This afternoon, I dropped by the Krakow JCC to check about the Rosh Hashanah community dinner tomorrow night. A small group of Israeli tourists comes by—a short framed, older man with a middle-aged couple. He turns out to be the father of the woman and they are doing a roots trip. It is his first trip back to Poland in seventy years. He did forced labor in Krakow before being sent to Auschwitz. He escaped from the death march from the camp (when the Nazis forced inmates who could still work to walk long distances to other camps as part of their general retreat). Unexpectedly, I’m sideswiped away from the relaxed late summer day. In Poland, the dark past can strike anytime, anywhere, a jolt not unlike the shock of a California tremor.
I have just returned from two weeks on the road, first to a Polish-Jewish festival in a small village near Czestochowa, then a new Jewish cultural festival in the small resort town of Kazimierz Dolny, near Lublin, and then a week in Warsaw for the tenth annual Singer Festival, named for Isaac Bashevis Singer (where the JMF commissioned project Ger Mandolin Orchestra performed in 2011.)
In the village of Lelow, I stayed in the small country house of an elderly couple who became fast friends, first via translation through my friend Olga, and then when she left, through the mutually stumbling efforts to communicate. They remembered Jews from before the war, before they were all sent away. Jews had been part of the village for hundreds of years, maybe since its founding nine hundred years ago by King Kazimierz. It was here, they said, that Esther, the king’s Jewish lover, lived. He would say that he was coming to Lelow to hunt, but he was really coming to see her. Pan Staszek said that Jews and Poles used to get along, giving as evidence the fact that when Jewish students were bullied at school, their parents went to the parents of the bullies and offered money for them to be protectors. That worked, he said, and there was peace. The Nazis came in the first days of the war. They burned down the church and part of the village in retaliation for Polish army resistance and the death of the German commander. The family of his wife, Pani Halinka, owned a mill. The Nazis occupied it and demanded that the men, women and children leave. But her sister was bedridden, and couldn’t move. Apparently one of the Polish men had worked on a farm in Germany before the war, in the same place as the German soldier in charge of expelling the family. The soldier recognized him, and allowed them to stay. Throughout the occupation, he would regularly go to the sick girl and ask her to pray for him. The family lost the mill after many generations, when the Communists confiscated and destroyed it in 1977.
Their small house, built in the ‘70s, was a half hour walk down a country road, past a memorial to the twenty-five Polish soldiers killed in September, 1939, past a restaurant named Czulim – Czolent, to the site of the festival. The annual weekend event began eleven years ago as the joint idea of a Lelover Chassid from Bnai Brak, Israel and the former mayor. The idea was to create an atmosphere of good will, paving the way for the Lelover Chassidim to reclaim the ground of the small, historic Jewish cemetery destroyed by the Nazis, renovate the former synagogue and build an ohel, or permanent structure for the grave of the Lelover Tsadik. Named for Polish and Jewish stews, czulim (pork based) and czolent (chicken or beef based), that both cook overnight, the festival showcases Polish music on Saturday, and Jewish music on Sunday. Dozens of vendors, including food concessions selling both dishes, along with amusement park rides and music attract thousands of families, most of whom attend on Saturday. Headliners for Saturday’s free, outdoor final concert are a very good and popular folk – jazz Polish band. Much less, maybe a thousand people, again mostly families, attend on Sunday. No Jews live anymore in Lelow, and there are very few in the region. But the event is considered politically important, and local and national politicians and dignitaries are present. Hundreds of people during the course of the weekend make the effort to visit the synagogue and ohel, where they receive explanations about Jewish culture from Polish university students of Jewish studies.
This year, the official representative of Jewish culture is a Lelover Chassid who has arrived two days before from Bnai Brak, and by himself made half a dozen large trays of kugel to give away during the course of the day. Two Polish bands perform mostly klezmer music and Yiddish songs. A dance lesson focuses on an Israeli folk dance, Nigun Atik, based on stereotypical Chassidic gestures. With Olga gone, I have found my translator, the young man on stage translating the Israeli Chassid’s Hebrew into Polish. It turns out that Piotr doesn’t speak English, unlike most educated young Poles who have at least a basic level. He taught himself Hebrew instead, because he wanted to challenge himself with a difficult language. He majored in Hungarian for the same reason. Between him, festival volunteers and the Jewish Studies students, I have made several new friends by the end of the day.
The next morning, Pan Staszek makes me a cheese sandwich for the road and drives me to the bus stop for the 8 am two hour minibus trip back to Krakow. He kisses me goodbye on both cheeks, in the Polish way. Someone asks if we’re family. After our three days together, it is truly sad to say goodbye.
