Classes have ended, and it’s time for final exams and to get ready to fly home. But there’s still a lot ahead of me, most importantly, Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival. The festival, always at the end of June, has a program that’s more than 30 pages long, and so it requires a little homework. I have only been to the festival twice before, in the late 1990s, so I am glad to be able to go again. It’s a fun time because it seems as if the entire world has come to town, and for about nine days, can be found wandering the streets of the city’s old Jewish neighborhood, Kazimierz. 

Here’s some of what’s on the schedule: tours of Jewish Krakow, a discussion of “awkward objects of genocide,” a performative workshop on artifacts, a program on Hebrew young adult literature, a program on literature related to Kazimierz, a talk on the revival of Jewish life in Kaliningrad, a discussion of  the “zero waste lifestyle” (in keeping with the festival’s Earth theme), a performance of Polish and Jewish music from the interwar period, and a showing of "Who Will Write Our History?," the new film on the Ringelblum Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto. That’s just the first full day, and it omits the program for children, exhibit openings, author presentations and the brunch. If that weren’t enough, there’s also FestivALT, an alternative Jewish arts festival held at the same time.

I’m promising myself that I’ll be an adult, understand that I can’t do everything and choose wisely. Of the larger concerts, I’m most interested in “The Name’s Bajgelman,” a performance of the work of David Bajgelman, a composer of Yiddish theater music who died in the Lodz ghetto. A research and performance project,“Paulina,” developed by the artists Michelle Levy and Patrycja Dołowy, promises to tell the story of a Jewish woman from Krakow who left behind a testimony of her experiences during the war. Yossi Klein Halevi will give a talk “How Poland Changed My Life,” and there will also be a series of discussions on the increased antisemitism in Poland.

My interests will always tend to focus on the pre-war history, the Holocaust and commemoration, but there are also many events on other Jewish topics, such as Israeli dance, Sarajevo and Birobidzhan. The festival opens with a concert by the Brazilian Jewish artist Abrão, the lead singer of the post-punk band Kafka in the 1980s. Israeli hip-hop will also be well represented throughout the week.

The Ride for the Living, a fundraiser for the Jewish Community Center of Krakow, is held the same week. The highlight of this four-day event is a 60-mile bike ride from Auschwitz-Birkenau to the JCC. Readers of the CJN may recall hearing about the ride from Cleveland’s Kadis family, who are participating in the ride for the sixth time this year.

The best news, though, is that Jewish culture is present in the city not just at the end of June but throughout the year. There was a weekend back in March when I realized that the Krakow I’m in today isn’t the same city I knew from the late 1990s. One weekend was especially busy. I found myself wanting to attend an exhibition opening of Polish art on Jewish themes at a local cultural center in the neighborhood of Prądnik Biały and a performance by a self-described queer Yiddish a capella group.

The exhibition was striking less because of its presentation of art on Jewish themes (something that was already not unusual in the 1990s) but because of its location – a small community cultural center in a neighborhood outside Krakow’s city center. The venue meant that this was not an exhibit that was designed for a fraction of Krakow’s 13 million annual visitors, but simply a local event meant for local residents. There were a couple of hundred people there.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the musical performance. I’m lucky the group, Di libe brent wi a nase szmate (Love burns like a wet rag, Yiddish, in Polish transliteration), will have a performance at the festival. I’ll report on that next time.

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Sean Martin is associate curator for Jewish History at Western Reserve Historical Society.

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