Krakow's 10-day Jewish Culture Festival is the biggest Jewish festival in Europe

Pinned to a wall and waving my program for air, I am among the faithful shoe-horned into Krakow's grand Temple Synagogue on a steamy summer's evening. For more than two hours, three terrific tenors fill the air with Yiddish songs of the shtetl. They take a bow; the audience erupts. The young Polish woman beside me swoons. "I love the cantors. I love them," she shouts over the din. "They just move your mind to another world."

My mind will stay moved for a week. Born in a single theatre during the dying days of Communism, Krakow's Jewish Culture Festival is an extravaganza of song, dance, food and angst. In coming days, I taste biblical cuisine such as ashishot, made with lentils and honey and cinnamon. In an old prayer house turned performance space, I listen to a string ensemble perform haunting experimental music until after midnight. I dance at a street party with 10,000 others, take in a lecture on antisemitism and catch a supper show by a burlesque artist who pops her dress of black balloons with a cigarette and her fingernails.

It is a rich, wild cultural smorgasbord and, after 30 years, word has spread. Poland's "Jewish Woodstock" is the biggest Jewish festival in Europe, some say the world. That's not bad for a country bereft of Jews.

My Polish father lost his parents in the Holocaust and I am the first in my family to visit. To many diaspora Jews, Poland is fixed in time like a black-and-white war movie. It's the snow-covered land of Auschwitz and terror, the epicentre of Hitler's genocide of our families. No-one told me about the silver birch canopies in summer. Seventy-five years on, wounds haven't healed. "You're going to Poland? Why?," I was asked umpteen times.

In Poland there is phantom pain. More than three million Jews lived here before World War II. In Warsaw, Jews were one-third of the population; in Krakow, one-quarter. Ninety per cent were murdered. Then came Communism, and many of those who remained went underground or were expelled. Estimates of the Jewish population today range from 10,000 to 30,000.

"There was a void in the country and nobody really spoke about it," says Jonathan Ornstein, the executive director of Krakow's Jewish Community Centre. "The country was so incredibly Jewish. So in 1989, when the country regained its independence, you had this pent-up interest in everything Jewish. They wanted to celebrate something that was almost completely destroyed."

The festival is a moving tribute to a lost world. Established in 1988 by non-Jews, it is run by non-Jews and attended by mostly non-Jews. "Jewish culture is Polish culture," says the festival's director and founder Janusz Makuch. "For 1000 years we lived together. We can't treat them as separate."

Three decades of openness has seen Krakow's Jewish Quarter – Kazimierz – revitalised and transformed into a hip, cobblestoned precinct dotted with blues bars, vintage boutiques and food trucks peddling acai bowls and Thai ice-cream. The quarter's seven synagogues – the oldest dating back to the 16th century – have been restored. The excellent Galicia Jewish Museum opened its doors in 2004.

In the 1990s, Stephen Spielberg's Schindler's List sparked a cottage travel industry of tours to film locations. Music is pleasantly ever-present, from morning's violin rehearsals drifting from distant windows to the hardworking klezmer buskers performing day and night. In Kazimierz, a rendition of If I Were a Rich Man is never far away.

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Indeed, at times Kazimierz feels like a Jewish suburb of Disneyland. Electric golf buggy tours crisscross the narrow streets en route to Oskar Schindler's factory and the World War II ghetto in Podgórze across the Vistula river. Ersatz Jewish restaurants line the rim of central Szeroka Square offering what Ornstein calls a "kosher-style pork situation". Menus are Jewish, more or less: chicken marinated in kosher wine, Passover cheese, herring with vodka shots and – in a heroic marriage of two Hebraic staples – "cheesecake drenched in chocolate". And pork.

At the flea market in Kazimierz's main plaza, Place Nowy (New Square), besides sepia photographs of Soviet soldiers and SS families, one can find candlesticks and other tchotchkes (trinkets) of mysterious provenance.

But beneath the commercial veneer is a rich history dating back to the 11th century, with the arrival of Jews escaping persecution in Western Europe. By World War II, Poland had the largest Jewish population in Europe. "Krakow was the Polish Jerusalem," says Agi Legutko, a New York-based academic and festival guide. The centre of Jewish learning, it had 120 prayer houses, many well preserved despite the war. "Krakow wasn't bombed, so all the buildings here are still intact," Legutko says. "You have buildings from the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. Walking down the streets, you can feel and sense the history."

