By Harriet P. Gross
I visited five major cities during my recent trip to Eastern Europe and found Krakow, Poland, to be a disturbing one
In a place where there were once 70,000 Jews, today there may be 200. Maybe not even that many. Yet the residents tell you there’s a thriving Jewish culture. Local tour guides walk you into and around the old Jewish quarter and point with pride to what it has to offer: Jewish museums, restaurants, music. It’s a strange paradox, these signs of Jewish life in a place with virtually no Jews.
What is happening here? Most people, it seems, don’t ask this question. I could ask nothing else. Are the Poles who put on this Jewish front sincere in what they’re doing? Can they actually be attempting to atone for their own culture’s perpetration of Holocaust horrors by bringing back at least some of that lost past? Or are they simply trolling for tourist dollars?
There’s no way for a casual visitor, someone like me who will spend just a few short days there, to know for sure. Maybe today’s residents, living a kind of retrospective Jewish charade, don’t know why they’re doing what they do, either.
My husband and I were the only Jews in our tour group of 20. The travel company guide who was with us throughout our two-week trip urged us, after a morning walk through the old ghetto with its frozen-in-time hints of previous Judaism, to return that evening. Then the restaurants would be open, he said. We could eat good Jewish food. We could listen to good Klezmer music.
My husband and I could not bring ourselves to do these things. While the 18 others trooped off to enjoy this ersatz Jewish revelry, we “dined,” without music, in the food court of a nearby shopping mall, then took a long, long walk and tried to figure things out.
What, indeed, was happening there?
Somehow, my brain made an old connection: As soon as I got home, I dug out my copy of “Diaspora: Homelands in Exile,” the 24-year study of Jewish communities around the world by French photographer Frederic Brenner. It wasn’t his pictures I was eager to see, rather, something I thought I remembered from his text.
And I had remembered, correctly, almost verbatim: “Krakow is a Hollywood set where Catholic Poles dress up as Jews and perform Klezmer music for tourists.” This sentence, which I first read in 2003, took root in my subconscious, ready to rise up when I was in Krakow. It was Brenner who goaded me to consider what is really happening there.
Brenner did not take pictures of Krakow. In fact, until a friend made the above statement to him, he had had no intention of going to Poland at all, asking himself, “How was I to photograph an absence of Jews?” But the friend elaborated: “How can you consider making a chronicle of the Jewish people in the 20th century without including Poland, where million Jews lived before the war?”
Instead of Krakow, Brenner decided to visit Tykocin, near Poland’s border with Lithuania, in February 2002. At 6 a.m. on a summer morning almost 61 years before that, all the town’s more than 2,000 Jews — more than half its population, including some whose ancestors settled there in 1522 — were marched to a nearby forest and murdered there. He chose this place, at that time of year, because it was Purim, which Tykocin now “celebrates” annually. According to Brenner, all the villagers, “from the priest to the truck driver, the teacher and schoolchild, the baker and mechanic, dress up as the Jews they never saw.” One evening, they put on a Purimspiel, a holiday play. The next morning, they hanged an effigy of Haman in the old Tykocin synagogue by a cast and crew of Catholics. “Here we have a Purim with no Jews,” he concludes.
I was in Krakow soon after Purim this year. The difference between it and Tykocin was that the larger city had staged no playlet and no mock hanging. The similarity was that, like the small town, it was without Jews.
In two weeks, you’ll find more about both Krakow and Brenner in this space. Please come back then, to “walk” with me again on streets of Jewish history.