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Soaking up the Jewish culture in Krakow

Buildings in the Jewish Quarter. MIRIAM BORDEN PHOTO

Watching Shye Ben Tzur and the Rajasthan Express performing Sufi devotional music with lyrics in Hebrew and Urdu at the Tempel Synagogue in Kazimierz, Krakow’s Jewish quarter, it was hard not to think about the Jews who would have filled the ornate shul even eight decades ago.

Just before the Second World War, 60,000 Jews lived in Krakow, making up about a quarter of the city’s population. Today, it is estimated that there are around 1,000 Jews living in the city, with only a fraction of those identifying themselves as part of the Jewish community.

I felt as if I had entered a twilight zone as the intense Middle East rhythms performed by Ben Tzur, an Israeli, and an Indian ensemble filled the shul and ecstatic dancers crowded the front of the stage.

Tempel – which features a magnificent, gilded interior that was restored in 2000 – is a Reform synagogue that dates back to 1862. Today, occasional services are held there, but it’s mainly used as a concert hall year round. Each year Tempel becomes musical headquarters for the nine-day Jewish Culture Festival, which brought Ben Tzur and his band to town for the event this past June. The festival’s theme this year was Jerusalem.


The culture festival, founded in 1988, a year before the fall of communism in Poland, was a precursor of the Polish movement to revive Jewish culture. The festival’s founder, Janusz Makuch, a Polish gentile, has called the interest young Poles showed in Jewish culture in the 1980s, a syndrome of searching for the sunken Atlantis – for Makuch, Jewish music was the thread that connected him to a newly discovered world.

The first Jews moved to Krakow’s Jewish quarter in 1495 and it was an independent Jewish town until the end of the 18th century. Krakow wasn’t bombed during the Second World War, so Kazimierz, while neglected during the communist era, was largely intact. Postwar, the quarter’s seven synagogues were restored with help from philanthropists and organizations, such as the Joint Distribution Committee.

In Krakow, the tourism industry and the revival of Jewish culture have gone hand in hand. The 1993 release of the movie Schindler’s List, the story of how Oskar Schindler saved more than 1,000 Jews by employing them in his enamel-ware factory in Krakow, brought thousands of tourists to the city. The film’s director, Steven Spielberg, shot scenes in Kazimierz, because unlike Podgorze, the site of Krakow’s former Jewish ghetto, the Jewish quarter still looked much like it did in the 1940s. After the film’s release, guided tours of the quarter began to include places where Spielberg shot the movie.

The Schindler Museum opened in 2010 with the permanent multimedia exhibit, Krakow During Nazi Occupation, 1939-1945, which documents the experiences of both Poles and Jews during those years. Also on permanent display is Schindler’s office. A small section of the museum is devoted to his workers. There was a long lineup to get into the museum the morning I was there and my guide recommended  that tourists purchase tickets online in advance.

Before Schindler’s List came out, few of Krakow’s Poles had heard of Schindler, said Jakub Nowakowski, the director of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Kazimierz. “For us, the Poles, it was absolutely shocking to see the story of our hometown being presented in cinemas and the shock was, we had new information. We had never heard of Oskar Schindler.”

After the film’s release, with Jewish tourists coming to Krakow to search for traces of the past, Nowakowski said it was possible for a heritage tourist industry to take root. “Because of the huge interest of outsiders, Krakow realized very quickly what a treasure is here, in terms of heritage, history and also in terms of money – that those places can generate income for the city,” he said.

Many of Kazimierz’s crumbling buildings, some of which date back to the Middle Ages, have undergone renovations, but gentrification hasn’t spoiled the atmosphere there and the Jewish quarter has mushroomed into a lively bohemian district of clubs, cafés and art galleries.

Nowakowski, a graduate of the Jewish studies program at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, grew up in Kazimierz in the 1980s and ’90s. “When I discovered the (two) Jewish cemeteries that were so close to my home, I realized I had no idea what happened to those people,” he said.

Beginning in 1967 and ’68, the communist government was determined to erase any aspects of Jewish culture or religious life in Poland. Many Jews emigrated and most of those who stayed hid their Jewishness. “If you were a child of Holocaust survivors, the last thing (your parents) would do to you was to raise you in a visible Jewish way. They wanted a ‘normal’ life. They wanted to blend in,” he said, adding that Jews used to meet “underground.”

“When I discovered the Jewish cemeteries that were so close to my home, I realized I had no idea what happened to those people.”

He said that after the collapse of communism, the Polish government “understood it was important to establish a positive relationship with the Jewish community. And that hasn’t changed, whether the government is right or left.”

Nowakowski has been the director of the Galicia Museum since 2010. Galicia – a region created at the end of the 18th century, when Poland was divided between Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia – included parts of modern-day northwest Ukraine and southern Poland.

The main square in Kazimierz. RUTH SCHWEITZER PHOTO

The museum’s core exhibit, Traces of Memory, documents Jewish life in Poland with photographs that were taken by the late Chris Schwarz, a British photojournalist. Schwarz was the first photographer to take colour pictures of Jewish sites in Poland, Nowakowski said. “All the other photographers would take these photographs in black and white, as a symbol of the simple fact that they considered those places belonged to the Book of Death, the past, the Jews that are not any longer in Poland. We look at this as something that belongs to us today, that is a part of the present-day landscape of Poland.”

The Girl in the Diary: Searching for Rywka from the Lodz Ghetto, a temporary exhibit at the museum, includes excerpts from Rywka Lipszy’s diary, along with expert commentary and photographs. Rywka, a teenager, wrote the diary in the Lodz Ghetto between October 1943 and April 1944. The Girl in the Diary runs until March 31, 2018.

The Galicia Museum is a space where people can interact with living Jewish culture, Nowakowski said. While the Jewish Culture Festival takes over the museum each June, activities continue year-round, including weekly Shabbat services and concerts. Nowakowski said Krakow is the perfect place to learn about the continuity of Jewish life in Europe: “Here, the will to survive is visible also through our activities in the museum.”

For tickets to the Schindler Museum, visit bilety.mhk.pl. For more information about the Galicia Museum, visit galiciajewishmuseum.org/en. The museum offers guided Jewish heritage tours of Kazimierz. Free Jewish heritage tours are also available through JCC Krakow.

Ruth Schweitzer visited Poland as a guest of the Polish Consulate in Toronto.

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