Festival’s non-Jewish founder has scored a triumph he never imagined

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Janusz Makuch first learned about Jews and their tragic history in his country when he was a teenager. A Catholic boy raised in a Communist family in eastern Poland, he was interested in learning more about his hometown of Pulawy, and took it upon himself to meet with a volunteer guide. Makuch was 14 or 15 at the time.

“Do you know, young man, that half of the population were Jewish people?” the man asked.

“It was the first time in my life that I heard the word ‘Jewish,’” Makuch, 56, recalled in a recent interview. “I looked at him and said, ‘What are you talking about?’”

Janusz Makuch directs setup for “Shalom on Szeroka Street” concert photo/michal ramus

It’s been a long, enlightening journey since then for Makuch, the founder and director of the annual Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, which he has headed since its creation in 1988.

Makuch continued meeting with that man for five years. “He became my Maimonides,” Makuch said during a visit to San Francisco in May. “He opened before my eyes and my world the gates to the Jewish world.”

Makuch went on to attend Jagiellonian University in Krakow where he learned about Kazimierz, the city’s historic Jewish quarter. Walking through the area, he found an old synagogue — empty, locked, its windows dark. But behind it, in a small building, there was a light. Makuch knocked on the door.

A large man with a long beard answered his knock and spoke in Yiddish.

“Can I come in?” Makuch asked.

That was the first of many meetings he’d have with the bearded man, then with others, all members of the Kazimierz Jewish community who welcomed him into their homes and “told me the tragic story of their lives.”

“That’s how I learned about the Jews of Krakow,” he said. Makuch also took it upon himself to read whatever books he could find on the Krakow Jewish community — including “underground” books banned by the Communists.

He also met with “many open-minded, open-hearted Christian people,” he said, who, like himself, wanted to learn more about the once-thriving Jewish life in the city.

Makuch was just 28 years old when he founded Krakow’s first Jewish Culture Festival. “I just wanted to do one, that’s it,” he said. Working on a shoestring budget, he planned to hold the event in a small theater that seated 100.

“I was worried,” he said. “Who will come?”

More than 100 people showed up, including men wearing yarmulkes. That, he said, “was a clear sign for everybody: We are Jewish. We are proud of being Jewish.”

Two years later, the second Jewish Culture Festival took place. Though the festival proved successful, it featured mostly non-Jewish European musicians. Makuch soon realized that it was missing a major component: The people onstage needed to be Jewish.

An invitation to attend KlezCamp in New York in 1992, where some 800 people gathered to hear Jewish music and celebrate Jewish culture, marked a turning point for Makuch, opening his eyes to the vast potential of such an event.

By the third Jewish Culture Festival, Makuch had lined up Jewish singers, musicians and scholars to perform and give workshops. Not only would the festival showcase the vibrant contemporary Jewish culture, he explained, it also would educate those who were uninformed about the history of Jewish life in Poland.

Today, Makuch — who sports a trim, greying beard and favors shirts and sports jackets — travels the world looking for talented musicians and singers to perform. His taste runs from classic cantorial soloists such as Benzion Miller, 69, a world-renowned singer and fixture at the Jewish Culture Festival, to young artists such as Kutiman, a 34-year-old Israeli video mashup artist who brought a funkadelic band to Krakow this year.

Makuch especially likes showcasing new talent. “I look for young artists to invest in, because I am sure in a few years they will become stars,” he said. Jerusalem (he pronounces it Yerushalayim) is one of his favorite places to visit and discover promising talent.

He’s also a fan of San Francisco, enjoying its coffeehouses and restaurants, cool summer climate and lively entertainment. When in town, Makuch often meets with representatives of the Belmont-based Taube Philanthropies and S.F.-based Koret Foundation, both major funders of the Jewish Culture Festival.

Looking back, Makuch “never imagined” the festival would become so large — drawing upwards of 30,000 annually.

And while the nine-day celebration, sometimes dubbed “the Jewish Woodstock in Krakow,” attracts attendees of all faiths from throughout the world, it’s not so much the draw of the entertainment as the entire package that gives Makuch the most satisfaction, and optimism.

The festival takes place  “in the middle of Europe, in Poland, where the Germans executed 6 million Jews,” he said. Through the festival, he hopes to educate people about both the Jewish culture that was lost and the culture that lives on. The festival is dedicated “to the memory of life,” he stressed, “not the memory of death.” — liz harris

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.