Celebrating the Jewish New Year in Krakow
September 11 - 15, 1989

Krakow is a beautiful city. A walk along its river, the Viswa (Vistula?), even in the cold drizzle of the season, is relaxing and lovely. Castles and beautiful old buildings abound. The main square, featuring tourist delights beyond compare is a treat. But in writing about Krakow I found myself pouring out not so much tourist stuff and what I saw, and what it felt like to be Jewish in Krakow.

I am told that Septembers in Krakow are beautiful. They are a continuation of summer, "golden autumn." The horrid cold and drizzly--oftentimes more than drizzly rain that we are suffering is an aberration. It never rains like this in Krakow, and if so, never now. It has, by now, become a common point of reference. I cough, and nod knowingly.

Everywhere you look in Krakow there are posters advertising tour postertours of Auschwicz. At the hotel, I had a choice of Auschwicz or the salt mines. Even the train station lists trains to the station. It has taken fifty years for us to turn Auschwicz into a shrine and to find ourselves still mute and impotent when hatred breaks out in Rwando or the former Sarajevo. I will not be going to concentration camp Disneyland. Such camps are now far from unique, and there are more recent, and more horrible monuments to the human ability to lose humanity and to engage in orgies of killing based on sex, religion, sexual preference, or shoe size.

My entry to "Jewish Krakow was via friends of friends, all of whom gathered at Cafe Ariel. At this point, not only are there two "legit" Ariels, but next to the original one, The original Ariel with the green awningthe one with the green awning, is the "fake" Ariel. Most interesting is to see the poster to "Kroke," last summer's wonder-Klezmer band at the "real" Ariel cafe. This year, the band's name seems to leave a bad taste in the mouth of everyone with whom I spoke, although all intimate that this is entirely due to the band's uninteresting music (as opposed to last year where I got lots of excited e-mail).

Kroke got it's start at the original cafe Ariel, and were strongly promoted by that cafe's owners, Woytek and Marguerizata. The band also did the music for Schindler's List. At some point the band and the management of the original Ariel argued money. The arguments were sufficiently bitter that Kroke went to play next door at the "fake" Ariel (don't ask. Just remember, when in Krakow, the wonderful cafe is the one with the green awning). There is something unhappily Jewish, or unhappily human, about such a situation, but there you have it: remnants of community, small tourist trade, human greed and misunderstanding find ways to prevail. In any event, Kroke now mainly tour, which is where they are now, so this isn't a question to be resolved this minute. I pass from "klezmer" mode, to a more generally Jewish one....

Replacing Kroke at one of the two locations now owned by Woytek and Marguerizata, are the nightly musical locutions of "Kuzamir." Woytek shows me into a medium-sized European-style, lavish, overstuffed, candle-lit cafe, with a baby grand in one corner, and, at the same end of the room, a single microphone. In the rehearsal room in the back I can hear occasional signs that the band is warming up.

Finally, a polite fifteen minutes or so late, the band makes its entrance. There are a violin and violin-cello (slightly larger violin?), a flute, an accordion and bass. The band opens with "Nigun atik." I dunno. The bass player is clearly from another musical tradition. The accordion, I just don't know.

The band's music is entertaining, well-played, enjoyable, and certainly Jewish-inspired. They also avoid the shmaltzyness of many current German klez-wave bands. Well, almost. After about about fifteen minutes of music, kuzmir guest vocalisttheir vocalist comes out and does one of the more surreal versions of "Pairosen" that I have heard so far. Her voice isn't bad, but there is none of the caressing that the weepy really needs, no Jewish "kvetch," the phrasing is just odd, off. It is as though the song has been plucked without context and tortured inadvertently, "here is a Jewish folk song. It looks like fun! What should we do with it?" This isn't real shmaltz, it's ersatz shmaltz. This is become a song, not a story. It occurs to me that you never sing Jewish songs, you always tell stories with them. This singer is clearly not a student of Jewish musician and voice trainer, Leopold Kozlowski (billed incorrectly as "The Last Klezmer" in a recent pretense at film).

Still, compared to the "Beit HaRaSh" (a typo on a poster) across Kamierz at the Jewish Cultural Center, this is entirely acceptable. And face it, to have Jewish song echoing in Krakow is good, just to be. The rest would just have been commentary.

(As a side note, the woman sitting next to me, a Pole who is visiting Krakow as a tourist and has come just out of curiousity tells me that she has never heard anything like this. I can't resist replying that klezmer has never sounded quite like this, either.) I have clearly been on the road too long. I am developing serious attitude problems.

