighborhood, as well as the police, Strom manages to catch that on camera too.

“Let them go to Israel if they want to pray,” shouts an angry neighbor.

“There are laws here,” cautions a silence-seeking cop.

The angry confrontation is broken up just short of consequences.

We see Auschwitz through the eyes of the Polish-born survivor who is translator and chaperone for the Boston group. Although there is no archival concentration camp footage — aside from some still shots of a room piled with eyeglasses and another with shoes — Strom injects a few equally heartbreaking interviews with survivors and children of survivors. And segues between scenes are stunningly handled with a shadowy violinist playing a dirge against the background of a bucolic countryside, only one instance of David Leitner’s masterful photography.

In spite of the sadness, with rollicking klezmer music permeating every scene, the general impression is upbeat. Filmmaker Strom arranged the music, which is wonderful, and he even plays the violin on some of the numbers. A man of many talents, not the least of which is the making of Jewish


“Klezmer on Fish Street” plays at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission St., S.F. Information: www.sfjff.org or (415) 621-0556.