Wednesday, July 11, 2007

In Poland, a Jewish Revival Thrives — Minus Jews

New York Times: By CRAIG S. SMITH

KRAKOW, Poland — There is a curious thing happening in this old country, scarred by Nazi death camps, raked by pogroms and blanketed by numbing Soviet sterility: Jewish culture is beginning to flourish again.

“Jewish style” restaurants are serving up platters of pirogis, klezmer bands are playing plaintive Oriental melodies, derelict synagogues are gradually being restored. Every June, a festival of Jewish culture here draws thousands of people to sing Jewish songs and dance Jewish dances. The only thing missing, really, are Jews.

“It’s a way to pay homage to the people who lived here, who contributed so much to Polish culture,” said Janusz Makuch, founder and director of the annual festival and himself the son of a Catholic family. ...

Before Hitler’s horror, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe, about 3.5 million souls. One in 10 Poles was Jewish.

More than three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust. Postwar pogroms and a 1968 anti-Jewish purge forced out most of those who survived.... [T]here are only 10,000 self-described Jews living today in this country of 39 million.

More than the people disappeared. The food, the music, the dance, the literature, the theater, the painting, the architecture — in short, the culture — of Jewish life in Poland disappeared, too. Poland’s cultural fabric lost some of its richest hues. ...

“You cannot have genocide and then have people live as if everything is normal,” said Konstanty Gebert, founder of a Polish-Jewish monthly, Midrasz. “It’s like when you lose a limb. Poland is suffering from Jewish phantom pain.”

Interest in Jewish culture became an identifying factor for people unhappy with the status quo and looking for ways to rebel, whether against the government or their parents. “The word ‘Jew’ still cuts conversation at the dinner table,” Mr. Gebert said. “People freeze.”

The revival of Jewish culture is, in its way, a progressive counterpoint to a conservative nationalist strain in Polish politics that still espouses anti-Semitic views. Some people see it as a generation’s effort to rise above the country’s dark past in order to convincingly condemn it. ...

Along one short street, faux 1930s Jewish merchant signs hang above the storefronts in an attempt to recreate the feel of the neighborhood before the war. Many Jews are offended by the commercialization of their culture in a country almost universally associated with its near annihilation. Others argue that there is something deeper taking place in Poland as the country heals from the double wounds of Nazi and Communist domination.

“There is commercialism, but that is foam on the surface,” Mr. Gebert said. “This is one of the deepest ethical transformations that our country is undergoing. This is Poland rediscovering its Jewish soul.”

This year, the festival had almost 200 events, including concerts and lectures and workshops in everything from Hebrew calligraphy to cooking. More than 20,000 people attended, few of whom were Jewish. ...

Like many people involved in the resurgence of Jewish culture in Poland, Mr. [Tad] Taube said he believed that it was not only important for Poland, but for Jews around the world.

Chris Schwarz, founder and director of Krakow’s Galicia Jewish Museum, agreed, saying, “Rather than coming here just to mourn, we should come with a great sense of dignity, a great sense of pride for what our ancestors accomplished.”

For others, the celebration of Jewish culture in a city just an hour away from Auschwitz, the Nazi death camp where a million Jews died, is a triumph of history.

“The fact that you can walk around Krakow with a lanyard around your neck that reads ‘Jewish Culture Festival’ is an extraordinary thing,” Ms. Kirschner said.

My visit to Krakow last summer was among the more puzzling of my ventures abroad. "Jewish-style" culture without Jews is a strange phenomenon, not much helped by the "surface foam" of commercialism and kitsch super-abundant in the streets of Kazimierz. Yet, as this well-reported article suggests, there is something more, straining to establish its own authenticity. I can't pretend to understand it, although I did sense some of its manifestations in encounters in a Jewish book shop, and in efforts to track down and purchase posters from the early years of the Festival (which continues to draw the world's best klezmer bands, and which I hope to be able to attend at some point). One of those posters, impossibly cheap to purchase and now elaborately and whimsically framed, currently presides in our dining room, and elicits lovely memories.

Maybe I can find and post some photos.

1 comment:

nina said...

I go to Kazimierz about once a year, typically with Americans.

So I have two answers for you:
1. out (Polish) collective memory (this is the more painful explanation);
2. Kazimierz undestood that it would climb into irrelevance, unless it could revamp and present for you, the tourist, the face of its fascinating Jewish history. It's a no brainer. You want to see it, it is there for you. Quite authentic. But there for YOU.