I’m back in Krakow for one day – enough time to do hand laundry, buy a small suitcase and reorganize for another ten days of festival intensity. This time it’s a seven-hour cramped minibus ride to Lublin, riding past long narrow fields of golden wheat, corn and cabbage, every meter cultivated. We stop for a rest at Kielce, site of the infamous post-war pogrom where more than forty Jews were killed in 1946, and which sparked the exodus of thousands of survivors. I finally land in Lublin’s chaotic looking bus depot, located on a wide expanse of land that had been the heart of the Jewish community before the Nazis wiped it out. My Polish is enough to get me to the spot to catch another minibus to Kazimierz Dolny, which luckily, comes in twenty minutes. Another hour’s ride through scenery increasingly wooded, rustic and gorgeous, along the Vistula River, occasionally catching sight of evocative, prewar wooden villas in various conditions of disrepair or renovation.
Nestled between forested hills and the river, the picture book town of Kazimierz Dolny has attracted artists for generations. Famous Yiddish films, the Dybbuk and Yidl Mitn Fidl were filmed here. I was an official guest of Pardes, a new Jewish cultural festival, created almost single-handedly by a woman from Warsaw with experience in the German book industry, a vision of the importance of Jewish culture, and local contacts.
Now a mecca for Polish tourists, the town came into its full glory during the Renaissance and Baroque eras, when its position on the Vistula made it the central point between the rich grain growing regions of Poland and Ukraine, and hungry Western Europe. Churches, granaries and municipal buildings date from those times. Almost destroyed in World War I, it was renovated in the 1950s. Now locals are increasingly priced out of the market as out-of-towners buy up property for summer dachas. While Jews were a part of the town’s history, the synagogue remained small and the former Jewish cemetery was almost totally destroyed by the Nazis. A wall of two parts composed of tombstone fragments and separated by a jagged scar of open space, was built on the site in the Eighties, and a few matzevot or tombstones still stand in the adjacent forest. But tombstone fragments also had made their way earlier into the retaining wall of a nearby school. I was told that after heavy rains, human bones are still sometimes unearthed and found by the children.
For five days, lectures, films, exhibition tours and a concert attract numbers ranging from fifteen to fifty. Attendees, mostly middle-aged, are intently curious and many participate in each session. Very few are Jewish. Zofia found out that she was when she turned twenty-one. Her parents had escaped the Warsaw Ghetto with her as a baby. They were hidden in a basement in Warsaw, but the baby’s crying was too dangerous. The Polish underground arranged for her to be kept by a Polish family who adopted her. I ask what happened to her parents. She said her mother was likely betrayed. Her father died the day before the war ended. He couldn’t stand being underground anymore, came up and was shot.
While I don’t understand the Polish lectures, several speakers are staying in my hotel. Each morning over breakfast I get to know them, learn about their work, and make wonderful new connections. None are Jewish, and all are deeply committed to the work of perpetuating Jewish memory in Poland. Artur curates a small art museum near Warsaw dedicated to the work of Polish artists who studied in Paris, many of whom died in the war, and who would otherwise be forgotten in their home country. Veronika works to restore and renovate Jewish cemeteries and synagogues for a non-profit organization. Ewa is passionately dedicated to Holocaust education through her work at the Belzec concentration camp memorial site and museum. She also seeks out seniors in the area to chronicle their stories. It is often their first time sharing the wartime trauma that shaped their lives.
Friday night, there is a concert in the renovated synagogue by the Meadow Quartet, young musicians from Gdansk, led by Marcin, who has listened to the klezmer clarinet greats online (Tarras and Brandwein), but is intent on creating his own sound.
Because it is erev Shabbat and the concert will be in the small renovated synagogue never used as such because no Jews live any more in Kazimierz Dolny, and because the audience has most probably never experienced it, I suggest that I do a public Kiddush before the concert. The organizer accepts my offer and I go off to find challah, candles and kosher wine. The challah is no problem. Like matzah, challah has been incorporated into Polish food culture and can be found in many bakeries. There happens to be a great one in the town. Next, the candles, borrowed from the hotel. Finally, the kosher wine, which is on sale in the synagogue.
It was strange to “perform” what I do for myself with friends. But it felt meaningful to do it in a synagogue that has lost its community, for an audience of about two hundred. After, several people came up to thank me. While curious about Jewish culture, very few, if any, ever experience any Jewish religious ritual. The next morning, an artist who had been particularly moved, invited me to join her, along with Ewa, the Holocaust educator, and another friend, for a hike to a nearby castle. The weather was glorious, the scenery spectacular, and the company, great.
