The music beyond the cemetery

The annual cutural festival at Cracow is bringing Poland’s Jewish past back to life

PAUL WELLS July 30 2007

The music beyond the cemetery

The annual cutural festival at Cracow is bringing Poland’s Jewish past back to life

PAUL WELLS July 30 2007

The music beyond the cemetery


The annual cutural festival at Cracow is bringing Poland’s Jewish past back to life


Michael Wex is a 48-year-old expert in Yiddish, author, translator, raconteur, comedian, born in Lethbridge, now living in Toronto. On a recent Sunday afternoon, he was delivering one of his popular and irreverent talks on the history of Yiddish. “Yiddish culture and bad food are almost inseparable,” he said. Wex has published a book called Born to Kvetch, in which he explains how a word that means squeezing or pushing came to mean complaining constantly—complaining far more, in fact, than a given situation warrants.

The link between the two concepts is indigestion, he said, and some of its more unfortunate gastrointestinal effects. I won’t go into detail. He did. It was a ribald chat. But though Wex’s audience was attentive while he spoke and lined up later to chat with him, for once in his career he didn’t get a lot of laughs. This surely had something to do with the venue. Wex was speaking in the Kupa Synagogue, founded in 1643 on Miodowa Street in Cracow, Poland. In 1939, Miodowa Street was in the centre of one of the largest Jewish communities in Europe. More than 60,000 Jews lived in Cracow. Six years later barely 6,000 survived. Most had been murdered—in a process of steadily escalating efficiency and horror, 70 km down the road at Auschwitz.

This is worth saying at the outset because it never leaves a visitor’s mind for long during the Jewish Cultural Festival in Cracow, whose 17th edition was earlier this summer. For 10 days, Cracow’s historic Kazimierz district becomes a centre of music, culture and tourism. It is almost always great fun. There are museum exhibits, neighbourhood

tours, workshops in everything from Yiddish to a form of Jewish dance music called hip-hopkele. There is music morning and night from klezmer bands and great Hasidic cantors. Artists and audiences mingle in the restaurants and clubs that now fill the neighbourhood. The festival has become central to summer tourism in Cracow, which this year marks the 750th anniversary of its founding. Even more spectacularly, it has driven a commercial and cultural renaissance in the Kazimierz district, whose rise from ramshackle ghost town to the hub of Cracow’s culture and nightlife has coincided almost exactly with the festival’s 19-year history.

But the crowds at the festival never forget that all of this is taking place on what Janusz Makuch, the festival’s founder and director, calls “the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe.” It is, inevitably, a haunting experience.

Michael Wex hadn’t played at the Cracow festival before and wasn’t at all sure he wanted to come. His grandparents were from Poland. “They had nothing good to say about it. And I didn’t hear a lot of detail, it was just, ‘Pfeh.’ ” Whenever Wex’s parents suggested his grandparents go back and visit the old country, “The response was, ‘Absolutely not. Why would I want to go back?’ ”

There are Jewish cultural festivals all over the world and Wex works the circuit. But a Jewish festival in Cracow? “ ‘Lurid’ is a good word” to describe his reaction, he says. “I mean, I know the attitude of a lot of people was, ‘Boy, they couldn’t wait to get rid of us. And now?’ ”

But the audiences, so quiet during performances, so animated afterward, discourage cynicism. So does the festival staff, not

Jewish as a rule, unfailingly young and enthusiastic. “These guys, I think they’re pretty sincere,” Wex said.

“This is happening two or three generations after the Holocaust, and I think it’s this younger generation that has a new desire to understand it and come to terms with it,” said Eric Stein, who leads a Toronto band called Beyond the Pale. The band played several times at this year’s festival, including a closing rooftop concert in front of thousands of people. “I’ve never felt anything but welcome here.”

Sure, but is it a challenge having fun at a

Jewish festival in Cracow? “Yes. Absolutely,” Stein said. Beyond all the usual pressures of performing and being on the road, “there’s a pressure about being Jewish here. There’s an ambivalence, something in the back of my head. It’s bittersweet. It’s amazing to be here and yet it’s sad.”

