Jewish Culture in Kraków


Shai Afsai reflects on a pre-pandemic Jewish Culture Festival in Kraków.

Prior to World War II, about one-tenth of Poland’s population was Jewish, and Jews made up almost a quarter of Kraków’s residents. By the end of the war, 90% of Poland’s Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis and their accomplices. Those Jews who survived the war and remained in Poland soon found themselves living under an antisemitic communist government. Many Jewish structures still stand in Kazimierz – the area of Kraków that Polish King Casimir the Great invited Jews to settle in during the fourteenth century – but after two successive totalitarian regimes, they are now largely empty of Jewish occupants.

For the past nine years, sponsored by an annual grant awarded to my Providence synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, I have interviewed and photographed Jews and practitioners of Judaism in different parts of the world – including Israel, Nigeria, Ukraine, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and the Czech Republic – afterward sharing my experiences in Rhode Island and with readers elsewhere. In June 2019, I traveled from Rhode Island to Kraków for the 29th Jewish Culture Festival: ten days of concerts, film screenings, walking tours, photo exhibits, literary programs, Torah classes, panel discussions, lectures, and culinary workshops attended by thousands of people from Poland and abroad.

The Jewish Culture Festival’s founders and organizers, and the majority of its attendees, are non-Jewish Poles. An American Jew who hears about a Jewish culture festival in Poland founded, organized, and mostly attended by non-Jews might instinctively and negatively think of “cultural appropriation” or of some sort of “washing,” but I did not approach the festival that way.[1] The more people I met in Kraków and the more I saw of Kazimierz, the more I wanted to understand why so many non-Jews in Poland were constructively invested in learning about, experiencing, and promoting Jewish culture.

“It is very difficult to answer, ‘Why are you doing this?’ It is like answering, ‘Why do you breathe and live?’ I am a man who is aware he was born in the largest Jewish cemetery in the world, but also that six years of Shoah [i.e., the Holocaust] cannot eclipse a thousand years,” Janusz Makuch, the festival’s non-Jewish founder and director, told me when we sat to talk in Cheder – a Middle Eastern-themed café situated in one of Kazimierz’s former Jewish prayer houses – about his decades of work on the Jewish Culture Festival.

“When I started putting together a Jewish festival at age twenty-eight, I was the only one in Poland. Now there are over forty Jewish culture festivals. I felt the obligation to plant the seed. It came from a deep responsibility to memory, but also from deep fascination with and love of Jewish culture,” Makuch said. “When I started to plant the seed, I noticed that many [Polish] people – especially, but not only, young people – long to learn, each for their own reasons, about Jewish culture, which is also a part of their culture. Come on! We were living a thousand years with Jewish people on the same soil, as neighbors!”

The first festival event I attended at Kraków’s Galicia Jewish Museum (Żydowskie Muzeum Galicja) was a guided tour through Chuck Fishman’s photography exhibit “Regeneration: Jewish Life in Poland,” which focused on the mid-1970s to the present. The tour was led by museum educator Anna Wencel, and afterward she spoke to me about her interest in Jews from a young age and about her work at the museum since 2008.

“I come from a small town near Oświęcim (Auschwitz). I grew up in the same house my family lived in for four generations. I knew Jews had shops and lived in areas of the town. Before the war, five-hundred people – one-fourth of the town were Jewish. When I was eight – it was in 1989 – I by chance went into a local Jewish cemetery with a friend. We saw tombstones, but we could not read the inscriptions. We saw one tombstone with a crown and thought maybe it was the grave of a king or queen. It seemed like something from a fairy tale,” Wencel recounted. “I told my grandmother what my friend and I found, and she explained to me that it was a Jewish cemetery. My grandmother was born in 1923. She refused to tell me anything about the war, but she talked a lot about the interwar period [between World War I and II], as if everything was better before the war. It was too traumatic for her.”

Wencel eventually enrolled in the Jewish Studies department at Kraków’s Jagiellonian University.

“When I came to Kraków, I went to Kazimierz from time to time, and on my way home I often went by tramway, passing [Kraków’s] Ghetto Heroes Square. I saw tangible places, materials, and objects of the Jewish past in Kraków and in other places. I learned there was a department of Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University and applied,” she said. “I worked on Jewish women writing poetry in Yiddish during the interwar years. It was a lot of translation. I did five years of Jewish Studies in the history department. When I was in university, there was a project to translate inscriptions from Jewish tombstones. I went back to that cemetery in my hometown and found the grave with the crown, now being able to read the epitaphs in Hebrew. I learned that the man buried there is Moshe Huppert and knew that the crown is a keter shem tov [i.e., crown of a good reputation].”

Though Wencel loved working as an educator, she explained that being a non-Jewish guide at a Jewish museum had its tensions.

“There are people for whom their job is their passion. I am in that group. I do not believe in dividing things into ‘This is my story; this is their story.’ At the end of the day, we are all human. At the museum, I often get asked if I am Jewish by Jewish people, implying that it is not my story to tell. And some Christians ask the same thing with suspicion, implying a non-Jewish person cannot have actual knowledge in this field – ‘How can you know this?’ Sometimes it gets a little bit antisemitic with non-Jewish visitors, implying that they want to listen to ‘a real Jew,’ someone representing this ‘exotic’ culture,” Wencel said.

The next event I attended at the museum was a talk by Paul Schneller, a Swiss veterinarian specializing in exotic animals who is also a professional photographer. In “About Polish Jews: See You Next Year in Kraków,” Schneller discussed his family’s taboo surrounding his Jewish great-grandfather, Saul Chaim Grunfest, who was a communist, a friend of Lenin, and the first Jewish Social Democratic Party member in Switzerland. Neither Grunfest’s communism nor his Jewishness were spoken of in Schneller’s home, though it was clear from his name that he was Jewish.

Schneller and I met for a drink the next day.

“I am very attached to Kraków and Poland, but Kraków is not representative of Poland,” he said. “It is an unusual place. When you first come to Kraków, you just see the tourism here, but there is something more and deeper here about Jewish life than the superficial tourism. The tourism itself is superficial, but it allows for a conversation to take place, like we are having now.”

Schneller continued, “There are more non-Jews active here in Jewish life than Jews. The Jewish Culture Festival is run by non-Jews. The director of the Galicia Jewish Museum is not Jewish. This Jewish life here would not exist without the non-Jewish people. When I ask Polish people about this activity, they say: ‘I feel a gap. I feel there is something missing. We have to fill this gap.’ Jewish absence in Poland has been described as a phantom limb. My interpretation is that with their interest in Jews, Polish people are involved in healing. It is a possible therapy – probably not conscious, but subconscious – to deal with a phantom pain, the trauma of the Nazis. They miss the Jews. They had a thousand-year history living alongside the Jews, and in six years the Nazis wiped it out.”

Another event I attended at the Galicia Jewish Museum was a presentation and panel discussion about the pictures and figurines of the “Lucky Jew” that are sold in Kazimierz, in other parts of Kraków, and throughout Poland. There are quite a few artistic variations on the theme, but one common Lucky Jew portrait depicts a bearded man dressed in pre-World War II Eastern European Jewish garb who is counting gold coins. Another shows a bearded Jew recording numbers in a ledger with a quill pen. Such items are thought to bring good luck, especially financial luck, and are hung in homes and shops across the country. In the United States, these images would immediately be identified as expressions of anti-Jewish prejudice. In Poland, it is perhaps more complicated.

When the event ended, I turned to the woman seated next to me, and asked her for her thoughts. The woman, Margaret Krawecka – a Polish-born artist and architectural and interior design consultant who lives in Canada – proposed that we go to the museum’s café to talk, and this ended up being among the most emotional conversations I had in Kraków.

“Polish people have intergenerational trauma from witnessing the abuse and destruction of their friends and neighbors,” Krawecka said. “Non-Jews are trying to come to terms with the fact that about one-fifth of the population [in Poland] was wiped out [during World War II]. Some Polish people helped Jews at risk to their lives, some collaborated [with the Nazis], but most just watched, paralyzed by the fear and terror spread by the Nazi occupiers. There is a feeling of helplessness – and maybe also a confused sense of guilt. This country is still very deeply affected by the trauma of World War II. Even me. I was born in 1978, many years after the war, and still the weight is heavy. It is the memory.”

This trauma and memory, which remain connected to Jews, are coped with by Polish people in various ways.

“Some Polish people seem like they are not ready to move on. Of course, they have to. You can never forget what happened, but you also have to move forward – without forgetting,” Krawecka said. “A lot of people have an existential void, a sense of nostalgia, a missing of another time and place. In some strange way, perhaps these figurines of Jews, these lucky charms, are an attempt to bring back the past. There are so many complexities, so many layers. It is almost like the word Jew has become a symbol.”

I found myself repeatedly returning to the Galicia Jewish Museum throughout my visit. The festival days were sun-drenched and humid, and after seeing me again and again, the museum’s director, Jakub Nowakowski, joked that I must like the building’s air conditioning.[2] Now thirty-nine, Nowakowski – an energetic man who sported a Herzlian beard – has been heading the Galicia Jewish Museum since 2010. We finally found time for an extended conversation in the museum one evening, and I asked him for his perspective on non-Jewish efforts to learn about contemporary Jewish culture and preserve the memory of Jews in Poland.[3]

“If you go to the small towns, about which there are not media reports, you also see that many of them are interested in Jewish culture and history, and organize Jewish festivals as well. If you go to the small villages that have these festivals, [you see] there is no money made there. It costs them money,” Nowakowski said. “Why are people in these remote areas spending money to renovate synagogues and have Jewish festivals? Why do teachers come here? Why do they come to spend their vacations studying in Kraków? They are not doing it for money.” 

Nowakowski felt there were several reasons.

“Is it because we feel guilty? Of course some Poles feel guilty for what was done to the Jews. Others just miss the Jews, who are still alive in the memories of their parents and grandparents. But there is also the pride of coming from a multicultural world that was here. People look around, see homogeneity, and look for something different. It is about memory. It is about finding peace and moving forward. We live in the post-Holocaust space in a way no other country does. Traces of Jewish life and death exist so close to each other,” he said.

During my stay in Kraków, I got to know some of the festival volunteers – called machers – including best friends Joanna Chojnacka and Dominika Kołodziej. The two women, in their twenties, met me for lunch one day at Hevre, a former beth midrash (religious study hall) that is owned by the Gmina Żydowska, Kraków’s official religious Jewish community. Now leased as a trendy restaurant and bar, pre-Holocaust Hebrew calligraphy and paintings of holy places in the Land of Israel still adorn its walls.

Kołodziej was completing a master’s degree in Jewish Studies at Jagiellonian University.

“I always had an interest in Jewish history, but more of the interwar period, because I felt it was not studied much,” she said. “I was especially interested in the music and the movies of the interwar period – many of which were made by Jews, especially in Warsaw. I always liked hearing songs in Yiddish. Warsaw has a specific dialect, and most of it is from before the war. Many of the words are in Yiddish.”

She described the recent revitalization of Jewish life in Kraków.

“It has become more and more normal to see Jewish people here. There is curiosity, maybe from tourists, but in Kraków, [local] people know there are Jewish people here, and they fit in the area and no one is surprised anymore. I feel it is very specific to Kraków,” Kołodziej said. “We are used to seeing Orthodox people rushing to synagogue for Friday night. It is natural for us now.”

Chojnacka, who also majored in Jewish Studies, had written a novel titled Szpagat (an insult in the Varsavian dialect for a well-educated person), about a Jewish tailor who returns to Warsaw after the war and finds that the Jewish quarter is gone.

“I had this idea four years ago,” she explained. “One of the reasons I chose Jewish Studies was to learn about Jewish life and to learn some Yiddish. I wanted my writing to be as authentic as possible. It is impossible, but I said, ‘I will try.’ At the time, I did not tell my professors why I wanted Jewish Studies, because it is quite unusual that you write about something that does not belong to you. I cannot consider myself Jewish, and I am writing from the perspective of the main character, who is a Jew. I was worried people would say, ‘It is not your thing. You should not write it.’ But then I started saying to myself, ‘Then who will write it?’ I wanted to tell the story of the Jewish people of my city, who are also my people.”

In answer to the question of why so many Poles are interested in Jewish culture, Chojnacka suggested: “I think Polish people still miss Jewish culture. We were neighbors. We were very close. More and more we miss it. People want to feel it, but it is very hard to feel it authentically. We are still searching for the way to show it. In Kraków, we still have the buildings and the synagogues, so it is easier. There is a Jewish quarter. I feel the Jewish Culture Festival is doing this very well. It is a very good way to show people Jewish culture – modern Jewish culture and with a focus on Israel. We are searching for something Jewish in Poland and this is the way to learn something authentic.”

As I experienced it, Kraków’s Jewish Culture Festival, with its many and varied offerings, does indeed authentically – and sincerely and respectfully – present contemporary Jewish culture, while also grappling with the history of Jews in Poland and with current Jewish-related issues in the country. Alongside festival offerings that were in Polish or in English, there were many speakers, authors, cantors, singers, musicians, artists, and religious figures participating in the festival who were Israeli and who used Hebrew – and this was intentional.

“Most importantly, I know that Israel is the center of Jewish life,” Makuch, the Jewish Culture Festival’s non-Jewish founder and director told me. “It is a festival dedicated to contemporary Jewish culture and life – which is centered in Israel. Israel is also a center of my life. Being Jewish, you are connected to Israel. Israel is my country and chosen land too.”

[1] Not too long ago, “cultural appropriation” was a neutral term. The appropriation could be positive or negative, depending on the context and circumstances. See, for example, Nancy Sinkoff’s “Benjamin Franklin in Jewish Eastern Europe: Cultural Appropriation in the Age of the Enlightenment,” Journal of the History of Ideas 61, 1 (2000): 133–152, or my follow-up article “Benjamin Franklin’s Influence on Mussar Thought and Practice: a Chronicle of Misapprehension,” Review of Rabbinic Judaism, 22, 2 (2019): 228-276, as well as my related September 9, 2020 Wisdom Daily article.

[2] It was also at the Galicia Jewish Museum that I met Mariusz Matera, a blues and rock singer, artist, activist, and socio-cultural organizer who has worked to educate about Chełm’s Jewish culture and heritage. My encounter with him in Kraków involved another emotional conversation. However, rather than risk the current article becoming too lengthy, I will instead recommend that interested readers see my “Mariusz Matera and Preserving the Memory of Jewish Life in Chelm” (New English Review, April 2020) in order to find out more about this special man.

[3] For a fuller articulation of his views, see Jakub Nowakowski’s “Polish-Jewish Relations in Contemporary Poland” (K., March 3, 2022).


Shai Afsai’s articles and poems have appeared in Anthropology Today, Journal of the American Revolution, Poetica Magazine, Reform Jewish Quarterly, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, and Tablet Magazine.
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Close Cookmode
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x