The final night closing party takes place in a guest house villa close to the former Jewish cemetery, which I had learned the day before had been an area the Nazis had used for executions. The juxtaposition of nouveau Polish klezmer with my new knowledge of what had happened just down the road not so long ago, the homemade plum liquor, and the fact that it was our last event together made the evening rather poignant.
Sunday, after exploring a nearby village with a couple I had become friendly with, it was on to Warsaw for the tenth annual Isaac Bashevis Singer Festival. Over the course of a week, in the shadow of one of the few remaining buildings of the Warsaw Ghetto, thousands of people attended plays, lectures, concerts and films, mostly taking place in the Jewish Theater. Standing in line at a food concession selling latkes, stuffed cabbage and other Jewish delicacies, I ask the man behind me why he came to the Festival. Warsaw used to have a large Jewish population, he says matter-of-factly. He wanted to understand this culture that had been such an important part of Polish culture. His tone said, isn’t it obvious?????
The Singer Festival in Warsaw, like the larger Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow, attracts thousands of people, presents major national cultural artists and intellectuals, and is an opportunity to meet activists of the small Polish Jewish community. Over the course of a week, participants can choose between a plethora of lectures, films, concerts and performances in venues ranging from hip jazz clubs, La Playa, a sand embankment on the Vistula River, that for the day turns into a Tel Aviv beach, to the formal Nozyk Synagogue, the only synagogue in Warsaw to survive the war, to All Saints Church. The hub of the festival, however, is the grey building of the Jewish Theater, named for Ester Rachel and Ida Kaminska and founded in 1950. A venerable survivor of decades of Poland’s anti-Semitic Communist regime, the theater’s aesthetic towards Jewish culture tends towards nostalgia, and attracts an older crowd than the festival in Krakow. The packed Opening Night Cantorial Concert at the Nozyk Synagogue, for instance, with the Mayor of Warsaw, the American ambassador and a host of other dignitaries in attendance, drew the most applause for old Yiddish standards like My Yiddishe Mama or Bei Mir Bistu Shein.
Over the course of the week, musical offerings included two Polish sisters living in Israel who sing Yiddish standards in tight harmony to recorded music; new Jewish music based on free jazz of the group Cukunft (future, in Yiddish), (group leader Rafael Roginski was part of Shofar – JMF, 2013); Olga Mieleszczuk’s Polesia project (JMF, 2013); Other Europeans – a project funded by the European Union that brings together Jewish and Romani (Gypsy) musical traditions (fronted by Alan Bern – JMF, 2011), and Kroke, a well known Polish band that from its beginning drew on klezmer as well as Balkan music to create their own sound. Joshua Nelson’s kosher gospel, (JMF, 2009) with a great Polish gospel choir from a local Pentacostal church, was also a big hit. Joshua later sang Kaddish at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, at the formal closing of festival. It was great to also visit with other JMF people -- Avner Yonai (creator, Ger Mandolin Orchestra, JMF 2011), and JMF advisor, Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett, head curator of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
The Festival ended last Sunday night. That afternoon, I visited the Jewish Museum with Alan Bern (Brave Old World, The Other Europeans), his girlfriend, Sayumi, and Dan Blacksberg, (The Other Europeans). It’s an impressive building that stands in a plaza opposite the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial, built soon after the war, and which will fully open sometime this year. The Klezmatics have composed the subtle but strong soundtrack to the art installation composed of interwar Jewish family films currently on view.
Nearby is the monument to Mordechai Anielewicz, commander of the Ghetto Uprising, and the Umschlagplatz, site of the mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of Jews to death camps. It’s a powerful bit of territory. I had been in the area a few weeks before with a friend of mine who had studied at the nearby Psychology Department of the University of Warsaw. That building, located across the street from the Umschlagplatz, had been Gestapo headquarters.
A few days later, back in Krakow, it’s already Rosh Hashanah. The last few days have been a time to meet people at community dinners, the first Wednesday night, at the JCC, and the second, Thursday evening, after services and tashlich with the small Reform community, Beit Krakow. It was very special to attend services at a synagogue built more than four centuries ago. Avinu Malkenu resounded within the high walls. I even had an aliyah!
Dinner with the group of about twenty ended with Yiddish singing by a native Yiddish speaker, born in England, who has settled in Krakow with his wife and twelve-year-old son, who knows the songs. His will be the first Bar Mitzvah in this young community, next spring.