There has been a widespread tendency to view European Jewry as a remnant – after the 20th century’s horrors, there primarily remains a ghostly reminder of centuries of tradition that ended in cataclysmic destruction.
Perhaps understandably, Europe’s Jewish community doesn’t share this vision. They’re too busy living their lives and taking an active role in building a more pluralistic European society.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Krakow’s annual Jewish Culture Festival, currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. For the last quarter of a century, tens of thousands have come together every summer to partake in the celebration of Jewish peoplehood in all of its many facets, from cuisine to music, from the traditional to the avant-garde. Polish Jews have an opportunity to rediscover and immerse themselves in their Jewish heritage – and Poland’s non-Jews get the opportunity to discover a new perspective to Poland’s history.
Young and old alike find themselves dancing and singing far into the warm summer night, as melodies and ideas from the past find new currency in circumstances that could only exist in the present. The Festival has become a paean to the defeat of both Nazism and Communism, a paean to those who survived and to those who are building something new.
These kinds of exchanges don’t wait for the Krakow festival to roll around, but rather take place all over Poland every day, in local schools and community centers, at academic conferences, and at the recently opened POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. Whether at large Shabbat dinners or intimate book groups, the wealth and profundity of the Jewish community’s ongoing contribution to Polish culture is examined and celebrated by Jews and gentiles alike. At the celebrations accompanying the POLIN Museum’s Grand Opening, Polish President Komorowski noted that we cannot understand the history of Poland without knowing the history of Polish Jews.
Indeed, there is a similar discourse underway across Europe. In spite of – or, perhaps, because of – renewed anti-Semitism, Europeans of all backgrounds and ethnicities are learning just how entwined their histories are, how much modern Judaism draws from the development of European thought, the extent to which European thought draws on the genius of Jewish culture. Where once anti-Semitic violence was promulgated by government fiat, today, European Jews are protected by their governments, and defended by their neighbors.
As a native son of Krakow, I’m especially gratified by the idea that the annual Jewish Culture Festival has served as a cornerstone of this paradigm shift; it is my hope that the new POLIN Museum will become a model of similar institutions in other countries. I escaped Poland mere weeks before the Nazi onslaught in 1939; to not only be able to watch my people rise from the ashes, but to have an opportunity to have a role in this new, unprecedented celebration of human dignity, tolerance, and community is a blessing beyond measure.
The artistic and intellectual exuberance to which all of this activity attests is not some dusty artifact, or a commemoration of lost identity. It is a reflection of daily life and central to the emotional, spiritual, and social future of all Europeans, whether Jewish or not.
We cannot yet know how these seeds will germinate and grow – but we do know that Jews are becoming closer to the intellectual and cultural heart of a new Europe supporting and encouraging events that build on today’s unparalleled liaison across sectarian lines.