I haven't really gone on tours, or had a travel guide, this whole trip, but the availability of Henryk Halkowski, who knows Krakow, it's history, and its stories like the back of his hand, is irresistable. First we sit down over tea and he briefs me.

Now the standard American understanding of Polish Jewish history is something like this: Jews, fleeing Germany and crazy crusaders are invited by the Poles to come settle. Life is initially wonderful, rivalling even the Golden Age of Spain, but by the mid-seventeenth century, things are falling apart. The Chielmenicki cossack rebellion in 1648 is the scene of amazing cruelty. This is followed by a Swedish invasion soon after, and Poland is now falling apart. As it falls apart, the Poles become increasingly antisemitic, taking out their frustrations on the Jews, who nonetheless continue to hang in there and who still, somehow, despite the pogroms represent the peak of Jewish intellectual and cultural experience in the world until the Holocaust. Of Poland's 3.3 million Jews, about 300,000 are still alive after the war. Many returning home face fierce antisemitism again. Incidents include an actual pogrom at Kielce in 1946 in which 42 Jews were killed, and an abortive pogrom here in Krakow in which only a couple of people--it isn't clear that both were Jewish--were killed. To me, it seems clear tha antisemitism is generally part of being Polish (clearly not exclusively so, or I would have no Polish friends). Since the Holocaust, there have been successive waves of antisemitism, followed by waves of emigration, in 1956 and again, in 1968, when the breaking of relations with Israel following the '67 war was somehow connected to communist part politics and the "Zionists" were purged from the government. Today, there are about 200 Jews in Krakow. I do not have a number for all of Poland.

Given that cumulative horror, the idea of Jews voluntarily living in Poland seems inexplicable. But, in fact, there are Jews here, and even Jewish such as my friends Henryk and Eva who were born here after the Holocaust. They are aware of antisemitism, even to the point where one explains that even had there been enough people for such a class, their parents would probably have been afraid to establish a Jewish "Sunday School" for them. But, by the same token, no one is reporting much, if any active antisemitism. On the contrary, life is good, and they enjoy their homes here. They gather each week for Friday night services and dinner, primarily as a social, rather than as a religious event. They have no reason to leave.

One of the tragedies of the Holocaust lay not only in the deaths of so many millions, but in the deaths of the discussions and ideas of those millions as Judaism had begun to change in response to our time. The rewriting of history as though all of Eastern Europe were one large downtrodden Anatevka, still holding as fervently to tradition as ever, is one of the scariest erasures of human memory in our times, and we did it. The Nazis killed the bodies, and the post-Holocaust Jewish community buried the questions. Now Jews are returning to Krakow. They return as tourists, to try to comprehend the Poland that was, or the camps in which their families were erased, or as missionaries, sure that the few Jews of Krakow lack only American money to return to the fold and to the practice of Orthodox Judaism. To Krakow Jews my age, that is one small, important, yet, ultimately, not terribly popular form of Judaism from the richness of the tapestry that was prewar Jewish Krakow, and not a direction in which they seem to lean any more than I.

I ask Henryk about antisemitism in this "most antisemitic country in the world." He says that he hasn't really encountered any. In fact, times that he has been accosted by street gangs, they have called him an "American," or, when with a male friend, a "homosexual," but no one has ever threatened to attack him because he is Jewish.

When asked the same question, Eva admits that she has occasionally encountered some antisemitism, but has never been physically threatened. Poland is where she was born, it is the culture in which she creates her art, it is the language in which she thinks, it is where her friends live. She has recently returned from Yiddish Camp in New York (like most urban Polish Jews, neither she, nor her parents, or grandparents, spoke Yiddish--they spoke Polish.) It was strange to have people refer to Poland as "the most antisemitic country." They were putting down her country, and were doing so on the basis of their own fantasies, not her reality.

The truth of Jewish Poland, even as fragmentary a truth as one can gather in a few days, is that it just isn't as simple as we learned in Hebrew school. As Jack Kugelmass and Jonathan Boyarin made so clear in their essential From a Ruined Garden, selections from memorial books to Polish Jewish communities written after the Holocaust, this was a rich, complex community whose actual history belied the stereotypes in almost every way. It is probably worth noting that much of the Jewish history with which my generation, and succeeding American Jewish generations have grown up was written partly in horror at the Holocaust, a trauma for which there is no answer, and partly as though the existence of a Jewish State, Israel, is God's answer--a similarly unanswerable (and to me, perverse) assertion. It will be many generations, I suspect, before we are able to write about the Holocaust or the Jewish world that was wiped out, with any pretense at neutrality. What is important in our age, and what occurs to me as I attempt to assimilate the many contradictory facts I encounter here, is to at least come to terms with the possibility that what I learned in Hebrew School and in college may not accurately reflect what is or why.

