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Arts & Culture Krakow’s Resurgent Jewish Culture Enjoyed by Jews and Non-jews Alike

Urszula Makosz doesn’t consider herself Jewish, but every Sunday night she takes the stage in Krakow to sing traditional Yiddish songs. Dressed theatrically in a black gown and a long shawl, her makeup dramatic and her long red hair flowing down her back, she swirls on stage, casting a steamy look at the audience. Her voice, as described by Chris Schwarz, the director at the Galicia Jewish Museum where the concerts take place, “is like a Berlin cabaret singer from the ’20s,” and soars throughout the hall.

Makosz is a classically trained singer and actor who became interested in Yiddish language and song after going to the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow several years ago. The festival has been held annually since 1988, and includes workshops in Jewish song and dance, Hebrew calligraphy and text study, and offers concerts of klezmer and other Jewish music. It draws thousands of participants from all over Poland and throughout the world. This year, it will be held from June 25-July 3.

Przemyslaw Piekarski, who teaches Yiddish at Krakow’s Jagiellonian University, was giving a workshop in Yiddish. Makosz took it, and soon she was hooked.

“Learning the language, I became interested in Jewish culture and eventually began to sing,” she said.

Her program includes songs about the ghetto, the resistance and the Holocaust, as well as more everyday issues, such as love and family. She often sings the songs of Mordechai Gebirtig, a composer and lyricist Piekarski calls “Krakow’s bard.” Gebirtig, who was from Kazimierz, the Jewish district of Krakow, was killed in the city’s ghetto in 1942.

“My favorite songs are the Holocaust songs,” Makosz said. “I love the way they talk about resistance, the way they tell stories. The songs allow me to understand this time even more than diaries. They speak simply, in a normal way, about the common and horrible things of this time.”

Margarete Geissler, a German who lives in Krakow and often attends Makosz’s concerts, said, “I’m so happy that the Yiddish language is being spread and continued through Ula.”

Like many young Poles who have an interest in Jewish culture and tradition, Makosz has a family connection to Judaism. Her grandmother was Jewish. But, Makosz said, her grandmother never passed Jewish culture on to her children or grandchildren.

But then, “I got to know these songs and their background,” Makosz said. “Through them I came to understand and appreciate my Jewish roots.”

Piekarski said that many people who go to Makosz’s concerts, Poles and visitors from abroad alike, feel a deep connection with her songs. Often, they remember the songs from their own childhoods.

“One woman requested that Ula sing Oyfen Preipechik,” a well-known Yiddish song, Piekarski said. When Makosz complied, the woman listened with delight. Then she cried.

“It’s important that I have the chance to bring joy and reflection to people,” Makosz said.

Makosz and her Yiddish songs are not the only example of the abiding interest in Jewish music and culture that permeates Poland — and particularly Krakow, known as its cultural capital — today.

The Jewish Theater in Warsaw, which operated throughout the Communist era, remains active, staging plays in Yiddish. Its crowds are drawn not only from Poland’s several thousand Jews but also from the general population of Polish Catholics, who listen through translation on headsets.

The theater’s director, Szymon Szurmiej, who is Jewish, is in his 80s. He has been involved with the theater since he was young. His son, Jan, is the director of a long-running repertory production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in Krakow.

The “Fiddler” in Krakow accurately captures such Jewish rituals as the celebration of Shabbat and a traditional wedding. For many Poles, it offers the only opportunity they’ve had to see such Jewish customs represented.

At one recent production, Leszek Bizon brought his mother, who lives in a small town, to see the play. After the play, Bizon said his mother told him that a distant family member had been Jewish, and admitted to her own longtime interest in the Jewish world.

“For us, it is honorable to be Jewish,” Bizon said.

That thought is shared by the actors who star in “Fiddler.” Marek Litewska, who plays Tevye, the patriarch — a role created by Zero Mostel — talks about his role, and about Jews in Poland. A large cross hangs from a cross around his neck.

“The history of Judaism is very near to us in Poland,” Litewska said. “Our parents witnessed this tragedy.” He said that Szurmiej stressed authenticity in his direction, and that Jewish life in Poland is “not so exotic.”

Teatr Bagatela, where “Fiddler” plays, also has mounted a recent version of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Magician of Lublin.”

Sarah Zarrow, a young scholar who is researching the resurgence of interest in Jewish music, especially klezmer, in Russia and Eastern Europe, said, “One of the reasons people are attracted to performing Jewish music is that they see it as a sort of fix for the Communist education system that stifled education surrounding Jewish matters, even in areas where there was a rich Jewish past.”

She said that many people are drawn first to Jewish music and later to learn Hebrew or Yiddish, or to study about Judaism or Israel.

“The way to Jewish music or arts seems very normal,” Zarrow said.

Makosz agrees. When asked if her friends think it odd that she spends Sunday nights singing Yiddish songs, she laughed.

Her teacher, Piekarski, added that with all the city’s wealth of klezmer music, Yiddish singing and Jewish-themed plays, “Krakow is not a cultural desert.”

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