Last week saw the greatest modern (post-Holocaust) celebration of Jewish culture in Europe at the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival. Since 1988, Krakow has become famous for its Jewish festival, held the first week in July, in which thousands of people gather from all over Europe, Israel and the U.S. for a taste of what Jewish Poland was like before the Shoah. There are concerts, featuring styles from chazzanut to Jewish rock and klezmer, classes in kosher cooking and dance, paper cutting and tours of the Jewish cemetery to visit the graves of the holy rabbis interred there – all culminating in a grand concert Saturday night attended by over 10,000 people. For one week, for those that don’t know better, Krakow seems to become a Jewish city as it was before the Holocaust.
It is sad to note, though, that even with all the “Jewish” activities surrounding the festival, when it is over, Krakow returns to “normal”. Nearly all the participants in the festival are non-Jews, and as one Jewish visitor from America noted, “I remember Krakow from before the war and this is not how it used to be. I walk down the street and don’t see any Jews.”
His memories are of a time when most Jews in Poland were Orthodox, with many wearing the traditional Chassidic garb of bekasheh and shtriemel. Today that uniform is almost never seen in Krakow, except when groups of chassidim come on a pilgramage on some rebbe’s yahrziet.
This is the first year in a long time that Krakow has a chief rabbi to lead the few hundred remaining Jews in the city that had once been world-famous as a center of Judaism.
The annual festival has two purposes: one, to show the world that even in Poland, where so much of the glory of Judaism had been built and later destroyed, Judaism still can exist; and the other, to draw out any pintele yid, any Jew who has the smallest spark of Judaism remaining in him and help them return to a Jewish life.
Rabbi’s Attacker Arrested
A few weeks ago, during Pope Benedict’s visit to Poland, Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich was attacked by a Pole yelling anti-Semetic epithets. The attack, though not serious, made headlines around the world. Many thought that with the recent regime change there would be little action taken by the government to find and punish the attacker. This week, however, it was announced that a person was arrested and charged for the Shabbat morning attack outside the Warsaw Synagogue. This is a hopeful sign that the new government will have good relations with the Jewish community.
Polish Leader Marks Pogrom
Poland’s president commemorated the 60th anniversary of a postwar pogrom in Poland. Lech Kaczysnki was ill and could not attend Tuesday’s unveiling of the monument in Kielce, but his address, read by his adviser, lamented “the undeniable facts that there were victims – citizens who were murdered, gunned down or tormented to death. It is their senselessly and cruelly snuffed-out lives that call out today for our memory and justice. That is what bids us to speak the truth and draw lessons from the past.”
He noted that debate has reopened about what spurred the event. “I want to state clearly and forcefully: What occurred in Kielce 60 years ago was a crime. It was a disgrace. It is a great shame and tragedy for Poles and for Jews, so few of whom had survived Hitler’s Holocaust. There can be no justification for this crime.”
Poland Shuts Down Neo-Nazi Site
Polish police arrested the administrator of a neo-Nazi website and shut the site down. The move against the Polish version of the Blood and Honor site follows a small wave of extremist threats and violence in April and May, much of it linked to the group. Police worked closely with U.S. authorities to discover the identity of the Polish administrator of the site.
By some estimates, there are hundreds of hate sites in Poland, but they’re hard to close as their servers are usually based outside the country and sites can easily migrate. Blood and Honor is a neo-Nazi group with supporters across Europe. The Polish edition of Newsweek ran a cover story on the Polish branch of Blood and Honor in mid-June, estimating that it was one of the strongest of the group’s subsidiaries, with hundreds of thousands of members.