The Jewish quarter of Krakow is called "Kazimierz," named after Casimir the Great. Although Jewish settlement in Krakow predates the town, it was at this time that the land, including an already existent small town, were bought by the Jewish community as a Jewish town, at the end of the 15th century. By 1608 the original boundaries were so stressed, that the community almost doubled in size. Afterwards, there were successive increases, although none so large as the 1608 expansion.

By the end of the 19th century, however, Polish society had liberalized to the point where Jews were fleeing the former ghettoes, living all around town. Or, as Henryk pointed out, pre-war Krakow was 40% Jewish, yet only 10%--the most poor and the most religious--lived in Kazimierz. At some point, a second Polish town, with a second Jewish ghetto was also incorporated into Krakow. In 1939, it was the Jewish ghetto across the river that became theJewish ghetto from which Jews were deported to the camps (those who didn't happen to get killed, or who didn't starve, first).

stained glass in the Tempel SynagogueIn 1860, for instance, a "liberal" Jewish synagogue, the "Tempel" was built. Apparently, it wasn't much used, because by the time it was finished the community that needed it had moved out of Kazimierz. This is at odds with the fact that the synagogue was then remodeled in the 1890s. So much for attempting a reliable history from fragments of remembered conversation. Although the guide books describe it as "Reform", it was more Orthodox than that, adhering to the Polish "Progressive" movement, which was somewhat akin to the Hungarian "Neolog" movement. In any event, it should be noted that a women's gallery was added after the fact, so however liberal or reformed Kazimierz Jews may have been in the late 19th century, that still did not include the blasphemy of men and women sitting together while praying. It is now being reconstructed.

During the tour on Thursday, Henryk pauses in front of Izaak's synagogue, a lovely, huge, three-story synagogue delayed in its time by complaints on the part of the local priest that it was too big and too close to the road. It was built by Izaak Jakubowicz in 1638. Among the stories told about Jakubowicz, is the one concerning how he made his fortune. The story is very familiar, and one that I have heard many times and in many versions since deciding to come to Eastern Europe.

It seems that Izaak was initially a poor man, couldn't make ends meet. Finally he had this dream that he needed to go to Warsaw, to this particular bridge, and there he would find his fortune. Well, a man who can't make enough to eat can't jump up and go to Warsaw either. But then he had the same dream three nights in a row, and, still starving, there seemed to be no reason no to starve in Warsaw.

In Warsaw he can't get directly under the bridge due to a military encampment, so he circles it all day until the local commander asks him what is going on. Izaak tells his story. The commander laughs at the ability of these superstitious Jews to set off on the most ridiculous ploys. Has not he, the commander, had a dream these past three nights that in Kazmierz, in a decrepit house wherein lives someone named Izaak Jakubowicz, in the stove, is hidden a treasure? Do you suppose that he, the commander, is likely to go treasure hunting across Poland?

I have heard endless variants of this story since I decided to leave California. I feel a kinship with the long-gone Reb Jakubowicz and wish him, and his somehow-still-surviving building well.

We visit other local synagogues. Many of them are locked, a couple are undergoing restoration. Only a couple have long since been turned over to other use--not bad given the small size of the Jewish community. We visit the huge buildings that were once home to Zionist-sponsored elementary school, gymnasium (intensive academic) and trade school, now occupied by similar, albeit not exclusively Jewish, ventures. We pass the house in which lived Gebirtig PlaqueMordecai Gebirtig. Woody Guthrie, you will remember, was the American Gebirtig. The Krakow original was a local carpenter who also wrote Yiddish folk songs--and what songs! Virtually every popular Yiddish song seems sometimes to have been a Gebirtig creation. Gebritig himself didn't write music, however. He would write the words, and play the music on a wooden flute from which more musically adept friends could pen the melody for him.

Gebirtig didn't make much money off his music. He didn't understand copyright at all. In fact, many of his songs were passed off as "anon. folk" for decades until recent scholarship unearthed how many of them traced back to Gebirtig, after all.

