After the May holidays at the start of the month, it was back to work. The month was especially busy — the end of the semester is coming soon, and I was asked to give two talks, one as part of a regular seminar of a local group of scholars, “Kraków Jews — History and Culture,” and the other for The Marek Edelman Dialogue Center in Łódź. In between I also participated in local activities here in Kraków, including some late night synagogue visiting and a birthday party for Mordkhe (Mordecai, Mordechaj) Gebirtig, the Yiddish songwriter and composer. These events are evidence of the visibility of Jewish history throughout Poland and of how important the memory of the Jewish past has become here, in spite, or perhaps because of, a growing anti-Semitism.
The seminar talk was for an important group, local scholars from Jagiellonian University and other institutions whose work focuses on Jewish Kraków. This is a larger group than one might think — in the past 15 years, members of the group have produced important studies of Kraków’s Jewish architects, artists, theater and religious leaders, and devoted attention to politics, philanthropy, the wartime occupation and Kraków ghetto, and the postwar period. Their work has resulted in several articles and books, all of them enriching our knowledge of the city’s Jewish past. My own talk concerned recent work on Kraków’s Jews in the interwar period and ideas for future research.
7 @ nite – Night of the Synagogues 2019 messed with my sleep schedule! From 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Saturday, May 25, Kraków’s seven synagogues were all open to the public, and each hosted interesting and informative events, including concerts, film screenings, language workshops, tours and talks. The event, sponsored by JCC Krakow, attracted thousands to the synagogues, all within easy walking distance of each other. I was lucky enough to be there with Jacob Labendz, director of the Center for Judaic and Holocaust Studies at Youngstown State University. He was in town with a group of students on a study abroad course, focusing on the Holocaust and human rights.
The Brzozowa Street Festival was held in conjunction with International Neighbor Day on May 26. Brzozowa is in the heart of Kazimierz and very near Berek Joselewicz Street 5, where Gebirtig lived and wrote such well known Yiddish songs as “Reyzele” and “S’brent.” The mother and daughter team Anna and Natalia Jeziorna, truly the best of neighbors, developed and maintain The Mordechaj Gebirtig Memorial, a poet’s workshop, in a basement apartment of the building where Gebirtig lived. The rooms of the apartment are filled with old furniture, clothing, papers and books. The windows, with bars on them, are kept open, so pedestrians can hear the recordings of Gebirtig’s songs any time of day or night. So, on International Neighbor Day, a group of Gebirtig’s 21st-century neighbors wished the songwriter “Sto lat” (a hundred years, the Polish birthday song). Almost 80 years after his death in another Kraków neighborhood, Gebirtig’s work is still honored and remembered.
I ended the month with my talk at the Marek Edelman Dialogue Center in Łódź. Marcin Gonda, a sociologist at the University of Łódź, was in Cleveland for several months last fall, and he generously arranged for the talk. My hosts were Joanna Podolska, the Center’s director and a noted journalist and activist, and Adam Sitarek of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Łódź. I spoke on the history of Helenówek, the orphanage directed by Chaim Rumkowski, later the head of the Jewish Council in the Łódź Ghetto. I was very grateful to be able to present my work to a Łódź audience and to learn from so many who know the city so well. The Dialogue Center is an impressive facility, hosting exhibits and events for both local and international audiences.
Most notable about Łódź, though, was simply where I stayed the night — the Linat Orchim guest house, located in a 19th-century palace in the city center. The opulent building became the offices of the city’s official Jewish community in 1934. After the war it was taken by the state and used by the university. Returned to the Jewish community in 1997, the building serves as a modest hotel that offers a terrific location, clippings from pre-war Yiddish newspapers on the walls, and kosher food. The beys midrash is next door, and posters advertise regular Yiddish classes. The hospitality was heartfelt.
Sean Martin is associate curator for Jewish history at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland.