By Antony Lerman | 11/03/2010
Was the little bit of Polish-Jewish warmth that came to Jewish London last week, a city still shivering in the coldest winter for decades, only ‘virtual’? If that sounds like a slightly odd question, think of two goyim and an Orthodox Jewish professor discussing, in bookish Bloomsbury, the meaning of Jewish culture today in Poland. To some of London’s Jews this event in itself might have had an air of unreality about it, but this was just one of many solid gems on offer at the yearly festival of Jewish literary culture known as Jewish Book Week.
A few Letters from London ago, I mentioned the Krakow Festival of Jewish Culture, now in its 22nd year. Last Sunday its remarkable founder-Director, Janusz Makuch, from the little town of Plawe in Eastern Poland, where he first heard the word ‘Jew’ when he was 14, was in conversation with the equally remarkable Jonathan Webber, a Jew who has been heard all over Poland for more than two decades and who holds the UNESCO Chair in Jewish and interfaith studies at Birmingham University. Both men have dedicated their lives to the recovery and revival of Jewish culture in Poland. Janusz jokingly refers to himself as a ‘shabos goy’; Jonathan, a social anthropologist, is steeped in Jewish learning, religion and culture.
In his teens Janusz discovered that before the war, half of Plawe was Jewish. When he came to Krakow as a 20-year old in 1980, ‘I realised we have a heritage, a Jewish heritage, and it was my heritage’. Poland was changing. Interest in Jewish culture was growing. His own increasing fascination with Judaism, which he studied at college, led him to found the festival in 1988. From the beginning, he wanted it to be a ‘festival of living Jewish culture’. What began as an underground event now attracts thousands every year, is shown live on Polish television and greeted by the Polish President. Jonathan describes Janusz as an ‘extraordinary culture broker’.
Kate Craddy, the non-Jewish Director of the Galicia Jewish Museum in Krakow, ensured that this was no ‘love-in’. A celebration, yes, but she asked the hard question: in a country that lost 3 million Jews during the Holocaust, where antisemitism remains serious, doesn’t the festival represent what journalist and author Ruth Ellen Gruber called, in the title of her book, the ‘Virtually Jewish’? What has the Krakow festival achieved in 22 years?
Janusz made no hubristic claims. ‘This is a never-ending educational process’, he said. ‘Can we say we have achieved anything? No. This is ongoing work, a festival of real Jewish life. We are only in the middle of something.’ Jonathan spoke of ‘a new kind of Jewish person emerging’, one who expresses and strengthens their identity through the culture festival. ‘Are the large numbers attending just “virtually Jewish”? They are as they are, but it’s more than just like being interested in Irish folk-dancing. We should take these people very seriously, as well as the 25 percent attending who are Jews.’ Jonathan’s new book, Rediscovering Traces of Jewish Memory, featured in the discussion like counterpoint. It looks at 800 years of the Jewish past in Poland through present-day colour photographs of Polish Galicia. A project he started in 1993 with the acclaimed photographer Chris Schwarz, who founded the Galicia Jewish Museum and died in 2007, like the festival, it shows how the past lives on, informing and nourishing the present.
Janusz said: ‘I thought of becoming a Jew and talked it over with my friend, the chazan Ben Tsion Miller. But he said “Don’t. We need you as a goy.” We have changed the landscape of Polish mentality, so now we can struggle against antisemitism with success.’ Kate asked: ‘Could this have happened in any other country in Europe, such as Lithuania?’, and both Janusz and Jonathan thought not.
Maybe. I think it was a failure of European Jewish leadership to seize the 1989 moment to mount a drive for Jewish revival when freedom swept through the East like a bush fire. But it’s true that special circumstances prevailed in Poland and the large Jewish Book Week audience had been treated to an inspiring and very real account of what those circumstances had helped bring into being.
Outside, I turned up my collar against London’s biting wind, fortified by that touch of Polish-Jewish warmth.
Antony Lerman is the former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London, an independent think-tank