Over two mornings, I join Legutko on guided tours of Jewish life in Kazimierz and the ghetto in Podgórze. A Krakow native, she points out the landmarks and minutiae of a once vibrant world: the old Yiddish theatre, community offices (with a gym in the basement!), the library (it had 17,000 members in the 1920s), a watchmaker, a shoemaker, a kosher restaurant, Roman Polanski's ghetto home ("he was four and smuggled out in a suitcase"). It is an archeological tour of an extinct civilisation that vanished a mere generation ago.

A heatwave bears down. . We pass the former orphanage, where the director refused to abandon 300 children in his care and was sent to his death with them. We stop at the hospital where bed-ridden patients were shot on site. We see the remains of the ghetto wall designed by Nazis to look like tombstones.

Legutko is the director of the Yiddish language program at Columbia University and has returned as a festival guide 19 years in a row. She did not grow up Jewish but believes in "genetic memory" and always had an affinity with Jewish culture. Jewish heritage, however, was "the secret of secrets". "When I was 13 and [we] were still under Communism, my grandmother said to me that there was different blood in our veins," she recalls. "I thought it was because we were blue blood. I didn't understand. Only years later I realised she was trying to say in coded language that we were Jewish." Legutko thought she was alone in her discovery, "then I found out there was a whole generation who are discovering they are Jewish".

She is still not inured to tragedy. Across from an apartment that served as headquarters to a resistance cell, she tells the story of Dr Rozalia Blau, murdered for defying orders to leave the bedside of a friend nursing a broken leg. Legutko pauses to compose herself and says, "The friend survived but after the war committed suicide." One of our group, Freydi Mrocki, a klezmer singer from Melbourne, steps forward and launches into The Partisan Hymn, her voice strong and proud and heartbreaking.

"We are in the shadow of Auschwitz," says Makuch, the festival's impresario. The concentration camp is an hour's drive away and he is at pains to balance the city's tangible sadness with uplifting events. "This is a cemetery," he says, meaning Poland. "Commemoration? That's OK, but when I started the festival I understood that I should focus on contemporary living Jewish culture. It's all about life, life, life!"

During the evenings, in venues ranging from synagogues to a subterranean bar, the music program is vast: classical, klezmer, Israeli hip hop, Moroccan Mimouna singing, interwar Polish swing. About 30,000 visitors stream into Kazimierz for the festival, which has spawned 40 similar events around the country and a second Krakow festival, Altfest.

At the festival tent, its floors strewn with Persian rugs, I meet Bruno Gozlan, a French physiotherapist based in Germany, relaxing with a cigar while his young daughter takes part in a workshop to crochet a yarmulke. The irony. In France and Germany, where antisemitism is on the rise, a festival like this wouldn't be possible, he says. "It's not so safe in Paris. If you wear a [yarmulke] people will spit at you or be aggressive. I've told my daughter not to say anything about her identity at school [in Germany]. Here you feel safe. You can walk around, you can get in and out of synagogues without being checked by security. And most people aren't Jewish so it gives the impression of openness."

In synch with the Zeitgeist, the star of the English lecture program is Deborah Lipstadt, the US historian and authority on antisemitism. Polish Jews have so far been spared violence but in conversations at the festival's sidelines as well as on stage, Polish antisemitism – historical and contemporary – is a charged topic. Concerns are raised about the nationalist Law and Order Party government, which sought to silence criticism of Polish crimes in the Holocaust.

By embracing the spectrum of cultural life, the festival which has had a far-reaching effect on Krakow itself. "It's helped create an environment that's conducive to Jewish life thriving once again," says Ornstein, who recently opened the city's first Jewish preschool since the Holocaust. "And the fact that the biggest Jewish culture festival in the world has led to the rebirth of [this] community is just something that's another level."

At 10pm on my last evening, I climb the stairs of an old apartment building to catch Altfest darling Betty Q in what appears to be someone's lounge room. A burlesque artist of renown from Warsaw, she seductively dispatches her dress of balloons then returns as a widow in black lace mantilla, her arms revealing mock tattoos in Yiddish. She, too, was raised Catholic only later to discover her Jewish identity. "We all come from Eve," she says. "We have the same scars and stigmata."

TRIP NOTES

traveller.com.au/poland

poland.travel

SEE

The 30th anniversary Jewish Culture Festival will run from June 26 to July 5, 2020. Go to jewishfestival.pl/en/

FLY

Emirates flies three times a day from Sydney and Melbourne to Dubai, where connections to Krakow are available once a day with Emirates' codeshare partner, flydubai.

STAY

Playroom Aparthotel Krakow has self-contained studios from about 199 PLN a night. See https://play-room.business.site/

Karen Pakula travelled at her own expense.

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