Not that there was anything resembling a mournful spirit in the air. Every night at midnight, the action moved to Alchemia, a sprawling pub near Nowy Square. Its ceilings are decorated with the paraphernalia of a medieval laboratory—ornate flasks, stuffed owls

and deer heads. Its warren of basement rooms and hallways became the setting for informal klezmer-jazz concerts and for schmoozing in a polyglot jumble of Polish, English, Yiddish, French and German.

“I absolutely understand the feeling of people who don’t want to come to Poland,” Makuch said when I told him about some of

the artists’ trepidation. “But on the other hand, over 19 years, I’ve seen so many people who had those feelings and who were changed by being here. And this is something mysterious. This is something which can happen only here, when you meet a people who are friendly to you, who are interested in your culture, who want to understand you more, who want to talk to you, who are open.” Makuch may be the best example of the spirit he describes. He was raised in a Catholic family in a town near Poland’s eastern border. He was 15 before he learned that half his town’s population used to be Jewish. He began to studyjewish culture and history, to keep Shabbos, to study Yiddish. In 1988, during the last two years of Poland’s Communist regime, he organized a modest Jewish cultural festival with a friend who had been run-

ning Jewish film retrospectives in Cracow.

They chose Kazimierz for their venue. The choice was historically valid but risky. The neighbourhood had seen better days—had, in fact, rarely known worse. In 1335, King Casimir III “The Great” had founded the town, not yet part of nearby Cracow. The reception for Jews varied greatly over the centuries outside Kazimierz’s walls, but inside, with Christian neighbours, they built a thriving community.

After the war, that human treasure was gone, and under Communism the streets and buildings decayed too, even more rapidly than in surrounding districts. The Jewish population actually declined under political pressure through the 1950s and 1960s. In the early 1970s, much of Józefa Street was burned to the ground for a film shoot. Kazimierz became a red-light district and not far from a ghost town. “In 1986, as little as 10 per cent of the urban tissue of Kazimierz was in good and very good condition, and about 30 per cent was in a state of complete disrepair or dilapidation,” Monika A. Murzyn writes in “Kazimierz: The Central European Experience of Urban Regeneration,” an ambitious study for Cracow’s International Cultural Centre. When the Communist regime collapsed in 1989, the neighbourhood had no tourist accommodation at all. No tourist would think to come.

But in 1989, Makuch decided to make his one-off Jewish festival a recurring event. The festival itself did not cause Kazimierz’s rebirth, but it gave developers and promoters a reason to notice the district and a focus for their

activity. By 1993, there were two tourist hotels in the district. By 2004, there were 22. The number of restaurants has grown sevenfold. Kazimierz is now at least as lively and attractive as the traditional tourist zone around Cracow’s Grand Square, two kilometres away; compared to the lively Jewish quarter, the nearby commercial artery of Starowislna Street, with its dusty mid-century architecture and rundown shops, looks positively dowdy. Kazimierz once had to catch up to the rest of Cracow. Now it has passed it.

But of course it is still incorrect to call it the Jewish quarter because there are almost no Jews left to inhabit it. From the lovingly refurbished synagogues to the shops made to look the way they might have in 1930, there are plenty of reminders here of what was. Still, Makuch worries that, in becoming one of central Europe’s nightlife and party headquarters, Kazimierz is flirting with disrespect for the past.

Mostly, though, he is proud of what he and the festival’s artists have built. “I strongly believe that in the moment of a Jewish Cultural Festival, we are changing history. We are focusing on today because our future depends on today. We have a choice: to live only in the cemetery, or to learn how to pray Kaddish.”

The Kaddish is the Jewish prayer of mourning. “Show me one word of Kaddish that speaks of death,” Makusz said defiantly. “There is no word of death in Kaddish—but this is a prayer of mourning! So what is a Jewish cultural festival on the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe? This is Kaddish.” M