TORONTO — Janusz Makuch admits he didn’t know what to expect prior to speaking with two distinctly different Toronto Jewish audiences – and the personal discussions that would follow – on his first and only trip to Canada.
The 52-year-old was on a mission to talk about his role in restoring Jewish culture in Krakow, in a country that had once sentenced it to be forgotten.
Makuch, who is not Jewish, was hoping for an opportunity to educate people about what he had launched in 1988 while Poland was under a Communist regime.
As the founder and director of the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, the largest of its kind in Europe with a week of concerts and celebration, workshops and exhibits, Makuch made it clear he wasn’t asking for financial support for an event that has a $1-million (US) annual budget.
“I come from a country of ghettos, German concentration camps and antisemitic madness,” Makuch, a musician, told a predominantly adult crowd at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre. “I was in my late 20s, wanting to discover the traces of the past, the vast richness of culture in Krakow and had this crazy idea – let’s organize a Jewish festival. But I was afraid no one would come.”
He was wrong.
For the past 22 years, thousands – the young and not so young – have jammed Krakow’s historic Jewish district of Kazimierz in June and July for 10 days to celebrate the beauty of Jewish culture.
“The Jewish people gave Poland a tremendous culture – we lived together for so many years,” Makuch said. “There was a huge gap and something had to be done to close it and bring back what had been missing.”
A guest of the Polish-Jewish Heritage Foundation of Canada and the Ashkenaz Foundation, Makuch caught the attention of grade 7 and 8 students at Bialik Hebrew Day School the next day with his reference to the event as being what some had referred to as the “Jewish Woodstock.”
Claiming there is “a boom of Polish Jewish heritage and interest from lots of non-Jews,” Makuch said reviving Jewish music, art, dance and singing has very special meaning to him.
“We will never forget that Poland is the largest Jewish cemetery in the world,” he said.
“What we’re doing is a festival that looks beyond the trauma. It’s about life and reflects thousands of years of history, but also concentrates on today. We move forward building on the wonderful contemporary Jewish music – the cantorial and the Sephardic, the chassidic guys and the punk rockers, dancing and performing in an ambiance that inspires the culture.”
This year’s Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, with Jewish performers invited by the organizers, will feature between 150 and 180 artists and take place from June 29 to July 8.
Makuch said the event aims to educate non-Jews by highlighting the richness of life and the knowledge of religion.
“I have heard people ask how we can do something like this when not far away we had death camps,” he said. “How much can we focus on what we have lost? With our youth, we now celebrate Jewish culture and study song, dance and bring Jewish life back to a country that almost saw it disappear.”
Eric Stein, the 38-year old artistic director of Toronto’s Ashkenaz Festival, attended the Krakow event in 1999 and eight years later was invited to perform there.
“I first went as a spectator with an open mind,” said Stein, an accomplished musician. “Then, when we performed, it had to be one of the most amazing experiences for me, knowing that I was playing Jewish music in Poland and in front of a crowd that was predominantly non-Jewish.”
And when Makuch addressed the Bialik group of about 100 students and staff, one listener had a keen interest in more than just the topic.
Bialik vice-principal Anita Eckhaus, was born in Krakow.
“I think it is remarkable that there is someone like [Makuch] acknowledging his mission is to preserve Jewish culture in Poland and then making it happen year after year,” she said.
Bialik students Daniel Esser, who plays the cello, and Sofie Kreidstein, a singer, were both impressed that the event was spearheaded by a non-Jew.
“Not being Jewish and doing something like this impresses me,” said the 13-year-old Esser. “I was happy that he didn’t dwell on the unfortunate things of the past and instead was glad to hear him admit that Jewish culture has been part of Poland culture for many years.”
Kreidstein, 12, had a similar reaction.
“We know that terrible things happened, but it’s time to move forward,” she said. “Having something like this helps us learn. Then, to have someone not Jewish say he understood how the Jewish culture was an important part of Poland. We have to build on that message.”
This article appears in the April 5 issue of The CJN