Krakow’s Jewish Culture Festival was a perfect way to end my time in the city. But it was also very much like the rest of my stay here — too much to do and so little time. In the end, I attended one or two events a day, but that means I missed some exciting concerts, performances, and talks. I did as much as I could while also giving final exams, grading, and meeting for the last time with friends and colleagues.
The festival combines an air of celebration with a serious approach to Jewish culture and history. Talks and discussions about the Holocaust and antisemitism are scheduled alongside concerts in the street. There’s something admittedly different, and I would say unique, about this atmosphere. This is an intensive effort to introduce Jewish culture, in all its forms. I would argue that preventing Jewish culture in this way is of vital importance – it allows those who participate, from Poland, the United States, Australia, and many other countries, to approach the topic in a number of different ways.
For example, I attended a lecture of Jan Grabowski, a historian at the University of Ottawa and one of the most prominent scholars of the Holocaust. The lecture was held in the festival tent, in an open space at the intersection of three streets. Hundreds turned out for his presentation in the middle of a heat wave. Grabowski outlined how Jews described Poles and how Poles described Jews during the Holocaust. Later the same tent hosted artifact workshops for children and an Israeli hip-hop concert.
This wasn’t a group of Jews from the States and Israel interested in hearing a leading scholar talk about the Holocaust. The talk was in Polish. It was free and open to the public. For the past 29e years, the Festival has done the work of teaching Poles, and others, about issues of vital importance to the Jewish community. One afternoon I attended a presentation by the renowned photographer Chuck Fishman. Fishman revealed his color photographs from his travels in 1975 Poland and, in doing so, showed us a bit of what Jewish Poland looked like then and how much has changed. This audience struck me as very similar to those for the many Jewish adult education events in Cleveland. But the next event I attended was a rather academic panel with four scholars and a moderator. The topic was the myth and reality behind terms like neighbors and neighborhood — in other words, it was all about relationships between Jews and non-Jews in Poland, especially during the Holocaust. This event was in Polish, and the audience was noticeably younger, and larger, about 75 people. The event also promoted the recent issue of Znak (Sign), a monthly cultural journal. The issue features an extended conversation on the topic between Jagiellonian University scholars Edyta Gawron and Alicja Maślak-Maciejewska.
I also went to a few events of FestivALT, an alternative to the Jewish Culture Festival now in its third year. The organizers are a local independent arts collective. Some of their events were listed in the Festival’s schedule as well, but others were not. Di libe brent vi a nase szmate [Love burns like a wet rag] is the Yiddish a cappella group I mentioned in my last post. Their Shabbes concert opened the week of activities for me. It was held in Spółdzielnia Ogniwa (Cooperative “Ogniwa” [“Link”]), a coffeehouse/meeting space in a building that used to house a mikvah. The concert, featuring songs in Polish and Yiddish and lyrics commenting on current political events and daily life, was welcoming, warm, friendly, and lively. That description serves pretty well for my time here in Krakow, too.