“Are you Jewish?”

Impressions of the summer changing of Cracow’s Jewish life


Cracow’s atmosphere changes during the summer.
At the end of May, the university’s activities officially end. Only a
few students stay during the summer to work or to do examinations.
Instead of students, tourists stroll around the town, endless groups of
tourists: from the United States, Japan, France – from all over world.

However, this change in the Cracow summer population doesn’t affect the
atmosphere of the Jewish district. In contrast to wintertime, there are
tourists; they walk around for maybe 3-4 hours, visit museums, the
synagogues, have a coffee in one of the bars. But not in a way that
could change the atmosphere of the calm and quiet streets with their
low houses. My eyes stay wide open and, like the tourists, I walk
around to collect lasting impressions. These are my last days in
Cracow, where I have studied during the past year.

‘Kazimierz’ is the name for the former Jewish district of Cracow. King
Kazimierz gave the Jews in the 14th century this place to settle down.
The Jews lived there for centuries, more or less in peace with their
Christian neighbours. They worked for the Polish and later for the
Austrian rulers and were able to live in their own religious and
traditional way. In Cracow you will find the oldest synagogue in
Poland, ten minutes away from the enormous Catholic church. This
co-habitation of Poles, Jews and Ukrainians in the eastern part of
Poland abruptly finished after the Second World War. As is widely
known, there had been intercultural problems, too, before World War II.

After 1945, a part of the Jewish population that didn’t emigrate to
Israel or the United States settled down in Kazimierz, but it was only
a small part. However, over the years, the majority of them emigrated
because of anti-Semitic propaganda in Poland in the seventies.
Kazimierz became a forgotten place, where houses were ruined and it
became known as an insecure and criminal district. On the other hand,
Kazimierz had the best pubs and bars in Cracow and the artists tell
stories about the painting-performances and artistic happenings which
took place in these ruins.

With the beginning of new times after 1989, and the rapid development
of tourism in Cracow’s old town, somehow Kazimierz was forgotten again.
This dirty, dilapidated district … why should tourists even bother to
go there? But in the beginning of the nineties, a movie-director Steven
Spielberg came to Cracow for the making of his well-known film
"Schindler’s List". During those months, glaring light laid down on the
former dark and dangerous streets of Kazimierz, with Krakusy (Cracow
residents) playing the parts of Jews and Germans.

In this way, the Jewish part of beautiful Cracow returned to the minds
of people: tourists, and businessmen. In years to come, people would
visit Cracow again and take part in "Schindler’s List" guided tours.
Cracow’s inhabitants started to make the city more attractive to the
paying tourists; you will now find a special bookstore with literature
about the Holocaust and traditional Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Also, hotels and restaurants were opened offering kosher food (although
two of this restaurants are quarrelling about the kind of kosher!) The
small Jewish community also noticed the change. One has to pay to visit
the synagogue, the only one in Cracow, which had been functioning as a
synagogue from the end of World War II until today.

In 1992, a Jewish cultural festival was organised in Kazimierz for the
first time. Ever since, once a year, crowds of people come from all
over the world to celebrate Jewish culture and tradition. This year,
ten thousand people attended the festival. This festival should bring
Kazimierz’ original Jewish culture back to life.

During one week, Jewish religion, culture and tradition flourish in
Kazimierz. There are scientific lectures, for example about the
Hassidism in Poland; meetings for VIPs; stage plays and films are
shown; and workshops are offered in the Hebraic language, cooking,
dancing and singing. An important part of the whole festival is music.
The best interpreters of Jewish music come to Kazimierz to participate.
Concerts of spiritual songs from the synagogues are performed by
cantors or choirs and the best Klezmer bands play, for quite a high
price.

The most impressive event of the festival, in all its seven
years, is the final evening. All bands and musicians come together to
celebrate Jewish culture with guests from all over the world and, of
course, the inhabitants of Cracow. This year, for the first time, it
didn’t rain during the final event. It was a sunny and warm evening.
For six hours, musicians enchanted the five thousand visitors with
their songs. They danced like mad, took each others hands, danced
together in big circles. The atmosphere was like fire; everybody took
part in the burning musical passion. The whole concert was broadcast by
Polish national television, so every Pole was able to take part in this
evening. Unfortunately, it’s the only time during the year when most of
the Poles show any interest in Jewish culture.

The last evening of this Jewish cultural festival finishes and, after
the cleaning work, the lights are switched off. The guests return to
their countries and everyday lives, and the Jewish culture of Cracow
fades back deep into their minds, is kept in books, films or scientific
works. In Kazimierz the normal calm life returns and the oblivion of
the Jewish life and of this district can be seen again on every corner.

For me there was one strange situation. One afternoon during the
festival – on my way to a lecture – a darkly dressed man with a dark
hat asked me: "Are you Jewish?" I couldn’t believe my own ears – that
someone could ask me this question – because: I’m German.
Like me, of course, a lot of people from Germany participate in the
Jewish Cultural Festival and come with the other foreigners looking
together for Jewish life.

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