The final concert of the 2018 Krakow Jewish Culture Festival (Photo/Rob Gloster)
The final concert of the 2018 Krakow Jewish Culture Festival (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Krakow diary: ‘We Poles are inheritors of Jewish culture’

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Final installment in a series of dispatches from the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival

As the final notes of an exuberant street concert brought Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival to a climax well after midnight, the future path of this city’s Jewish revival — and of the renewal of Jewish life throughout Poland overall — remained uncertain.

More than 33,000 people attended the June 30 festival, which included concerts, lectures and workshops on everything from Yiddish singing to bagels to Israeli wines. Hundreds also attended the Festivalt, an alternative Jewish festival that focuses on offbeat art and homegrown culture.

Thousands of people filled a town square on Saturday night for the seven-hour celebration of “Shalom on Szeroka Street,” which featured a klezmer orchestra, a jazz band, Israeli saxophonist Abatte Barihun and a Havdalah ceremony after sunset.

There’s no question Jewish culture is thriving in Krakow, about 75 years after most of the city’s Jews were wiped out by the Holocaust. The most poignant characteristic of Jewish life here has been its absence.

But a bigger question revolves around the long-term fate of the Jewish revival, especially in the face of the wave of anti-Semitism unleashed earlier this year when politicians passed a law making it a crime to accuse Poland of complicity in the Holocaust.

Jewish Culture Festival director and co-founder Janusz Makuch
Jewish Culture Festival director and co-founder Janusz Makuch (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Equally unclear is whether a nation that now is home to an estimated 7,000 Jews — down from the 3.5 million before the Holocaust — will be able to sustain the community with a new generation of local leaders.

The revival, whose heart is the 10-day festival held annually at the end of June, has been led and funded mostly by people from outside Poland’s Jewish community.

The chief rabbi of Poland, Rabbi Michael Schudrich, grew up in New York. So did the executive director of the Krakow JCC, Jonathan Ornstein. Janusz Makuch, director and a founder of the festival, grew up in a Catholic home. And much of the money supporting the revival has come from Americans such as Bay Area philanthropist Tad Taube.

The lack of local Jewish leadership until now is understandable. Generations of Polish Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Those who survived were forced to keep their religion and culture hidden during the Communist era, and there have been periodic pogroms since then — including a national anti-Semitic campaign in 1968-1971 that forced more than half of Poland’s 30,000 remaining Jews to flee to Israel, the U.S. or Scandinavian countries.

But many of the current community leaders say they think Polish Jews, many of whom have discovered their Jewish heritage only in the past few years, are ready to take over — and that such a transition is necessary for the long-term health of the revival.

“The fact that I’m the chief rabbi of Poland and I wasn’t born here is a sign of the destruction. The sign of the real revival is when we have a Polish chief rabbi,” the 63-year-old Schudrich said, adding that there is an ever-growing number of Polish-born rabbis and Jewish educators and that “the younger people today are ready to lead the renewal.”

“It’s happening now,” said Ornstein, 48, who has led the Krakow JCC since its creation a decade ago. “You have Jewish Poles who have found out about their roots and are starting to lead the revival,” such as Agata Rakowiecka, director of the Warsaw JCC and a native of the Polish capital.

Michael Rubenfeld, a playwright and one of the co-founders of Festivalt, came here two years ago from Canada when he married a Polish woman, fellow Festivalt co-founder Magda Rubenfeld Koralewska.

Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich (left) leads havdalah at the closing night of 2018 Krakow Jewish Culture Festival
Chief Rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich (left) leads havdalah at the closing night of 2018 Krakow Jewish Culture Festival (Photo/Rob Gloster)

He said many of the Poles who have discovered their Jewish roots are ready to take leadership roles.

“The only way a community grows is when people from that community are in power. I feel that time is now,” he said. “I would like to see Jewish organizations run by people who grew up here and went through the process of discovering their Judaism.

“The reality is that 10 years ago, Jonathan Ornstein got the job at the JCC and he was the only one who could do that job. Now there are probably 10 people who could do that job. The question is when the Americans will step aside to let the Poles take over.”

Makuch, 58, is among a group of Catholic intellectuals who started the festival in 1988, never dreaming it would grow into what he called “one of the most crucial Jewish cultural events on Earth.”

“This is a Jewish festival organized by non-Jewish guys in the shadow of Auschwitz,” he said. Many Poles “had thought Jews were only victims, that the only legacy left us by the Germans was death.”

Departing from the perspective of his colleagues, he does not believe it is important that Jews take over leadership positions in the Polish Jewish community, because he sees no contradiction between being Polish and being Jewish. Moreover, Jews “have been crucial in creating Polish culture and our identity.”

“It really doesn’t matter if it is Poles or Jews,” Makuch added. “We Poles are inheritors of the Jewish culture.”

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.