For 20 years, the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow has been attracting thousands of visitors from all over Poland and abroad, including leading writers, poets, artists and filmmakers from many parts of the globe including Israel. This year, from June 23 to July 1, the city's historic Jewish quarter (called Kazimierz) will fill once more with music, art, dance, lectures and exhibits - all celebrating the 900-year history of Jews in Poland.
The festival was launched in 1987 by Janusz Makuch, a non-Jew who ardently believes that Krakow and Poland in general must do everything possible to preserve the memory of Jewish culture in the country.
Makuch fired the imaginations of fellow Poles including members of Poland's post-Communist and newly emerging Jewish community, as well as Jews around the world - especially those of Polish background. Over the years, the festival has grown in size and scope, as more entertainers from abroad have sought to participate. More visitors arrived from far-off Polish cities and from around the world, making Krakow the place to be during the week of the festival....
This year there will also be a religious experience with Sabbath services and other spiritual Sabbath-related events. Of the conferences, one of the most important will be on urban regeneration in the historical Jewish quarters of Eastern European cities.
The festival is particularly popular with Klezmer bands, which flock to play in Kazimierz. They fill the synagogues that remained standing after the war, although with two or three exceptions, these no longer function as places of worship. The klezmer groups also play in nearby theaters and cafes, and on the final night of the festival they join in the grand finale, an open air concert in the wide expanse of Szeroka Street attracting thousands of people.
My wife and I visited Kazimierz last year, although not at the time of the festival. "Judaism without Jews," it is sometimes called. The historical resonances are poignant, and the feelings rather eerie. The nearby synagogues and cemetery make for meaningful visits, and there are a number of significant Holocaust sites (some involved in the real and movie versions of Schindler's List) quite nearby. The hotels and Jewish-style restaurants tend toward the schlocky. Krakow itself (a beautiful city, which largely survived the destruction of WWII)is a major Catholic pilgrimmage site due to John Paul II's life history.
By all accounts, Kazimierz is the world capital of klezmer during the festival.