ROME, April 4 (JTA) — Since it was established in 1988, the annual Festival of Jewish Culture in Krakow, Poland has become an important magnet on the European cultural calendar. For eight days each summer, dozens of artists and thousands of fans converge on a city that before World War II had 70,000 Jews and today has only about 200. Festival-goers, most of them non-Jewish Poles, attend standing-room-only concerts of klezmer, cantorial and other Jewish music. They take part in workshops ranging from Chasidic singing to Hebrew calligraphy. They hear lectures, sample kosher cuisine, and take guided tours of Krakow’s evocative former Jewish quarter, Kazimierz. At the festival’s marathon, open-air final concert more than 10,000 fans crowd into the Jewish quarter’s main square, Szeroka Street, and rock out past midnight. “Every facet of the festival is very popular,” festival director Janusz Makuch told JTA. “Every year all the tickets are sold.” Makuch, who is not Jewish, said police estimated that 13,000 people attended the final concert last year — the biggest crowd ever. “Every year we observe growing interest in the festival,” he said. “The number of Polish people and proportionally the number of Jewish people grows every year, and we have a lot of guests from elsewhere in Europe also.” Two new American-made documentary films center on the festival to explore the ironies and attractions of presenting Jewish culture in what essentially is a Jewish graveyard. “Klezmer on Fish Street,” by Yale Strom and “Klezmer Musicians Travel ‘Home’ to Krakow” by Ellen Friedland and Curt Fissel include similar footage and interviews with some of the same people. But they approach the subject from very different perspectives and utilize different cinematic styles. “Klezmer on Fish Street” — which will be shown during this year’s festival — is a feature-length documentary that opens April 16 in New York. It tells its story through interviews and filmed street scenes, without narration, and seeks to place the Festival in the broader context of both the attempted revival of Jewish life in post-Communist Poland and the complex and troubled historic relations between Polish Catholics and Jews. “My aim was to show that though there is this fascinating, ironic and perplexing situation of the growth of Jewish culture, particularly in Europe — where it was nearly completely wiped out, at the same time there seems to be a steady increase of anti-Semitism,” film-maker Strom told JTA. “The loss of Yiddish culture through the murder of 3 million Polish Jews can’t be so easily erased or even pacified through the playing of klezmer music by Polish gentiles,” he added. Strom, a klezmer musician himself, has documented Jewish presence and memory in eastern Europe for two decades and has produced several other films on related themes. In “Klezmer on Fish Street,” shot in 2000, Strom. uses the experiences of the Klezmaniacs, a young klezmer group from Boston who are traveling in Poland, to drive the film. He shows the teenage musicians performing at the Krakow Festival, singing nigguns as they travel on a bus toward the site of the Nazi death camp at Treblinka, visiting Auschwitz, and accompanying one of their older chaperones to find the house where she grew up in a small Polish town before the Shoah. Throughout the film, Strom intercuts a developing confrontation between the youngsters, joyfully singing and dancing on the street in Krakow after Shabbat, and local residents who called the police to complain about the noise. He sets off sections of the film with the eerie shadow of a klezmer fiddler, which, in the end, is revealed to be a shadow cast on the grass at Auschwitz. Strom weaves in interviews with musicians, local Polish Jews, tourists and other observers to tell a story that is ambiguous and at times disturbing. What is missing, however, are the voices of non-Jewish Poles who are interested in and supportive of Jews and Jewish culture — and who, in fact, make the Krakow Festival possible. There is little sense that the festival was founded and is organized by non-Jews. And, while the vast majority of the fans who attend festival events are non-Jewish Poles, Strom chose to interview German and Israeli tourists in the audience. Strom told JTA that over the years he had seen “a true change in many Poles who are interested in Jewish culture and have helped to bring it back because they realize that the ‘Jews’ were such a vital part of Polish history for 1,000 years.” He also said he had noted “a change in the generation born in the 1980s who are able to accept that Poland was not only a victim of the Holocaust but contributed to the murder of many millions of Jews — by either direct or indirect ways.” Still, the local Polish individuals shown in his film are generally negative characters — neighbors complaining about the Klezmaniacs’ noise, police trying to disperse them, a woman complaining about pictures being taken or surly local men giving directions on the street. For “Klezmer Musicians Travel ‘Home’ to Krakow”, a half-hour documentary that will appear on public television, Friedland and Fissel chose a more narrow focus and approached the subject from a different direction. The film celebrates Eastern European Jewish music and shows how it has been reinterpreted since the Holocaust, and it examines the role of the Krakow festival in this regard. Broader issues of Jewish revival and anti-Semitism are peripheral to this theme. “I was interested in the magnetic pull to Krakow that attracts so many Jews today despite the tragedy of the Holocaust,” Friedland told JTA. “This feeling is epitomized in the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, where some of the world’s greatest nouveau-Klezmer and other musicians perform annually.” Each year the festival, which runs from June 26 to July 4 this year, includes new acts, but also a core group of musicians that come back to perform summer after summer. This group, brought together by Makuch, includes the clarinetist David Krakauer, trumpeter Frank London, Cantor Ben Zion Miller and singer and violinist Michael Alpert. “It was interesting that almost all of the artists felt a strong draw to the history and surroundings of Krakow which affected their performances in a positive, almost mystical, way,” Friedland said. Shot in 2002, the film is anchored by narration read by the singer-actor Theodore Bikel, who performed at the festival last year and will headline its events this summer. Friedland and Fissel use concert footage and interviews with performers as well as other commentators, including Makuch, Shevach Weiss, who at the time was Israeli ambassador to Poland, and Polish Jewish intellectual Konstanty Gebert. They all attempt to analyze the ironies of presenting Jewish culture in a non-Jewish context but also discuss their own, often highly ambivalent, personal feelings regarding the phenomenon. “Difficulties arise from the fact that the country is still shedding itself from the communist regime that gripped it for so long and shaped the way people relate to each other,” Fissel told JTA. “Vestiges of this are still quite alive and often overrule genuine attempts to further Jewish religious and cultural life.” JTA Senior European Correspondent Ruth Ellen Gruber wrote about the Krakow Jewish Festival in her book “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe,” and is interviewed in both films.
Two films show Jewish festival for non-Jews