Henryk and I spent a very little time at the Center for Jewish Culture. this is a very pretty building not too far from the center of things. It is apparently run by non-Jews for no discernible Jewish reason, and no striking degree of Jewish identity inside. Local prejudice may be speaking against the center, however, because it does seem that my Budapest friend was conducting classes teaching Yiddish or somesuch for NYU in rooms provided by the center (and no one's fault if she generally took the class off to Singer's bar where they could learn with the beneift of honey brandy). In fact, Thursday afternoon, as Henryk and I are wrapping up our post-tour conversation, a representative from the Raymond Lauder Foundation, which supports Orthodox Jewish schools and the like in Poland (given that this is the one country that Lubavitch allegedly won't touch) has just parachuted in and is running through encouraging us to come to the center where he is about to hold classes on the celebration of Rosh Hashana. (One person apparently shows up to the class, he tells me later.)

Of course, Krakow is a most interesting place for this sort of Jewish culture to be parachuted into. There is no young Orthodox (well, not Jewish Orthodox) community, and in parachuting in this particular variety of Jewish experience, as though representative of all the Jewish experience of prewar Krakow, one does lose sight of that incredible diversity of expression about which I was writing earlier. It's okay though. As we noticed at dinner (below), people here are tolerant, and other than a fondness for symbolically bad food, these folks aren't baaaad, just not as relevant as might be thought.

For reasons not clear to anyone, the "Remu" synagogue, where I will pray on the Holidays, was closed, along with the old cemetery. In the meantime, we finished off our tour at the "Old" Synagogue, Poland's sole gothic-style synagogue, now turned into a Jewish museum. I find my attention wandering as we consider yet another "yad" or "torah scroll cover," but am entranced, non-the-less by the pictures of the many Polish wooden synagogues, all destroyed by the Nazis, none of which survive (unless you count the odd reconstruction in Berkeley, California, of a folk dance club, Ashkenaz, modeled on such a synagogue, as survival). Some of these artifacts, nonetheless, are stunning and beautiful. It is important to remember that when Polish Jewry were at their height, so were the surrounding calligraphy and silversmithing and other arts.

Later that evening, we gather for minha, and maariv to usher in the beginning of the New Year. I have stopped by the Remu Synagogue earlier to take some photos. It feels incomparably strange to be here. Emotionally, Rabbi Isserles represents exactly what I had come to dislike most in "modern" Orthodox Judaism, a pilpulistic miasma of detail and pedantry. Yet, to most of the Orthodox world, he represents scholarship and holiness in making of chaos a united whole. Here is a rabbi whose name I knew back in day school. Yet, here, too, is his synagogue. Not only has his synagogue survived the Holocaust, but his grave remained undisturbed. There are, today, a great many Hassidic stories about heavenly intercession to ensure such a state.

Behind the synagogue is the old cemetery. Other than the ReMU's stone, and those immediately arround it, all was destroyed by the Nazis. Later, in excavations in the area, hundreds more gravestones were found, and these have been set up "as if". Others, fragments or better, have been incorporated into the wall containing cemetery stoneswalls of the cemetery, proof of the determination that these names shall not be lost to time or to Holocaust.

Services in the synagogue are regular shul services. People walk in, get settled, catch up with their prayers. The prayer leader has an accent that is quite unfamiliar, but Hebrew is Hebrew and I find my place quickly enough. The women are separated by a mikveh towards the back. There are about 40 men in the end, many of them older, a few my age, perhaps younger. In this, too, it is a lot like traditional American synagogues. We don't fill the synagogue, but it is comfortably full.

After services, Eva MankowskaEva Mankowska, a local painter, and I stroll over to the youth center at the Izaak Synagogue, where the American Foundation folks have parachuted in dinner. For whatever reason, and despite the fact that this happens every week, this particular dinner is less festive than usual, and takes longer to make ready. My friends claim that the Americans took over and tried to do everything their way. This leads to some jocularity in our area, especially as one old man, across the table from us, and independent of us (or anyone, as near as I can tell) periodically bursts out that the Americans are ruining the melodies, or that if this were in Israel there'd be turkey.

Indeed, there appears to be a lack of main course, unless tuna salad was it, but the apples and honey are good, and the coleslaw was great, and there are a couple of other salads, so nobody goes away hungry. As a community meal whipped up for 60 - 80 people it wouldn't be bad. But, with some folks claiming that they do better each week, and that the difference is these interlopers who insist on doing it all their way, one suspects that some, er, cultural assumptions are being made on the part of the American foundation folks about who this audience is and how to appropriately celebrate the holiday with them. As the American Foundation guy tries to tell his story, the old fellow across the table continues to comment. The American Foundation guy tries to ask him to be quiet, in Polish. Someone responds from the table, "why bother, he can't hear, anyway!" In any event, Eva and I slip out early, as the singing begins, laughing, into the New Year outside.

It is sweet this new year to be in Krakow.