I walked the narrow, curved, cobblestone streets of Kazimierz, the old Jewish part of Krakow, and my emotions gyrate. I see ancient synagogues – lots of them – including the synagogue of the Rama – Rabbi Moshe Isserlis- one of the greatest and most important Rabbis of all Ashkenazik Jewry. The Rama’s grave is just behind the shul – a master at rest.
Turning the corner, I reached Sheroka street –previously the central road of the tightly packed Kazimierz – now a Jewish Disneyland. Some Jews who live in Krakow call it- Jewrasic Park – in honor of Steven Spielberg, director of Jurasic Park. Another of Spielberg’s movies – Schindler’s List – was filmed here. In those days, Kazimierz was filled with destroyed and deteriorating buildings. The interest created by Schindler’s List, led to gentrification and to Kazimierz’s current hip and happening vibe.
Our first stop on Szeroka street was the Klezmer Hoise (Klezmer House). We just had to go in. It has three separate dining rooms and the whole house is decorated as a pre-war Jewish home. Klezmer musicians play in each dining room to audiences of non-Jewish Poles who watch curiously, not knowing what to make of it. The four of us stand in the back signing along and dancing with our hands up high –Chasidic-style. The patrons of the restaurant stare.
Just a stone’s throw from Klezmer Hoise is a row of restaurants with Jewish themes and Klezmer music playing inside and outside. It was a warm night and the tables lining the streets were filled. There was a café called Ariel. A Klezmer trio played songs from Fiddler on the Roof. I really could not believe that I got to see this – it was all that I had read about in Katke Reszke’s book, Return of the Jew, and more. I was excited and disturbed at the same time. Then at the end of the row was a restaurant called Ester – wow. I had to take a picture of my daughter, Esther, under that sign. Perhaps she should change the spelling of her name and drop the “h.” At the very end of the street sits “the Old Synagogue” – the oldest shul in Poland, built in 1407. It is now a museum – a tourist attraction.
It’s not just on Szeroka Street – all through Kazimierz, I saw Jewish style tea shops, gift shops, book shops, kitchens, Jewish-related murals and graffiti. This non-Jewish portrayal of Jewish Fiddler on the Roof culture reaches a crescendo for one week of June – with the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival. For a week there is an outpouring of Jewishness. I was thrilled to realize that we would still be in Krakow for the opening festivities on Saturday night and Sunday.
The 26th annual Krakow Jewish Festival kicked off with a Melave Malka – a traditional Saturday night get together, whose traditional purpose is to hold onto some of the holiness of the Sabbath, even though the sun has set. They held this event in the Temple Synagogue – originally built in the 1860’s as a Reform Temple. It was built in the style of the Leopoldstadter Temple in Vienna. Its gold ornate decorations and high vaulted ceilings create a surreal setting for orthodox Cantors and choirs – mostly from Jerusalem – some in the long black coats of Chasidim and others in slacks and white shirts of modern orthodox Jews. For over an hour, traditional Jewish melodies and prayers – mostly in Hebrew, a few in Yiddish – were sung – all to great applause. This free event was just a teaser – the main Cantorial concert was to be the following night – Monday at 7 PM. Our plane back to Warsaw and then on to Israel was Monday night, but as I was heading out of Kazimirez towards my hotel to grab my suitcase, I saw a huge line of people waiting to enter the Temple Synagogue to listen to the Jewish Cantorial music, tickets in hand.
These are just two events at the Festival – there is an entire booklet filled with performances of music, dance, theater, lectures, art exhibits, and more.
On Sunday I attended a beautiful ceremony at the Galicia Jewish Museum honoring ten Polish non-Jews who are involved in preserving Jewish culture and heritage. For example, Krzysztof Ostrowski received an award for his work in the Jewish cemetery in Pultusk. It was destroyed during WWII and was abandoned until 2012. Mr. Ostrowski worked to gather the tombstones and make them into a memorial. Another was Krzysztof Godlewski, who received an honor for organizing a ceremony in memory of the progrom (carried out by Poles not Germans) that occurred in Jedwabne during WWII. I left with the impression that non-Jewish Poles are trying to make sense of what happened during the war and the fact that a huge piece of their country’s life and culture – the Jewish communities of Poland – was erased in six short years.
The interest in things Jewish is not restricted to the Kazimriez district, it extends to other parts of Krakow. The old town of Krakow which is filled with beautiful old buildings, very old Churches, and at the highest point of the town, a palace truly fit for a King. Esther and I walked around with the thousands of other tourists from all over the world. We then went down, deep below the current city and walked through the underground museum, just below the Market Square. Here we saw the oldest streets of Krakow and learned of its early development as a city and capital of Poland. Just above the Underground Museum lies a long covered lane with tourist shops lining the path. Many sell identical wares – Polish pottery, purses, hats, jewelry, small crystal glassware. But every other shop carries the Jewish figurines that I first learned about in Katke’s book. They come in various sizes and they hold different objects – a violin, an accordion, a staff, – but my favorite is the one holding a coin and a money bag. I asked many shop keepers what these are. Each of them had roughly the same answer – “These are Jews. You see, Jews used to live here in Krakow and there was much Jewish culture here. These Jewish figurines are good luck charms. If you buy one and keep it in your home, you will have good luck, especially with money.” They really have no clue that this may be offensive. No clue.
Here are the three that I bought – they will go home with me and bring me good luck.
While the non-Jews of Krakow and other parts of Poland keep a figurines or picture of a Jew in their home for good luck and wonder about the Jewish presence that flourished here for hundreds of years, there is a real Jewish community – a growing one — here in Krakow and in Warsaw as well. In my next post I will write of the Jews who have emerged from the shadows of death. Stay tuned.