KRAKOW – The first edition of the Jewish Culture Festival in this city was launched in 1988, when the communists were still in power.
It was held in a small theater that barely accommodated 100 people, with most of the event devoted to screenings of prewar, Yiddish-language films.
Thirty years later, it is one the most anticipated events on the Polish calendar. Some would argue it is the most important Jewish festival in the world today.
Now, the festival draw tens of thousands of participants – many of them from out of the country – to close to 300 events, held over the course of nine days each summer. They span the gamut of musical and dance performances, plays, art exhibits, readings, lectures, culinary workshops and walking tours.
The upcoming edition of the festival, from June 23 to July 1, should have been an occasion for great celebration considering the big anniversary date. But as preparations move into high gear, the usual excitement at this time of year has been overshadowed by the recent crisis in Polish-Jewish relations.
That crisis came to a head in January, when the Polish parliament passed a bill that would make it illegal to accuse Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes. Its critics see it as an attempt to pander to anti-Semitic voters and rewrite World War II history. (The bill is still under review by the Constitutional Court.)
Anyone else in his line of business might be wringing his hands in despair. But not Janusz Makuch, the festival’s larger-than-life founder and director – and probably the most Jewish non-Jew you will ever meet.
“Of course this law is bad, and of course we are seeing anti-Semitism now,” he concedes. “But a seed has already been planted, and the work that has been going on here for 30 years cannot be destroyed.”
One of a kind
The project to which this 58-year-old has devoted the better part of his life is an anomaly on the Jewish festival scene. It is probably the only Jewish festival in the world founded and run by non-Jews. It is also probably the only one that is attended largely by non-Jews. Making things even stranger, it is held in a country virtually bereft of Jews.
Makuch’s love affair with the Jewish people and Jewish culture began, as he recounts, with a chance encounter in his hometown of Pulawy (about 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, northwest of Lublin) when he was 15.
While browsing through a neighborhood bookshop, he struck up a conversation with an elderly professor who was to become, as he describes it, his melamed – the Hebrew and Yiddish word for teacher of Jewish subjects.
“This professor asked me whether I knew that, before the war, half the population of Pulawy had been Jewish,” he relates. “That was the first time I had ever heard the word ‘Jew’ in my life. Of course I had heard about Auschwitz and Birkenau, but like most kids my age in those years, I was under the impression that it was Polish citizens who died there. Jews? Come on!”
Makuch’s interest was piqued, and over the next few years he became a devoted protégé of Prof. Michal Strzemski – who would go on to write a history of the Jews of Pulawy.
The next phase in Makuch’s Jewish journey began when he left home to attend university in Krakow. It was there he discovered the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz and, as he puts it, “I fell in love.”
“It’s something beyond explanation, but I felt like a Jew and I wanted to be Jewish,” says this self-described meshuggener.
Hoping to experience the prewar vibe of the neighborhood, Makuch regularly hung out at the two local synagogues. He made the acquaintance of old Jews in the neighborhood, many of them survivors. “Initially, they were a bit suspicious and didn’t know what to make of me,” he admits.
He then discovered other students at the university who shared his passion for all things Jewish. They formed a club where they would meet regularly and talk among themselves in Hebrew and Yiddish. And that’s how the festival was born.
“I was sitting with a friend,” recounts Makuch in his booming voice, “and one of us said, ‘Let’s do a Jewish culture festival in Krakow.’ The other said, ‘Lama lo?’ (Hebrew for “Why not?”) It was as simple as that.”
To his great surprise and delight, among those attending the inaugural festival were several Polish Jews sporting yarmulkes. “I was in heaven when I saw them,” recalls Makuch. “It was an unbelievable time. We didn’t think then about anti-Semitism, about anti-Polinism, or about anti-anything. What was clear to me right from the start was that people were simply hungry for something like this.”
In response to this hunger, the festival grew and grew – from a small provincial affair to an international phenomenon. No doubt the fall of communism and the subsequent renaissance of Jewish life in the country helped fuel the growth.
In the early years, traditional klezmer performances were the festival’s defining feature. And because it was not common, and often difficult, for Israelis to travel to Poland at that time, Jewish-American performers and presenters tended to set the tone.
But that has all changed in recent years. “Israel is the center of Jewish culture today, and that is definitely reflected in our programming,” says Markuch, who regularly travels to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to keep updated on the latest trends.
By way of example, he notes that Kutiman – the internationally acclaimed Israeli multimedia artist and YouTube sensation – has become a fixture at the festival in recent years, drawing huge crowds. Furthermore, almost all the late-night parties – certainly the most popular ones, according to the festival’s deputy director, Robert Gadek – are run by deejays brought in from Tel Aviv.
In recent years, the festival has focused on particular themes. Last year, it was Jerusalem (to mark the 50th anniversary of the reunification of the city), and this year it will be Zion.
“Zion expresses the longing for one’s own country, so we are celebrating this year not only the 70th anniversary of Israel but also the 100th anniversary of Polish independence,” says Makuch, who proudly describes himself as a “Polish Zionist.”
“In fact,” he adds, “the past 30 years of this festival I would describe as a journey from shtetl [the Yiddish term for a small, predominantly Jewish town] to Zion.”
Traditionally, the event opens with cantorial performances held in synagogues around the neighborhood. Scheduled to appear this year, Makuch reveals, are the popular Lemmer brothers from New York – Yanky and Shulem. The festival draws to a close each year with “Shalom on Szeroka Street” – a seven-hour, free outdoor concert featuring dozens of performers. This signature event typically draws a crowd of 15,000 to 20,000.
In the early years, says Gadek, nobody questioned the involvement of non-Jews in this very Jewish endeavor. “There was no other option back then if you wanted to organize something like this,” he says. “But as more and more Jews started attending, we started hearing snide comments. Some people thought we were doing it to promote Poland’s image. Others thought we were doing it for the money. As the years passed, there was less of this talk.”
Of the 30,000 or so people who attend the festival annually, says Gadek, about 30 percent are visitors from abroad, the single largest contingent coming from Israel. “And their share has been growing in recent years,” he notes.
In recent years, festival organizers have tried to introduce more avant-garde performances. Not always with success. “Sometimes people will come to me after an event and ask, ‘What was Jewish about that?’” relates Gadek. “For them, Jewish means something prewar, very religious and very oriented to Holocaust commemoration. We’re trying to present something else as well here – something very contemporary.”
They have also tried to strike a better balance between up-and-coming artists and big names, the latter including Itzhak Perlman (his 1995 visit to Krakow inspired a PBS documentary), Theodore Bikel (who was a regular for several years before his death in 2015) and beloved Israeli folk singer Chava Alberstein.
As a matter of policy, the festival organizers try to steer clear of politics. This year, though, it was unavoidable. After the Polish parliament approved the controversial Holocaust bill, Makuch published a post on the festival Facebook page expressing his deep disappointment and concerns.
“The government must realize that in matters as complex and painful as Polish-Israeli-Jewish relations, they should thoroughly consult such schemes with all the interested parties,” he wrote, adding that in a democracy, “there is no consent to decree history or penalize people for expressing their feelings and thoughts.”
He and his cohorts braced for a backlash, but remarkably there was none. “For us, that was a big test,” says Gadek, “and we did not get even one anti-Semitic response to that post.”
Mulling the matter further, he concedes there could be an explanation. “We know that this is a bubble, and that what we have created here does not necessarily represent the entire world outside.”