On November 9, 1938, Nazis burned hundreds of synagogues throughout Germany and terrorized the German Jewish community in a night of organized violence that came to be known as Kristallnacht. I stand with hundreds of people in the cold, autumn air where a magnificent Moorish-style, cathedral sized synagogue burned to the ground that night seventy-five years ago in what was then the German city of Breslau. I am told later by a visiting American rabbi whose mother remembered the event there as a young girl, that the horror of that night made it clear to the Jewish population, whose roots went back centuries, that they had no choice but to flee the country.
After the war, Breslau’s German population was expelled and Polish refugees from the eastern territories claimed by the Soviet Union, as well as other parts of the country settled in the newly renamed city of Wroclaw, now part of Poland. I traveled there by train from Warsaw to attend the commemorative events—a photography exhibit inspired by the renowned writer and artist Bruno Schulz (murdered during the Holocaust); a Yiddish / Polish concert produced by a local cultural activist and performer Bente Kahan and presented to a thousand school children the week before; and a march that began at the renovated White Stork Synagogue. This stunning building would have been destroyed that night also, had it not been part of a complex that would have sparked an uncontrollable conflagration. Large enough to accommodate several hundred, the space today is an active cultural center presenting events for the small Jewish community, as well as for general audiences.
A few hundred people gathered in the large courtyard after the concert to hear the Wroclaw mayor and the head of the Jewish community say a few words, and then we started walking along the street to the nearby memorial site. A police escort accompanied the march, but it seemed pro forma, rather than for security. In fact, the only police intervention I saw was when they told a young man waving a large rainbow flag and a young woman wearing one around her shoulders that they couldn’t march with their flags. Why? The young woman said that the police told her the organizers did not want them. The organizer I subsequently asked denied it, but at the same time said that the presence of the gay rights activists could complicate the Mayor’s participation.
Two days later, Monday, November 11th, it is Polish Independence Day. (The official end of World War I, known to Americans as Armistice Day made an independent Poland possible after more than a century of occupation by the Prussian, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires.) I am now in the city of Poznan with friends where we join what seems like a hundred thousand people of all ages dressed warmly against the November cold, participating in 4th of July-like events. In this provincial town, throngs have come out to watch the Independence Day parade led by a New Orleans-style jazz band, stroll around the Renaissance era central square, peruse the hundreds of vendors, and take photos of a few small groups in folk costume or World War I- era military uniforms. In the evening, we watch the news. While there had been an official parade as well in Warsaw, several thousand right wing demonstrators had also come into the capital from around the country to hold their own march as they have done in recent years. We watch footage of a rainbow shaped scaffold of flowers located in an area known for its hipster scene going up in flames. The marchers had torched it and then forcibly prevented the fire brigade from approaching. They also threw Molotov cocktails at a nearby building where a group of anarchists have been squatting. The hooligans, as they are called here, also tried to set fire to the Russian Embassy.
That Friday evening, I join about a thousand mostly young people in an anti-fascist march organized in response. Several large rainbow flags are waved proudly as I find friends and we wind our way down fashionable Nowy Swiat. We continue towards Plac Zbawiciela and the charred metal rainbow, and then to the anarchist squat, home to several of the organizers. Brazilian drumming and boisterous chanting of “freedom, equality, solidarity,” and “Warsaw free from fascism,” keep us warm as we walk. The heavy police presence I suppose is for our protection, but no “hooligans” are in sight. The only opposition I see is a poor looking older woman bystander who spots a few young Hasids who tell me later they are visiting from London. Dressed in characteristic black suits with white shirts and wearing black hats, they likewise look to be onlookers. I watch as her face contorts in disgust and spits out something that sounds like “zhidki.”
It is the only time I have personally witnessed anti-Semitism in Poland. On the other hand, there is a burgeoning interest in Jewish culture, which can make it difficult to choose which events to attend. On a recent, ordinary Saturday night in Warsaw, Olga Mieleszczuk (Jewish Music Festival, March, 2013) performed at the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. Her concert, which brought several hundred to the museum, conflicted with three others—an instrumental concert at the Nozyk synagogue; a performance by another talented Polish Yiddish singer, and a live klezmer band accompanying a Soviet era silent film.
As I write this letter, I am listening to a live broadcast of the Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra on the classical radio station. The familiar voice of Alberto Mizrahi comes on the air (Jewish Music Festival, 2006). He is singing in Kaddish, composed by Krzysztof Penderecki.
Tomorrow night (Sunday, November 24th), I truly don’t know what to do. I’m back in Krakow and have to choose between Kroke, Poland’s veteran neo-klezmer band; a musical at the Philharmonic—The Rabbi’s Miracle; and a tsimbolom concert at the conservatory that includes a suite of Jewish dances from Galicia.
While these cultural events are for general consumption, the annual Limud conference organized by the Joint Distribution Committee focuses on the Jewish community. Associated with an international initiative to bring people together for several days of learning, the Polish version takes place next week. This year, eight hundred people have signed up. More were turned away for lack of space.
On an entirely different note, I have discovered how to get through a Polish winter. It is called grzana (pronounced gzhana) wino – hot mulled red wine that at its best includes cardamom, mead, cloves and cinnamon.