Non-Jewish Festival Director Receives Award for Preserving, Promoting Jewish Heritage

By Rukhl Schaechter

For ten days every summer, a neighborhood in Krakow–one of the oldest cities in Poland and a former capital–is transformed.

During that period, thousands of Poles, as well as visitors from other European countries, travel to the former Jewish quarter, Kazmierz, to attend dozens of workshops, exhibits and concerts highlighting the wide spectrum of Jewish music and the arts. For many Poles, this is the only exposure they have to a culture that once thrived in their country, before the Nazis decimated the Jewish population and the post-war Communist government repressed whatever remained.

This year’s festival, its eighteenth, took place from June 27th to July 6th and was sponsored by the city of Krakow, the Polish Ministry of Culture and Prime Minister’s Office, the Taube Foundation for Jewish Life and Culture, the Friends of the Cracow Jewish Culture Festival Society and the Sigmunt Rolat and Evens Foundations. Addressing the crowd at the opening concert, executive director of the festival, Janusz Makuch, especially welcomed the Jews of Krakow and Warsaw, declaring: “This festival would not have been possible without you, the Jewish community.”

In fact, a number of attendees noted the presence of more diverse Jewish organizations and artists this year — partly due to its theme, Israel’s 60th anniversary. As a result, in addition to the east European klezmer melodies echoing through the cobblestone-paved streets, the festival showcased a variety of Sephardi and Israeli musicians. Performers included the “Diva of Ladino”, Yasmin Levy, who has been nominated for the BBC Radio World Music Awards three times; David D’Or, an international opera star named Israel’s Singer of the Year in 2001, who now leads a band that blends North African and Turkish musical traditions, and the Israeli klezmer and Yiddish music group, “Oy Division.”

In order to give the non-Jewish participants a historical framework about the Jewish state, the festival offered a series of lectures by Israeli dignitaries, including one, where the former Israeli ambassador of Poland and Holocaust survivor, Shevach Weiss, spoke to the audience, in Polish, about the huge contribution the Polish Jews made to the establishment of the state of Israel and how much Israelis today appreciate Poland’s warm support.

The Israeli atmosphere was heightened throughout the week by a group of Druze Israelis who stood by a tent opposite the kosher Eden Hotel in traditional colorful garb, and sold freshly baked pita bread and coffee brewed in a finjan.

This was also the first time that Beit Warszawa, a Jewish cultural organization and the only liberal congregation in Warsaw, took part. Among the projects it organized was an exhibit of 19th century wood engravings of Jewish life by Polish artists, as well as a theatrical piece about the binding of Isaac, directed by the only female rabbi in Poland, Tanya Segal–a performance that one audience member called “very powerful.”

Magdalena Koralewska, the 25-year old president of Beit Warszawa, has been coming to the festival for many years, but said this was the first time she saw so many people from Jewish organizations attending, including representatives from “Paideia,” a Jewish studies program in Sweden, and from the Orthodox community of Warsaw. “It was a great chance to network and exchange ideas,” she said.

There were also daily classes in Yiddish and Hebrew language, Hasidic dance, Jewish cooking, calligraphy, paper cutting, and film screenings. Each night there were between one and three concerts — all to packed audiences.

“As usual, the programming all week was just amazing,” remarked leading klezmer and Yiddish musician Jeff Warschauer. “It was eclectic, from Yiddish to Mizrachi to avant-garde. And it’s all so professional, no kitch at all, like you might find at other Jewish concerts and festivals. Janusz’s standards are incredibly high.”

At Warschauer’s Yiddish singing workshop, about 60 people showed up, including locals from Krakow, Dutch, Swedes, Germans and Austrians. “They picked up the Yiddish accents really well,” he said. “But what was really surprising was that most of them were under 30.”

The culmination of the festival — the annual outdoor extravaganza of Jewish music, called “Shalom on Szeroka Street” — took place on Saturday night and was broadcast on Polish television. “About 14,000 people were there,” said Makuch. “The weather report had predicted rain, yet they came anyway. They just opened their umbrellas and listened to the music,” Makuch said.

Agnieszka Legutko, a 33-year old native of Krakow and presently a Yiddish instructor at Columbia University, led several tours, both very well-attended. After one of them, where she spoke about the leading rabbis of Krakow from the sixteenth century till the eve of World War II, a reporter from the Gazeta Wyborcza, the Polish equivalent of the New York Times, interviewed her for an article about the subject.

At another tour–of the former Krakow ghetto, this included Oskar Schindler’s factory– about 140 people showed up, including a young man with a shaved head, tattoos, and pierced nose, lips and eyebrows. “One of the visitors was a little concerned that he might be a skinhead, so I had one of my assistants keep an eye on him,” Legutko said. “But as it turned out, he was listening intently to everything I said, and looked genuinely interested. It made me believe that maybe the festival could really make dramatic changes in the bonds between our two nations.”

Makuch’s extraordinary work in organizing the festival has not gone unnoticed. Last month the Taube Foundation accorded him its annual Irena Sendlerowa Memorial Award — a new prize honoring exemplary contributions by contemporary Poles to the preservation and promotion of Jewish heritage in Poland. Irena Sendlerowa, who died May 12 in Warsaw at age 88, saved over 2,500 children from the Warsaw Ghetto, and refused to divulge their identities, even after the Nazis captured and tortured her. Last year she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

“Righteous gentiles like Irena laid the groundwork for what is happening in Poland,” Taube said. “This award is a fitting memorial for her trailblazing heroism, and few are more exemplary candidates than Janusz Makuch.”

Rukhl Schaechter is a staff writer and editor at the Forverts.